When it comes to basketball, there’s only one essential question for this extraordinary Laker season.
How will the abilities and egos of Karl Malone and Gary Payton mesh with a team that has never completely resolved the dynamics of superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant?
Friday wasn’t simply Day 2 of the Kobe Watch. It was the first day of the new day, the first time Malone and Payton took the court wearing purple and gold.
And after a full session of questions about Bryant, followed by questions about the questions about Bryant, O’Neal finally had a chance to address the principal on-court story of the season.
“Why is it going to work?” O’Neal said, repeating the query.
“Be-ca-use,” he began, stretching the word out to three syllables to buy some time, then pausing to compose his thoughts on Malone and Payton. “They’ve always been hungry. They don’t have any [championships]. I’ve got three ... and I’m hungry. So we’re all hungry. That’s why it’s going to work.”
First of all, not only did Payton (age 35) and Malone (40) look just as fit in their tank tops as any of the rookies, O’Neal looked as good in his as he has since wearing a Laker uniform. A fit and focused O’Neal is like the longest answer in a crossword puzzle; once that’s down on the page, the rest of the solution is merely a matter of filling in the letters.
When it comes to words, no one puts them together like Payton.
And here’s his explanation for why he and Malone will successfully make the transition to glorified role players: “We’ve done did a lot of things.
“We’ve scored a lot of points in our career, me and Karl,” Payton said. “We have accomplished a lot of things. We’re not looking to that no more. We’re looking for just making a statement that we can win championships and keep winning them until our careers end.”
Said Malone: “We have to go out and communicate with each other as players and not worry about who gets the shots. Just go out and play the game and see what happens. We know what’s at stake.”
On the first full day of training camp, it didn’t take long for talk to turn to the end of the season. Quite simply, if it doesn’t result in another late June parade down Figueroa, it will be a waste of time.
“It would be a failure, I think,” Payton said. “That’s why we assembled this team. It’s a big target on our chest, but we’re going to be OK.”
Said Malone: “Of course it’s pressure. It’s a whole lot of it. But we know about that going in. That’s what life is all about. I think it makes us better human beings. We realize the task at hand. It’s not going to be easy.”
Of the two, Malone seemed a little more wary of the high expectations on this team and a little less adjusted to life with a new group. Perhaps it’s because Payton has already experienced the shock of changing uniforms, when he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks last season after spending the first 12 1/2 years of his career with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Malone, ever since being drafted in 1985, had played for the Utah Jazz, taking feeds off the pick-and-roll from point guard John Stockton.
“After 18 years of a system, [to] learn a new one, it’s an interesting curve ... and it’s a good one,” Malone said. “It’s a lot of fun.
"[There’s] nervousness, because you have to prove yourself all over again. But I’m ready to go.”
In the morning session the Lakers didn’t spend much time working on their half-court triangle offense. They stuck with the basics. But even something as simple as the transition game was a change for Malone.
“I’m used to getting out on the floor and running wide,” Malone said. “Now they’re telling me I have to run up the middle of the floor. Just a mind-set, reprogramming the computer and getting it done and staying within the system of what we’re trying to do.”
The most important session of training camp occurred on the flight to Hawaii on Thursday.
“Most of the time we get on the flight we kind of talk for a few minutes, then everybody settles in, maybe gets some sleep or whatever,” guard Derek Fisher said. “But for the entire five hours [Thursday], all the veterans that were on the plane, we were all bunched up talking, laughing, joking, swapping stories, talking about what we want to accomplish as a team. It was just a great five-hour flight.
“Coming here today, it was almost like seeing them in a Laker uniform ... I was comfortable with it. It wasn’t something that seemed new. I think we had a great deal of time yesterday to kind of break down those initial barriers and find out a little bit about a person and a man.”
The key word was “comfortable.” If Fisher is comfortable with the new players, everyone should be. Last year’s power forwards, Robert Horry and Samaki Walker, are both gone, meaning point guard Fisher is the only player who stood to lose a starting spot by the addition of Payton and Malone.
Fisher admitted that when the Lakers signed Payton, “At first I was taken aback. Any time a guy that plays your position is brought in, it affects you, no matter which way you slice it.”
But he said that after talking with Payton, and hearing from Coach Phil Jackson about how he might have the chance to play in the backcourt with Payton, he isn’t afraid.
“Overall I’m happy with the fact that we have a better basketball team,” Fisher said. “That’s really what it comes down to. Whether I play 38 minutes or 28 minutes, if we don’t win, who cares? [Payton] helps us win.
“I’m excited about the prospect of playing alongside of him, playing behind him, in front of him, whatever the circumstances. I just want to win.”
They all do. That’s why this will work.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.