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Bill Plaschke

Already an Ill Wind Blowing in Laker Camp

October 03, 2003|Bill Plaschke

HONOLULU — Talk about a lousy entry pass.

On the day his legal team suffered two important losses in Colorado, Kobe Bryant called in sick to the Lakers' first team meeting.

Inside the tense and overheated University of Hawaii gym, the two events seemed as coincidental as the thick beads of sweat dripping off Phil Jackson's nose.

The Lakers said Bryant should be flying here from Southern California today. They hope.

They said he should be practicing with his teammates for the first time Saturday. They hope.

But from the worried look on Mitch Kupchak's face to the grimace worn by Jackson, they don't know, and we don't know, and doesn't it figure?

On the eve of the start of what is expected to be the most tumultuous season in Laker history, already the leading scorer is chaos.

"It looks as if it's going to be that kind of year," Kupchak said with a sigh.

It would not surprise anyone if Bryant walked on to the court Saturday as promised, smiling and wondering why the giant fuss over a little cold.

But it also would not surprise anyone if he did not show up again until next year, announcing that he is forgoing the current season to engage in the legal battle for his life.

In the first scenario, he would be standing up for his right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, a noble and important gesture.

In the second scenario, he would be stepping aside to protect the sanity of himself and his family and his teammates, an equally admirable gesture.

Before Thursday, the Lakers had yet to even acknowledge that second scenario, as Bryant promised he would be there.

But suddenly, it sounds as if Jackson is preparing himself for anything.

"At this point, I think Kobe has to think about himself before the team," the coach

said.

He later added this cryptic message to his star: "Come back, join us when you're ready, and we're ready to go on with you. Or without you."

Or without you?

Before Thursday, it seemed apparent that Bryant was willing to become the most prominent athlete to ever play a season with a rape charge and life imprisonment hanging over his head. Even as some teammates grumbled about the distractions, Bryant assured officials that he could handle the constant media scrutiny and opposing fan harassment.

But Thursday, a judge in Colorado said Bryant's lawyers would not be allowed to interrogate his alleged victim in a preliminary hearing on his rape charge. That means the hearing is now a formality, and that Bryant probably cannot avoid a full trial.

Also Thursday, a judge ruled that the media would be allowed in the preliminary hearing, which means reporters probably will be in court for the trial, beaming Bryant's private life to the world.

It was two strikes against the defense, at which point Bryant declared he was out of his first and most symbolic practice of the season.

While remaining out of touch.

Jackson phoned him, but he wouldn't take the call. Kupchak phoned him, but he wouldn't pick up. The Lakers learned of his absence through a phone call from his agent.

Thus his team, with two important new players, climbed aboard their charter jet without him. And Thursday's first team meeting, in which Jackson traditionally begins to spread his togetherness wisdom, was held without him.

At the beginning of a season where he will need his teammates more than ever, he once again isolates himself.

And while we can only guess whether the players will show up today angry over another case of perceived abandonment, the coach is clearly miffed.

"No one is bigger than the team or the game," Jackson said. "That's the way it is."

With their two new toys, the Lakers undoubtedly figure they can win with or without Bryant.

But they cannot win if he comes and goes at the drop of a judge's ruling.

And, with already nearly 100 media members already prodding them with cameras and tape recorders, they're also getting a little cynical about it.

"I wasn't told he was sick, I was told he was under the weather," Jackson said. "Now is that the marine layer fog that's in L.A. that's been plaguing us for two weeks? Yes, I think that's probably under the weather, for me at least."

At least one young teammate wondered whether the illness wouldn't be related to stress.

"I'm stressed out all the time in this game, I can't imagine what's happening to him," said Kareem Rush, who is as close as anyone to Bryant. "I know the stress has to be affecting him."

At this point, it's affecting everyone, a potentially championship team growing angry at a problem it did not cause, and bewildered by a prodigy it no longer understands.

"We just have to be real fluid ... and not get our hopes up one way or the other," Jackson said.

But at this point, what exactly are those hopes? Is Jackson hoping Bryant plays, or doesn't?

Funny, but he never really said.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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