Having spent a good chunk of his formative years living in Italy, Kobe Bryant developed a passion and appreciation for soccer—a love the Los Angeles Lakers star has been showcasing as one of the World Cup's most high-profile celebrity attendees.
We're guessing that defending himself against criticism from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn't part of Kobe's travel itinerary.
In a recent interview with Sam Borden of The New York Times Magazine, Klinsmann used Bryant's recent $48.5 million contract extension to defend his decision to cut longtime men's national team staple Landon Donovan just weeks before the start of the World Cup:
This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?
Bryant then took the occasion of an ESPN studio interview—conducted on location in Brazil—to respond to Klinsmann's remarks, via InsideSoCal.com's Mark Medina:
I thought it was pretty funny. I thought it was pretty comical actually. I see his perspective. But the one perspective that he's missing from an ownership point of view is that you want to be part of an ownership group that is rewarding its players for what they've done while balancing the team going forward. If you're another player in the future and you're looking at the Lakers organization, you want to be a part of an organization that takes care of its players while at the same time planning for the future. Jurgen is a coach, a manager. He's not a GM or owner of the franchise. When you look at it from that perspective, it changes a little bit. But you probably could have used another player as an example.
Here's the thing: They're both right.
Klinsmann's belief that athletes are too often rewarded for past performance is a valid one. In the case of the Lakers, there's little doubt Bryant's exorbitant extension will hamstring L.A.'s ability to round out the roster with top-to-bottom talent—unless the franchise is willing to run headlong into the NBA's prohibitive luxury tax, anyway.
At the same time, Bryant understands as well as anyone on what side the Lakers' bread is being buttered. Without stars to draw in the crowds, do you really think we’d be seeing professional sports franchises selling for billions of dollars?
From Bryant's perspective, if the Lakers truly want to recapture their contender status, they'll pull out any and every stop necessary to make it happen—untold millions in tax payments be damned.
If you ask ESPN's Henry Abbott, the more likely scenario will find L.A. biding its time until Bryant's salary is clear and work begins on the 16-time All-Star's Staples Center statue:
The next time the Lakers will be great is when Bryant's massive deal is off the books. This is a league where at least a dozen players are far better, and they all make far less money. There's almost no way for the Lakers to solve that puzzle, especially now that the collective bargaining agreement has closed the loopholes whereby rich teams used to be able to overpay for some other superstar to ride in and save the day.
It'll be interesting to see to what extent Bryant's bonus tender becomes a template fellow superstars feel compelled to follow. Might we reach a point where, say, the Oklahoma City Thunder balk at Kevin Durant's demand for a final two-year payday and let him walk?
Contrary to Klinsmann's remarks, Kobe Bryant actually does deserve this money; without him, the Lakers would've been out that $48.5 million and a whole lot more—revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, you name it.
The better question to be asking is, with as much money as he's made, how much of Kobe’s twilight drive is about matching Michael Jordan's title count, and how much of it is about padding an already bursting bank account?