Reality Showtime Sniping superstars, new cast members, a series in development. Must-see TV? No, just the Lakers getting started on what could be a great season

November 10, 2003

In Los Angeles, where lines that separate fact and fiction are
often blurred, there are two ongoing dramas involving the
Lakers. Trade publications such as Variety have been carrying
stories about the one-hour dramatic series NBC is developing
based on the life of Jeanie Buss, the team's executive vice
president of business operations, the daughter of owner Jerry
Buss and, famously, the significant other of coach Phil
Jackson. Meanwhile, the sports pages--and at times the front
pages--have been reporting on the reality series that is the
NBA outfit itself, particularly the very public contretemps
between those two superstar combatants, Kobe Bryant and
Shaquille O'Neal. ¶ If truth is sometimes stranger than
fiction, it is also sometimes more dramatic. Certainly the
creative team behind the Buss show will have a hard time
replicating the electric tension that hummed through the team
in recent weeks after Shaq and Kobe started flapping their
gums. That tension had diminished by the third game of the
season, on Sunday, when Los Angeles beat the depleted Golden
State Warriors 87-72 at the Staples Center to keep alive the
prospect of an 82-0 season. Shaq and Kobe had lobbed carefully
worded conciliatory comments; teammates, particularly veteran
newcomers Karl Malone and Gary Payton, had leaped spryly to both
players' defense; Jackson had assumed the role of Switzerland;
and Shaq (among others) had laid down the kill-the-messenger
card, blaming the media for a firestorm that he himself had
started.

That is how it usually goes in sports--even feuding teams
eventually circle the wagons, particularly if they're playing
well. While L.A. showed its proclivity for getting lazy on
perimeter defense and playing down to the competition in weekend
victories over the Phoenix Suns (103-99 at American West Airlines
Arena) and Golden State, the Fab Four was basically doing what
it's supposed to be doing. Shaq was a mountain in the middle,
Malone a rock at power forward, Payton an ageless jet at point
guard and Bryant a consistently spectacular contributor. "Karl
and Gary said it best: On any given night you can pick your
poison," says O'Neal. "It's funner this way."

Ah, but will it stay funner? Believe this: The enmity between the
superstars still exists, and the fate of this fascinating
franchise--a team loaded with four future Hall of Fame players
and a Hall of Fame coach, a team that Houston Rockets coach Jeff
Van Gundy says could win 75 games, a team that will be considered
successful only if it is the last one standing in June--depends
upon how well the Lakers deal with it. Or don't deal with it.

No wonder a network is interested in a show about Jeanie Buss's
life (page 70). This sort of stuff just doesn't happen to an
executive with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Even before O'Neal remarked two weeks ago that Kobe should shoot
less until he has recovered from his arthroscopic right-knee
surgery (a procedure that was performed, as the free world knows,
on July 1 during a fateful trip to Colorado), Shaq had taken a
few jabs at his teammate. While Kobe was late reporting to
training camp in Hawaii because of legal obligations, O'Neal
said, "The full team is here." When Shaq stayed out of a
preseason game to rest a bruised left heel, he pointedly excluded
Bryant in noting, "I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl
and Gary."

Bryant, always the counterpuncher, responded to Shaq's blows with
some of his own. In what seemed to be well-thought-out comments
delivered to his Boswell, ESPN's Jim Gray, Kobe questioned Shaq's
friendship (he said he was angry that Shaq didn't call him when
the sexual assault case came to light), his leadership and even
the toe injury that kept O'Neal out of the first 12 games last
season. Bryant was fined a reported $2,500 for violating the gag
order that general manager Mitch Kupchak had issued earlier that
day. If Bryant was truly angry, and he seemed to be, that was a
pittance to pay to get it off his chest.

