Last Friday afternoon, around 1 PM PST, roughly six hours before the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz at Staples Center, the news started hitting all the major wires: Kobe Bryant just signed a three year contract extension to stay a Los Angeles Laker through 2014 (and presumably as long as he wants to until he decides to call it a career). The news itself shouldn't surprise you. Nobody, outside of a few journalists looking for headlines, or a few hopeful fans of despondent teams, believed Kobe wouldn't be lacing up the sneakers in Hollywood next season and beyond.
And yet, as soon as I saw the news, the first thought that popped into my head was this: Now THAT is leadership. The timing of the announcement, Kobe's decision to sign the extension which, by all accounts, has been on his table for months, it all points to the same conclusion. With the Lakers reeling, with the possibility of genuine doubt and uncertainty in the locker room of the reigning champions, Kobe took the one opportunity he had to say with actions what no one would believe (right now) if he said it in words, "I believe in this team". There can be no doubt now that Kobe remains confident this team can win a championship.
The Lakers are absolutely reeling right now. The warning signs are blaring as if the Lakers are London preparing for a WWII air raid. Since the All Star break, the Lakers have the worst record of any Western Conference playoff team. If momentum going into the playoffs means ANYTHING at all, the Lakers would need to win their remaining 5 games by double digits just to convince people they can make it out of the first round. There seems to be genuine concern in the Lakers locker room, an emotion that is difficult to come by. Even as the Lakers faced elimination in game 7 of the WC Semis vs. Houston last year, one never got the impression the Lakers were as concerned about their ability to perform as they are right now. Simply put, the Lakers need to improve quite a bit to have a chance of winning a 2nd championship in a row, and said improvement isn't about playing harder. The Lakers know they can't just improve their play because they want to, and it scares them.
Kobe Bryant is the leader of the Lakers on the court, the colonol to Phil Jackson's off-site general. He sees his guys shrinking away from the big moments. He sees them retreating in the face of the pressure being heaped upon them, a pressure which grows with each poor performance. He sees them tightening up like a Chinese fingertrap. So, he's doing what any good leader would do. He's rallying the troops, and doing so in a way that can not be disputed. Kobe could talk about his belief in the team all he wants, but in the end, it would just be talk. Instead, he took action.
Say what you want about Kobe's leadership style. Yes, he's hard on his teammates, and often appears to be blaming them for mistakes that could be attributed to him. Yes, he sometimes responds to tough situations by trying to take on too much (see yesterday's game). There are many ways to be a successful leader, and successful leadership is difficult to define except in hindsight, but there are certainly complaints which could be made regarding Bryant's "style". And yet, as his team faces more uncertainty than anybody could have possibly imagined going into their run for a repeat title, Kobe Bryant's message came through loud and clear: "I believe in this team". I've never witnessed a stronger display of leadership from Kobe than this, especially considering his past actions in these types of situations.
After all, this is the same Kobe Bryant who was ready to walk away in 2004. He's the same guy who demanded a trade before the 2008 season, because he didn't believe in his teammates. He's the guy who has been lambasted for a failure to trust his teammates his entire career, whether or not the criticism was justified. Then there is the other uncertainty involved, the apparent power struggle at the center of the Lakers organization, with Jim Buss (apparently backed by his father, Jerry Buss) on one side and Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson on the other, fighting for control of the team's future direction. The Lakers talent will be solid (if not a bit aging) for years to come, but there's no guarantee about who will be coaching the team in the years to come. Many believed that to be the reason Kobe hadn't yet signed an extension. They believed he wanted to find out who would be his coach, or use himself as a hostage to make sure that Phil Jackson was retained (irony, anyone?).
Everyone knows that Kobe's drive to win championships cannot be topped, that he's willing to do anything possible (including finding a new team, if necessary) to continue winning rings. It's actually why nobody really believed he would ever leave Los Angeles, because it would be damn near impossible for him to find a better situation anywhere else. The Lakers certainly have the talent to go on a championship run. Kobe isn't making a revolutionary statement in confirming his belief in the team. But, when you consider the timing, the factors involved, the growing talk of the uncertainty facing the future of the franchise, Kobe's silent proclamation of belief in his team couldn't have come at a better time, and he knows it. That's why an extension that was in no rush to be signed happened so suddenly. That's why a contract which was available all along is now written in ink.
Obviously, Kobe's extension isn't curing any of the myriad of problems facing the Lakers right now. Even if it has the desired effect, even if the troops do rally, there's no guarantee of anything, this season or in the future. As yesterday's game proved, the issues facing the team aren't disappearing at all. But you have to respect the man for committing to the team in such fashion, especially in the wake of the Lakers poor performance and the apparent power struggle happening behind the scenes of Lakerdom. Kobe has climbed to the mountaintop and screamed from the top of his lungs "This is my team, and we can reach the promised land (again and again)", and he's not waiting to find out whether he can actually do it or not. For perhaps the first time in his career, Kobe faith cannot be questioned, even as others might not share that faith.