At week's end Kobe Bryant was still a Laker, his choice for Lakers coach was still at Duke, and his freedom was still at stake in Eagle, Colo. Beyond that, who can say? Now that Mike Krzyzewski has said no to Kobe, something that Lakers owner Jerry Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak have been unable to do, Bryant might be tempted to accept one of the lucrative free-agent offers that have come his way, possibly from the Los Angeles Clippers. After all, Kobe usually gets what he wants (that five-game meltdown against the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals being the rare exception).� On Monday afternoon the town of Durham, N.C., exhaled for the first time in a week when the 57-year-old Krzyzewski, Bryant's hand-picked candidate, announced mat he would continue to rule the fiefdom he's built over 24 seasons at Duke, where he has won 621 games and three national championships, all without the benefit of Jack Nicholson's sitting courtside. It's hard to know which aspect of Coach K's decision will receive greater praise: resisting the lure of filthy lucre—the five-year, $40 million deal would have made him the highest-paid coach in professional sports—or showing the good sense not to board a sinking ship in L.A. One thing is certain: His choice, announced during a campus press conference that had the ambience of a winning candidate's appearance on election night, was a huge victory for a college game that, of late, has had precious few.
In May another Iron Mike of the NCAA, Mike Montgomery, left the leafy confines of Stanford after 18 seasons and accepted a four-year, $10 million deal from the Golden State Warriors—a franchise in geographic proximity to the Cardinal program but light years behind in terms of stability. Last month the NBA deprived the college game of a raft of potential All-Americas when eight high schoolers were taken in the first round of the draft. One of Krzyzewski's own burgeoning stars, forward Luol Deng, bolted for the NBA after one season (he was chosen seventh by the Phoenix Suns and traded to the Chicago Bulls), continuing a trend that, at Duke, began in 1999, when Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and William Avery all left early.
Who would have been left to fight the good fight had Krzyzewski, the Coach's Coach of college sports, turned pro? Now, having sacrificed so much for the cause, he will be an even bigger force in the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which planned to meet in Chicago on Wednesday to discuss petitioning the NBA to stop drafting high school players.
The Lakers must deal with issues of their own. Shaquille O'Neal still wants out, and Bryant still wants him out. Karl Malone, a positive force on last season's team, had apparently successful arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last week but hasn't committed to returning, while Gary Payton, a negative force, has. And as of Monday night, there was still no one to succeed Phil Jackson, though former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, a two-time NBA champion, would reportedly take the job if offered. Bryant's feelings about Rudy T will no doubt be relevant; according to well-placed sources it was Kobe who orchestrated the invitation to Krzyzewski, which turned the basketball world upside down for a holiday weekend. Here's how the offer evolved:
Sources say that Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, made the first contact with Krzyzewski shortly after the Lakers' 99-91 victory in Game 2 of the Finals, which Kobe sent into overtime with a miraculous three-point buzzer-beater. After the series ended, Bryant phoned Krzyzewski twice, each conversation lasting about 90 minutes. One of those calls took place on June 28, and three days later Kupchak flew to Durham to offer Coach K the job. As a high school All-America at Lower Merion in suburban Philadelphia, Bryant had been heavily recruited by Duke, and he has said that he would have gone there in 1996 had he not decided to enter the draft. At Monday's press conference Krzyzewski said he and Kobe had remained close. Bryant, evidently, had decided that Coach K was the man to create order out of the purple-and-gold chaos. In other words: He would have been the man to hand Kobe the ball and tell everyone else to get out of his way. (Through a Lakers spokesman Bryant declined to comment, and Pelinka did not return calls from SI.)
Duke broke the news of the Lakers' offer in order "to be proactive instead of reactive," according to a university spokesman. But once the news got out, there sure was some reacting going on. Richard Brodhead, who could hardly have faced a more fiery baptism as Duke's incoming president, latched onto a bullhorn in Krzyzewskiville, the tented village visible from the coach's palatial on-campus office, and campaigned for the incumbent to remain incumbent. Newspapers polled. Recruits fretted. Dookies agonized. Coaches and former coaches weighed in—John Wooden wondered why Coach K would leave, Rick Pitino why he wouldn't. The News & Observer even quizzed Bryant's AAU coach, for whom he hasn't played in eight years, about the K-wants-K situation. "In my opinion," said Sam Rines, "[Krzyzewski] is the only one right now who can really help Kobe through his problems and through the next phase of his career."
But Coach K passed up that chance, and it's clear what he'll be doing in the next phase of his career. He has what amounts to a lifetime contract at Duke (it runs through 2011 when he reaches the university retirement age of 65) and now an even stronger bully pulpit from which to speak to his players and the college basketball world. And it's pretty clear that Brodhead's door will be wide open whenever Coach K has something to discuss. Indeed, the leverage Krzyzewski now has with his boss is extraordinary, almost like ... well, the leverage Bryant has with his boss.
How's this for extraordinary: Bryant is driving the Lakers' bus (or, more accurately, the Lakers' Buss) even though he might not be onboard come next season. His trial for felony sexual assault is scheduled to begin on Aug. 27 in Eagle, and though he faces a possible life sentence, Kobe is already sifting through free-agent offers, the most attractive so far being a six-year, $100 million deal from the Clippers. (The Lakers can give him as much as $135 million over seven years.) The league has said it will not approve a contract that promises to pay him even if he's serving time.
Buss has been steadfast in his embrace of Bryant, who may next demand to judge Laker Girl tryouts and move Nicholson's seats at Staples Center. (Hey, three decades ago Buss saw the value in buying up Southern California real estate, so who are we to question his prescience?) Months ago the owner broke off contract negotiations with Jackson, whose relationship with Bryant was strained even during the seasons that ended with championships in 2000, '01 and '02. Buss also said he would do everything possible to keep Bryant and was far less attentive to O'Neal. Multiple team sources said during the season that Bryant made it clear to Buss that he did not relish playing another year with Shaq.
Sure enough, Jackson was shown the gate just three days after the Lakers bowed to Detroit, and O'Neal, upset over Bryant's power within the franchise, asked to be dealt, a request that can only be more adamant now that he's seen Kobe engineering the team's coaching offers. At week's end, however, the Big Disenchanted was still a Laker, and the $56 million he is due over the next two seasons will make it very difficult to move him.