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"You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your (bleeping) fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy.'" -- Tony Montana, Scarface
Kobe Bryant will always be the Lakers' Tony Montana. No matter how hard he tries, he knows he will always be the "bad guy" in the eyes of the media and the fans. He will always be blamed for running Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson out of Los Angeles and ruining the Lakers' dynasty just so he could have a team of his own.
Every Hollywood soap opera needs an antagonist and Bryant is the villain in the ever-changing saga of As The Lakers Turn. He's the one perceived to start all the fights, complain the most and kill off the show's most popular characters.
Too bad Bryant has been miscast in this drama.
He isn't "the bad guy" everyone makes him out to be. The perception that he broke up the Lakers is a lie that has somehow become an absolute truth whenever people talk about the team.
It was no secret that Bryant no longer wanted to play for Jackson or alongside O'Neal. Their relationship had been strained for years and had gone well past the point of no return last season. That wasn't all Bryant's fault.
Every relationship has a two-way street and the fact that Bryant couldn't get along with Jackson and O'Neal is just as much their faults as it was his. Anyone who blames Bryant for wanting to get away from both men has never attempted to put themselves in Bryant's position.
Imagine being stuck in a job where you hated your boss and your partner. You are called out regularly for working outside of a system that you don't believe in and constantly have to watch as your boss and partner team up and point their fingers at you, acting as if they're always right. Now imagine you were able to leave that job to work for another company where you could work with a new boss and partner you liked. You wouldn't get paid nearly as much, and possibly not win as many awards, but you'd be a happier person.
That's the situation Bryant was in and he was willing to leave the Lakers. But before he could, he was deemed more valuable to the company than his boss and his partner. Is that his fault? Is it Bryant's fault that Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted Bryant to stay so badly that he traded away O'Neal and let Jackson go with the hope (that's hope, not promise) that Bryant would stay?
I don't think so.
First, let's not act like Bryant is alone in this. Jackson didn't want to coach Bryant and has admitted as much. So the fact that he isn't the coach of the Lakers has just as much to do with him as it does with Bryant.
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Second, O'Neal didn't want to play for the Lakers if Jackson wasn't coaching and Bryant was the focal point of the team. So the fact that he isn't on the Lakers has just as much to do with him as it does with Bryant and Jackson, if not more so. Let's not forget it was O'Neal who demanded to be traded after he felt the organization was catering to Bryant. Suddenly, the man who had criticized Bryant for refusing to realize who was the leader of the team could not handle a changing of the guard.
But no one's going to get mad at Shaq. He's "The Daddy," "The Diesel," "The Big Aristotle." He's provided journalists with some of the greatest quotes since Muhammad Ali. And no one's going to get mad at Jackson. Mr. "Zen Master," who won nine championships in 12 years and is regarded by most as the greatest coach of all time.
So all the blame goes to Bryant, despite the fact the two men he supposedly ran off actually wanted to leave regardless if he was around.
In the end, Buss made the right decision in keeping Bryant and parting ways with Jackson and O'Neal.
Jackson had lost control of the Lakers last season and it wasn't just Bryant. He was outcoached in the Finals against the Pistons' Larry Brown and had told his friends and family even before the playoffs started that he was coaching his last season.
O'Neal was also becoming a problem for the Lakers. He refused to sign a contract extension that would make him the highest-paid player in the league, he persistently demeaned general manager Mitch Kupchak for being a figure head, and he took veiled shots at Bryant any chance he could.
The Lakers had to move O'Neal to save the future of the franchise. If he had stayed in L.A., he would be out of shape, complaining about the direction of the team, and probably retire after playing a couple of more seasons at diminishing levels. That would have left the Lakers with nothing. No Jackson, no Shaq and more importantly no Bryant.
Buss made sure that wouldn't happen to his franchise. He signed Bryant to a long-term contract, hired one of the game's best coaches in Rudy Tomjanovich, whose ego will never rub his players the wrong way, and traded Shaq to the Eastern Conference for two future all-stars in Lamar Odom and Caron Butler and a veteran leader in Brian Grant. It isn't a trade the Lakers wanted to make, but one they had to make in order to be competitive in the future.
This isn't an ideal situation for the Lakers, but then again they aren't an ideal team and their leader is far from an ideal "bad guy."