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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Life Gets a Little Too Real for Kobe and the Lakers

October 28, 2003|Mark Heisler

Before their season from hell came their preseason from hell.

Not even Coach Phil Jackson, who'd warned his team what was coming, expected a circus like this, as proceedings in Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case dragged into their fourth week without a trial date, and the strung-out Laker organization barred members of the media on media day, then lifted the credential of another for asking the wrong question.

Like everyone else, Jackson had come to rely on the old Bulletproof Kobe, but this wasn't that prodigy anymore, emerging from a summer of seclusion.

Meanwhile, lest anyone forget Shaquille O'Neal, he had issues too, starting with management's refusal to extend his contract, which runs three more seasons at an average of $29.3 million.

This turned out to be a misunderstanding. After O'Neal stalked out of an exhibition in Hawaii bellowing "Pay me," the Lakers said they were willing, but at something like $50 million for two seasons, rather than the $68-million maximum. Shaq then announced his willingness to "sacrifice."

Of course, as soon as that was cleared up, O'Neal suggested his displeasure with the usual suspects: Jackson, who was challenging him through the media, and Bryant, whose mere presence now complicates Shaq's life.

Jackson laughed it off, but he's an old hand at this and has nothing more to worry about than the imminent season.

Bryant, on the other hand, has bigger problems than O'Neal, and is holding himself together with baling wire.

So it wasn't that considerate of Shaq to declare, "The full team is here," when Bryant reported late, or to say he was resting his sore heel because "I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl [Malone] and Gary [Payton]."

Nor was it the optimal time to help Bryant with his shot selection, especially since their problems have as much to do with Shaq's defense as Kobe's shooting.

Bryant once ignored O'Neal as a duck ignores dew, but that was then and this is now. In private, Kobe fumed about Shaq's comments, vowing to opt out of his contract and leave, and finally fired back as he never had -- "He can worry about the low post."

Then O'Neal said what was on his mind as he never had -- "If it's going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he can opt out" -- and the Lakers were in disarray.

Not that this continuation of their long-running soap opera was anything more than a sideshow.

More than their season is at stake, even if it's hard to tell the real life, in which there are real consequences, from the entertainment, which is essentially frivolous, concerned with games, J. Lo and Ben, et al.

News and entertainment are now juxtaposed daily, as when Bryant flies home from another somber court appearance for media day because, "It's my job," dons his No. 8 uniform, affixes his trademark grin and tapes promos, reading sound bites off cue cards such as, "Paul and Stu, back to you."

If a rape trial, which changes the lives of two people and all who love them, is more important in fact, it is barely so in practice.

Celebrity justice is, indeed, sensationalized, as Jackson noted while trying, single-handedly, to redirect the media to something of more consequence, like Iraq. However, sports coverage is really sensationalized, which is why people care so much about Bryant and Jackson makes $6 million a year.

Of course, today's viewing public likes "real" entertainment, so this is perfect.

Even Jackson, who endeavors to maintain principles and a life outside basketball, is obliged to view Bryant through the Laker paradigm: What does this mean for us?

When Bryant showed up late after a day in which he wouldn't even take or return the Lakers' calls, Jackson mused about asking Michael Jordan to come out of retirement, which was the NBA equivalent of an Elvis sighting.

Having been to enough circuses of his own, Jordan immediately shot that down. Meanwhile, the media were calling around to check out reports that Bryant had fired his agent, Rob Pelinka, and that Magic Johnson was in a hospital, dying.

Pelinka was still on the job, reports of Johnson's death were greatly exaggerated and Bryant hadn't even landed in Hawaii yet.

So if it got even crazier after that, it shouldn't have come as a surprise.

The Way It Was

and Is No More

We were talking about this the other night, watching Derek Jeter get three hits. This is what Kobe's life should have turned out to be. Jeter's lovable. He comes through in the clutch. Nobody doesn't like Derek Jeter.

-- a Philadelphia friend of Bryant

It wasn't just Bryant's dizzying ascent. It wasn't over. He wasn't stopping.

Once he seemed to have it all. He was not only gifted and dedicated to the point of obsession, but bright, cute and personable. Raised religiously -- when he ventured into hip-hop, it was Christian rap -- he wanted to do everything the right way. If he'd been a little king in his family as youngest child and first son, he was also respectful and well-mannered, one of the Lakers who would say hello if you passed him in the hall.

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