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
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?
"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.)
"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."
"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."
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
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."
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. "
"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.
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.