There isn’t a run in the world Kobe Bryant won’t play in. Like any NBA superstar since 1992 — the date essentially cited in this summer of Dream Team nostalgia as the launch point for the game’s global and commercial awareness — his fame can get him into any game, anywhere, anytime. The ads Nike released during the lockout last summer, showing NBA stars getting burn in church leagues and hipster pickup games in Brooklyn, fulfill the pipe dream of any fan who’s wanted to play the very best. With Bryant there’s a sense it’s not all that far-fetched. Having unchecked access, however, isn’t the same as needing to, the same as how having an almost ideal option doesn’t mean it’s the right one.
On Sunday, Bryant was quoted by Yahoo! Sports as saying he’d entertain playing out a post-NBA career in Europe, where he speaks two of the languages and would still be fluent in basketball, too. It woke the lockout memories when he was ready to play abroad out of desperation. He loves soccer, grew up in Italy, has enormous respect for the history of Euro hoops and because of that understands that playing there would create a legacy that supersedes anything any other American player has done on that continent. While LeBron James and Kevin Durant are trying to one-up Kobe’s accomplishments stateside, he could be selling Nikes, hanging out with Messi and generally living it up like Louis XIV at Versailles. It makes sense — he even says so.
However, the reasons why Bryant has a literal world of options and could play anywhere on this earth are the same reasons he will never leave the United States as a professional. They are no secret: his competitiveness and his ego.
Bryant’s competitiveness is the most fierce of any player (though Kevin Garnett could make a well-received appeal) since Michael Jordan was demanding checkers rematches from Buzz Peterson in their North Carolina dorm room. It’s less a tool of precision and more of a brute engine, and has powered his five championships and allowed him to carve out his legacy.
The ego will surely make him feel as though he can play well past 2014, when his deal as a Laker currently stands to end. Combined, those two things have never made his career easier but always led him to be a better player. Driving Shaq out of town when they could have won at least two more titles together? Ego (I can win this myself) meet competitiveness (and no one will stop me). They simply won’t let him step away from playing in the world’s best league – even knowing the European option may be more lucrative and more suited to his game’s needs at 36 or older. Teams there will build around him as the Lakers are ready to find a post-Bryant future (even if he’s still on the roster). It’s that chance to prove he can still dominate in the NBA in a more challenging situation than ever that would make decamping for Europe’s excellent leagues feel like a cop-out. In a case of fight or flight to Europe, has there been a player since MJ less likely to take the latter and spurn a challenge? Put it this way: playing abroad would be an admission Bryant couldn’t hang in the NBA anymore, an expectation that is somehow even less likely than seeing Mike Krzyzewski stop dyeing his hair.
Bryant doesn’t need the spectacle of a farewell tour abroad. He thrives on the pressure and adoration of L.A., the doubt of the media and the simmering disdain from the road fans. Taking the European route is a no-brainer for most anyone but at some point the novelty wears off and he’ll find himself in a Turkish arena playing against guys who are fighting to arrive in the league he just left.
Kobe is a slightly different breed. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard, wrongly or not, are associated more with making career moves based on business potential as much as hardwood success. Bean Bryant is cold-blooded in that sense, keeping the game that got him his business openings as the top priority. Every star has an ego and competitiveness, but Bryant is the rare star who isn’t tuned to taking the easier path (It’s not always been an admirable quality). As much as I think he’ll never leave the U.S., he would also be a fool not to consider it. At 36, he’ll be walking the fine line of hanging on too long versus still proving his worth. If he is going to be playing anywhere when his contract ends, it will be in the NBA — accepting any other option would mean going back on the reasons he got to being a global star in the first place.
Do you think Kobe would finish his career abroad?
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