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NBA FINALS: PERSPECTIVES

Nothing to Something

After a tumultuous summer, Kobe Bryant questioned whether to continue his career. He opted to play and, despite the rough moments, has gone from ...

June 06, 2004|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

In the beginning, he couldn't have cared less.

Kobe Bryant's life changed last summer and his legal situation won't be resolved until his trial, whenever that is. So if the question is, what did the Lakers' 2003-04 season mean to him, the answer, at least at first, was.... Nothing.

In the blink of an eye, the fairy tale ended and the rigid control he had exerted over his privacy was lost. Playing a season under such circumstances seemed unthinkable, requiring him to appear in public and take questions from the press.

Nevertheless, if he were going to get his life back, he knew he had to make a stand, so after a summer of seclusion and a lot of "wavering back and forth," as he noted, he returned.

He would call his Laker uniform his "golden armor," but in the beginning, it didn't protect him from anything, and putting it on didn't make the world go away, as it once had.

In camp, the young man who'd never admitted to concern, much less fear, said he was "terrified." The player who'd been a workout monster was 15 pounds underweight, so far out of shape he couldn't open the exhibition season, acknowledging he'd been too anxious over the summer to do anything.

Events in court were still happening fast. His legal team sought to have the alleged victim testify in a preliminary hearing, hoping to blow the prosecution's case out of the water. When the motion was rejected, Bryant seemed to sink even lower.

He was hanging on by his fingernails. One day after Bryant worked out by himself at the Laker facility, a reporter suggested he must have good days and bad days.

"Every day is a bad day," Bryant said.

He was on his own schedule and the season was incidental. Legal obligations came before Laker games or practices. When necessary, he'd be whisked to Eagle, Colo., by chartered jet [he and the Lakers split the cost].

His opening day had been July 18, when Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert announced that Bryant would be charged with felony sexual assault, bringing down the curtain on what had been a giddy off-season for the Lakers.

A day after newly acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton had been formally introduced at Staples Center, the Bryants had their own news conference there, Vanessa watching as her husband asserted his innocence in a breaking voice while confessing to "the sin of adultery" and acknowledging he was "disgusted with myself."

The rest of the summer, Bryant remained sequestered in his Newport Beach home. Even Laker officials couldn't get their calls returned.

As late as September, Bryant was wondering what to do.

"I didn't want to feel like I was running and hiding," he later told ESPN the Magazine's Tom Friend. "I have absolutely nothing to hide. And I didn't want to feel like I did. I didn't want my family to feel that way. So I said, 'I'm going to go out there and do my job. This is my job. I'm going to go back to work.'"

Of course, it couldn't be the same; nor could he.

Bryant had once been all but bulletproof, supremely confident of his ability and his destiny, which, he claimed to have realized when he was 5.

No one who wasn't inner circle could get to him, not even Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal was seven years older but when they'd been feuding, Kobe had bothered Shaq a lot more than Shaq had ever bothered Kobe.

Now, though, Bryant wasn't just vulnerable, he was strung out. He and O'Neal had coexisted easily for the two previous seasons, but now O'Neal was studied in his defense of Bryant and didn't call. (Shaq said he'd got the machine and left a message.)

Even before arriving at camp, Bryant told Coach Phil Jackson and General Manager Mitch Kupchak that he wouldn't take anything from O'Neal, who was already blithely zinging away, announcing, "The whole team is here," before Bryant reported. On another occasion, O'Neal said he was resting to be right "for Derek [Fisher] and Karl and Gary."

Even under the circumstances, people were shocked when Bryant turned up in Honolulu, looking ashen and frail. The Times' J.A. Adande wrote a column, advising him to sit the season out for his own good. The New York Times' Selena Roberts advised him to sit it out to "liberate" teammates from his woes.

More woes were coming.

Bryant came back gunning in the last two exhibition games, O'Neal chided him in the press and Kobe went ballistic, announcing through ESPN's Jim Gray that Shaq was an out-of-shape malingerer who took all the credit and none of the blame and hadn't cared enough to call him over the summer.

That was before the Lakers had played a game.

They became a clinic in distraction. They started 18-3, showing how well their four Hall of Famers could play together, but that was a false dawn.

The rest of the season was a mess, beset with injuries which, at least, gave them something to blame this disaster on, rather than the rift that had split them.

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