Tuesday May 13th, 2008

The NBA's most celebrated supporting cast (if that's not a contradiction in adjectives) belonged to Michael Jordan in Chicago. And belonged is the correct verb since Jordan looked upon those mere mortals quite proprietarily, often using "my" when he referred to them. In journalistic circles they eventually acquired a sobriquet, the Jordanaires, which was also the name of Elvis Presley's backup singers.

A worthy next-generation supporting cast has suddenly appeared in the most appropriate of cities -- Los Angeles -- where a feisty band of extras serves at the pleasure of a genuine leading man. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant, as Jordan once did, enriches these lesser lights figuratively (by the grandeur of his talent) and literally (backup point guard Jordan Farmar snagged a Louis Vuitton bag for Christmas), and so they aid him utterly and enthusiastically, while also making sure that their walk-on moments are duly recorded. "If we win a championship," says reserve guard Sasha Vujacic, "we know it will be mainly because of Kobe. But we will have something to say about it too."

Just as Scottie Pippen eventually carved out an identity apart from the Jordanaires, three Lakers veterans (center Pau Gasol, forward Lamar Odom and guard Derek Fisher) have earned more than backup billing. The ones still operating in the considerable coolness of Bryant's shadow constitute L.A.'s Bench Mob -- a quartet of subs united by youth (forward Luke Walton is the eldest at 28) and middling draft position (Farmar, at No. 26 in 2006, was the highest selection), while divided by nationality (Vujacic is from Slovenia, forward Ronny Turiaf from Martinique) and hairdos. Walton has a head of chestnut curls; Farmar a classic 1950s crew cut; Vujacic a longish I-must-be-in-rock-videos coiffure that necessitates hair-band adjustments as he runs upcourt; and Turiaf a cornrows-beard combo that suggests he might be un professeur de philosophie at the Sorbonne.

Turiaf was hardly that on Sunday at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City. In the second quarter he body-slammed Utah Jazz guard Ronnie Price to the floor and was ejected from what turned out to be a 123-115 overtime Lakers loss, tying this Western Conference semifinal at two games. Farmar, on the other hand, did play like a professor, as he has throughout the series -- he missed 15 of 16 shots in the first four games. Vujacic (11 points) and Walton (a team-high plus-minus rating of +8) were competent but not spectacular.

All in all, on Sunday the Bench Mob did not offer Bryant the support it had throughout much of the season (including the first-round sweep of the Denver Nuggets, when the four combined for 29.0 points per game). Hampered by back spasms, Bryant scored 33 points but missed 20 of his 33 shots. With Utah apparently gaining strength and resolve from its two wins at home, much more will be needed in Games 5 and 6 from L.A.'s reserves -- and from everyone else.

Bryant didn't single out anyone for blame after Sunday's loss. But make no mistake about it: Mobbed up as it might be, the quirky quartet still answers to the Kobester. Case in point: Trailing by four with about 15 seconds left in Game 3, the Lakers saw their last chance for victory vanish when Walton let a ball slip through his hands, earning him dagger looks and harsh words from Bryant. Such wrath has been rare over the last few months, however. Indeed, the most compelling L.A. leitmotif -- the team's transformation from dysfunctional Simpsons to loving Cleavers -- is best told through Bryant's marriage to the Mob.

Two subs insist that Bryant's periodic outbursts, withering as they might have seemed to anyone watching, never got to them. Nor did they take as an insult Bryant's off-season request to be traded, which was based partly on his belief that management hadn't acquired teammates who met his elevated standards.

"I will give you an honest answer even if it sounds like a diplomatic answer," says Vujacic. "I know it looked like it was bad when Kobe was hollering and everything. But the idea that it was a big deal is just so overreacting that I can't even describe it. My relationship with Kobe was great from Day One." Turiaf agrees. "It's very hard for people to know exactly what's going on inside a family. We don't look at things like people in the media do," he says, smiling widely. "Maybe that's why we're in the NBA and you're not."

Farmar and Walton did take the knocks a little more personally, the Southern Californians perhaps being less accustomed to vehement displays of emotion. But everyone agrees that the team began to put things behind it at training camp in Honolulu. Even as the Kobe-wants-to-go story played out in the press -- it was not resolved until opening day -- the players were kicking back at lunch and dinner "through the grace of Lamar Odom," as Turiaf puts it. Odom had hired a well-known Hawaiian chef, Sam Choy, to prepare meals for the entire team. "Instead of going back to our rooms after practice, we stayed together, put our feet up, hung out and talked," says Walton. "All of us, every meal, Kobe included. It was a major, major factor in us coming together." Plus, the food was damn good. "Sam made a chicken crusted with, I kid you not, Cap'n Crunch," says Odom. "Best thing you ever ate in your life." Fitting that what has turned into a Leave It to Beaver season began with a sugary cereal.

Gaining Bryant's trust was one thing, but each member of the Bench Mob had something to prove on his own. Farmar spent his rookie season, 2006--07, playing behind Smush Parker (which ain't like backing up Elvis), and on three occasions he was sent down to play a game with the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the D-League. It made sense -- the 6' 2" Farmar was out of the rotation and coach Phil Jackson wanted him to learn the triangle offense -- but it was still a D-motion. "Inside, I was upset and frustrated," says Farmar, 21. "But at the same time it's a business, and if they ask you to do something, you do it."

