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Nothing to Something

Times Staff Writer

In the beginning, he couldn’t have cared less.

Kobe Bryant’s life changed last summer and his legal situation won’t be resolved until his trial, whenever that is. So if the question is, what did the Lakers’ 2003-04 season mean to him, the answer, at least at first, was.... Nothing.

In the blink of an eye, the fairy tale ended and the rigid control he had exerted over his privacy was lost. Playing a season under such circumstances seemed unthinkable, requiring him to appear in public and take questions from the press.

Nevertheless, if he were going to get his life back, he knew he had to make a stand, so after a summer of seclusion and a lot of “wavering back and forth,” as he noted, he returned.

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He would call his Laker uniform his “golden armor,” but in the beginning, it didn’t protect him from anything, and putting it on didn’t make the world go away, as it once had.

In camp, the young man who’d never admitted to concern, much less fear, said he was “terrified.” The player who’d been a workout monster was 15 pounds underweight, so far out of shape he couldn’t open the exhibition season, acknowledging he’d been too anxious over the summer to do anything.

Events in court were still happening fast. His legal team sought to have the alleged victim testify in a preliminary hearing, hoping to blow the prosecution’s case out of the water. When the motion was rejected, Bryant seemed to sink even lower.

He was hanging on by his fingernails. One day after Bryant worked out by himself at the Laker facility, a reporter suggested he must have good days and bad days.

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“Every day is a bad day,” Bryant said.

He was on his own schedule and the season was incidental. Legal obligations came before Laker games or practices. When necessary, he’d be whisked to Eagle, Colo., by chartered jet [he and the Lakers split the cost].

His opening day had been July 18, when Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert announced that Bryant would be charged with felony sexual assault, bringing down the curtain on what had been a giddy off-season for the Lakers.

A day after newly acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton had been formally introduced at Staples Center, the Bryants had their own news conference there, Vanessa watching as her husband asserted his innocence in a breaking voice while confessing to “the sin of adultery” and acknowledging he was “disgusted with myself.”

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The rest of the summer, Bryant remained sequestered in his Newport Beach home. Even Laker officials couldn’t get their calls returned.

As late as September, Bryant was wondering what to do.

“I didn’t want to feel like I was running and hiding,” he later told ESPN the Magazine’s Tom Friend. “I have absolutely nothing to hide. And I didn’t want to feel like I did. I didn’t want my family to feel that way. So I said, ‘I’m going to go out there and do my job. This is my job. I’m going to go back to work.’”

Of course, it couldn’t be the same; nor could he.

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Bryant had once been all but bulletproof, supremely confident of his ability and his destiny, which, he claimed to have realized when he was 5.

No one who wasn’t inner circle could get to him, not even Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal was seven years older but when they’d been feuding, Kobe had bothered Shaq a lot more than Shaq had ever bothered Kobe.

Now, though, Bryant wasn’t just vulnerable, he was strung out. He and O’Neal had coexisted easily for the two previous seasons, but now O’Neal was studied in his defense of Bryant and didn’t call. (Shaq said he’d got the machine and left a message.)

Even before arriving at camp, Bryant told Coach Phil Jackson and General Manager Mitch Kupchak that he wouldn’t take anything from O’Neal, who was already blithely zinging away, announcing, “The whole team is here,” before Bryant reported. On another occasion, O’Neal said he was resting to be right “for Derek [Fisher] and Karl and Gary.”

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Even under the circumstances, people were shocked when Bryant turned up in Honolulu, looking ashen and frail. The Times’ J.A. Adande wrote a column, advising him to sit the season out for his own good. The New York Times’ Selena Roberts advised him to sit it out to “liberate” teammates from his woes.

More woes were coming.

Bryant came back gunning in the last two exhibition games, O’Neal chided him in the press and Kobe went ballistic, announcing through ESPN’s Jim Gray that Shaq was an out-of-shape malingerer who took all the credit and none of the blame and hadn’t cared enough to call him over the summer.

That was before the Lakers had played a game.

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They became a clinic in distraction. They started 18-3, showing how well their four Hall of Famers could play together, but that was a false dawn.

The rest of the season was a mess, beset with injuries which, at least, gave them something to blame this disaster on, rather than the rift that had split them.

Bryant was now intent on opting out of his contract in summer and leaving, and sometimes vented in front of teammates. Teammates were upset at him because they thought he was leaving. He was upset at them for being upset at him, which made him ever more intent on leaving.

Bryant was isolated. He was brusque with the press, which had once adored him but now felt his anger. Even more conscious of privacy, he pointedly told members of his security detail not to talk to reporters, even in casual conversation.

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In contrast, a writer who had once done a tough story about Bryant was received like a conquering hero by the other players in the dressing room the next day.

