LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant nudged Jason Kidd in the shoulder and grinned. Dirk Nowitzki had just thrown both of them into five more minutes of fun, drilling a cold-blooded 3-pointer to send the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers into overtime Sunday afternoon, and Bryant knew the shot should never have come. If Bryant had been smart he would have fouled Kidd the moment the ball touched his hands, never giving the Mavericks' new point guard a chance to shuffle the fateful pass to Nowitzki.
Kidd shook his head as Bryant told him this. They shared another laugh at center court, waiting for overtime to tip, and it was clear they both had what each wanted. An early spring game worth something. A national stage. A talented opponent to test them. A worthy supporting cast. The opportunity to be relevant again.
The NBA needs games like this, with Bryant going for 52 points, with Kidd a short-armed free throw away from pushing the two teams into a second OT. These are the games that matter, and the league doesn't need its stars sitting on the sideline or playing out the string in the shadow of a New Jersey turnpike. That's why it's easy to overlook how Bryant and Kidd both arrived at Sunday:
A year ago, Bryant was miffed the Lakers hadn't thrown their young center, Andrew Bynum, into a trade that would have brought him Kidd. Kidd, too, was disappointed. Each simmered alone until Bryant boiled over last summer and demanded a trade. Angry the New Jersey Nets wouldn't ship him to a contender or hand him a contract extension, Kidd went public with his own trade request in late January.
Bryant and Kidd both shouldered heavy criticism for their actions, and they deserved it. Kidd no-showed for a game in December, in effect quitting on his teammates. From that point on, Nets president Rod Thorn said, it was evident Kidd's "heart wasn't in it." Bryant checked out, at least mentally, until it became clear the Chicago Bulls weren't going to make an attractive-enough offer to persuade the Lakers to trade him.
More than a few league GMs also have worried that ceding to the wishes of a disgruntled player like Kidd only empowers future malcontents to make their own demands. When Wally Szczerbiak starts campaigning for a trade with $13.8 million left on his contract, there's a problem. Throw in the restricted free-agent holdouts of Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, and there's reason to suggest the NBA is tilting toward the NFL, where barely a week passes without someone's star receiver demanding to be moved.
But there's another side to this argument, and he sat behind the Lakers' bench Sunday. Thirty-three years ago Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asked to be traded, and the Milwaukee Bucks sent him to Los Angeles. Wilt Chamberlain also once requested a new team. Unhappy players and trade demands are nothing new. Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain just didn't have the talk-show circuit to hopscotch through like Bryant did last summer.
League executives would naturally prefer such matters be handled behind closed doors. The assembly line worker in Des Moines certainly doesn't want to hear that a $20 million-a-year center wants a new employer. Teams also have a harder time drumming up fair offers for a player when everyone knows they're being forced to trade him.
Thorn and the Nets, however, still wrangled a talented young point guard, a serviceable backup center, two first-round draft picks and $3 million for Kidd just days from the deadline. Pau Gasol had backed off his trade request from last season, yet the Memphis Grizzlies didn't get anywhere near market value for him from the Lakers.
"It was grand larceny," Bryant said Sunday after watching Gasol total 17 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.
Bryant's unhappiness with the Lakers' direction didn't spur the Gasol trade nearly as much as Bynum's knee injury. And maybe Bynum didn't need to hear that Bryant wanted to "ship his ass out" to get in better shape last summer.
But what's clear is this: Bryant and Kidd, in different ways, both got their wish. Kidd sat in the losing locker room yet still described Sunday as "fun."
"This is what you want to be involved in at the end of the season," he said.
Bryant and Kidd needed to be relevant again, and the NBA needed it, too. Yes, they had tried to leverage their teams, and, yes, they had complained. But teams frequently use their own leverage against players. Only they call it something else.
They call it business.