Tuesday March 11th, 2008

In Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California. -- Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

It is October 2007, the middle of NBA training camp, and the Lakers are the perfect team for Los Angeles, a city that has inspired countless disdainful musings such as Bellow's. The once-proud franchise, which has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2004, is a couple of weeks into what promises to be a full-blown autumn of discontent, followed hard by a winter of the same.

Superstar forward Kobe Bryant, unhappy that management hasn't upgraded his supporting cast, wants to be traded. Phil Jackson, four months removed from a left-hip replacement (which came eight months after a right-hip replacement), isn't sure that he's up to the arduous task of coaching the team and its lightning-rod leader. And general manager Mitch Kupchak, facing an even larger fusillade of ditch-Mitch criticism, is, as always, stiff-upper-lipping it through the chaos.

"You don't realize how bad things had gotten when you're not here," says guard Derek Fisher, a reliable member of Los Angeles's three-peat teams of 2000, '01 and '02 who had returned after three seasons with the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz. "We had some work to do, no doubt about it."

It is now March, and that work has been completed. The Lakers, whose 44-19 record through Sunday was the best in the Western Conference, are bona fide title contenders. Bryant, playing with a torn ligament in his right pinkie that requires daily taping and probably postseason surgery, is a top MVP candidate. Jackson, his Zen master mojo having returned, is again managing the team like someone who has won nine championships. And Kupchak, having pulled off a blockbuster trade last month, is likely to cause Executive of the Year voters to think beyond the Boston Celtics' Danny Ainge. Everyone is happy and harmonious, and the team song could be (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?

It is indeed an astounding turnaround, especially given that it is taking place in a town where a thousand deals fall apart every day, where breaking up is never hard to do. How did it happen? How did the Lakers become that rare Humpty Dumpty that was put together again?

THE COACH "Apart from what was going on with Kobe," Jackson said last week, relaxing in the team's El Segundo facility after practice, "I had to see if I was even ready to do this job. I was walking with a cane for a while. And then we go to camp and everything is disheveled, everything is dissipating. Doctor Buss" -- Jackson still refers to owner Jerry Buss in that formal manner even though he is romantically involved with Buss's daughter Jeanie , the Lakers' executive vice president of business operations -- "and Mitch had decided they would try to accommodate Kobe with a trade if they could, so I [held Bryant out of workouts] for a while and let the business part run its course.

"This process eventually got me animated and reenergized. I had to assure everybody that we were going to be all right. I had to tell the team, 'Kobe's not going to practice with us for a while, but don't feel like he's deserting you or that he doesn't feel you're not good enough.' " (Which, at the time, is exactly what Bryant felt. Coaches have to stretch the truth once in a while.)

THE G.M. Meanwhile, Kupchak worked the phones, using a list of teams that Bryant, the only player in the league with a no-trade clause, had provided. (Kupchak, reliably closemouthed, would not name the prospective trading partners, but sources say that they were the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs in the West, and the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls in the East.) But in every case Kupchak wanted -- as he should -- the club's best players in return. On Oct. 29, the day before L.A.'s season-opener against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center, Buss, Kupchak and Jackson sat Bryant down and delivered the news: Nothing had worked out and he was going to remain a Laker.

"We told Kobe that even if a deal could be done, he would be going to a team that would be so depleted it wouldn't be as strong as the one he was leaving," says Kupchak. "Kobe is smart. He understood."

THE SUPERSTAR Somewhere along the line, a franchise player will call out his bosses. Magic Johnson got a coach (Paul Westhead) fired early in his career, and Michael Jordan used to routinely torch his general manager (Jerry Krause). But they did so subtly, mostly privately. It takes a particular kind of person (arrogant? ballsy?) to do it as openly as Bryant did, then clam up and compete like the first-ballot Hall of Famer that he is.

"At the end of the day, you still have a job to do," says Bryant. "All I ever wanted was to win. We went three years here when that wasn't going on and no moves whatsoever were being made. That's where my frustration came from.

"When our young players heard what was going on in the summertime [including the now infamous parking-lot video in which Bryant trashed young center Andrew Bynum], they took it as a personal challenge. They saw how hard I work, how much I want to win, and gradually the focus shifted. It got away from us maybe being a playoff team to, We gotta aim for a championship."

THE COACH Jackson took Bryant aside before the first game and told him, "You have to be in this wholeheartedly." And Bryant replied, "I'm in."

Over the last two seasons Jackson and Bryant had worked hard to repair their relationship, which had been damaged by criticism leveled at Bryant in Jackson's 2004 book The Last Season. Jackson gives Bryant, as he gave Jordan in Chicago, room to voice his opinions, particularly on offense, and Bryant has become a de facto assistant coach. "Lots of times, usually in a timeout, Kobe will say to me, 'We can run this.' And I let him run it," says Jackson. "Kobe has a real good vision of what he wants to do."

