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Bill Plaschke

Absence Makes Their Hearts Grow Harder

October 04, 2003|Bill Plaschke

HONOLULU — The Laker family gathered around the table for the first time Friday, and even minus their wayward son, everyone was purring.

Shaquille O'Neal was asked, what do you think about Kobe Bryant's absence?

"CAT," he said.

What?

"CAT," he said. "Can't Answer That."

Oh, so now you're The Big Acronym?

"Meow, meow, meow," he said.

And on it went, the shrugging and winking and sighing, from center to coach, the issuing of a subtle but resounding message.

It would be great if Bryant rejoins the team today with his old focus and determination.

But if he is going to return weakened and distracted and prone to unexplained absences -- however understandable -- then he should just stay home.

"We will be fine, whether we have four Hall of Famers or three Hall of Famers," said O'Neal.

Already it is clear that some of the Lakers feel they will be better off without Bryant, period.

If Bryant doesn't make up his mind quickly, it could become unanimous.

O'Neal was asked, what's it like not to have your full team here?

"I can't answer that, because the full team is here," he said.

On the other side of the University of Hawaii gym, around a laughing Gary Payton and a preaching Karl Malone and a recovering Rick Fox, Coach Phil Jackson was putting it only slightly differently.

"All these people want to be here," he said.

If any of this sounds cold, one must understand how Bryant's problems have commandeered the Laker thermostat.

After a disappointing end to their championship run this spring, they rebuilt not with wood and nails, but diamonds and gold. They added Payton and Malone and hoped that this current team could win at least one more championship before Jackson and O'Neal retired.

The only thing that could stop them, they felt, was something stupid.

Then Bryant did something that, at the very least, was stupid.

The loner who had finally bought into the team concept had walked away again. The insider had once again become an outsider. Phil Jackson's pack culture is once again at risk from the lone wolf, not with his wild three-pointers, but with his court dates and affidavits.

Then, just months after enduring a playoff run with a torn shoulder, Bryant calls in sick to a team meeting and doesn't explain why?

"We cannot even kid ourselves into imagining what it is like to be in his shoes," said Derek Fisher. "Every decision he makes is life or death, and we cannot be in a position to judge any of it."

But ...

"But when he decides to become part of this team, he will be held accountable to the team," Fisher said.

In other words, he should not show up today unless he is prepared to place the needs of the team ahead of the distractions and pressures of being the most scrutinized athlete in the country.

It is the only demand the Lakers can make of someone they understand so little, in a situation they cannot fully grasp.

"We have no guarantees," said Jackson, and isn't that the truth?

Ten minutes into Friday's season-opening interview session, some of the Lakers were already tired of talking about it.

"We're going to support him however we can, what else are we going to do?" said Malone. "That's the end of those questions for me. You can ask anything about basketball, or else I'm done."

For others, confusion still reigned.

"Here's how it is," said Horace Grant. "Phil don't know what's going on, so you think we know what's going on?"

In one corner, O'Neal was showing off three new arm tattoos, reading, "Diesel," "Big," and "Public Enemy No. 1."

"My mother let me get them," he said with a grin.

But in the other corner, there were murmurs about reports that Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, in his prosecution of Bryant on sexual assault charges, had enlisted the help of a strangulation expert.

Strangulation expert?

"We've never been through anything like this before," said Fisher.

If this first day is a precursor to the season, Laker fans will be living moment to moment, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

It was strange seeing Malone shooting free throws -- the same shots you used to scream at him to miss! -- in a Laker jersey.

But it was just as strange not to see Bryant shooting them.

"I'm not looking at this team and thinking, 'What have I done?' " said Malone, whose mother died this summer. "In my life, I've been in a lot of tough situations, and compared to those, this is not one of them."

It was weird to see Payton, in a Laker jersey, driving the baseline and throwing up the same sort of soft shots that you used to pray would rim out.

But it was just as weird that Bryant wasn't playfully guarding him.

"It's OK," said O'Neal. "I've always been the big dog around here. Now I have two more dogs. We'll be fine."

Cats? Dogs? The Laker sky has opened and the rain has just begun.

*

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

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