WASHINGTON – From the moment he soared into the Hollywood spotlight, his head shaved clean and his eyes bright, Kobe Bryant has been a ball of defiance and entitlement, a supreme talent who would concede nothing to anyone.
In a locker room dominated by Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant would demand his share of authority.
In a league ruled by Michael Jordan, Bryant would demand his share of respect and awe.
Over time, Bryant would earn his glory, in rings and scoring records and an endless string of All-Star appearances.
17 years into a career that will one day be enshrined in Springfield, Bryant has grown no less fierce or prideful, though a tinge of realism is creeping in, softening the edges of his piercing scowl.
Bryant will return to the Los Angeles Lakers lineup sometime soon—“probably weeks,” he said Tuesday—but he will return with an uncertainty that he has never confronted since his debut in 1996.
His Achilles tendon, torn last spring, is repaired. But his game? His dominance? His stardom? These are unknowns.
So Bryant is ready to make some concessions—accepting a minutes limit, if so advised, and a more grounded game, if necessary.
“There’s different ways I can go,” Bryant said, striking a reflective tone. “Obviously, the easier of the two would be if I could have the same type of explosiveness that I had last year. It makes my game very easy. But if it’s not there, I’m ready to adapt.”
It was startling to hear Bryant, who entered the league emulating Jordan, rattle off the names of his potential new role models: Andre Miller and Gary Payton, Paul Pierce and Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
“Guys that have an unpredictable rhythm to their game,” Bryant said, “moreso than using speed.”
Bryant is cerebral enough, studious enough, diligent enough, to believe this is possible, to believe that he can find another way to, as general manager Mitch Kupchak put it, “have an influence on the game” without his athleticism.
Bryant’s concessionary tone ended there, however.
Even at 35, after an injury that would have pushed others into retirement, Bryant remains fiercely, almost joyously, defiant—eager to silence those who doubt his resilience, his greatness and yes, his worth.
By the time Bryant settled in at the podium at the Verizon Center on Tuesday, his freshly signed two-year, $48.5 million extension had become the subject of a feverish debate and a considerable amount of mockery.
The salary figures—$23.5 million next season, $25 million in 2015-16—sound outlandish to everyone but Lakers officials and Bryant himself. Many rightfully wonder how the franchise can build a title contender with an aging, surgically repaired Bryant commanding 37 percent of the salary cap.
Bryant shakes his head.
“The fans, god bless, they’re fans and they have good intentions and a good spirit about it,” he said, “but I don’t think they understand the cap or strategically what the Lakers are trying to do. I think we’ll be all right.”
This was an expression of faith not only in himself, but in the Lakers’ sterling record of constructing and re-constructing championship rosters. No team in any sport has done it better for the last three decades. But then, no title-chasing team has tried to build around a 35-year-old star with a surgically repaired Achilles tendon.
For the next three years, Bryant will remain the NBA’s highest paid player, even as he slowly gives way to gravity.
The contract itself is an act of faith and appreciation, for all that Bryant has meant to the franchise, to the city of Los Angeles and to an adoring fanbase. It is, too, a subtle message to the stars the Lakers may soon target—Carmelo Anthony next summer, Kevin Love in 2015, Kevin Durant in 2016—that this is a franchise that values loyalty.
By all accounts, Bryant made no specific contract demands and there were no negotiations. Team officials made an offer befitting Bryant’s status. He accepted.
“The only number I saw was the one I agreed to,” Bryant said. “The Lakers are a stand-up organization, and they stepped up to the plate and took care of it. Some of it obviously was from work previously done, and some of the things I’ve done for the organization, and some of it was a leap of faith of what they expect me to do when I return.”
Now comes the hard part. With a little payroll maneuvering, the Lakers could still clear up to $28 million in cap room next summer. But they will have room for, at most, one more star before filling out the roster with discount role players.
The Lakers can clear cap room again in 2015, but by then Bryant will be 37 years old and down to his final season.
If the goal is to build a contending team now, to give Bryant a chance at his sixth ring, his extension could become the greatest impediment.
“I mean, the challenges are there,” Kupchak acknowledged, though he insisted, “I do believe we can.”
Away from the cameras, Bryant insists they can, and will. It is up to team officials to determine how, but the Lakers do have options.
They could use their wealth of expiring contracts to work a trade before the Feb. 20 deadline. Next summer, their cap room could open up further trade options. Once below the luxury-tax line, they will be eligible to acquire players in sign-and-trade deals.
“Financial flexibility is valuable in a lot of ways,” Kupchak said.
Across the league, across Twitter timelines and NBA blogs, the doubts are swelling, and the skepticism piercing, fueling Bryant’s rebellious rage. When the Achilles snapped last spring, Bryant’s resolve momentarily wavered. Defiance trumped doubt.
“It’s like, `Well, I gotta prove to myself if I can do this thing,’ ” he said, “and then, prove to everybody else as well.”