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Lakers Hope to Burst the Trial Balloon

Teammates offer unconditional support for Bryant as they prepare for a season sure to be clouded by the sexual assault charge facing the All-Star guard.

September 30, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

To the other Lakers, Kobe Bryant is simply a ballplayer, their teammate.

To most, he will be the man and the player he was when they saw him last, trudging sadly from the floor at Staples Center, and what he is this week, when he returns, in a gym near downtown Honolulu.

The Lakers who would address it said that Bryant should play the season, despite the felony sexual assault charge that hangs over him and the organization, that they would stand with him and play with him, for him even, if that were his preference that day. They say that if he's changed his mind, if he needs someone to hold his head and soothe his soul, they'll do that too.

"People who are accused go to work," Horace Grant said. "I think he should play. Innocent until proven guilty, that's what it's all about."

The Lakers open training camp for their younger players today at the University of Hawaii. Bryant and the rest of the veterans report Thursday.

He faces a rape accusation in Colorado, a preliminary hearing on Oct. 9, perhaps a quite public trial. Those would be distractions enough for anyone, but he also had two off-season surgeries and will be eligible for free agency after this season.

So the other Lakers face these questions too, and share the turmoil, the distractions and, of course, the potential to have one of the great -- if conflicted -- seasons in NBA history.

They say they'll face it willingly, beside him, first as friends and then, if required, as defenders. After an off-season of projecting what it would be, it is here, Bryant of the agonizing summer, the Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal alongside newcomers Karl Malone and Gary Payton, all of them in it together, like it or not.

"I think he should play," Malone said. "Matter of fact, I think it would be the best thing for him. When a guy's going through tough times, instead of raking dirt off, everybody wants to kick some more on. That's human nature. That's what people are about. For me, knock a little off for me."

Malone, who knows Bryant only as an opponent and an All-Star game teammate, paused and considered the question again, then increased the volume and conviction in a reply to those who might disagree.

"Do I think he should play?" Malone asked. "Let me tell you something, most of these guys talking now are not playing no more. Everybody wants to say what they think the public wants to hear. How about supporting the guy? Everybody convicted him. Kobe's a teammate of mine. Do I think he should play? I think it's the best thing for him. You can't be in jail in your own house. At some point, you gotta play. That's your life. That's your profession. That's not even an option, whether he should play or not."

Only in the last few weeks has Bryant, guarded and suspicious even in uncomplicated times, begun to reestablish his Laker relationships, such as they are. He spoke to Coach Phil Jackson. He returned calls to teammates. He visited the Laker practice facility in El Segundo. It amounted to normality, such as it is, or will be.

Bryant told Jackson a month ago, and General Manager Mitch Kupchak two weeks ago, that he would attend training camp and that he intended to play the entire season. Speculation has Bryant's lawyers hoping for a trial date in the downtime between the NBA playoffs and the Olympics, should a trial be ordered. In that scenario, Bryant might play a season unbroken by court appearances, if not by the emotional ebb and flow of living and working under such circumstances.

Several teammates said that if Bryant chose to play, then they would insist on it.

"That's his decision and I haven't heard anything differently," Rick Fox said. "Kobe is one of the game's most electrifying players to watch. I hope that in no way ... is squashed. His life off the court is changed. His life on the basketball court will be challenged and affected by the pressure of his off-court situation. I hope he can lose himself in it. I hope I can watch a teammate I've watched grow up still go out and be able to lose himself in the game, because in no way is he going to be less skilled.

"If I know him, he'll be more challenged to go out and meet what is in front of him. That could end up being a very exciting thing to watch and a very proud moment as a teammate."

Bryant's teammates have little choice but to play on, what with so much at stake. Presumably, they harbor the questions everyone does, but won't ask. Presumably, Bryant won't offer much, and certainly not in public.

Yet as they brace for the unprecedented spectacle the season could be, Fox said, there seems to be little that fame -- or notoriety -- could teach them now. They remain the drama-a-day Lakers, having survived all of the previous days to win three championships, hardened by conflicts and resolutions. Now that they are rebuilt for a fourth, with more bold games and personalities than ever, in some ways the task seems similar.

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