The rift showed on the floor, with Bryant taking over fourth quarters while teammates deferred, then rolled their eyes afterward. As one Laker -- not O’Neal -- noted one night, “What are we, robots?”

Things nose-dived before the All-Star break. Bryant missed seven games with a badly cut finger, suffered, he said, on a broken window while moving boxes in his garage. This a night after “Celebrity Justice” had reported he’d had a fling with a hotel employee in Portland, although she said they hadn’t had sex and he had been a “perfect gentleman.”

The team was struggling down the East Coast without Bryant when management suddenly announced it had broken off negotiations with Jackson for a contract extension.

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Insiders subsequently said owner Jerry Buss, who had just visited Bryant in Newport Beach, was signaling Kobe that he would let Jackson go if that was Bryant’s price for staying.

Asked what impact Jackson’s exit might have on his own decision, Bryant answered, “I don’t care.” Days later, he told The Times’ T.J. Simers, “I don’t like Phil as a person,” although he claimed to “love him as a coach.”

They hit the All-Star break No. 5 in the Western Conference, looking as if they’d be lucky to finish the season, let alone win anything.

Bryant had been saying publicly his first preference was to remain a Laker, but it was a pro forma sort of declaration that few took seriously.

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At the All-Star media day, Bryant said it again, sounding as if he really meant it. Still, few were convinced. If he wanted to stay, he could have committed himself right there and then, since the Lakers could pay him more than any other team and had a maximum offer on the table.

Nevertheless, he came out of the All-Star break, playing not only brilliantly but unselfishly, averaging 27 points and 6.1 assists -- both team highs -- the rest of the season.

Not that it would ever be uncomplicated. In April, the Lakers went on an 11-game winning streak that seemed to presage one of their typical spring runs. This one turned out to be one of their shorter ones.

After losing at home to San Antonio and Portland, they went to Sacramento for a division showdown with the Kings and no-showed, falling behind by 19 points by halftime as Bryant took one shot.

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Whatever it was, it looked like Bryant’s response to suggestions that he’d been shooting too much. A teammate -- not O’Neal -- told The Times’ Tim Brown, “I don’t know how we can forgive him.”

Bryant went off the next day in a meeting, described by a team official as “Kobe is melting down,” going to teammates, one by one, asking angrily and profanely if they’d said it. No one copped to it.

In a game you had to see to believe, Bryant had one of his most remarkable performances two days later in Portland in the final game of the season. He tied it at the end of regulation with a sidearm three-pointer while being smothered by Ruben Patterson. He won it in overtime with an even more improbable three-pointer he’d launched halfway to the ceiling to get it over the onrushing Theo Ratliff.

The victory vaulted the Lakers from No. 4 to No. 2 in the seedings. Not that anyone thought a team so divided would go far in the playoffs, in any case.

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Then came the real upset, something that looked like a thaw.

It happened, strangely enough, at what seemed the beginning of the end. After eliminating the Houston Rockets in the first round, the Lakers lost the first two games to the Spurs, putting themselves in a hole only seven NBA teams had come back from.

The Lakers figured to fall apart, rather than come together under pressure. However, come together they did, winning the next four games.

Bryant was sensational. His performances after flying back from court proceedings said nothing about his guilt or innocence, but won the admiration of people around the league.

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He had 31 points in the Game 5 clincher against the Rockets, 42 in Game 4 against the Spurs and 31 in Game 4 against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the conference finals.

Coincidentally or not, insiders said Bryant was now actually thinking about staying. Meanwhile, O’Neal, whose detachment had suggested pointedly that he’d he happy if Bryant left, suddenly turned constructive, praising Kobe to the sky, calling him “the best player ever.”

Not that this was conclusive. Some Bryant insiders still insist he’ll leave, which leaves the future of Jackson and the Lakers’ six other free agents in question.

Nevertheless, this is a different Bryant. He’s still snippy enough at times to suggest the pressure he feels, but he’s back to feeling sure of himself, at least as a basketball player. He smiles as much as he ever did during games and talks about how much fun it is to play.

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At 25 and still coming into his own, he’s more and more the Lakers’ first option, averaging 25 points in postseason play to O’Neal’s 20.

Bryant has something resembling last season’s body back, after months of weightlifting. He doesn’t have his life back and his real trial hasn’t begun but, for the moment, every day no longer looks like a bad one.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Path to the Playoffs

