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It’s the Return of Star Wars

Times Staff Writer

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, grudging partners in three NBA championships as Lakers, are again at odds, and the animosity between them could drive Bryant from the organization after the season.

Forty-eight hours before the Lakers would open a season that otherwise would have been notable for the summer additions of perennial All-Stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton, O’Neal and Bryant renewed a long-simmering feud based in their contrasting styles and personalities, both on and off the basketball court.

What began Friday with O’Neal’s suggestion that Bryant modify his game and rely more on his teammates until he was in better condition, led Sunday to Bryant’s response that O’Neal worry about his own game, and finally to O’Neal’s ultimatum that Bryant play a team game or leave.

“He’s right,” O’Neal said, “he doesn’t need advice on how to play his position, but he needs advice on how to play team ball. As we start this new season, [stuff’s] got to be done right. If you don’t like it, then you can opt out next year. If it’s going to be my team, I’ll voice my opinion. If he don’t like it, he can opt out.... I ain’t going nowhere.”

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For years the Laker superstars have tussled over control of the offense and the locker room. Sometimes it was in private and sometimes it became an NBA-wide spectacle, as it has again.

Now, Bryant has the option to leave his team of eight seasons, the only one he has played for since being drafted by Charlotte out of high school and traded on draft day. His contract runs through next season, but he can opt out and become a free agent after this one, and has said he will. And, even as he fights a felony sexual assault charge in Colorado that has been bound over for trial and threatens the continuity of his season at least, Bryant again is embroiled in a dispute that everyone has seen before.

“This,” one Laker player said, “is going to get ugly.”

The Lakers won championships in 2000 and 2001 despite hostilities between O’Neal and Bryant. Their relationship warmed late in the 2000-01 season, however, and the pair has been reasonably friendly since. They have been seen laughing together on the bench, and O’Neal has invited Bryant to his Beverly Hills home.

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All of the niceness appears to be gone now, however, as Bryant took deep exception to O’Neal’s advice, and O’Neal seems more than ready to continue his career without Bryant.

Asked Sunday afternoon, after the Lakers practiced at the team’s training facility in El Segundo, about O’Neal’s assertion -- “I think [Bryant] has a lot of help out there. When he has a lot of help he should use them. While he’s playing like he’s playing, he should probably look to be more of a passer until he gets his legs strong.” -- Bryant bristled.

“I’m not changing my game whatsoever,” Bryant said. “I take good shots, hit the open man when he’s there. I definitely don’t need advice on how to play my game.”

He added: “I know how to play my guard spot. He can worry about the low post. I’ll worry about mine.”

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Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak attended a team function Sunday night and was unavailable for comment. He told a team spokesperson that he would speak to O’Neal and Bryant before addressing an issue that could divide the locker room and destroy the team’s chance to reclaim a championship trophy lost to the San Antonio Spurs.

Even before Sunday there had been a strong suspicion within the organization that Bryant’s recent promise to opt out of his contract at season’s end was neither a negotiating ploy nor a personal curiosity, but that he actually would leave after the season.

The belief was -- and is -- that Bryant, after eight seasons, would not play one more possession than he had to with O’Neal, a massive presence on and off the court. That Bryant restated his intentions last week -- even after the Lakers had stood strongly in support of him after the rape allegations -- dismayed some in the organization.

Also, Bryant made no secret of his disdain for the triangle offense, which had brought him championships but dulled his creativity. Others believed Bryant, come July, would be eager to put a bad year behind him, and there might be no better way than to leave the Lakers and/or Los Angeles.

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A date for his trial has not been set. In the meantime, the charges and the looming trial have at times hindered the Lakers’ preparation. Bryant arrived late and out of shape, targeting the end of December to be himself again, then missed time because of two hearing dates, all of which slowed the merging of the four superstars, a daunting task in the best of circumstances.

After using most of training camp to strengthen his legs -- he had arthroscopic knee surgery July 1 -- Bryant played the last two exhibition games, Thursday in Anaheim and Friday in Las Vegas. To the delight of adoring crowds in both arenas, Bryant took a combined 24 shots, despite being limited physically.

Late Friday night, O’Neal offered the opinion that the offense should run more often through O’Neal, Malone and Payton during Bryant’s recovery, and apparently Bryant was unhappy because of it. With several teammates in earshot early Sunday afternoon before practice, Bryant railed against O’Neal’s quotes and insisted again that he would opt out of his contract and sign elsewhere next summer, because of O’Neal.

None of which seemed to bother O’Neal, who also predicted that the quarrel would not bother the team or the season.

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“Not at all, because if he’s open I’m going to give it to him and if I’m open I expect him to give it to me,” he said. “But I don’t care about [anything] else he does. I know he doesn’t care about what [we do]. That’ll just tell you the type of person he is. I’ve never been deemed as selfish. Just ask Karl and Gary why they came here. [For] one person. Not two. One. Period. So, he’s right, I’m not telling him how to play his position. I’m telling him how to play team ball.”

Though he has drawn the ire of Phil Jackson and the coaching staff for playing outside the parameters of the offense, Bryant has become a first-team All-NBA player and a five-time All-Star while doing so. He insisted Sunday that he only plays a team game.

“I always lean on my teammates,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing. I always do that.

“I was aggressive offensively because coach asked me to be aggressive offensively.”

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He referred to a midseason span last season when Jackson asked him to be more assertive, a request that led to Bryant scoring 40 or more points in nine consecutive games and 35 or more in 13 consecutive games. O’Neal was injured and did not play for some of those games.

“If I have an open shot, I take it,” said Bryant, who led the team in assists last season. “I hit the open man. I do what I do. Period.”

O’Neal answered that Bryant frequently separates himself from the rest of the players, including skipping team functions such as Sunday night’s at Staples Center. Bryant was the only player not to attend. Bryant, according to witnesses, also was the only player not to ride the team bus to Anaheim on Thursday.

“That ain’t team,” O’Neal said. “Be a team player and then talk to me.”

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With the regular season at hand, with Malone and Payton perhaps having expected something different, and perhaps not, O’Neal said he was taking control of the team.

“Yeah, everybody knows that,” he said. “And you guys may give [the team] to him, just like you’ve been giving him everything else in his whole lifetime.”

Game 1 is Tuesday.


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