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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Bryant Finds Rare Moment of Refuge on the Biggest Stage

November 20, 2003|Mark Heisler

NEW YORK — "Everybody has their drama. Everybody has something they go through in this room at different levels. Everybody reaches a breaking point. And I've been there."

-- Kobe Bryant, before Wednesday's game

*

NEW YORK -- And so the Greatest Show in Basketball came to the Game's Greatest Stage to answer the burning question:

They can't lose to these guys, can they?

Yes, it was the Lakers, the mightiest colossus the game has ever known (on paper), who arrived at Madison Square Garden on a devastating one-game losing streak Wednesday night to play the bedraggled home team.

Happily for the Lakers, the Knicks went quietly, 104-83. After the loss in Detroit, on the back half of their two-game, two-night Eastern trip with their venerable lineup, the Lakers didn't need too much excitement.

Nevertheless, there's a reason they say that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

A pregame interview of Rick Fox in the Laker locker room almost turned into a media melee as a cameraman turned on talent in the pack, resulting in yells of "Get out of my shot!" and "Get out of my face!" and "You dogged me!"

Shortly thereafter, Kobe Bryant was asked about playing in hostile conditions.

"I heard it was pretty hostile in here about five minutes ago," he said, to laughs.

The laughs have been few and far between lately. Basketball was supposed to be Bryant's refuge but it's been a thorny sanctuary, with its own controversies.

In Detroit, everyone went back on alert when Bryant didn't talk after the game, which is rare for him, and teammates were more subdued than circumstances seemed to call for.

It turned out that Coach Phil Jackson had just blasted them, which explained the static electricity in the air.

Feelings were still tender after Bryant told ESPN the Magazine's Tom Friend in a story that ran last week that it shouldn't be hard for teammates to answer a few questions about him and repeated he might opt out of his contract in the summer.

Wednesday, however, Bryant made it a point to soften his remarks.

"You know what," he said, "the organization [has] been very supportive, as far as making sure everything runs smoothly. The players, even though they don't have to show support, they have.

"They've all just rallied around me, from throwing cameras out of the way to making sure everything goes as smoothly as possible with me and fans and media, whatever.

"And I really appreciate that. That's something they don't have to do."

The game was another clinic in attempted reconciliation, with Bryant looking for Shaquille O'Neal in particular, hitting him in the first quarter with a spectacular pass off a 180-degree spin for a dunk, and again in the third quarter, with a back-over-his-head pass for another dunk.

Unlike the Detroit crowd, which booed Bryant steadily, the Garden was louder, mixed and, to Bryant's ears, "the best reception [on the road] I've gotten this season....

"I didn't really know what to expect. It's always been one of my favorite places to play, and I just appreciate all the support I have here."

As far as the game went, this looked like a mismatch and was, even if the Lakers toyed with the Knicks for a half, producing a 51-49 lead after second-year guard Frank Williams scored 12 points in the second quarter, which was not only a career high, but one more point than he had scored all season.

However, the Knicks were without Keith Van Horn, their No. 2 scorer, and their No. 1 guy, Allan Houston, had a bad back and was held to 10 points.

As you may have heard, the Knicks aren't that formidable at full strength.

Before the game, Coach Don Chaney named the 6-foot-5 Shandon Anderson to start in the 6-10 Van Horn's place.

And who would back him up? "Problem," said Chaney.

In exemplary fashion, the Lakers pounded the ball inside and shot 47 free throws to the Knicks' six.

On the other hand, it's just a basketball problem, even if it does look insuperable. Bryant's life is more complex.

Someone asked what he would tell a young star coming into the league.

"Be yourself," he said. ""Nobody's perfect. Everybody's going to make mistakes. Nobody's perfect so don't expect yourself to be. If people expect you to be perfect, they're terribly wrong. They're terribly mistaken, themselves."

As he also noted, he has good days and bad days. A month ago, he said they were all bad days, so this was progress.

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