The human body is an incredibly complex system with many interacting parts. As such, when something goes wrong anywhere in the body, it can affect the whole system; a domino effect of aches, pains, and malfunction. You have to understand the way the whole system works to be able to determine the true problem when something does go wrong. If you go to the doctor because your head is warm, she won't tell you that you have a fever and call it a day. If your nose is involuntarily leaking fluids, you aren't given medicine just to treat a runny nose. You might have the chills, body aches, and a sore throat, but none of these is the correct diagnosis: What you "have", what you need to be treated for, is the flu. It is one of the first lessons in medicine: Treat the disease, not the symptoms.
When it comes to Kobe Bryant, there are a whole lot of "doctors" out there. Everybody thinks they know what makes him tick, what compels him to do what he does. Everybody is ready to diagnose the "disease" that is responsible for both his greatest strengths and his biggest shortcomings. That's why, when Kobe caught the world by surprise in signing a lucrative contract extension earlier this week, an extension that severely hampers his team's ability to build around him, the opinions flowed forth like drinks at happy hour: Kobe Bryant is being selfish, Kobe Bryant is being egotistical, and my personal favorite, the most ridiculous one of all, Kobe Bryant no longer cares about winning championships.
Here's a piece of advice for the basketball world: If you think anything he's done in the past week reflects some sort of change in mentality, or invalidates what you previously thought to be his motivations, then you have never properly understood Kobe Bryant's "disease". Winning championships is not, and never has been, Kobe Bryant's primary motivation. It's merely a symptom. Scoring a lot of points, playing hero ball, and always thinking his team is better off with the ball in his hands? A symptom. Needing to be the alpha dog, even if it causes disharmony in his own locker room? Symptom. Playing through every injury he can, even if it is detrimental to his personal health? Symptom. Wanting to be the highest paid player in the league? That's a symptom, too. So what's the disease? What is the single overriding mentality that drives EVERYTHING that Kobe Bryant does? The diagnosis is so simple, it stuns me that people don't seem to understand it.
Kobe Bryant wants to be the best.
He wants to be the best player in the league. He wants to be the best player in the history of the league. That's why winning championships is so important to him, because he knows that championships are the first measuring stick applied to any great player. That's why scoring points is important to him, because he knows that having your name prominently featured in the record books is the only way to ensure you won't be forgotten. That's why he wants the ball exclusively in his hands in big moments, because he knows those moments are what the people will remember forever. That's why he needs to be the alpha dog, because any team that isn't "his" doesn't count as much (something that Kobe was made painfully aware of in his younger days). That's why he plays through every injury he can, because greatness can not be earned on the sidelines.
And that's why Kobe Bryant wants, perhaps even needs, to be the highest paid player in the NBA. It is yet another symbol of his status, the appropriate (in his mind, at least) valuation of his worth. To accept anything less than that would be a tacit acknowledgement that he is no longer the best, a mentality which Kobe Bryant is not yet prepared to accept. Sure, he could make things easier on himself by accepting less money and allowing his team to spend more on others, but since when has achieving greatness been easy? Signing a lesser contract so that more money could be spent elsewhere? That's cheating, and while Kobe has no problems bending a few rules on the court, you cannot cheat your way to greatness. How could he maintain his status as the alpha dog of his own team if somebody in the locker room is paid more than he is, has higher value than he does?
Kobe Bryant doesn't care any less about winning than he did a week ago. He simply thinks that, in locking him up for another two years, his team has made the most important move towards contending they can. He isn't any more selfish than he was a week ago either; he's always been selfish, if only because his pursuit of an individual legacy in the confines of a team sport requires it. But that selfishness is a part of what drives him, so if you have enjoyed the Kobe Bryant package to date, complaining about his selfishness now is both silly and hypocritical. The winning, the money, the status; Kobe wants it all, not because he is foolish enough to think he should be able to have his cake and eat it too, but because he believes the status he is trying to achieve requires him to try. Kobe wants to win as much as he ever has, but to him, if you can't win on your own terms, you don't deserve to.
Call him foolish. Call him delusional. Call him sociopathic. Just don't call Kobe Bryant a changed man. The Kobe that signed the most lucrative contract extension in the league is the same man, with all the same qualities and flaws he's always had, qualities and flaws that have made Kobe one of the most intriguing figures in sports. He almost certainly won't end up the best player in NBA history, and it's been a while since most considered him the best in the league today, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a basketball player who is, or has been, more compelling than Kobe Bryant, and that's no small consolation prize.