This week, one of the most successful and lucrative teams in all of sports was forced to face the reality of a future without the face of the franchise.
No, not the New York Yankees, whose shortstop, Derek Jeter, announced he was retiring at the end of this season. I'm talking about the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant.
For the first time since the 1996-97 season, no Laker will play in the National Basketball Association's All-Star Game, after today's announcement that Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden will start Sunday in place of the injured Bryant. The Lakers star, who has been an All-Star every year since 1997-98, injured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee in December and has had to confront the idea of his basketball mortality more than ever this season.
Like the Yankees and Jeter, it's hard to imagine the Lakers without Bryant. It's especially tough for a fan base spoiled by multiple championships and nearly annual playoff appearances thanks in large part to its purple-and-golden boy. This year has given a grim glimpse at the future: At 18-35, the team will probably miss the postseason for the first time in a decade, the names on the court are nearly unrecognizable, and the television audience, the bread-and-butter of the franchise's revenue stream, wants nothing to do with it on the national level.
The 35-year-old Bryant has already begun to contemplate his retirement, but it remains to be seen how his team can forge a contingency plan to replace No. 24. The Lakers, like the Yankees, have never been shy about spending big bucks to fill out their roster, but the biggest questions lie off the court. Akin to the Bronx Bombers, the Lakers are a team built on their own history, from West and Baylor to Wilt, Kareem and Magic to Shaq and Kobe, and to now just Kobe sitting top the mountain.
Of course, there will never be another Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter, but the Lakers and Yankees have proved time and again their capacity to turn the greats into legends.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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