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The Lakers’ 35-year-old star is out for six weeks following a knee injury suffered just six games into a comeback from a ruptured Achilles that cost him last year’s playoffs plus the early part of this season.
The scripts are similar for Jeter and Bryant: proud, aging star suffers a serious injury, decides that limping off to the training room isn’t how he’s going to go out, works like crazy to get back out there, determined to be as strong as ever, only to re-injure himself. You cringe a bit – part of you wants to gently tell him “dude, it’s over.” But of course he’s done so much over the years that you respect the fact that it’s his call.
Bryant and Jeter are bi-coastal icons, important ambassadors for their sports. Both have won multiple rings playing in major markets. When it comes to business, though, Kobe is the bigger asset. That’s just the nature of the NBA vs. Major League Baseball – individual stars draw the eyeballs and carry the load. That’s reflected in Bryant’s $34 million in annual endorsements, about four times what Jeter makes.
With the ability to load up on star power at several positions, the Yankees can still be the Yankees with a different shortstop. The Lakers aren’t the Lakers without Kobe, at least not until they re-set the plan and obtain a new franchise player. The Dwight Howard experiment didn’t work out. Pau Gasol, at 33, is a complimentary player. Steve Nash, currently out with a leg injury, turns 40 in February.
An important franchise to the league, the Lakers are now in a bit of a bind. They signed Kobe to a two-year $48.5 million contract last summer, hoping he could come close enough to his All-Star form for another couple of seasons to drive ratings and spearhead a playoff run or two. And maybe he’ll recover from this latest setback and do that. But Bryant sure looked every bit his 35 years during his recent six-game comeback, even if you chalk up some of his struggles to rust.
Today’s cable, satellite and web-bases sports world makes larger markets less important than they once were – these days Kevin Durant can be one the NBA’s most popular players from Oklahoma City. But market size still drives viewers for big events like the NBA Finals. Those championship round matchups featuring Kobe in L.A. or LeBron in Miami have greatly outdrawn teams like the Spurs, Cavaliers, and Nets over the past 11 years.
Meantime, Derrick Rose is out again in Chicago, and the Big Three era is over in Boston. The New York Knicks, after flirting with a brief revival last season, have reassured us that they’re back to being as dysfunctional as ever. So the league has no realistic title contenders in its top markets aside from the smaller brand Clippers in L.A. The NBA will endure, of course. But an Indiana-Portland final isn’t going to cut it. It would help a lot if the Lakers got themselves straightened out as quickly as possible, a task that becomes tougher when the star hangs around too long.