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Bryant Getting on Board

Times Staff Writer

After more than a day of uncertainty, Kobe Bryant was to board a jet on Friday night in Los Angeles and join the Lakers for practice this morning in Hawaii.

Twenty minutes after getting that news, General Manager Mitch Kupchak steered away from Waikiki and through Honolulu, headed to the second of two practices Bryant would miss on the campus of the University of Hawaii. Assuming he is on the floor this morning, Bryant will not be fined for his absences, according to Kupchak, who would settle for being satisfied that a first misstep was righted.

“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have some bumps along the road,” Kupchak said. But having Kobe here for practice is a very good thing. You know, in a sense, maybe it’s good we kind of start off with the understanding we’re going to have to be flexible. Although it would have been nice to start with the group intact, I think this is the way we’re going to have to be all year. The guys, from the get-go, are going to have to understand that.”

For 36 hours, the Lakers did not know if Bryant was coming or staying, or why exactly, and their management was said to be quite displeased with it, despite the shrugs and tepid quotes of understanding offered publicly by Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson. In reality, according to sources, they hated that Bryant was not with the team Thursday night, and hated more that he refused to take or return their phone calls.

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On Friday, owner Jerry Buss said he would “defer comment” to others in the organization on the matter of Bryant.

“Communication is important,” Kupchak conceded. “We’re dealing with someone who was under the weather. I’m not sure that it’s that unusual, but I would say communication is important. We’ve always been able to communicate. This time will be written off as just one of those things that can happen.”

As of Friday night, it appeared Bryant had still not spoken to Jackson or Kupchak about his delay. Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, has frequently phoned Laker publicist John Black, who relayed information to the coach and general manager. Early Friday evening, Pelinka phoned Black again, this time to say Bryant had made arrangements to fly to Honolulu, though as of mid-evening he had not boarded that flight.

“The key experience here is, not only are we going to have to be flexible in terms of practices and things, we’re going to have to be understanding in other things as well,” Kupchak said. “This is a very unique situation. With Kobe, we’ve never had a problem before.”

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Except that Bryant, in late June, traveled to Eagle, Colo., to undergo surgery on his knee, an operation the Lakers knew nothing about.

“There is a difference,” Kupchak said.

Three days after the surgery, Bryant was booked on suspicion of felony sexual assault and false imprisonment, having been accused of rape by a 19-year-old woman who was an employee of the resort where he stayed. Bryant has admitted to the sex but claims it was consensual.

It set off a summer of difficult moments for Bryant, who was charged with felony sexual assault July 18, and this week was on the losing end of two court rulings.

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While Kupchak and Jackson awaited their All-NBA guard Friday afternoon, players who arrived the night before on the charter that was to carry Bryant suggested their teammate’s unwillingness to fly might be due to billowing anxiety over his circumstances and expressed sympathy for his tenuous situation.

“We’re just ready for him to get here,” Gary Payton said. “We’re not disappointed. We want him to settle all the things he can settle, until his mind gets right. As soon as he gets here, we’re going to welcome him with open arms.”

There was support from most of the campers, even as 19 Lakers practiced and one did not. No one seemed to mind.

“We can only go on what has been relayed to us, which is, ‘He’s under the weather,’ ” Rick Fox said. “The stress of the start of the season as well as the stress of what he’s dealing with off the court, there’s a lot of stress. That’s a very understandable thing to happen. His support is still here with us. We just wish he was here with us, so we could give him more support.”

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What might have been a day of mild celebration for an organization that landed Payton and Karl Malone, despite severe salary-cap and luxury-tax limitations, to play alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant, instead was treated to the grind of the huge media flow following Bryant’s movements. Or, in this case, his lack of movement.

So, when the gym doors opened, O’Neal, Malone, Payton, Derek Fisher and Devean George wore the gold jerseys, while the purples, greens and reds were spread among the other players. O’Neal was thinner in the waist, Malone thicker through the shoulders and the Lakers light one superstar.

Outside the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii, a misty rain caused puddles to form in the coils of television cables leading from trucks parked along a red curb. The afternoon before, a handful of Laker fans sat on the beach at Waikiki, watching jets land at the nearby Honolulu airport, hoping to glimpse the team’s charter.

Bryant, of course, wouldn’t be on it, so he missed the first bonding of the veterans, of which he is one, at only 25.

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Of the high-profile players asked, only O’Neal declined any comment on Bryant’s absence. However, he arrived at camp leaner than he’d been in perhaps 16 months, expressed no hostility for Laker management over the potential hitch in his contract extension and generally seemed pleased to be among teammates, new and old.

“I’m always going to have a clear head,” O’Neal said. “No earthlings or group of earthlings can break me. I’m here to play ball with this group of guys. There’s 90 people here looking for something new. But, what’s done has already been done.

“I’m here to play. Karl and Gary made some sacrifices. ... There’s a lot of hard-working, underpaid people in this world. So, you’ll never really hear me complaining about what I’m getting paid or what I’m not going to be getting paid.”

Jackson had feared a point of diminishing returns if Bryant were to miss more than another day, given the team will play exhibition games Tuesday and Wednesday, and that Bryant is due in Colorado for a hearing Thursday, which could cause him to miss a game and another practice. But that concern appeared to be allayed with Pelinka’s call to Black, and now the Lakers, perhaps, can begin to ready themselves for a season that starts in a little more than three weeks.

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“When he comes,” Fox said, “he should be ready for that. I don’t think it should be a situation where he’s coming and going, coming and going, coming and going.”

For that reason, and for whatever reasons Bryant was delayed, Fox said, “He needs to take his time.”

Said Malone: “You know what? We want Kobe. When he feels comfortable, he’ll be with us. And we’re going to support him. When he’s ready. Not when you guys want him to be here or when anybody else wants him to be here. When he’s ready to be here that means he’s ready to play basketball and that’s when we want him here, because that’s when he’s going to be at his best.”


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