His maniacal drive for success and ability to conjure up imagined enemies when all of the real ones have long since been vanquished are key reasons for his two decades of dominance. Not coincidentally, those traits were also trademark parts of Michael Jordan's pathologically competitive ethos.
Apparently, Bryant even viewed his contract extension talks with the Los Angeles Lakers as a situation in which he had to be careful.
In an interview with Rachel Nichols for CNN's Unguarded, Bryant mentioned that his love of the game would make playing for free a real possibility. Met with some skepticism, he replied:
No, it's true. ... But there are also certain principles that you can't allow to happen. Because it is a big business. And you can't allow yourself to be taken advantage of. If you want to be considered—in a business world—as having a sharp mind, you can't allow yourself to be taken advantage of in those type of situations. And there's certain things that I don't agree with—you know, from the ownership perspective, in terms of how players are handled or managed. And I'm more than comfortable in voicin' my opinion for that.
Here's the thing: Bryant is absolutely justified in feeling like he has to look out for his own business interests. He's ruthlessly intelligent and has a far better grasp of the long-term, real-life picture than most professional athletes. Even though it seemed unlikely that the Lakers would ever try to "take advantage" of him, he was probably right to approach the situation with eyes open.
Furthermore, his comments to Nichols reveal a lot about Bryant as a person: He's careful, he's obsessed with being in control, and he doesn't like the idea of looking weak.
That leads into a deeper conversation about his new two-year, $48.5 million contract extension that uncovers a great deal about his personality and, more importantly, his priorities.
The first thing we can say is that, objectively, Bryant's contract is a very good thing for both him and the Lakers in a lot of important ways.
It was a remarkable show of loyalty in a sports world chock full of mercenary players and ownership groups who view their players as disposable parts. There are probably a number of franchises that wouldn't have offered Kobe a contract at all, let alone one that paid him so handsomely.
The Lakers recognized how much they owed Bryant for his years of service, acknowledged how important he is to the team's "brand," and showed laudable loyalty.
Bryant appreciated the gesture.
Said Kobe, in an interview with Bloomberg Television's Joe Ehrlichman:
But from the way I was viewin' it is I wanted the Lakers to do what was best for them. Because I was extremely thankful of everything that they've done for me throughout my career. I didn't wanna get in the way of the process. So I was just really just steppin' back and just, 'Listen, whenever you guys wanna have this conversation, we'll have this conversation.' And you know, they were great, and went through a myriad of options, and presented an offer which I accepted.
Even if the Lakers don't believe Bryant will be worth enough on the court to justify the money they're paying him, it's an admirable move to reward him for what he's done in the past and what he'll mean to the franchise in the future.
The deal is a great one for Bryant. In any real-world analysis, he'd be deserving of praise for getting as much money from his employer as possible. We'd all do the same thing.
Practically, accepting the generous terms of the contract makes sense for him and his family. And even though he has more than enough dough to set his loved ones up for generations to come, we can't begrudge him for accepting a deal that further ensures that security.
Money aside, the contract cements his legacy as a Laker for life. Barring some kind of bizarre change in ideology after this deal expires, Bryant won't play for another franchise in his career. That's a positive for his reputation and will only add to his historical NBA significance.
In other words, he won't have a "Jordan on the Wizards" section in his Hall of Fame file.
What About Winning?
Then again, a massive part of Kobe's legacy is his own repeated profession that winning is all that matters to him—a claim we now know is definitively untrue.
That's not a condemnation of Bryant! It's a logical conclusion drawn from his own words and the bare facts of his contract terms.
Here's another excerpt from Nichols' interview:
Nichols: And you will still, as a team, have cap room to sign one more player, even with this new deal. But look, you do take up space with this contract. And if you took up a little less space, then you'd be able to sign more players.
There it is. Bryant acknowledges that had he taken less money, it would have been theoretically possible for the Lakers to surround him with a better team.
Complicating hypotheticals abound, though. It might have been difficult for the Lakers to acquire the kind of talent necessary to make a significant difference in their winning prospects. Maybe there won't be any big-name free agents available to them this summer. Maybe none of them will want to join an aging Bryant as a No. 2 option.
Nichols asked him about that very issue:
Nichols: You are competitive. You want to win another title. Was there any point in your mind where you said, 'Hey, maybe I should take less money, so we could sign more guys'?
Bryant: Well, yeah, the Lakers know that about me. And those are conversations that we had prior to what they presented. So they considered all those factors. And felt like they could, you know, take care of me the way they wanted to take care of me, in terms of rewarding me for past performance and future performance whatever it may be and still build a championship contender.
Amid the backlash that sprung from surprisingly high value of the contract, Bryant has fallen back on the refrain that the Lakers came to him and offered the deal. According to his logic, they presented him with the terms and assured him they could still build a contender. To hear him tell it, he deferred to their judgment. Or, at least, agreed with their reasoning.
That explanation contains some Grade A buck-passing on Bryant's part.
Does anyone really believe that if Kobe had told the Lakers he'd prefer to play for $10 million, that the team would have literally forced him to accept more money?
It's crazy to imagine a player turning down a big offer and asking for a smaller one, especially from a rational, business-based perspective. But remember, we're in the strange world of NBA competition, and there's absolutely a precedent for scenarios like that.
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are both making far less than they could elsewhere because they negotiated cheaper deals in the interest of the San Antonio Spurs roster. Kevin Garnett did the same thing during his final years with the Boston Celtics.
This happens in the NBA. It's rare, but not unheard of.
Bryant's not overtly stating that his hands were somehow tied, or that he had to accept the offer L.A. made. But he's framing the narrative in a way that either makes it seem like he had little choice in the matter, or that he gave up the chance to dictate the terms.
Again, he's entitled to get as much money as possible. More broadly, he's free to do whatever he wants with his career decisions. But let's all agree that if winning were all that mattered, he'd have taken less money.
Bryant has said countless times that championships are his main goal. But he made a point to say in a Fox Sports Live interview with Gary Payton that being the league's highest-paid player was something he also valued:
As that interview progresses, Bryant articulates a number of profoundly thoughtful and intelligent points. But they come before and after his assertion that being paid more than anyone else was a factor in the terms of his deal.
Again, that doesn't jibe with an uncompromising desire to chase rings.
Former Lakers assistant Chuck Person made a revealing comment about Bryant's true motivations back in 2010, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
[What motivates him is] the thirst to be recognized as one of the greatest if not the greatest basketball player to ever lace up a pair of shoes. He's definitely knocking on that door of the upper echelon of players. So, I think that's what continually drives him—the challenge of wanting to be the guy when the game of basketball is mentioned, that his name is called first.
That's a noble goal. We should all aspire to excel at whatever we're doing, and nobody can fault Kobe for wanting to be remembered (and, apparently, paid) like the best.
Just the Fact(s)
You can argue that there are a million nuanced factors that influenced Bryant's deal. You can rationalize and obscure the issue by positing that the Lakers couldn't have had enough money left to lure two max players in addition to Bryant. That there wasn't going to be any top talent available. That Kobe deserves every cent.
But based on all of the information available—interviews, press clippings, official statements—there just isn't a one-to-one, direct rebuttal for the proposition that Kobe taking this much money, at this stage of his career, proves he's not as solely devoted to winning as he so often claims.
That's not an indictment on his character. He should get what he can, while he can. He should have pride in his talents. He should care about staying a Laker for life.
But let's not allow those things to distract us from the simple, limited truth that comes out of this whole episode: Kobe cares about some things more than winning.