Life Gets a Little Too Real for Kobe and the Lakers
Before their season from hell came their preseason from hell.
Not even Coach Phil Jackson, who’d warned his team what was coming, expected a circus like this, as proceedings in Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case dragged into their fourth week without a trial date, and the strung-out Laker organization barred members of the media on media day, then lifted the credential of another for asking the wrong question.
Like everyone else, Jackson had come to rely on the old Bulletproof Kobe, but this wasn’t that prodigy anymore, emerging from a summer of seclusion.
Meanwhile, lest anyone forget Shaquille O’Neal, he had issues too, starting with management’s refusal to extend his contract, which runs three more seasons at an average of $29.3 million.
This turned out to be a misunderstanding. After O’Neal stalked out of an exhibition in Hawaii bellowing “Pay me,” the Lakers said they were willing, but at something like $50 million for two seasons, rather than the $68-million maximum. Shaq then announced his willingness to “sacrifice.”
Of course, as soon as that was cleared up, O’Neal suggested his displeasure with the usual suspects: Jackson, who was challenging him through the media, and Bryant, whose mere presence now complicates Shaq’s life.
Jackson laughed it off, but he’s an old hand at this and has nothing more to worry about than the imminent season.
Bryant, on the other hand, has bigger problems than O’Neal, and is holding himself together with baling wire.
So it wasn’t that considerate of Shaq to declare, “The full team is here,” when Bryant reported late, or to say he was resting his sore heel because “I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl [Malone] and Gary [Payton].”
Nor was it the optimal time to help Bryant with his shot selection, especially since their problems have as much to do with Shaq’s defense as Kobe’s shooting.
Bryant once ignored O’Neal as a duck ignores dew, but that was then and this is now. In private, Kobe fumed about Shaq’s comments, vowing to opt out of his contract and leave, and finally fired back as he never had -- “He can worry about the low post.”
Then O’Neal said what was on his mind as he never had -- “If it’s going to be my team, I’ll voice my opinion. If he don’t like it, he can opt out” -- and the Lakers were in disarray.
Not that this continuation of their long-running soap opera was anything more than a sideshow.
More than their season is at stake, even if it’s hard to tell the real life, in which there are real consequences, from the entertainment, which is essentially frivolous, concerned with games, J. Lo and Ben, et al.
News and entertainment are now juxtaposed daily, as when Bryant flies home from another somber court appearance for media day because, “It’s my job,” dons his No. 8 uniform, affixes his trademark grin and tapes promos, reading sound bites off cue cards such as, “Paul and Stu, back to you.”
If a rape trial, which changes the lives of two people and all who love them, is more important in fact, it is barely so in practice.
Celebrity justice is, indeed, sensationalized, as Jackson noted while trying, single-handedly, to redirect the media to something of more consequence, like Iraq. However, sports coverage is really sensationalized, which is why people care so much about Bryant and Jackson makes $6 million a year.
Of course, today’s viewing public likes “real” entertainment, so this is perfect.
Even Jackson, who endeavors to maintain principles and a life outside basketball, is obliged to view Bryant through the Laker paradigm: What does this mean for us?
When Bryant showed up late after a day in which he wouldn’t even take or return the Lakers’ calls, Jackson mused about asking Michael Jordan to come out of retirement, which was the NBA equivalent of an Elvis sighting.
Having been to enough circuses of his own, Jordan immediately shot that down. Meanwhile, the media were calling around to check out reports that Bryant had fired his agent, Rob Pelinka, and that Magic Johnson was in a hospital, dying.
Pelinka was still on the job, reports of Johnson’s death were greatly exaggerated and Bryant hadn’t even landed in Hawaii yet.
So if it got even crazier after that, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
The Way It Was
and Is No More
We were talking about this the other night, watching Derek Jeter get three hits. This is what Kobe’s life should have turned out to be. Jeter’s lovable. He comes through in the clutch. Nobody doesn’t like Derek Jeter.
