LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers dark comedy of a season, forever alternating between sadness and silliness, dysfunction and disbelief, took an awkward turn Tuesday night. After the death of their owner, the firing of their coach and multiple injuries to all of their stars, a jersey retirement should have been a refreshing cause for celebration. But this team can transform the simplest ceremony into high drama, and so it was that their former center and former coach showed up at Staples Center for a crucial game, even though the former center clashes with the current one and the current coach was hired over the former one. It was like throwing an anniversary party for the ex-wife -- and inviting her dad.
You knew this was a bizarre night when it became clear that Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant seemed to have the healthiest relationship in the room. O'Neal, the guest of honor, took his usual jabs at Dwight Howard. Phil Jackson, who came to honor O'Neal, drew louder applause than Mike D'Antoni ever has. But O'Neal and Jackson weren't the only firebrands at the table. Mark Cuban, who has traded more barbs with Jackson than O'Neal has with Howard, was in town because the Mavericks and Lakers are vying for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Cuban was complimentary of Jackson while referring to him as "the first housewife of the Lakers" because of his recent engagement to Jeanie Buss.
If a sellout crowd holds any sway, Jackson won't be housebound forever. In O'Neal's rollicking halftime ceremony, fans chanted "We want Phil!" loud enough to hear in the Lakers' locker room. "He's only won 58 rings," D'Antoni cracked. "Why wouldn't they?" While Jackson smiled wistfully, O'Neal howled, "I want Phil, too!" Thoroughly undermined, D'Antoni then led the team back on the court for the second half, to fight for its playoff life. The Lakers won the game, 101-81, or else the chants would probably still be ringing. They are tied with Utah, but the Jazz hold the tiebreaker, and only seven games remain for both teams. Dallas is pretty much done.
Despite the many Laker luminaries on hand, from O'Neal to Jerry West, and James Worthy to Elgin Baylor, all eyes were trained on Howard. The Lakers hope to sign him this summer but so do the Mavericks. Jackson texts him while D'Antoni tutors him. O'Neal, meanwhile, tweaks him for everything from stealing his nickname to ignoring his post moves. A sampling of jabs thrown at a press conference Tuesday night: "I see him averaging 16, 18, it's not good enough for me. ... He has the potential to be one of the best big men ever but he has to want it. ... I know he's a silly guy, a funny guy, but once you cross those Staples Center lines they don't want to see all that. ... He needs to step into his own. I'm not criticizing him. I'm just challenging him." With that said Howard took the floor and looked up at the stands, where almost everyone was dressed in giveaway No. 34 jerseys. "I'm happy for him," Howard said, "despite everything he's ever said about me."
O'Neal wants to see 28 points with 10 rebounds from Howard on a nightly basis and he nearly delivered. Howard posted 24 and 12 in a game that brought back all sorts of memories for the Lakers. Before Mike Brown was fired and Pau Gasol was benched, before Steve Nash broke his leg and Metta World Peace tore his knee, before Bryant became a point guard and Howard a target, the Lakers hosted the Mavericks the day before Halloween. It was Opening Night, the birth of the NBA's newest super-team, and Bryant grabbed the microphone. "Let's get this party started," he bellowed. "Enjoy the show."
It's been a show all right, with enough team meetings, prepared statements and debilitating ailments to fill three seasons of Hard Knocks, if HBO bothered with basketball. On Tuesday, Bryant's feud with O'Neal was overshadowed by so many other sources of tension. "We talked a lot," O'Neal said. "There are two different types of dislike -- an athletic dislike and a real dislike. We never had a real dislike."
Whatever the breed of contempt, it has clearly faded. "The most gifted physical specimen I've ever seen play," Bryant called O'Neal, in a pre-recorded speech that was broadcast on the scoreboard at halftime. "I wish I could have been out there to watch him," Bryant said later. He played the first 47 minutes and recorded a triple-double -- 23 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists -- with dogged defense. He also paid tribute to another legendary Lakers center with a late skyhook. Bryant acknowledged that Jackson's presence inspired him to perform. "If I didn't," he said, "I know I'd get a long text from him asking what the hell I was doing."
Bryant's No. 24 will be the next gold jersey hung in the Staples Center rafters, and given the Lakers' sense of poetry, it will probably rest alongside O'Neal's. The show doesn't end.