- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Kobe Bryant, the basketball icon with an increasing load of baggage tugging on his bearing, insists he wants to spend the rest of his career with the Lakers.

The caveat in this proclamation is his desire to pursue free agency this summer, assuming the legal case in Colorado ends in his favor.

The curious professional position of Bryant is intellectually gooey, another piece of the 180-degree shift he has undergone since his indeterminate escapade with a 19-year-old woman last summer.

The unknown is the prism in which Bryant exists. He is acting almost oblivious to it.

His guilt or innocence is liable to be beyond the capacity of the he-said, she-said case, no matter the end result.

His lawyers already have played the race card, perhaps out of fear of the telling details. Bryant is black, the woman white, and there is a history of unfounded, racially inspired allegations in this nation, though not sure of their relevance with someone who previously transcended all the pettiness and biases of the masses.

Bryant’s hue smacks of convenience, a cheap weapon intended to obfuscate the truth-seeking pursuit.

The truly innocent, someone in this case with money to spare and a famous smile to soften the charges, should feel no compulsion to sink to O.J. Simpson-like depths so soon unless the woman has a genuine claim.

Bryant’s actions following the events of last summer reveal a person who has succumbed to a startling dose of self-absorption, unable to play the happy camper, even as it would be in his best interests.

He started the season with a well-placed verbal shot to the solar plexus of Shaquille O’Neal, the accuracy of which lost in the timing.

The observation was especially unnecessary for someone with concerns far more important than the physical condition of a teammate. The same goes with a basketball career that has the sense of being stuck on hold.

The slippage in Bryant, while not pronounced, is noticeable, the product of both injuries and the case that follows him to every arena.

Bryant has been the subject of a zillion rumors this season, bound to a number of teams, with the Clippers being the fashionable destination of the moment. Bryant has contributed to the swirl with his impossible stance to have it both ways: to be with the Lakers the rest of his career while entertaining other offers.

This is the cue to news-seeking observers of the NBA to imagine the other offers and inflame the tenuous circumstances.

The counterproductive aspect of it is obvious.

Bryant shows himself to be both selfish and duplicitous, two unsavory qualities that could lead one to trouble around a mixed-up woman and investigators.

Bryant, if he were wise, should not be raising these connect-the-dot conclusions at this time.

Yet, as if blinded by his needs, he is powerless to stop the carousel of speculation.

“I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life,” he said in the days leading to the NBA All-Star Game last night.

Then he reiterated his plans to opt out of his contract.

“It’s just about exploring options,” he said.

Bryant should be leading the NBA in self-sacrifice this season instead of embracing a superstar’s typically strained self-interests. If anyone has a compelling need not to be perceived as just another glorified cliche in short pants, it is Bryant.

It does not help that two of his new teammates, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, are playing for what amounts to chump change this season.

What, really, is Bryant exploring in free agency besides a few extra million dollars on a long-term contract and a chance to be the lead player of a franchise?

Neither interest rises to the level of worthy, considering the legal undertaking before Bryant.

Bryant, though, apparently is tone deaf to the implicit message tucked between his mutually contentious declaration to be with the Lakers the rest of his career while pursuing the option of free agency.

Most parties in his position probably would accept the make-believe option of playing for free next season in exchange for a slam-dunk victory in a damaging trial.

The latter should be Bryant’s bargain to himself during this arduous season.

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