WASHINGTON – For 24 hours, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant listened to the residue of culture created out of the genius of commissioner David Stern and his owners. Between the incompetence of Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and an indifferent and uninformed union membership, the NBA skillfully rigged a collective bargaining agreement to devalue and defang the superstars responsible for driving the game to unprecedented popularity and profitability.
The disdain delivered to Kobe Bryant for signing a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension had left him surprised, but ultimately understanding of how the conversation has conspired to turn this way. Bryant hadn't come to apologize for his deal on Tuesday night, but hold it up and tell the rest of his peers: Bleep this system.
"Most of us have aspirations for being businessmen when our playing careers are over," Bryant told Yahoo Sports in a corridor of the Verizon Center. "But that starts now. You have to be able to wear both hats. You can't sit up there and say, 'Well, I'm going to take substantially less because there's public pressure, because all of a sudden, if you don't take less, you don't give a crap about winning. That's total bull----.
"I'm very fortunate to be with an organization that understands how to take care of its players, and put a great team out on the floor. They've figured out how to do both.
"Most players in this league don't have that. They get stuck in a predicament – probably intentionally done by the teams – to force them to take less money. Meanwhile, the value of the organization goes through the roof off the backs of their quote, unquote selfless players.
"It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
As the franchise player for one of the most profitable franchises on the planet, a glamour organization that has historically been able to recruit top free agents, Bryant accepted an offer presented to him. "One meeting," he said, "and it was basically done."
For Bryant, this extension punctuated the transformation of an uneasy relationship with late owner Jerry Buss' son Jim into something that surprised him. When Jim gained power over his sister Jeanie – with whom Bryant had held a long, close relationship with – Bryant had never been sure of his intentions.
Did Jim Buss want to stay the course with Bryant as the centerpiece? Did they want to give into Dwight Howard and marginalize Bryant, even push him out?
"You hear rumors," Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "You hear innuendo. You're never sure."
Eventually, Bryant started to build more of a relationship with Jim Buss, a trust, and ownership came to Bryant and his agent Rob Pelinka to award him an extension before he had ever played a minute on his repaired Achilles tendon. Through everything, though, Bryant insisted to Yahoo Sports: "I tried to insulate myself from all that, block it out. I needed to focus on my recovery, on getting my ass back out on the court."
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Here's the thing that Bryant has learned with the long, uncertain and frightening rehabilitation process for his torn Achilles: In some ways, it may have saved his career. Across the past two or three years, thoughts of retirement had crept into Bryant's mind. And never once did those have to do with his desire to compete, to play the game. They always had to do with the offseason regimen that he pushed himself through, the hellacious summers that extended from his teens and 20s and into his 30s.
"The Achilles, the rehab, it relit a fire in me, that's for sure," Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "I had been going so long, so long, putting in work – 17 years – and never taking a break, never taking time off. That's a long time to push your body, especially the way I pushed mine.
"Every time I had to find that drive, I would eventually find it … somewhere. But it took a toll. Every summer, I'd finally find that push that would get me there. But it was getting harder to do."
And then Bryant laughed: "But with this one, this challenge, it was low-hanging fruit for me."
The Los Angeles Lakers still believe in Kobe Bryant, and this means the world to him. Of course, the money matters, and it always will to him. He hadn't come to Washington, D.C., to make a concession speech, only to thank the Busses for the leap of faith and declare himself closer to his return. Between a news conference and the next steps in his rehab on Tuesday night, Kobe Bryant was still raging over the response to his contract extension. This wasn't a noble gesture to awaken his peers, but simply a visceral reaction to the way the NBA has slowly, surely eroded the superstar's standing in the sport – and the way the players have allowed it to happen.
"Bull----," Kobe Bryant finally again said on his way back to the locker room. "Pure bull----."