YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Their Day on Court

As camps open, Bryant case threatens to obscure Laker, and NBA, seasons

September 28, 2003|Mark Heisler

And so whatever it is to be begins.

For the Lakers, it was so recently the best of times. Now for one of them, it's the worst of times, and for everyone else, the weirdest of times as NBA camps open this week.

This is usually the happiest time of year, filled with optimistic projections, however delusional some may be. The New York Knicks will say they're contenders. The Portland Trail Blazers will say they've reformed. Clipper players who signed offer sheets with other teams and were reeled back in will say they're happy to be back.

Not that there could be any confusion about the actual balance of power, which still has the Lakers on one hand and everyone else on the other.

Recent NBA seasons have been all about Laker triumphs and soap operas. The only thing worse than their domination was not having them around after last spring's pratfall, with Finals TV ratings, which had fallen 40% since the halcyon 1990s, dropping 40% for the San Antonio-New Jersey series.

So it was to be again, only more so. Fear and loathing hit new heights as Karl Malone and Gary Payton signed up to form -- on paper -- the greatest starting lineup in the game's history.

"You always try to keep up with the Joneses and try to win in this league," said New Jersey assistant coach Lawrence Frank, "but it's hard to keep up with that."

That, however, was before Kobe Bryant's arrest on a sexual assault charge, which added something new and dire to the mix. No one is sure how things will play out, except that whatever happens, it'll be big.

Normally, a small local press corps accompanies the Lakers to Hawaii, with national outlets picking them up when they return to the mainland, saving the cost of a tropical boondoggle with the baseball playoffs and the NFL and college football crowding everything else out, anyway.

This season, a press corps approaching 100 is en route to Honolulu, including crews from CNN, Fox Sports, NBC News and the syndicated shows "Extra" and "Inside Edition."

They're the ones the Lakers know about. Yet to surface are such wild cards as "Celebrity Justice" and the National Enquirer, whose woman in Eagle, Colo., was tape-recorded offering $12,500 for the story of one of the complainant's girlfriends.

Laker press policy, formulated with league officials, is not to credential the nontraditional outlets, such as supermarket tabloids. Of course, with so many other news organizations suing for access, more legal action is possible.

Bryant says he intends to speak as he normally would -- probably starting when the veterans report Friday -- but won't discuss his case or personal issues. The team says Coach Phil Jackson and the players will follow the same guidelines.

This represents the Lakers' desire to protect Bryant and themselves. Whether that, or anything, works, of course, is the question.

Jackson is familiar with problems like these, having managed to keep everyone chilled out amid the chaos in Chicago when Michael Jordan was like one of the Beatles and Dennis Rodman put on wedding dresses. Of course, not even the What, Me Worry? Kid ever faced a distraction of this magnitude.

Jackson likes to quote

Rudyard Kipling -- "The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack" -- to suggest the team's role in nurturing its members, even men as peculiar as Jordan and Rodman.

"Kobe's always been that lobo," Jackson says. "He's come in and been part of this team at various times during the course of his career, but it's never been entirely. Now, it's [going to be] kind of like an identification, as to how much he's going to rely on his team at this point."

This year, the psychodrama comes first. How is this situation affecting Bryant's life, his head and, oh yes, his game and their season?

Sports coverage is the original reality programming. It's dramatic, seems important and, unlike the news, which is about life as opposed to games, there are no serious consequences for losing, such as getting locked up.

This is the season when the NBA crosses over, with more reality than anyone bargained for.


Officially, at least, the story won't overshadow this season.

"I think our fans understand that allegations get made and trials get held," Commissioner David Stern said a few days ago in his Manhattan office. "I don't think they will have a significant impact on the season.

"Obviously, it would be better if the allegations hadn't been made and the court appearances and trials weren't scheduled. I can't say it focuses people on basketball in a constructive way, but I think the overwhelming activity of the summer is the focus on Cleveland and LeBron James, on qualifying for the Olympics, on Denver and its turnaround, on the signings the Lakers have done. There's very much a basketball buzz that's still about."

Los Angeles Times Articles