THE SUPERSTAR "For me, once [the trade discussion] was over, it was over," says Bryant. "Remember that I never said, 'I'm not going to play for this organization,' or, 'I'm not going to show up at camp if they don't trade me.' I have a responsibility, and I'm going to bust my ass the way I always do."

If Bryant regretted having popped off, he never showed it. His legendary ability to play through distractions was made clear during the 2003-04 season, when on several occasions he jumped on a morning flight to Colorado to appear at court proceedings involving his rape case (charges were eventually dropped) and arrived back at Staples Center right before tip-off. Then he would drop, oh, 40 points on a defender who appeared more tired than he did. "There is no player in the history of our game," says Fisher, "who can compartmentalize and separate on-court and off-court like Kobe. It was like all [the trade talk] never happened."

Indeed, with Bryant willingly sharing the ball but still taking over when he had to, the Lakers became one of the league's surprise teams. Bynum, Kobe's whipping boy, was a particular revelation, averaging 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.06 blocked shots to spark a 24-11 start before he went down with a dislocated left kneecap and bone bruise on Jan. 13. With sieve-handed Kwame Brown -- who calls to mind Yeats's words, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" -- replacing Bynum, L.A. seemed likely to tumble from the playoff race.

"But then," says Bryant, "came the coup de grâce."

THE G.M. Front-office types make their bones on big deals that produce contenders. Unlike his predecessor and mentor Jerry West, who before bringing Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant to L.A. pulled off several smaller trades that helped the Showtime Lakers own the 1980s, Kupchak hadn't made any blockbusters in his seven years at the helm. But on the first day of February he snagged talented frontcourtman Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies, while dumping the underachieving Brown. True, Memphis was in full fire-sale mode, but the deal was still so larcenously one-sided that Kupchak's picture should be in post offices coast-to-coast. Suddenly, Kupchak was the toast of the message boards instead of the guy who couldn't carry West's valise.

Predictably, the deal made him even more uncomfortable and desirous of a background role.

"There's a word that describes you," a reporter told him last week. "Self-effacing."

"I'll have to look that up," said Kupchak.

While Bryant had long let it be known that he was happier when West was in charge, Kupchak never returned fire, and so there was no scorched earth to irrigate when his star finally got happy. "I understand where Kobe is coming from and always have," says Kupchak. "He tasted winning early in his career, then began to think he wouldn't taste it again. He didn't want to get to that stage when the window was starting to shut and he was in another rebuilding situation."

Kupchak points to the big board in his El Segundo office listing the personnel of every NBA team, a G.M.'s standard wall accoutrement. "Kobe's not the first player to voice frustration with his team," he says. He stops there, but he could have thrown out names such as Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Paul Pierce. Though none did it as loudly as Bryant.

THE SUPERSTAR Gasol and Bryant "hit the ground running," in Bryant's words, partly because both have high basketball IQs, partly because the center position, which the 7-foot Gasol will occupy until Bynum returns (possibly in early April), is the easiest one to learn in Jackson's triangle offense. Bryant feels that he now has his ideal supporting cast: two established vets who don't want the responsibility of leading (Gasol and forward Lamar Odom); a bunch of young "gym rats," as he calls forwards Luke Walton and Ronny Turiaf and guards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic; and an old pro in Fisher, whose steady professionalism leavens Bryant's grinding, get-after-it-every-minute M.O. "I don't have to be as in-your-face as I used to," says Bryant. "I had to do it in the past because guys weren't working as hard as I was. Now everybody's on the same page."

THE COACH "Leadership is something I've always talked about with Kobe," says Jackson, "sometimes in conversations, sometimes through books I've given him. [One was John Heider's The Tao of Leadership.] Kobe's not big on subtlety, but his style of leadership has matured, gotten less confrontational. Of his [league-leading 12] technicals this season, half have come from fighting for his teammates, not from calls that even involved him."

THE SUPERSTAR Asked what his MVP ballot would look like, Bryant says, "I'm not even thinking about that." But when somebody mentions that the Cleveland Cavaliers' James is a favorite because he's a near one-man team, Bryant, who was averaging 28.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists through Sunday, snaps, "Put me in the East and see what happens."

Bryant has taken steps to repair his image, mostly by communicating "with [his] fans around the world" on his website (KB24.com). He gets gentle grief from teammates for the Nike "Pure Genius" spots that appear on there, featuring Bryant dressed as different historical characters -- George Washington Carver, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and his favorite, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why the composer?

"He was the most talented among them, right?" says Bryant. (That could be debated, of course.) Then Bryant adds this: "And I've known more than my share of Salieris."

He does not elaborate. Chances are, though, that he sees Mozart in himself, the controversial wunderkind (Bryant had just turned 18 when his NBA career began in '96) trying to play through the jealousy and rage of those less talented, which is pretty much everyone.

Bryant's redemption is a good L.A. story, but it's not the main one playing out at Staples Center right now. That one's about a team which discovers that, as Jackson says, "adversity made us a little more resilient and appreciative of the things we have." It is also an unfinished tale, as the G.M. begs everyone to remember, but one that will be compelling to the end.

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