Boo birds welcome Kobe

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LOS ANGELES -- The sound was unmistakable. The message it sent was just as clear.

If Kobe Bryant doesn't want to be a Laker, Lakers fans don't want him.

As Chick Hearn's widow, Marge, introduced the Lakers' opening-night starting lineup to a sold-out crowd at the Staples Center, the cheers for each player quickly turned to boos when Bryant's picture appeared on the scoreboard, drowning out the introduction.

While there were plenty of cheers from fans wearing Bryant jerseys, they were hardly audible over the jeers from fans who have waited all summer to let their star player know how they feel about him and his trade demand.

"I have a Kobe jersey and I decided not to wear it," said Courtney Ekeberg, a 27-year-old Lakers fan from Mission Viejo. "He needs to stop complaining and be proud to be a Laker. I knew he'd get booed. He needs to shut up and play. If he's not happy here, he should go."

If it were only that easy for Bryant, who scored 45 points in the Lakers' 95-93 loss to the Rockets. He has made it clear he wants the Lakers to trade him, and team officials have made it clear they will try to accommodate his request if they can get fair value for him. In the meantime, however, Bryant will remain with a team he wants to leave and playing in front of fans who don't know what to think of their enigmatic star.

The tone of the night and possibly the season was set early as giant white drapes rolled down over the scoreboard to reveal a pre-game video that the team had produced. The theme: Drama.

"Drama is legendary," were the words projected onto the screen juxtaposed by video of Bryant hugging Shaquille O'Neal followed by an image of Bryant screaming into the air and pulling at his jersey.

"Drama is here. Can you feel it?"

It was a dubious choice of words for a team doing its best to avoid becoming a soap opera this season, although considering the zip code, it figures to be embraced from the onset of what is sure to be another tumultuous season in La La Land.

Bryant, who stays away from drama like Britney Spears stays away from the paparazzi, was jeered the first few times he dribbled the ball down the court. It wasn't until he made a layup three minutes into the game that the boos transformed into cheers.

It was as if Lakers fans wanted to let Bryant and the team know how they felt early before putting their differences aside to cheer for the team rather than the individual.

"Kobe Bryant disrespected L.A. in how he handled his situation," said Steve Talavera, a 30-year-old fan from West Covina wearing a Lakers warm-up jersey. "He's putting himself before the city of L.A. and that doesn't ride around here, man. We're hardcore L.A. fans, and it's always been about the names on the front of the jersey, not the back of the jersey. He's not the first and he's not the last Laker great, I'll tell you that much."

Talavera, who sat in the upper bowl of Staples Center underneath the team's retired jerseys and championship banners, said Lakers fans treated Bryant the same way disappointed parents would treat their child, with tough love followed by a hug. After all, he's still a Laker.

"I booed him at the beginning of the game to let him know how I felt, but after that he has the Lakers jersey on so I had to cheer for him," Talavera said. "He's still one of us, but I think we got our point across."

By the end of the third quarter, Bryant's name was being chanted every time he reached the free-throw line and after every shot he made. They stood and gave him a standing ovation as he single-handedly brought the Lakers from behind and nearly beat Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and the Rockets. Lakers fans understand that they need Bryant to win, even if he doesn't want to be in Los Angeles anymore, and they're content cheering for him as long as he's wearing the purple and gold. The day he gets his wish and moves on? Well, that's another story.

"I'm a Lakers fan and a Kobe fan," said Frank Avila, 30, of Los Angeles. "I never thought I'd say this, but I'd rather get rid of him than have him here if that's what he wants. As long as he's on the Lakers I'll still cheer for him, but once he's gone, I'll be a Kobe hater. If he doesn't want to be here, we don't want him here."