Last summer general manager Mitch Kupchak threw Farmar another curve, informing him that L.A. had drafted point guard Javaris Crittenton of Georgia Tech at No. 19. But after Farmar shone early this season, Crittenton was packaged along with serial underachiever Kwame Brown in the February deal -- make that steal -- with the Memphis Grizzlies that brought Gasol.

Farmar's speed was a major reason that Jackson, for much of this season, used the second unit as an entity independent of the first, excused from running the triangle and permitted to run-and-gun and play full-court defense. Jackson calls it "live ball" and allows it to go on with certain restrictions. "On all dead-ball situations," says the coach, "they know they have to get into traditional triangle play." But against Utah, Farmar's quickness-based game had suffered in the yoke of the Jazz's physicality.

With his fellow reserves Walton generally performs the role of stabilizing influence -- the Mob's godfather, as it were. Then again, sometimes that's his role even when he's with the starters. Ever since he came to the Lakers as a bargain pick from Arizona (No. 32) in '03, the mention of Walton's name has sooner or later been followed by the phrase high basketball IQ. One wonders if Walton's status with the Bench Mob is iffy, because he's an occasional starter (31 of 74 games this season) and a frequent finisher (he averaged 14.0 points in the first round against the Nuggets). Plus, he's the only Mobster with a sandwich named after him. That the half-pounder (Luke Walton's Ragin Cajun Burger) is on the menu at a restaurant chain (Joey's Smokin' BBQ) he co-owns is beside the point. "Has the Mob cast me out because I used to start?" says the 6' 8" Walton, who was on the floor for the opening tip in all 60 games he played last season. "No, I'm O.K. I fit right in." Still, as much as Walton likes his guys, he'd like to leave them. "Let's face it," he says, "everybody wants to be a starter."

Turiaf's elbows-and-knees style presage a career as a classic backup big man. On the court he is nothing like his French national-team frères, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker and Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw, whose games are built on speed and finesse, respectively. But the 6' 10" Turiaf, the 37th pick in '05, was a bona fide back-to-the-basket threat at Gonzaga (he averaged more than 15 points in each of his last three seasons) and has worked hard to develop a nice touch in the paint. Plus, as he says, "I have a great basketball IQ for the triangle."

Whatever his future, Turiaf, 25, doesn't act like a bench player. Before games he skips and prances around the court as if he's warming up for Dancing with the Stars. On and off the court, he can talk the shell off a hard-boiled egg. Maybe that's how you act when you have an NBA career despite six-hour heart surgery to correct an enlarged aortic root, which was diagnosed in July 2005. He has also achieved YouTube immortality (for this year anyway) by costarring in a clip in which Bryant jumps over a speeding Aston Martin. "It was a lot of fun," says Turiaf, "but I always have a lot of fun with Kobe. I promise you."

Vujacic and Bryant had much of their fun together in Vujacic's second season, when they often met for 6 a.m. workout sessions. "I have always been a fanatic about basketball," says Vujacic, a 24-year-old who was the 27th pick in '04, "and I had been frustrated in my rookie year. I wanted to get better. So did Kobe. Kobe always wants to get better. We are much alike." They are also alike in the feelings of animosity they engender from opponents -- Bryant's stemming from his on-court arrogance and, well, his proclivity for putting up three- or four-dozen points; Vujacic's from his nonstop, nose-to-nose aggression and sometimes deadly accurate jumper. "Getting in people's faces," says Vujacic, "I learned that from Kobe."

The 6' 7" Vujacic plays kind of a 1.5 guard in the Lakers' offense. "Sasha sees himself as a point," says Kupchak, "but we don't always agree." That debate has existed since Vujacic arrived in '04 from Snaidero Udine of the Italian league as a skinny, short-haired bundle of energy and continues even though he has picked up a nickname, the Machine, for his three-point shooting proficiency. "I did not give it to myself," says Vujacic, who has distinguished himself in the Utah series with 15 and 12 points in Games 1 and 2 along with his 11 in Game 4. Moreover, his frenetic, arm-waving defense has bothered Jazz swingman Kyle Korver -- as it would even a Buddhist on Valium. "When I first got here I didn't get in the games much because I played defense like every European player," says Vujacic. "In Europe we play occasionally defense."

Vujacic also gets his hair cut only occasionally, and not much off the sides when he does. It was a huge moment for him when Lisa Estrada, the longtime director of the Laker Girls, found him a black suede hair band to keep his locks out of his eyes. "It is a special band," says Vujacic.

What the Lakers have going now is a special bond, forged in conflict, strengthened by success. "Give credit to the organization for drafting character guys like Ronny, Sasha, Jordan and, of course, Luke," says Bryant. "I think the most important thing for us this year was how hard our young players worked and how much they developed. None of this would be happening without them." It is indeed rare -- a killer Mob that doesn't feel the need to take over.

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