Two years ago it seemed as if Shaq and Kobe had patched up their
differences, with an ample helping of counseling from Jackson.
And during the Lakers' dreadful 11-19 start last season O'Neal
and Bryant were more or less aligned against their less gifted
brethren. So what is really the root cause of this new
discontent? The obvious theory is that O'Neal is upset at Bryant,
guilty or not, for putting himself in such a dubious spot,
thereby creating the circus that has overshadowed the arrival of
Malone and Payton, both of whom Shaq personally recruited. That
may be part of it, but several team insiders point to something
else.

For a while now Kobe has suggested that he may opt out of the
final year of his contract and become a free agent after this
season. He first mentioned that possibility going into the
playoffs last spring and has repeated it often. That does not sit
well with O'Neal, who views the Lakers as a private and exclusive
club, with himself the unchallenged president. Anyone with the
temerity to suggest that he might not want to share the clubhouse
with President Diesel can get the hell out.

But is Bryant serious about leaving? Folks, he's as serious as a
court date. Kobe truly respects Jackson, he of the nine rings,
but nevertheless longs for freedom from the Zen Master's triangle
offense. (Ironically, with Payton running what could be the best
Lakers fast break since the halcyon days of Magic Johnson, he
could probably find it now.) More important, Bryant longs to put
distance between himself and the human redwood with whom he's
played since 1996-97. No matter how many championships Kobe will
have when he hangs it up--at 25, he has three more than Michael
Jordan had at that age--he knows that as long as Shaq patrols the
paint he will never truly possess the Jordanesque status of being
Alpha Man on Alpha Team. Bryant believes by going to another
franchise and lifting it to a championship, nobody could say he
had been riding on Shaq's XXXXL coattails.

The fact that the Kobe-Shaq conflict erupted after the arrival of
Malone and Payton shows how serious it is, for, to this point,
the newcomers have been positive influences on both of the
primary combatants, not to mention everyone else around the
Lakers. Malone's work ethic--at 40, he invariably finishes near
the front in wind sprints--and Payton's tough-minded
competitiveness are on display for all to see. And what ever
their personal feelings about the rift might be, neither has
slipped up once despite being endlessly asked to deconstruct the
Shaq-Kobe relationship. "Man, we just want to play basketball,
all of us, together," Payton said after last Saturday night's win
in Phoenix. Malone had put it more colorfully a day earlier. "It
is over," he said. "You guys [in the media] are trying to get a
fart out of a dead mule."

But there are limits to what even these strong personalities can
do. In fact, as conciliatory as both Malone and Payton have been
to Bryant, their arrival may have driven him even deeper into his
shell. Shaq, Malone and Payton have become something like the
Three Amigos. There they are after practice is finished, bent
over at the waist in mirth as they casually shoot free throws but
mostly the breeze. There is O'Neal giving Payton a big bear hug
while Malone punches Shaq on the shoulder. There is Payton
offering nonstop commentary as O'Neal and Malone go at each other
in an insult-laced three-point shooting contest that features
more bricks than swishes. And there is Bryant, off to the side,
hoisting free throws, working on rehabbing his right knee,
running sprints in an effort to get back his wind. Kobe is no
amigo.

There can't be many lonelier men on the public stage right now
than Bryant. He's the Gray Davis of sports, but his public
ordeal, unlike the jilted governor's, is not nearly over. While
the Lakers took a team flight to Phoenix last Friday, Bryant,
because of unspecified legal obligations, flew in on Saturday
morning. Jackson approved the travel arrangement, but it could
happen again, and it's just another thing that marks Bryant as a
man apart. That's his life right now. He's been charged with
felony sexual assault in Colorado and if convicted could serve
four years to life in prison. He is reportedly
estranged--re-estranged is more accurate--from his parents. Last
month Saturday Night Live cast members added to his humiliation
with a skit in which his wife, Vanessa, treats him well when
others are around but berates him when they're alone.

