When the side door opened and basketball practice revealed itself Wednesday afternoon, Shaquille O’Neal was rolling on the floor, Gary Payton was with him, and Karl Malone and Horace Grant stood over them.
They were laughing nearly to the point of tears.
Trying to hold his poise, Grant put his hands on his hips with some determination, but Malone kept smacking him playfully, and Payton’s crackling voice rang through it all. Grant gave up. He waved and walked off the floor, half-bent at the waist, defeated by the nonstop barbs.
As he went, he said, “Don’t ever get into a ragging contest with Gary Payton,” and chuckled again as he pulled the door of the weight room closed behind him.
“He did surrender,” Payton said with a crooked grin. “He got tired of it. Me and Shaq were on him too much.”
The night before at Staples Center, they had all played reasonably well in beating the Dallas Mavericks, 109-93. At the conclusion of a few days spent mending themselves and finding continuity and a little fun in the offense, the Lakers took an ounce of pride in their 1-0 record.
In their first game together, but with Kobe Bryant still rehabilitating his knee, the rest of the Lakers shared 32 assists, a figure last year’s team surpassed only once, and had six players score in double figures.
Payton looked as if he’d run with his unit for years, not days. Malone had 10 rebounds and nine assists in 29 minutes and then said, “I can play like that forever.”
There wasn’t much not to like, from Derek Fisher’s steady play to Bryon Russell’s to Devean George’s, and everyone is still waiting on Bryant. So, in a single moment, the Lakers remade their image again, reminding everyone that between the meetings and the half-apologies, they do play basketball, sometimes very well, sometimes scarily so.
While Coach Phil Jackson insisted, “I’m not giddy,” in part because the Mavericks, other than Antoine Walker, missed a lot of jump shots, he was at least relieved. Ten years before, at Chicago Stadium, Jackson’s Chicago Bulls played an opener that held some significance. The Bulls and their coaches had received their championship rings from the June before, as the Miami Heat waited. Michael Jordan, who had recently retired to baseball, sat in the first row. In a suit.
“We were going to show the world we could play without Michael,” Jackson said, adding, “Hopefully.”
As the Bulls were blown out, Jordan was seen to sigh more than once. He wouldn’t be back for more than a year.
This was different. Bryant was on the bench in a red T-shirt. The splashy early-summer signings played young and O’Neal played happy. And, as of Wednesday night, Jordan was still a rumor.
Said Jackson: “They want to believe they have some answers to some questions about how they’re going to play together and how they’re going to be able to run the offense and how long it’s going to take for them to jell together as a basketball club. I think they wanted to make some statement about it.”
Half a day later, an unproductive free-throw exercise had turned into a fall-down, hold-your-pants giggle. The ball went ignored. Grant wobbled away. On the other end of the floor, Bryant practiced with seven others, and everyone seemed pleasant enough.
Although there was a misunderstanding -- the Lakers told O’Neal he couldn’t talk for a day and he must have heard week -- one solid victory had at least done something for appearances. Rather than the image of Bryant and O’Neal carping at each other and the new guys duct-taping them back together, it was of Payton on the break, Malone on the wing, O’Neal selfless on the interior.
“This was it,” Payton said. “People were expecting us to lose, so they could make more trouble out of things. It took a lot of wind out of a lot of people. Now, we’ve got to keep it going.”
Jackson’s orders to Payton exactly, and just what he envisioned when the organization chose him as its top priority in May. In 36 minutes against the Mavericks, Payton scored 21 points and had nine assists and slayed the crowd with his buccaneer’s stance at the top of the key.
“The first time Jerry Buss and I talked about him seriously, about the desires of this franchise, the motivating thing was his tenacity and his drive,” Jackson said. “His offensive drive. His persistence and his aggressiveness ... can fuel a ballclub. This is our hope, that we get games like this. But we know that Gary’s not going to be able to do it every night. There’s going to be some difficult nights for him, too, and we’re going to have to find other answers and players that help him out. That’s what we’re trying to emphasize as a team, is that we’ve got a group that hopefully can play together in these situations.”
Near the end of practice, “together” having deteriorated into “stop shaking long enough to find the basketball,” Malone wiped his eyes.
“You can’t get caught up in being serious every day,” he said. “I even have to lighten up a little bit. I’ve been pretty serious over the years.”