This Tug of War Becomes a Strain

The Lakers lost to the Clippers early in the month, and it set off the season's most turbulent week.

Four days off followed the Jan. 7 humiliation, and the Lakers had plenty to vent.

"We didn't play with an urgency, which is embarrassing from our standpoint," Laker forward Rick Fox said. "We didn't play with a high enough respect for them."

The Lakers played a passionless game, with expressions of "Early January, Game 34, the Season After, See You in April" in their faces. That just started it.

Bryant, weary of the constant criticism and an offense that limited him, said he occasionally considered playing elsewhere. O'Neal thought that was a pretty decent idea.

Two months before, when their season was much closer to perfect and the celebratory champagne was still fresh on their breaths, Jackson and Bryant had a talk.

It was about Bryant and O'Neal, again, as it was the year before and the year before that, almost for as long as they had been confined to Los Angeles and the Lakers.

Jackson remembered saying to Bryant, "If you're not going to be happy here as a player, then I would want to move you on, if you can't be happy coexisting with Shaq."

While he admitted to a curiosity for life away from the offensive tug-of-war with O'Neal, away from the constraints of Jackson's triangle offense, and away from the daily public scrutiny of all of that, Bryant told Jackson then that he did not wish to leave the Lakers.

Still, O'Neal demanded the ball, and suggested his defense would be better only if he got it. Bryant said he wanted to lift his game, not defer to O'Neal's, and insisted that O'Neal should play defense no matter what.

"I haven't had any thought of bringing them together," Jackson said. "I don't even want them in the same room together right now."

While 14 other players walked away from an early afternoon practice, O'Neal sat in the corner of a gym, his expression as flat as his worst free throw, and tore into the topic that had gripped Los Angeles for years.

"I've never been one to get into whose team it is," O'Neal said. "But clearly, when everything went through me, the outcome was [an NBA-best record of] 67-15, playing with enthusiasm, the city was jumping up and down, we had a parade. Now we're 23-11. So, you figure it out.

"I'm a proven commodity. Everybody knows what I can do. I know what I can do."

To a town's fans dying to hear him predict the relationship would warm again, O'Neal would only say, "It did last year. It worked out to the city's, to the organization's favor. I don't know why anybody else would want to change, other than for selfish reasons."

Twenty minutes later, Bryant, at the bluest point of the firestorm, stood in the same gym, camera lights flickering off his sunglasses, and sighed at the attention. His breakout year--29.6 points per game on a career-high shooting percentage--had been fouled by the controversy.

"He obviously wants to go back to A.C. [Green] being here and Glen [Rice] being here," Bryant said of veteran players no longer with the Lakers. "It's a different ballclub, a different year. We have new players. Things change. Things evolve. You just have to grow with that change."

A day later, Laker management confirmed that O'Neal had angrily requested a trade three weeks earlier.

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