-- a Philadelphia friend of Bryant
It wasn’t just Bryant’s dizzying ascent. It wasn’t over. He wasn’t stopping.
Once he seemed to have it all. He was not only gifted and dedicated to the point of obsession, but bright, cute and personable. Raised religiously -- when he ventured into hip-hop, it was Christian rap -- he wanted to do everything the right way. If he’d been a little king in his family as youngest child and first son, he was also respectful and well-mannered, one of the Lakers who would say hello if you passed him in the hall.
But even at 17, before he had anything to hide, Bryant was into denial. Cocooned by his family, he was polite but slow to open up. He didn’t acknowledge fears, doubts or regrets. It would be years before he’d talk about driving around the UCLA campus, wondering what he was missing.
He seemed truly bulletproof then, oblivious to what anyone outside the family thought, even teammates. Former assistant Larry Drew told of a meeting at which then-Coach Kurt Rambis tried to heal the breach and player after player went off on Bryant. By way of reply, Kobe went out and fired off 20 shots in that night’s game.
Nor was he dismayed when he first heard that O’Neal was upset with him. Bryant said O’Neal was always nice in person and couldn’t imagine what the problem was.
The bottom line was that Kobe didn’t think much about Shaq, one way or the other.
Bryant endured the wrenching break with his parents and sisters over his marriage with nary a peep. If he was on his own planet, he always returned in the nick of time. That was how the volatile Lakers won three titles in a row; in crunch time, Shaq would become enthusiastic and Kobe would become lucid.
Now Bryant can’t hide his living nightmare, and often he doesn’t even try.
He has a Lost Boy-in-Never Land quality as he tries to put his life back together from the ground up. As if reconsecrating himself, he often enunciates the guiding principles of his life: 1) God; 2) his family; 3) basketball.
His devotion overflows, as it always has, but now in the direction of Vanessa, his wife. He buys her a $4-million diamond and a $2.6-million house near theirs for her mother. He gets his first tattoos as a tribute to Vanessa and their daughter, Natalia.
Not that any of this plays well, publicly.
The New York Daily News’ Mike Lupica writes: “He perhaps could have thought about his purpose on Earth a little more before he ordered up a 19-year-old concierge the way some people do something off the 24-hour room-service menu.”
Nor can Bryant’s legal team, which is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to worry about appearances, be enchanted, but they work for him. There’s never a question about who’s in charge in any Bryant endeavor and at the end of the day, Kobe is going to be Kobe.
Yearning to get his former life back, he tries to reassert his old routine. He talks to the media as much as he ever did, but tries to keep it about basketball -- “My lungs didn’t burn once!” he exclaimed after his first exhibition. That stuff was once of some interest but now pales in importance.
Despite the horde that follows him, he doesn’t want a news-conference format with a table and chairs, which would acknowledge a new state of affairs. Instead he does the casual, here-I-am stand-up, producing a daily media stampede.
Bryant won’t discuss the case, of course, and the Lakers have so informed their press corps. However, there’s a large gray area that the media are obliged to go into, and which Bryant often responds to: the effect on him.
It’s relevant to his performance as a basketball player but can trigger a monster reaction, as when a CBS News producer asked how Bryant felt about a pending court ruling, after which she was told she would no longer be accredited.
The Basketball Writers Assn. protested to the NBA office, which discussed it with the Lakers. The e-mails going back and forth are still being sorted out.
Back at the front, the confrontation did, indeed, have a chilling effect. Before Bryant’s exhibition debut in Anaheim, when nothing was more relevant than how he felt, none of us who were there asked the question.
Said ESPN’s David Aldridge: “It was like there was an elephant in the room, and you couldn’t talk about it.”
The reality is that Bryant’s life could not be more different.
Where he once did hours of interviews, photo shoots and commercials after practice, he now can go home. Only one of his sponsors, Nutella, has said it will not renew his contract but none has any of his commercials in rotation.
