In the End, Destination Was Clear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lakers are covered in the parking lot, Kobe Bryant beside his black Ferrari, Robert Horry in the passenger seat of his white Mercedes-Benz, Shaquille O'Neal leaning on some great steel thing vibrating from incredible, unbelievable bass.

They are interviewed in the hallways of their El Segundo training facility, in the tunnels of Staples Center, on the way to a bus in Denver, getting off a bus in Miami, disembarking from a plane in Boston.

Horace Grant once answered a few questions northbound on the 405 Freeway, him in the middle lane, me in the fast lane, his driver side window rolled down, my passenger side window rolled down. I shouted, he shouted back. It was important, something about a knee injury.

At, oh, 70 mph, Grant said he'd be fine, that he'd play the next night, and that the car in front of me had stopped. All good information.

It was one of those seasons, when the Lakers never slowed, when the crises were as large and elusive as the reasons behind them, when even the final night, Friday at Philadelphia, had an unusual, disjointed feel, 14 men celebrating in one room, Kobe Bryant alone in another.

In a notebook splashed by and smelling like Moet, there are final memories of the Lakers' championship season.

Bryant, 22, sat on a bench of wood slats. He wore a cap propped crooked on his afro, and a leather jacket two sizes too large and two seasons too heavy. He had his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, and if he were bawling, it would have been an appropriate posture.

NBA Entertainment, the people who get access real journalists don't, propped the championship trophy in Bryant's lap. Someone tilted it to the right, so the angle would catch the light better for the cameras. Bryant didn't seem to care. He stared at the tiny square tiles at his feet, sweat rolling down his neck and into the jacket.

The season was trying for Bryant, more than anyone. Asked finally if he were all right, Bryant looked up and said thinly, "Yeah, I'm just, I'm just . . ." and that was all.

Probably, he had drifted back, to the first day of training camp, fresh from a summer of all those jump shots, all those repetitions, to today, when he didn't have to be tough anymore, when he didn't have to pretend none of it hurt. His breaths were short and shallow, until he straightened himself and pushed past, on the run again, away from questions shouted to the back of his head.

Thirty feet away, his teammates drew deep boozy breaths from between pulls on green bottles, which they swung recklessly in their elation. A locker room attendant was cut over his right eye, but didn't care. There wasn't that much blood, and Shaquille O'Neal seemed very sorry.

Players leaped from one bouncing clutch to another, shouldering past reporters trying to record what they said and did, to teammates who didn't care. They released the season in a different way, letting it explode from their lungs in great whoops and song, wiping champagne like sticky sweat from their reddened eyes.

That night, the basketball season--from late September to mid-June--slashed across the psyches of everyone in that soaking room. For the writers who covered every game, every practice, every day, it was a fitting end, because no one expected the Lakers to be bad when they were bad, and then no one expected them to be good when they were good. So, a championship made perfect sense, sprung from the glares of players who believed the truth to be too harsh, or the harsh to be too true.

Sitting on press row is hearing the forearms pounding on O'Neal's shoulders and neck. It is seeing Bryant put his face in a towel to grimace. It is meeting the eyes of role players who could not understand the feud that tore apart the middle of their season, that ripped the enjoyment from a game they used to play for fun.

It is the delight of Mark Madsen tempered by the moodiness of O'Neal, the depth of Rick Fox balanced by the reticence of Bryant, the commitment of Derek Fisher against the indifference of Isaiah "J.R." Rider.

Nearly every day, Phil Jackson stood out in front of all of it and ducked none of it. He answered the pointed questions with shocking honesty, because accountability ranks high in his coaching philosophy. As it turned out, it was not so much a championship season as it was a survival season, with the Lakers holding on to their collective sanity in time to save themselves, from themselves.

It was, as it turned out, a long year in the parking lot, but it could not have been more absorbing. The Lakers made sure of it. Most of the time they turned down their radios. They rolled down their windows.

And they steered away from the writers.

The championship? Maybe they had that coming too.

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