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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Could New Kidd Help Our Problem Children?

December 19, 2004|Mark Heisler

Somehow, I don't think this was the kind of show Jerry Buss had in mind when he said the Lakers were going back to Showtime.

I know I've said this before, but there never was a week like this past one in Lakerdom. It was even worse than when Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant traded shots until Phil Jackson, who would have preferred to let them fight to the death, had to tell them to shut up, and Kobe went home and announced through Jim Gray that Shaq was a fat, unsupportive malingerer.

Don't those seem like the good old days now?

One moment, Karl Malone, a future Hall of Famer, was talking to the Lakers about coming back. The next, everybody was hitting on, defending and/or calling up their wives and Malone was talking to the San Antonio Spurs about coming back. So, how do you like the new Lakers so far? They may not be as good as the old ones, but off the floor they're just as much fun!

These are the only Lakers you've got, so you -- and they -- had better get used to it. Indeed, by week's end, Bryant was trying to do the right thing. The man who'd refused to do a one-on-one interview all season went on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" and its NBA studio show, apologized to O'Neal and acknowledged he'd made mistakes.

Bryant even admitted that trying to carry his own team was "much harder than I thought."

Gee, who could have imagined that?

Oh, yeah, everybody. Two months into the new deal, the central figure just figured out what everyone else knew all along.

Bryant is actually a stand-up guy when he realizes he's wrong. The problem is that it takes so long and he has to learn everything the hardest possible way.

His plummet is now such a given, he's asked about it in every interview. He may as well change his name to Kobe Bean I Fell From Grace Bryant.

It's always good to be a stand-up guy. It's how the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, everyone's favorite linebacker, rehabilitated himself after actually standing trial for his involvement in a murder case.

On the other hand, it's not fun. Bryant's media blitz was, in the words of the Raiders' great Lester Hayes, like running a gantlet of pit bulls wearing pork chop underwear.

Not only was Kobe obliged to answer questions about his wife and Malone but about dropping O'Neal's name to the police, running off Shaq and Phil and, of course, his fall from grace.

The actual Showtime Lakers, were horrified. James Worthy, who does studio commentary on Laker games, was quoted as suggesting to Bryant that he "zip it up."

On TNT, commentator/Laker minority owner Magic Johnson watched videotape of Cleveland Coach Paul Silas heatedly refusing to discuss a blowup with Eric Snow, and noted, "Did you hear that, Kobe?"

However, the real problem wasn't that a team scandal was revealed. The real problem was that a misunderstanding or an uninvited proposition, which, Bryant concedes, Malone apologized for, was allowed to rise to the level of a team scandal.

Talking about it did make it bigger and more embarrassing. The real problem is that all the insiders -- the people who mattered -- already knew about it.

It went to O'Neal in Miami, was passed to an ESPN staffer, then spread like wildfire. In one day I heard it from two sources, and The Times' TV writer, Larry Stewart, heard it from a third. It appeared in the New York Post without attribution.

Because Bryant was walled off, as usual, the only version out there was Malone's, so Kobe finally decided he had to tell his side to Times columnist T.J. Simers.

The problem wasn't that he stood up and talked. The problem is the truth won't set him free if it's so unseemly with the people close to him banished, one after another.

He hasn't merely fallen from grace, he has cratered. Last season when he was facing a sexual assault charge, he was the top All-Star vote-getter in the Western Conference. Now, with the case dropped, he's No. 4.

A New York Times story ("The Collapse of Kobe") notes that in 2002, Bryant had three jerseys in the top 20 in sales. As of last weekend, he had none.

This isn't the end of the Lakers' world, although it has looked better. Bryant is 26 and, as Johnson noted, he's also the best player in the world, or close to it. Despite appearances, he has a nice personality and doesn't live to rat out his peers.

We'll never know what happened with Malone, but I think I know where Bryant was coming from when, during a police interview, he made those allegations about O'Neal.

Not that it was the thing to do, but Kobe was scared out of his mind and trying to make the incident go away. It never occurred to him that anyone would ever hear a word of it ... but, lo and behold, those nice detectives had a tape recorder running.

Then after O'Neal got over it and the case was dropped, someone leaked the prosecution's entire case. (Of course, before that, someone had leaked Bryant's entire defense.)

The story came out and Shaq went ballistic. Then Jackson's book came out, blaming Bryant for everything that had gone wrong since J.R. got shot on "Dallas."

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