Who is Kobe Bryant to you?
Is he the hero of your childhood, the one who's lifted the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles since the turn of the century? Is he the villain who's tormented your favorite team with his myriad Michael Jordan-like moves?
Is he something in between? Maybe merely a craftsman of sorts whose work you appreciate from afar? Maybe an antihero whose seemingly steely demeanor and not-so-underdoggy story make it easier to root against him than to support him?
To the NBA, Kobe is all of these things and more.
Much, much, much more.
A Star of Stars
It's not that the Association is wanting for star power. If anything, the league that David Stern is set to leave behind in February of 2014 is as loaded with marquee-worthy names as it's been in the commissioner's nearly 30-year reign.
From LeBron James' pursuit of historic dominance and the scoring battles between Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to Dwight Howard's dramatic move and Derrick Rose's impending return, the NBA will be replete (if not overrun) with gripping, star-centric storylines to follow once training camps open on October 1.
But no single player's presence or absence from those preseason festivities will be more closely watched, analyzed and scrutinized than Bryant's.
The Black Mamba's been hard at work preparing for his 18th season as a pro ever since his Achilles tendon snapped during a game against the Golden State Warriors this past April:
Not surprisingly, Kobe is expected to "shatter" the typical six-to-nine-month timetable for recovery from arguably the most devastating injury in basketball. As he told recently told assembled media during a stop on his tour of China (via NBA.com's Jonathan Hartzell):
The surgical procedure was different […] and because of that the recovery has been different. The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we’ve shattered that. Three-and-a-half months I can already walk just fine, I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.
That's good news for everyone involved, including (of course) the Lakers and the league.
Individually, Kobe remains one of the NBA's biggest draws. According to ESPN's Darren Rovell, polls showed that Bryant was considered the most popular player in the league five times during a six-year stretch between 2006-07 and 2011-12. If not for LeBron James snagging the top spot in the latest edition, the Mamba would currently be working on a four-year streak.
At the age of 35, no less.
And it's not as though the Mamba was all that far behind this time. Nearly 13 percent (12.9, to be exact) of fans polled named James as their favorite. That's less than a half of a percent better than Kobe, who checked in with 12.5 percent of the responses.
All of which is to say, Bryant is nearly still the most popular player in basketball, even though A) his team pretty much stunk last season, B) he hasn't won a championship since 2010, and C) his closest competitor in this poll (LeBron) has won four of the last five league MVPs, has been to the NBA Finals in each of the last three years, and is coming off back-to-back championship campaigns.
Laker for Life
It certainly helps that Bryant's built up his brand as much as he has over the years. His name carries so much weight the world over, whether he plays or not.
It also helps Kobe's case that his image is so closely intertwined with that of the NBA's most popular franchise.
The Lakers are a powerful, polarizing force in the world of sports. The team boasts a massive fanbase and regularly mobilizes an even larger swath of humanity in opposition. The Purple and Gold drive discussion of the game across all media, from radio and print to TV and online.
Even when they're not very good.
Frequent was the refrain last season—from analysts on national halftime shows like ESPN's and pundits on popular podcasts like The Basketball Jones—wondering why there was so much buzz about the Lakers while the team struggled to hit the .500 mark.
Not that anyone should've been surprised by this state of affairs, even if the causes of the collapse were unforeseen. After all, these are the Lakers we're talking about.
They're the New York Yankees of the NBA. They're the glamour franchise, the one whose history is marked not just by tremendous success, but also by the distinct style with which said success has been achieved. They play in the league's second-biggest market, surrounded by the sheen of Hollywood and bound by a lineage of superstars that reads like a who's who of all-time greats.
One of whom happens to be Kobe Bean Bryant.
More Than the Mamba
To be sure, the Lakers and their brand extend far beyond just Kobe. They were known far and wide before Bryant's arrival, thanks to the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. They also figure to remain highly visible on a global scale long after the Black Mamba hangs up his sneakers for good.
Chances are, the Lakers will be just fine financially, whether Kobe's healthy this year or not and regardless of how much longer he plays. Forbes recently listed the Lakers as the second-most valuable franchise in the NBA, at $1 billion, behind only the New York Knicks at $1.1 billion.
The numbers should grow right along with those of the rest of the league's teams in the years to come. The NBA and its constituents will reap substantial rewards in 2016, when the league's national broadcast rights will once again be up for negotiation.
With the league's popularity on the rise and the cost (and value) of live sports content exploding year by year—amidst the growth of "a la carte" content services like Netflix and Hulu—the NBA should be able to pull in considerably more than the $930 million it pulled out of the ABC/ESPN/Turner group the last time the league's TV contract was up for discussion.
That's especially true with more sports networks (i.e. NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 1) likely to get in on the action and, thus, drive up the bidding. It's a simple matter of supply and demand.
And the Lakers are already taking advantage. According to Bloomberg, the team is set to earn about $3 billion over the life of its 20-year broadcasting deal with Time Warner Cable.
Barring a sudden quantum leap in science, technology and sports medicine, Kobe will have retired long before that deal comes due.
