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J.A. Adande

Laker Veterans Are Well-Trained for This

October 05, 2003|J.A. Adande

HONOLULU — The superstar, in the midst of a bubbling controversy, was a late arrival to training camp.

Power forward Horace Grant, who was there right on time, fired away.

"I'm upset," he said. "If me or any of the other guys missed, we'd have caught flak from the organization. There's been a double standard since I got on this team and you can only take so much of it.... Phil [Jackson] knows and [the general manager] knows and they have to take it on themselves to talk to him."

Later, he added: "We didn't win the championship as one player. We came together as a team, but if one guy wants to isolate himself like that, we're not going to win a championship.

"There are other guys who feel the same way, but I'm the only one with the courage to come forward. But if it continues, there will be other guys to step forward."

That was 1991. Grant was a Chicago Bull, and he was angry that Michael Jordan skipped the team's visit to see the first President Bush at the White House -- a no-show that prompted widespread speculation about any potential political motives for Jordan; it turned out that he was playing golf with his buddies in North Carolina.

Grant showed up promptly for the media day, and while a news-gathering horde numbering almost 100 waited an hour and a half for Jordan to arrive, a frustrated Grant dumped a fresh bag of briquettes onto the grill.

"I was young back then," Grant said Saturday. Now, "I'm a seasoned vet and understand if you let things be a distraction, they're going to be a distraction."

Grant did not think it was fair to draw comparisons between the Jordan episode in 1991 and the current ordeal involving Kobe Bryant, whose felony sexual assault charge in Colorado this summer has brought increased scrutiny to Bryant and the team.

While no team has ever faced the combination of legal uncertainty and high expectations that hang above the Lakers this season, Grant's personal history does illustrate why this team is as prepared as any could possibly be.

Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Devean George and Slava Medvedenko have won multiple championships with the Lakers and have been through the accompanying strain and media crush. Grant, back with the Lakers two years after he joined them for their 2001 ring run, also played for Jackson on the first three championship teams in Chicago. Newcomers Karl Malone and Gary Payton have played in the NBA Finals and the Olympics. They've been through coaching changes, controversies, even survived close encounters with Dennis Rodman.

"It's another reason why [Jackson] brought these veterans in," Grant said. "It really doesn't faze us. It truly doesn't."

Just think of their careers as training camp for this training camp, which has brought three to four times the usual number of reporters to Hawaii to extract every possible sound bite from Bryant and the Lakers.

"We're used to dealing with it," Fisher said. "Whether it's scrutiny, or whether it's questions or whether people want to know different things, I think we're all used to that."

So none of the players snapped at reporters or slammed a boom mike to the floor during the first two full days of camp, despite wave after wave of the same Kobe-related questions. We'll be keeping an eye on every aspect of the squad's sanity during this trying season, which already frazzled the Laker brass when Bryant claimed he was "under the weather" and missed the travel day and first full workout.

But none of the players called out Bryant for his absence, even though they were the ones going through double practices at the University of Hawaii.

When he finally did show up, Fox's first reaction was to give him a hug.

"Wow, you're here finally," Fox said.

"It's great to see Kobe here," Grant said. "We missed him the first day or two, but he's here now and he's a part of the team."

It helps that it's a team of veterans, that there are people he can turn to and ask for advice, people with whom he can feel comfortable.

Jackson noted that on Bryant's first day of practice there was "a lot of camaraderie out there."

When the doors to Gym 2 on the Hawaii campus first opened Saturday, Bryant was standing next to the recently retired Brian Shaw on the sideline. Bryant was smiling, as most people do when they're around Shaw, who was always a voice of understanding during his four years on the team.

Even Shaw likes to joke about the nebulous nature of the position that was created for him in the front office, but if he can make Bryant's life a little easier during this time, that alone will be worth his salary.

Among the windows into Bryant's life that opened this summer, it was often observed that his teammates never knew him that well. But those who have been around do understand him enough to recognize that he goes about things his own way.

"Everything he says or does or any type of behavior that he has, I don't think any of us will judge it, because we aren't in his situation," Fisher said.

But, Fisher added, "Whatever he wants to do, he'll be able to come to us."

It's a little easier for the players to be tolerant of the media and understanding of the unique pressures tugging on Bryant during these days, when they can spend their off time staring out of their hotel rooms at the sands of Waikiki Beach. We'll see how they hold up during a midwinter trip through the Midwest with a losing streak on their shoulders.

That's the thing about this season ... we just don't know. The best the Lakers can do is look at the track record, and the lengthy list of accomplishments of this veteran group has to provide some comfort.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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