February was the only full month of the season in which the Lakers did not lose to the Seattle SuperSonics. It was the only full month in which they did not play the SuperSonics.
While the O’Neal-Bryant feud simmered, O’Neal sat out six games--the last three of January and the first three of February--because of a sore arch in his right foot. Bryant sat out three games in late February because of a sprained right ankle.
“I’m still upset about how the first half went,” O’Neal said. “I’m willing to let bygones be bygones and start all over. The second half is really when it counts.”
Their relationship had not yet improved, but O’Neal’s game had. He started making his free throws and began defending with energy. He predicted his effort would change after the mid-month all-star break, and when he returned from his injury he again looked like an MVP.
After a victory at Dallas, where he scored 29 points and made 11 of 15 free throws, O’Neal appeared unburdened because of his injuries and other worries.
“I can remember telling you guys at home, when I come back in the second half, I’m coming back with a vengeance,” O’Neal said. “You all thought I was playing. I’m not playing. I’m serious. I’m coming back at every facet of the game.”
Then he paused and said, “Time to turn my game up.”
It was Bryant who said this season was his time to turn up his game, not tone it down, as Jackson once requested of him.
“It’s simple,” Bryant said. “I think everybody knows I want to be the best basketball player I can possibly be. A lot of people take that as selfish. But in order to be the best basketball player I can possibly be, we need to win. So, it all coincides with that goal.”
Jerry West resigned from the Lakers the previous summer, but Bryant still called him.
“Jerry is constantly giving me advice,” Bryant said. “He also says, ‘Damn it, Kobe, you’re so damn stubborn.’ He laughs, because he says, ‘You remind me of me when I was a player.’ ”
Without Bryant and his automatic 30 points, the Lakers went to San Antonio and defeated the Spurs with desperation unusual for them. Five starters and two reserves scored at least 10 points. O’Neal found teammates in the offense, and teammates found him back.
“It felt like going into the woods to fight a bear with a club,” Jackson said, “instead of a gun.”
The next day, the trading deadline passed without a transaction. Despite reckless rumors to the contrary, Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak insisted that neither O’Neal nor Bryant would be traded.
Lured in part by O’Neal’s All-Star game musings that he would be happy to finish his career somewhere other than Los Angeles, NBA general managers shoved lists of players together and slipped them to Kupchak.
“I have gotten several absurd proposals,” Kupchak said.
Amid the seriousness, Jackson told USA Today that dating Jeanie Buss, the owner’s daughter and vice president of business operations, was a factor in the Lakers’ championship.
“One of the reasons I felt real comfortable last season, that I was in a comfort zone, that I had the success I did, was because of the relationship I had with Jeanie,” he said. “It was free and easy. There weren’t a lot of obligations and expectations.”