Here was the chance to get something good, something fresh, on Kobe Bryant. The pregame player introductions were still booming throughout the Wachovia Center – it was called the Wachovia Center, not the Wells Fargo Center, in January 2007 – for an otherwise meaningless game between the 76ers and the Lakers, between two teams that wouldn’t even make the playoffs that season. When Bryant’s name was called, the boos began and lasted, as they always did whenever he returned to town. But this time, one of Kobe’s confidants from Lower Merion High School, sitting in the 100 level, let a potential bombshell leave his lips:
“When he finishes his career here, they’ll really cheer him.”
What? Here was something good, all right: a hint that Kobe Bryant might choose to play for the Sixers someday. The question, really, was crazy to consider. The Sixers had traded Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets less than three weeks earlier. They fired their general manager, Billy King, later that year. They were going nowhere. Sure, the Lakers were a mediocre team, too, heading for a 42-40 season, but why would Kobe already be looking ahead to leaving them? The question didn’t make sense.
Still, after the game – a 16-point victory for the Sixers, a 30-point night for Bryant – there was nothing to do but wait for him to shower, to dress, and to answer it. He was 28. He had more than four years left on his contract. Really, Kobe, you’d play here? He was quiet for a bit, weighing what to say.
“That means I’d have to play seven more seasons, and I don’t know if my body can take that,” he said. “But it would be nice to play here. In high school, it’s all I thought about.”
Yes, here was something good on Kobe Bryant, all right. Here – in hindsight, 13 years later – was a glimpse, an insight, into how his mind worked. Was he open to the idea that he might wind his way back to his hometown? Was he shooting us straight that he wouldn’t mind suiting up for the Sixers, more than a decade after they’d picked Iverson and passed up the chance to draft him in 1996?
That’s all possible, though his friend and mentor Gregg Downer, Lower Merion’s head coach, said that in all their conversations during Bryant’s NBA career, “that never came up.” Either way, there were other factors at work, other matters on his mind, and only through the lens of history can anyone get a decent sense of why he might have said it – and why it never happened.
Through all the memories and testimonials over this last week since Bryant’s death, all the evidence that he became a loving and doting girl-dad and all the debate over how much weight to give the sexual-assault allegations that tarred him and his legacy, this much, no one can dispute: When it came to his basketball career, Bryant rarely did or said anything without a purpose or a plan. He sent messages to teammates, coaches, and executives through the media, and often there was a long-term goal or expectation at the heart of those tactics.
Take that first part of his response – that he’d have to play seven more seasons, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able. That would have meant Bryant would have needed to sign another three-year contract. As it turned out, in April 2010 Bryant re-signed with the Lakers … for three years. Did he already know then how long he wanted his next deal to be? No one would have put it past him.
As for playing for the Sixers – well, that could have been just a gracious thing to say at a time that he knew his public image needed some purifying. No matter how many years he kept playing or for whom, Bryant understood then that, after the Colorado scandal and the controversies with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson and the belief that he was a timeless player but an arrogant punk, he had to change the public’s perception of him.
O’Neal had been traded and won another championship with the Heat. Jackson, in a bestselling book, had declared Kobe to be uncoachable. And around here, Bryant had been a villain since the 2001 NBA Finals, when he vowed to cut out the Sixers’ hearts. Just floating the notion that he might come home might soften that collective disdain for him, at least a little. After all, nearly nine years later, before his final game in Philadelphia, he said pretty much the same thing: “Once I became a Laker, I was never, ever going to look back. But in high school, I was like, ‘Man, Philadelphia’s struggling. Might be a chance that I play for the Sixers.’ But it never happened.”
No, but here’s what did. Just months after suggesting that it would be nice to play for another team, Bryant did more than suggest it. He demanded that the Lakers either improve their roster or trade him, and what seemed pure petulance at the time led to the brief rebirth of a dynasty. The Lakers acquired Pau Gasol, reached the NBA Finals in 2008, and won back-to-back championships, Bryant’s fourth and fifth, in 2009 and 2010.