Oh, it's on now, brothers and sisters. David Stern escalated the stakes of this weekend's NBA lockout talks by vaguely threatening to cancel the whole season if a deal isn't reached. The players' union and as many as 15 team owners (plus all the leadership from each side) will meet Friday in New York, and talks could bleed into the weekend. Stern is ready to make a deal, and he's willing to flex his muscles to make sure everyone knows it.
If there's one personality on the union side that can match Stern chest tap for chest tap, icy glare for icy glare, it's Kobe Bryant. And look what Kobe just did: he reportedly agreed to a deal with Virtus Bologna of Italy, where he'd play should the lockout extend into the season. The news of that deal broke early Friday ... just before players and owners convened. The dude's in Italy and he still delivered the lockout talks' first cannonball.
Of course, skepticism and cynicism were the first responses to Kobe's news: DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony, who has tentacles throughout Europe, even cited a source who immediately said the "imminent" nature of Kobe's Virtus deal was meant directly as a pump-fake toward owners.
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This is kind of a "oh, duh" reaction to the news. But then remember who we're dealing with. This is Kobe Bryant. If the pump-fake doesn't work, f--k it. He does not care. He will take that shot anyways. You know he will. Dare him to. Tell him he won't take it. Tell him he won't make it.
I don't have a love-hate relationship with Kobe. I have a hate-hate relationship with him. I'm a Sacramento Kings fan, and this is the only way that it can be. He has personally taken parts of my soul, and those are irretrievable, and I am a worse person for it. I hate Kobe. But I respect the hell out of him, and I know what he is. And he is ruthless. David Stern came out like Tupac on Wednesday, daring the union to test him. I mean, "enormous consequences" is a pretty straightforward set of words. And there's only player who could have an sort of impact in blasting back, and it's Kobe.
This isn't to say the play will work. Just one of the 29 team owners is going to get itchy about Kobe playing in Italy -- Jerry Buss -- and he was almost assuredly itchy to get the season started before the Bologna news. The league doesn't want one of its marquee stars making other basketball leagues rich, but it's not going to give up potential revenue gains to prevent it. In the long run, Stern has an infinitely larger hold over these proceedings than does any player or all players -- it's just the nature of the beast. Stern decides when to cancel games. Stern decides whether to keep negotiating or to just wait for the union to crumble. Stern decides whether to concede on certain negotiation points or to hold steady. Stern is the advancing general, the union's playing defense, and Kobe is miles from the front lines.
But as is always the case, Kobe's going to be heard. As reporters, players and owners descend on New York, the buzz will be about Kobe. The owners will imagine Kobe in a Virtus jersey. The players will imagine their own overseas deals. The reporters will chase leads about the league's international superstar. This is just what Kobe wants, whether his deal is real or Bologna, whether his ploy is effective or hopeless. He's at the center of attention, right where he wants to be.
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