It’s April 23, 2016. Kobe Bryant watches the clock hit zero. His professional basketball career is over, and he knows his career will in part be defined by his loyalty. For 20 years, Bryant was a Los Angeles Laker. It wasn’t a perfect relationship, but it’s one he managed to see through to the end.
Because not once, but twice, Bryant made serious moves towards joining another one-time NBA dynasty.
How Kobe Bryant nearly joined the Chicago Bulls in 2004
Contemporaneously, Lakers fans of the Kobe era didn’t hear rumblings of Bryant joining the Chicago Bulls until 2007. In a 2018 sit-down with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant admitted his first major push to help re-ignite Chicago actually went down in 2004.
It was no secret that Bryant and Shaq didn’t get along during their LA years. Bryant, who entered the league at just 17 years old, bristled at the constant press and fan chatter that he couldn’t lead a team without Shaq.
After a shocking loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, Bryant had enough. He and his wife Vanessa began looking at homes in Lake Forest, IL. The plans fell apart when the Lakers caught wind of the deal, giving them more reason to make a move with the equally unhappy Shaq instead.
Shaq went to the Miami Heat. Bryant felt it would be too much for the organization and fans if both stars left in a single offseason. So he stayed. Until 2007, that is.
Why Kobe tried to leave the Lakers in 2007
The Shaq-free version of the Lakers couldn’t get an NBA Finals win for three straight seasons. Bryant’s frustrations boiled over once more. He tapped back into the lines of communication he surreptitiously opened in 2004; the NBA star and Vanessa began talking Chicago again.
This time, Bryant went public. His press contacts set off the rumor mill, while the shooting guard/small forward personally advised fans to mentally prepare for picking up Bulls uniforms with his name on them.
It went as far as formal trade talks. The deal was nearly closed, but for Bryant’s own objections. He wanted to land with a version of the Bulls he could lead to the Finals. In particular, Bryant wanted Bulls forward Luol Deng to stay on the team. The Lakers, however, couldn’t agree on a version of the deal that didn’t send Deng to LA.
The deal died there. Bryant switched strategies, pushing his own team to make moves to shore up their finals chances while keeping him around. Pau Gasol headed to the Golden State Warriors in a blockbuster deal. The pairing finally got Bryant two Shaq-less championship wins.
How Bryant’s Lakers loyalty compares with the league today
Bryant’s 20 years in the NBA was an anomaly even in his era. Most players, including some of the greatest of all time, serve as bargaining chips in both the early and waning days of their careers. (See: Bryant’s teammate Shaq, who played for six different teams in his storied career.)
Bryant’s arc has all the makings of a multi-team player. He joined the NBA at 17, well before anyone could predict what type of player he’d be long-term. An Achilles injury slowed him down slightly in the middle portion of his career. He was often temperamental, especially when finals showings didn’t go as planned or didn’t come at all.
It took loyalty on the part of Bryant — like in 2004 when he couldn’t bring himself to leave fans without their two best players — and dumb luck to keep him on just one team for 20 years. And it’s unlikely he’d make the same moves today — when even stars who vocally adore their teams are subject to heavy trade pressure.
In an era where NBA players go from winning rings one season to jumping ship the next, Bryant’s career stands apart. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Twice.