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Champing at the Bit

With O'Neal, Bryant and Jackson Forming an Uneven Triangle, It Has Been a Restless Season for Lakers


Well, nobody said it was going to be easy . . . or fun . . . or quiet.

For the Lakers, it was one of those unforgettable seasons when the big guys feuded, gossip spread like wildfire, the beat writers had to monitor "60 Minutes II" and "The Tonight Show" and Jay Leno asked Phil Jackson if he wanted to announce a trade for Kobe Bryant on the air.

Leno was kidding, but, showing what kind of season this was--it imitated comedy, not art--the media were soon asking about a trade in earnest, obliging Jackson to deny it.

It was also reported--seriously--that Jackson had been lured onto the rocks by the house siren, Jeanie Buss, and was too distracted to sit Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal down; that Jackson not only wanted Bryant out, but that the team was exploring trades (to Toronto for Vince Carter and Antonio Davis, Phoenix for Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, and Orlando for Tracy McGrady and Mike Miller); that Bryant would demand to be traded and, presumably on his way out of town, would sue Jackson for slander.

If these seemed more like throwaway lines from people venting, there was a lot of unrest behind the scenes, suggesting something new in this once-tranquil family-style organization.

The Laker franchise was dividing along the Shaq-Kobe fault.

"I definitely think it has put a strain on the organization," minority owner Magic Johnson said recently. "You never want an organization or a team to seem like it's divided, or guys jumping on sides and things like that.

"Our whole organization has been built on the fact that we've always taken care of our own. We've never aired our dirty laundry. We've taken care of it in-house.

"Because now it's more than Kobe and Shaq. It's much more than that. Now instead of focusing on basketball, we're focusing on issues outside of basketball. And I think that's taken a toll on the team, on the management. . . .

"We've been putting out so many fires, we've become firemen now, instead of being management."

It remains to be seen if the fires are out. Johnson insists, as General Manager Mitch Kupchak has all season, that Bryant won't be traded. Even if all the principals were to line up in favor, if Kobe asked out, Jackson wanted him out and Shaq agreed, Johnson says Kobe's staying.

"He's not going to get traded," says Johnson. "Just point blank. Enough said."

Beyond Bryant's importance to the team, which is considerable because he and O'Neal remain the game's top 1-2 punch, Kobe has huge marketing impact, embodying owner Jerry Buss' vision of Laker style. Kobe and Shaq have had a rocky season, but upper management has never had the slightest intention of splitting them up.

Nor does Bryant plan to ask out, despite weeks of speculation to that effect.

"There's no way," says his agent, Arn Tellem. "Kobe wants to be a Laker, remain a Laker and finish his career as a Laker."

As often as Jackson muses he's the wrong coach for this team, intimates say he won't walk away from one this good, not to mention $6 million per annum.

Nor is Shaq going back to Orlando. That was February's story, so long ago and so laughable, it almost seems like the good old days.

This is the Laker version of "Rocky" or "Star Trek." No matter how bad things look for Rocky and Adrian, Kirk and Spock or Phil, Shaq and Kobe, the smart money is always on the sequel.

The Golden Child Discovers Adulthood

In March, Lakerdom was ablaze with rumors: Jackson and Bryant were on the outs. Kobe wanted out.

Bryant was suffering one injury after another--to his shoulders, his ankles, and especially his feelings.

He had been all over the lot. He started the season with MVP ambitions flying in the breeze like banners. It took weeks to mellow him out, but by January, it had happened. He was playing the best ball of his life (Jackson agrees) and leading the NBA in scoring. Several opposing coaches called him the game's best all-around player.

"He's got a level of commitment to his game and to wanting to be the best that few guys have," Phoenix Sun Coach Scott Skiles said. "Nobody on our team has that commitment, that's for sure."

Bryant had talked to ESPN the Magazine's Ric Bucher about leaving. Now, however, as the publication date neared, Kobe not only recanted, he warned his teammates about the piece, trying to minimize its impact.

Nevertheless, Shaq, then clanging free throws and only starting to get in shape, got upset and stayed upset, zinging Bryant in the press all January.

By February, Bryant had taken a lot. Even as he heard stories of O'Neal trying to get him traded for Kidd, he acted as if nothing was wrong. At the All-Star game, Kobe sat next to Shaq on the bench, laughing it up. West teammate Antonio McDyess said that Shaq-Kobe stuff must be wrong.

But Bryant wasn't as healthy by then, or as happy, or playing as unselfishly.

With O'Neal back from his own injury and still zinging away, Bryant and Jackson had several sharp exchanges on the post-All-Star trip, in Philadelphia after a loss, in Charlotte on a day off and on the bench the next night.

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