The Story of Kobe Bryant and the Bulls

It wasn’t so much that Kobe Bryant in 2007 wasn’t traded to the Bulls when he actually asked the Lakers to do so. It was a fantasy, essentially manufactured out of Bryant’s simmering frustration, one that had no chance of occurring. While the Bulls didn’t have the players to match, the Lakers actually were just stalling until Bryant calmed down and realized he also didn’t have enough winter coats.

The significance of that great “what if” scenario wasn’t so much that it didn’t occur or what would have happened to the Bulls, the Lakers and Bryant.

It was that Bryant, unlike basically every superstar player in the last 20 years, not only wasn’t afraid to challenge the legacy of the greatest player in the game’s history, Michael Jordan. Bryant believed he could surpass Jordan, and would make it ever better by doing so in Jordan’s own building, in his own city.

Kobe would make Michael Jordan the second guy in the second city.

Of course, it’s a ridiculous notion.

But that is what made Kobe Bryant the great player he is and one of the greats in NBA history. And also what made Bryant the true heir to Jordan’s legacy, the only player who not only believed he was as good or better than Jordan, but he’d take on the challenge no one else would.

It didn’t matter that it basically was a mission impossible.

Kobe Bryant chased greatness when others hoped it would come their way.

Bryant Sunday makes his final appearance as a player in Chicago when the Bulls host the Los Angeles Lakers in a rare Sunday 7 p.m. game. Bryant is making this season a farewell tour after announcing his retirement.

In many respects, it’s a Bryant we’re never seen before, and not just because he is playing for perhaps the worst team in the league and averaging 17.1 points on 35 percent shooting. But accepting it with grace and good humor, unusual accessibility with the media and public, and with great equanimity and patience.

Perhaps his family has seen this Bryant before, though I doubt it. Certainly, the media and public never has.

Probably because what helped drive Bryant to become one of the great players ever, arguably a top 10 all time NBA player as the informal rankings go, was this inner fire and drive, a sizzling desire, almost a rage, to succeed and be the last man standing.

It’s why he measures closest to what Jordan represents in the NBA hierarchy because Bryant approached the game much as Jordan did, just not with the personal charm and public bonhomie that Jordan possessed. It was the product of their environments, Bryant raised in Italy essentially solitary while his father finished his basketball career. It’s taken years for Bryant to sort through the ambivalence of his focused desire for success and manner to explain his methods.

Kobe couldn’t do gregarious; Michael could define it.

Only now coming out on the other side has Bryant become approachable. Perhaps not vulnerable, but someone taught him how to turn the edges of his mouth up.

There wasn’t much of that in 2007 when Bryant’s rage sent him to his darkest recesses, and apparently also his basement to plot out the future. It was a bizarre period in both a spectacular and sometimes petulant career that saw him in his battle with Shaquille O’Neal, whom the Lakers traded in 2004 when they had to choose.

Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss was Showtime.

Kobe was Showtime.

Shaq was Playtime.

It was no contest whom fans would pay to see. Buss understood that as well.

So after three straight championships and a meltdown on the eve of the fourth with Karl Malone and Gary Payton in tow, Bryant made the first of his threats: He was leaving.

Bryant had enough of Phil Jackson as well, whom Bryant also shipped out as Phil took pen in hand to write the Roman a clef. It had to be a novel; that season couldn’t be real, and not those figures.

Meanwhile, free agent Bryant in the summer of 2004 met with the Clippers, who were so sure they would sign him they had the jersey made up and were preparing a press conference. Bryant invited Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager John Paxson to Los Angeles to meet with him. It was kind of a sham since the Bulls were limited to the salary cap exception only and the Clippers and the Lakers were offering tens of millions more. But Bryant was thinking after three titles: Wouldn’t it be cool to upstage Jordan.

Kobe took the money, as expected, and continued his run with the Lakers.

It didn’t go far even as Phil and Kobe made peace after Phil excoriated Kobe in the book about the season. No big deal. Sticks and stones. That stuff never bothered Bryant. He was above that. Words from simple human beings. C’mon, bring something more than that!

This guy was the basketball player with nine lives.

Who else could survive the feud with Shaq and being blamed for breaking up a title team, blamed for chasing away Jackson and go from sexual assault accusations to a decade later the NBA version of a Canyon of Heroes parade.

Plus, after the accusations were withdrawn, Kobe still at odds became the villain in the Lakers’ soap opera. You had to choose sides. Shaq literally was telling players and media members that. I recall picking Kobe.

The genesis of the feud mostly was that Shaq didn’t care about basketball; it’s all Bryant cared about. Bryant trained day and night; winning and proving yourself was all that mattered. Shaq was so good he literally could turn it on for the playoffs and win. It’s just that basketball was about 80th in importance on his list. Shaq famously said why rehab on his time, like in the summer. Do it during the season. Kobe fumed; and they’d win, anyway.

So when Kobe’s legal matters were resolved he began sort of a good will media tour, trying to reclaim some of his reputation. He’s actually an engaging guy with a good sense of humor. But he was always torn between striving for success with blinders, and, well, striving for success with blinders. What else was there?

Anyway, he called and invited me to lunch when the Lakers were in Chicago.

