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Getting Behind 8-Ball

NBA PREVIEW | Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Bryant Wasn't the Only Driver on This Ego Trip

November 02, 2004|Mark Heisler

Brave new Laker world.

The Soap Opera Dynasty is no more. Shaquille O'Neal is in Miami, Karl Malone in Orange County, Gary Payton in Boston, Derek Fisher in Oakland, Rick Fox in Hollywood and Phil Jackson on his book tour.

Kobe Bryant, the only one who intended to leave all along, is the only one who's left ... holding the bag.

"It's been all personal," says Fisher, the little stand-up Laker for so long, now a Warrior. "Because he's still here, he's got to take the brunt of most of that stuff that everybody's talking about.

"The sad part to me is there hasn't been much talk about the team, how great we were, how great we were not at times."

Their good times lasted five seasons, from the 2000 title to the 2004 Finals when they -- finally -- blew into their constituent parts.

Bryant says he was an innocent. Actually, he was the linchpin.

Jackson and O'Neal say Bryant ran them out. Actually, Jerry Buss ran them out because they demanded king's ransoms and his priority was Bryant -- which was the only choice, if you had to choose.

The tag team of Jackson and O'Neal says Bryant was the problem. Actually, the problem was always the clash of egos and Bryant's, while formidable, was only one of them.

If Jackson is older and wiser, he had one of the egos, which now leads him to conduct guided tours through the "sanctuary" he once protected so sanctimoniously.

Bryant was, indeed, the problem in the coach's first two seasons as Jackson tried to jam him in line behind O'Neal, as everyone knew it had to be -- except Bryant.

However, O'Neal was the problem in the next two. To everyone's astonishment, he got along fine with Bryant but came in heavy, took all season to play himself into shape, was often hurt, and got upset when Jackson prodded him.

That was when Shaq decided Gary Vitti wasn't supporting him, either, and, as Jackson notes, made Chip Schaefer his personal guy in the trainer's room.

Bryant's arrest, and remarks about O'Neal to police, changed everything back. Hanging on by his fingernails, without his trademark poise, Bryant vented to teammates about leaving because of O'Neal, alienated the Laker press corps that had previously stayed unaligned, and took offense at Jackson's suggestions.

Jackson knew Bryant would need room, but by January, Phil was all out.

Jackson had his own issues. With his contract running out, he was ambivalent about returning, which may have been another reason he said it was Bryant or him, a commitment he had to know Buss wouldn't give him.

Buss took Jackson's demand as a resignation, pulling his extension offer off the table and even announcing it.

Showing how crazy things were, Jackson said he didn't know why Buss jerked the rug out from under him. Jackson had been told often enough they would never trade Bryant, including by girlfriend Jeanie Buss.

Jackson now airs his perspective on the talk-show circuit. O'Neal has a new version daily for his new rapt audience, which stares up at him with eyes wide as if he were the Story Lady.

O'Neal says he pretended to feud with Jackson to keep the pressure off Bryant, who never passed to him and was the reason -- not age or conditioning -- his production fell.

O'Neal says he pretended to feud with Jackson to motivate himself, since Staples Center crowds were subdued.

Tune in for O'Neal's latest reason for pretending to feud with Jackson. It may have been an FBI sting he was helping with.

It was a pile-on with Bryant bashed, seemingly from someone new each day, as if the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had never won anything before Bryant demolished them, single-handedly.

"Obviously, he didn't see the things with Phil coming," says Fisher. "I'm sure he knew there would be some back-and-forth with Shaq. ...

"I don't think anybody sees anything the same way Phil sees it. [Laughing] I mean, that's what makes him Phil Jackson."

*

Looking for a Home

No one saw this coming, least of all Bryant, who lives in an inner circle so small it's like a world of its own.

He's more driven than ever, aching to prove he can make this work. Showing the strain he's under, he's angrier, talking more trash. Seattle's Ray Allen blasted him as "selfish," after Bryant scored 35 to the other Lakers' 45 in the exhibition opener and engaged Allen mano a mano.

Bryant thought it had all been in good fun and hugged Allen afterward.

Off the floor, Bryant is more gun-shy than ever. Even last season, he did one-on-one interviews with journalists he trusted, but that number is down to about three and he isn't sitting down with them, either. The most he'll do is to allow his version to be reported, if he isn't quoted directly.

No one else is talking, either. So, from Bryant and sources on both local teams, this is how contract negotiations went:

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