The Reach of a Legend
Of course, it's tough to say with any certainty how the NBA as a whole, and the Lakers in particular, would be affected by Kobe's absence, or even by a less-than-fully-effective Mamba. He's been so good for so long and has battled back from so many injuries that imagining the NBA without him, be it temporarily or permanently, is as eerie as it is next-to-impossible, particularly for the game's younger generations of fans.
Losing Bryant for any period of time may not result in any significant direct hit to the NBA's bottom line or its Q rating in 2013-14, though it could give way to other, more subtle effects.
Let's consider the question inductively (i.e. from smaller points to bigger ones). Even with a fully functional Mamba, the Lakers aren't expected to even crack the top six in the Western Conference. On paper, the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and even the rival Los Angeles Clippers look like the best bets to do so.
As for the Lakers, their many concerns stem not from Bryant's body alone.
Dwight Howard is gone, as is Metta World Peace. Pau Gasol is "old" (33) and coming off the most injury-riddled campaign of his career. Ditto for Steve Nash, who's approaching the big 4-0.
The supporting cast isn't much to write home about either. No one's mistaking Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmer, Wesley Johnson, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks for world-beaters.
To be sure, this team could still be fun to watch. If Mike D'Antoni has his way, the 2013-14 Lakers will be an uptempo, pick-and-roll, inside-out scoring machine, with Gasol surrounded by a corps of ready, willing and able shooters. A healthy Nash could have LA scoring at rates and in ways familiar to fans of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns of the mid-to-late 2000s.
If those pieces fall into place, the Lakers should be able to score plenty, with or without Kobe. On the other end, the defense is likely to stink, especially if Bryant's play on that end is still bad enough to warrant an open letter from Grantland's Zach Lowe.
These concerns point to the Lakers having a difficult year in 2013-14, regardless of Kobe's contributions.
What Can Vino Do for You?
That being said, a healthy Mamba does give fans a glimmer of hope for something more than just ping pong balls in the lottery. When fit, he's the sort of singular superstar who can (almost) single-handedly will his team to victory.
Case in point: Remember that stretch of seven games toward the end of last season, when Kobe played 45.5 minute a night? In those contests, Bryant averaged 28.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.1 steals.
The Lakers won six of those seven games.
That doesn't necessarily mean Kobe can carry the Lakers all by his lonesome. Four of those six wins came at the expense of non-playoff teams, and in the final game of that spurt, Bryant tore his Achilles.
The obvious fact remains, though, that the Lakers are better off with Bryant playing at or near his best. He makes them more competitive, which draws in more viewers.
And if the Lakers stink, Bryant's participation becomes that much more pivotal across the board. He brings to the table the sort of individual star power that makes the Lakers must-see TV, whether they're winning or not.
We'd tune in to see what sorts of Herculean tasks Kobe takes on to keep LA from lapsing into mediocrity. We'd tune in to soak up the last bits of basketball brilliance to be gleaned from the waning days of the decorated career of a living legend. We'd tune in to watch Bryant chase the ghosts and milestones of Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone (among others) on his way out of the game that made him a global icon.
Either way, people will watch the Lakers precisely because Kobe plays for them, which is all the NBA wants and needs to hear.
L.A. is currently scheduled to appear on national TV a whopping 29 times over the course of the 2013-14 season. That includes the Lakers' first three games of the season, a four-game stretch in April, Christmas Day opposite the Heat, and February 19, when Dwight Howard makes his first return trip to Staples Center as a member of the Rockets.
L.A.'s national TV total could still grow, depending on how NBA TV's weekly "Fan Night" voting shakes out.
To put that in perspective, only the Chicago Bulls (33 times) and the Thunder (30 times) are scheduled to play nationally more often than the Lakers. The Clippers will also appear on ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV a total of 29 times.
That still leaves the Lakers ahead of the two-time defending champion Heat (27 times), the reigning Western Conference champion Spurs (20 times), and the new-look Rockets (19 times).
The End of the Line?
The NBA had better hope, then, that fans are still as keen to tune in to see the Lakers this year as they've been in years past. Again, one team or player does not and will not make or break the NBA, but showing that teams at all levels of immediate success or failure can draw eyes to TV sets will boost the league's case in talks with sponsors and broadcasters in the years to come.
On an emotional level, a healthy Kobe in 2013-14 would mean much more than just seeing the No. 24 traipse around in purple and gold—or, on special occasions, black:
Rather, it's about savoring the impending end of an era, one that successfully bridged the gap between MJ and LeBron. It's about watching one of the greatest to ever lace 'em up ply his trade a bit longer, make some other poor saps look foolish, and burnish a legacy that's come to define the NBA for more than a decade.
Saying goodbye to a player deserving of a place in the sport's pantheon is never an easy thing for which to prepare. If Kobe comes back healthy and is able to perform up to his own lofty expectations, then one would expect to see him play on beyond 2014, until his proverbial tires have officially been stripped of their tread.
But if Kobe's going to go out soon, he might as well do it with a bang. That, in itself, would be enough to hold the attention of the sports-watching public.
And, in turn, keep the NBA on its upward trajectory.
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