In the off-season Bryant had worked to build up his body, but the
demands of dealing with the rape charge hurt his conditioning
and, until recently, he looked almost gaunt. Every time he goes
on the road he must tune out the catcalls, try to keep his head
in the game. It wasn't too bad in Phoenix--about two thirds of
the crowd jeered him at the outset, though that quickly tapered
off--but it's going to be a lot worse in places like Sacramento,
Philadelphia and, of course, Denver. You have to believe that
some wiseass arena P.A. operator is getting ready to pull out
Jailhouse Rock when L.A. comes to town.

Against this backdrop there are those who say that the Lakers
should trade Bryant before he opts out and they get nothing for
the game's best all-around player. Lost in the hubbub of his
pending trial and the dustup with Shaq is the fact that the man,
as troubled as his spirit might be, can play a little. Bryant
looked tentative at times against Phoenix, his first game after
sitting out the season-opening 109-93 victory over the Dallas
Mavericks, yet he contributed 15 points, six rebounds and four
assists in 37 hard-played minutes. Nor did he have trouble
recovering for the back-to-back game against the Warriors, in
which he scored 21 points, made five steals and was the Lakers'
best player. (Bryant received a sprinkling of boos but mostly
cheers from the Staples Center crowd when he was introduced.)

It's inconceivable that Kupchak wants to be known as the Guy Who
Traded Kobe in the Prime of his Career. And even if he were so
inclined, owner Jerry Buss said on Sunday night that he wouldn't
allow Bryant to be dealt. "I'm not about to trade my son," Buss
told the assembled media.

Jackson (would Jerry call him son-in-law?) has been fairly quiet,
adopting what he calls an aspect of "watchfulness." But he is the
only one with the gravitas to get through to O'Neal and Bryant,
as he has in the past. And though Jackson is not the general
manager, it's up to him to get a sense of whether Bryant is
inclined to stay or go, and, needless to say, urge him to stay.

There's one school of thought that Jackson orchestrated the whole
Kobe-Shaq feud to deflect attention from Bryant's sexual assault
case. That is absurd, even allowing for Jackson's reputation as a
master manipulator. Jackson was serious when he said, going into
the preseason, that he wanted to give Bryant a refuge, establish
a "family atmosphere" for him, and the coach was disappointed
when Bryant's "family" turned out to be the Osbournes. Even
Jackson couldn't invent something this intense.

Nor, it must be added, could television.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SEPARATION ANXIETY Bryant isn't a member of Shaq's club, which now includes Malone (opposite, far left) and Payton (center). COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (2) 'DO POINTS At 40, Malone still has awesome strength and hair-raising energy. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (2) JET SET With the spry Payton at the point, L.A. is off and running.

WINNERS' Circle

In their combined 94 years in the NBA, the eight Lakers with the
most pro experience have had only five losing seasons: Rick Fox
had four (with Boston) and Gary Payton one (with Seattle and
Milwaukee). Their personal career winning percentages will likely
become even gaudier after this season. --David Sabino

LAKERS VETERANS NBA SEASONS RECORD PCT.

Derek Fisher 7 324-138 .701
Kobe Bryant 7 343-153 .692
Shaquille O'Neal 11 513-229 .691
Rick Fox 12 504-388 .565

NEWCOMERS NBA SEASONS RECORD PCT.

Bryon Russell 10 468-230 .670
Horace Grant 16 721-389 .650
Karl Malone 18 919-515 .641
Gary Payton 13 639-388 .622

PASSING Judgment

Shaquille O'Neal suggested that the Lakers would be better off if
Kobe Bryant dished more than he shot while recovering from knee
surgery. Kobe's career stats suggest otherwise. In his seven
seasons L.A. has been most successful when he has stuck close to
his career average of 4.2 assists. --D.S.

BRYANT ASSISTS LAKERS WINNING

Per Game Record Pct.

Eight or more 36-19 .655
Five to seven 107-39 .733
Zero to four 200-95 .678

As conciliatory as Malone and Payton have been to Bryant, their
arrival may have driven him even DEEPER INTO HIS SHELL.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)