The preoccupation with security is constant. In Hawaii, Bryant’s bodyguards took the rooms on each side of his suite. At the Arrowhead Pond, two security people with Vanessa cleared out a ladies’ room before she entered.
Where Bryant’s inner circle once included his parents and father figures such as Jerry West, his agent, Arn Tellem, and older teammates such as Byron Scott and Derek Harper, now it’s tiny: Bryant, Vanessa, Natalia, Pelinka and the legal team.
Insiders say Pelinka doesn’t try to talk Bryant out of things, as Tellem did. Kobe doesn’t want anything divulged to the media, so Pelinka doesn’t return calls.
Last spring, Bryant seemed to begin reconciling with his parents, but Pam and Joe have been out of sight since his arrest. Reporters who call their home in Philadelphia get a recording saying the voice mail is full and they can’t leave messages.
This will be Kobe’s life until his trial. This may be why his attorneys tried so vigorously to keep it from going to trial, although that was considered to be a longshot, or no shot.
Distractions, however welcome, are only that. When Bryant began practicing, his mood seemed to lighten, prompting someone to ask whether he had good days and bad days.
“Every day is a bad day,” Bryant said. “You just kind of take the good with it.”
Once it was good days and better days. Now it’s bad days and worse days.
Their Season, His Life
This may not be fun for the entire organization, but Jackson can do this stuff standing on his head.
Of all his attributes, none is more singular than his ability to live in the eye of the storm, keeping pressure off his team, rather than piling it on in the manner of other top coaches such as Larry Brown and Pat Riley.
So cocksure was Jackson, he informed the media he would show players “how to dodge questions that you guys present,” and said that Bryant’s situation might actually be a “boon” that brought the team together.
Like everything else now, the Lakers run on two tracks. The strain shows on Bryant and the front office but, aside from O’Neal, the players don’t seem caught up with it, enduring the inevitable questions patiently. Malone and Payton, who always had to carry their teams, look as if they have died and gone to heaven, happily chatting up the waves of media that come their way.
Of course, from the perspective of publicist John Black, who’s now obliged to enforce limits on media curiosity, it’s more like a horror show.
“Just assume this is the season from hell and anything that doesn’t go wrong is a bonus,” someone suggested.
“I just didn’t know the flames would be so hot,” Black said.
“Access Hollywood” and “Inside Edition” are on the case nightly. New talent, however unfamiliar with the territory, arrives daily. Before an exhibition at Staples Center, a TV guy doing a courtside remote asked a local writer, “Which one is Payton?”
In Las Vegas, a TV woman entering the dressing room greeted Fisher with a breezy, “Hey, Deron!”
Jackson acted unconcerned as Bryant missed six exhibitions and O’Neal four. Thus, it seemed like a big moment when Bryant -- who before this hadn’t been out of shape since entering puberty -- was ready and the Big Four played together for the first time in the next-to-last exhibition game.
Bryant’s mood, determinedly upbeat in Hawaii, fell when he learned he would stand trial. Now it rose again. On the floor against the Clippers, exchanging hugs with players such as Quentin Richardson as fans cheered and chanted his name, Kobe’s face showed an emotion that hadn’t been seen since his arrest: joy.
Afterward, however, someone asked the magic question, phrased as, “Kobe, are you happy today?”
Wincing, Bryant noted, “Nothing’s going to take away from what I’m going through.”
Nor was it a triumph for the Lakers, who allowed 107 points and lost.
The next night in Las Vegas, Jackson, the positivist, threw out the possibility that this team, with its marquee players and massive expectations, could “implode.”
The fans chanted Bryant’s name that night but afterward, O’Neal suggested that if Kobe wasn’t in shape, he might try passing more, and the earth began trembling under their feet.
So the preseason didn’t turn out to be all they’d hoped for, and they hadn’t been hoping for much.
As much as they all wish for it, the game can’t be as important until the real-life issue is resolved. Unfortunately for all concerned, that won’t be soon.
For the moment, Kobe’s not the same, nor are the Lakers. Nor may he or they ever be again.