Kobe Bryant's reputation as a basketball player is secure. If he walked away from basketball today, he would leave as a legend. A generation-leading, annual all-star game attending, gold medal-winning, MVP, Finals MVP and five-time NBA champion, Bryant has done everything there is to be done on a basketball court. He's already a top five guard of all time, will likely retire as one of the top 10 NBA players ever, and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no questions asked. But CBSSports.com's Ken Berger reports that Bryant is ready to break some new ground, joining Laker teammate and player's union president Derek Fisher as a leading voice for the players in the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations, a dispute that threatens the 2011-2012 NBA season.
Bryant, the highest-paid player in the league under what is likely to be his final contract, is scheduled to join Michael Jordan as the league’s only $30 million players in the final year of the deal in 2013-14. Asked where he stands in the labor dispute that could be more punitive to stars like Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose – who likely won’t get new contracts until a new CBA is in place – Bryant said, “I’m going to fight for our players.”
“It’s about making sure we have the best deal going forward,” Bryant said. “That’s my stance and that’s not going to change. I’m not going to waver. It’s about taking care of the generation that’s coming after us. That’s what the guys before us tried to do, and that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to waver from that.”On the court, Bryant doesn't give his opponents an inch and he doesn't stand slights from anyone without exacting some form of revenge. And "slighted" is exactly how the players should feel given the owners' recent rhetoric surrounding salary cuts, roll backs, a hard cap and potential contraction in the face of increasing basketball-related income. Really, the owners are engaged in Kevin Garnett style huffing and puffing, demeaning the players by dragging the negotiations to needlessly sensational levels. The most obsessively driven NBA player since Michael Jordan, life is a competition for Bryant, so the current labor strife is a natural fit for his personality, even if he's chosen, like Jordan, to generally steer clear of hot topics and controversy, especially since the incident in Colorado. Good on Bryant for taking this step to stand up for his fellow players, following in a line of superstars that traces back to Bob Cousy, who championed for a player's union, and Oscar Robertson, who helped establish the legal basis for free agency in the NBA. From this point forward, everything Bryant does and says should be viewed as historical positioning. A quest to top Michael Jordan's six rings, a climb up the all time scoring list, a second gold medal as part of the 2012 Olympics team: all will help his case when it comes time for history to compare him to the league's other super-superstars. Leading a labor charge, or at least throwing his heft behind it, is worth brownie points in bunches when it comes to the big-picture. Reaching a labor deal would have a practical payoff for Bryant too, of course. Should the Lakers win their third straight title this season, the 2011-2012 season, the one that's in jeopardy due to a potential lockout, would be Bryant's first chance at a seventh title, which would surpass Jordan's mark. Whatever Bryant's motivation for entering the debate -- his own self-interest, the common good of the players, or both -- it isn't as important as the fact that he has spoken up. Players around the league idolize and fear him, and his words therefore carry more cachet than any other player's. Bryant talks; everyone listens. NBA owners may be about to find out what NBA coaches have known for more than a decade: you don't want to anger Kobe Bryant.