He was aware of everyone and everything in the league, but what stood out was something he said when we talked about Jordan and the shadow he cast over everyone.

“He’s an urban legend,” Bryant said with a laugh. “No one ever thought he missed a shot.”

Even a greater challenge, to dream the impossible dream. Bryant never let his obsession with Jordan get too far away. He’s accepted now he won’t get that matching sixth championship ring, or the 10 he always bragged about. Jackson tells the story of having Kobe meet Jordan once after Jordan retired—they never were close—in hopes of Kobe seeking out leadership tips from Jordan. Kobe talks these days respectfully about Jordan and his guidance. It’s the new, practiced Kobe. Jackson recalled that before Jordan could hardly say anything, Kobe said, “You know I’d kick your ass.”

Remember, in Jordan’s first All-Star game when there may or may not have been the famous freezeout, all Jordan wanted to be was accepted, to fit in with the stars and play a role. In Kobe’s first All-Star game still as a teenager, he waved Karl Malone out of the post on the first possession so he could go at and try to outplay and dominate Jordan.

Really, what was with this guy?

Kobe didn’t have the physical strength and athletic dominance of Jordan, but no one had more chutzpah.

Yet even with Phil back to save the day after a year hiatus, it wasn’t going well. Shaq won a title in Miami, growled at Kobe and fouled him hard when they played. The league and fans were with Shaq. Then after the Suns and Steve Nash in the 2007 playoffs sent the Lakers out easily in five in the first round, it was enough for Kobe. He was outta here!

Remarkably, Kobe even began calling local radio stations to air his grievances and talk trade. Yes, it was Kobe from Orange County. First time caller….

Kobe wanted Jerry West back to run the franchise; he’d been back stabbed because someone with the Lakers was saying he forced Shaq out. Technically, he didn’t, but Shaq said he did. What actually happened was Buss decided on Kobe and also was tired of Shaq’s half hearted regular seasons. Jackson told Shaq he could transition to a lesser role and it was time—which he did in Miami—make more money and let Kobe take over the main scoring option and they’d still win. Shaq said no.

Eventually it came that Kobe told the Lakers not only that he wanted to be traded, he wanted to be traded to the Bulls.

We don’t hear that much in Chicago, especially from the top players. And for all their other reasons, they don’t like playing against the Jordan legacy. Kevin Garnett couldn’t get farther and faster from it, manufacturing excuses about a disloyal organization. Grant Hill wanted no part. Even LeBron. Was LeBron going to have a better chance to win with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh or Wade, Joakim Noah and a healthy Derrick Rose? And maybe even Bosh as well as the Bulls had a way to get all three. James did fine in Miami, but he also wanted no part of, “Yeah, but Jordan won six titles.’ Free agents won’t say it; but they’re scared of the past.

Bring it on, Kobe demanded.

So the teams did start talking trade.

There really was no chance since Buss wasn’t giving up his premier attraction. Basketball was nice; stars were better. But Jackson appealed to Buss. Jackson said they owed Bryant at least to listen, to at least demonstrate to Bryant they respected him and what he did for the franchise. They weren’t trading him, but they didn’t have to tell him that. OK, go ahead, Buss said.

The Bulls couldn’t believe this. Kobe Bryant wants to play for us?

So they went along.

The Bulls had started to come along well and were a Scott Skiles best 49-33 that season and swept the defending champion Heat and Shaq in the first round. Kobe loved that.

The best the Bulls had were Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Ben Wallace and Tyrus Thomas.

An aside: That team won 49 games? And Skiles wasn’t Coach of the Year?

The Bulls liked their guys, but they knew they’d gone about as far as they could. Actually, it wouldn’t last much longer as Skiles would be fired that December, the Bulls would plummet to 33 wins and then get lucky in the lottery and get Derrick Rose. Imagine Kobe in that 33-win season.

Anyway, that was the point. If the Bulls gave up too much the Bulls would have less talent than the Lakers’ team Kobe wanted to leave because they weren’t good enough. But try convincing Kobe. He felt Jordan didn’t win with much.

So proposals were exchanged. The Lakers were somewhat on the periphery as Kobe’s agent kept coming up with suggestions for the Bulls. The Bulls would send Deng, Gordon, Wallace. No, the Lakers didn’t want Wallace; Kobe wanted Deng to stay. Then the Lakers said they wanted Ron Artest, who had become an All-Star, all-NBA and Defensive Player of the Year in Sacramento, and Hinrich. The Kings saw what the Bulls had seen earlier and knew Artest was ready to blow again. They wanted first round picks, including the one that would become Rose. The Bulls didn’t have enough firsts. And so it went amidst media hysterics for a while and some national reports that the deal was done, that Kobe never would play again for the Lakers.

Eventually, Kobe calmed down and started the season, and a few months later the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol and were on the way. Kobe went on to win his only MVP award and the Lakers got back to the Finals, losing to the Celtics. The Lakers then won the next two championships to assume what’s likely to be their last look at greatness. At least for the next few decades. There aren’t anymore Kobes out there for them.

Or anyone. Players like that don’t come along much. Chicago gets its last in person look Sunday.