May 15, 2003: Lakers lose to San Antonio Spurs, 110-82, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, ending a run of three consecutive titles. June 30: Unbeknown to the Lakers, Kobe Bryant flies to Colorado to have surgery on his injured knee. Late at night, he has an encounter with a hotel employee in his room. He later says they had consensual sex; she says he raped her. He undergoes surgery the next morning. July 2: Lakers attempt to contact All-Stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton, with The Times reporting first the next day that both may sign as free agents. July 6: Bryant turns himself in to authorities in Eagle, Colo., where he is arrested on suspicion of felony sexual assault. July 8: “The Glove” fits. Payton commits to the Lakers for 2003-2004. July 10: Malone agrees to join the Lakers, taking a nearly $18-million pay cut from the $19.3-million salary he earned the previous season with the Utah Jazz. July 18: A day after Payton and Malone are officially introduced as Lakers at a Staples Center news conference, Bryant holds his own. Formally charged in Colorado earlier in the day, Bryant confesses to “the sin of adultery” -- but says “I’m innocent” of sexual assault. Oct. 2: With Bryant absent from the first day of Laker training camp in Hawaii, Shaquille O’Neal proclaims, “The team is here.” Oct. 20: His preliminary hearing concluded, Bryant is ordered to stand trial for felony sexual assault. Oct. 24-27: O’Neal suggests that Bryant modify his game to pass more until he returns to top physical condition. Bryant fires back by saying O’Neal should not worry about him but concentrate on playing the low post. Responds O’Neal: “He needs advice on how to play team ball,” and “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.” Back to Bryant: “This is his team, so it’s time for him to act like it. That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape. It also means no more blaming others for our team’s failure or blaming staff members for not over-dramatizing your injuries so that you avoid blame for your lack of conditioning.” The team’s reaction? Malone says he told both players, “You’re not paying me enough for this [stuff].” Oct. 28: With Bryant sitting out with a knee still not fully recovered, Malone and Payton combine for 36 points, 17 rebounds and 18 assists as the Lakers win their season opener against Dallas, 109-93. Dec. 9: The Lakers beat the New York Knicks, 98-90, culminating an 18-3 start. Dec. 19: Arriving at Staples Center late after a court hearing in Eagle, Colo., Bryant scores 13 points, including a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer to beat the Denver Nuggets, 101-99. Dec. 21: Malone, who has missed only six days because of injury or illness in his 18-season NBA career, injures his right knee in the first quarter of a 107-101 victory over the Phoenix Suns. He misses the next 39 games. Jan. 7, 2004: The Lakers suffer their sixth loss in seven games; are 3-8 since 18-3 start. Jan. 12: Bryant suffers a bruised shoulder in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Between that injury and a deep cut to a finger in what he said was an accident in his garage, he plays in just two games--67 minutes-- in the next month. Feb. 11: Citing the potential for yet another distraction, the team suspends negotiations to extend Coach Phil Jackson’s contract, a five-year, $30-million deal that expires at the end of the season. Feb. 14: On Valentine’s Day, love is only somewhat in the air. Bryant tells Times’ columnist T.J. Simers, “I don’t like Phil [Jackson] as a person,” but adds, “I love him as a coach.” Of O’Neal, Bryant says, “Does it interest me to see what it would be like without him? Sure, I think about it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play with him or I want to get away from him.” Feb. 25: Nearly $10 million apart in negotiations with the team for a two-year contract extension, O’Neal verbally jabs General Manager Mitch Kupchak, taking credit for recruiting Payton and Malone and saying, “If I was general manager, with a team like this, there’d be no problems.” Feb. 26: Kupchak says O’Neal won’t be fined for his comments, but adds, “I would hope for more professional behavior.” O’Neal softens his stance. “It’s like if I thought you could improve as a writer,” he says, I’d tell you you should use more verbs.” Feb. 28: “The Glove” doesn’t fit. One day after his agent tells reporters there are moments when Payton “regrets” his decision to become a Laker, the gloves are off again. Payton says he expected to make sacrifices on a team with three superstars, but “not this type of sacrifice. I’m not playing the way I think I should be played.” March 12: Malone comes off the injured list and scores 13 points in 21 minutes in a 96-86 loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis. It marks the first time since Dec. 21 that the Lakers have their four stars in the same lineup. March 24: Another hearing date in Colorado, another mad dash to Staples Center, another huge game for Bryant, who scores 36 points in a 115-91 victory over the Sacramento Kings. April 11: Bryant takes one first-half shot in a blowout loss to the Kings, prompting many observers - and a few teammates - to wonder if he had chosen this important late-season game to make the point that he is tired of complaints that he shoots too much. The next day, one anonymous Laker tells The Times’ Tim Brown, “I don’t know how we can forgive him.” April 13: Incensed at the anonymous quote, Bryant confronts several of his teammates before a morning shoot-around, demanding to know who said such a thing. No one owns up. “Every single one of them say they didn’t say it,” Bryant tells reporters. Later, Bryant takes a season-high-tying 29 shots and scores a season-high 45 points in a 109-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors. April 14: All is well again. Bryant hits an off-balance 26-foot three-pointer with one second left to send the game into overtime, then drains another fadeaway three-pointer at the buzzer in the second overtime for a 105-104 victory over Portland that gives the Lakers the Pacific Division championship. Says O’Neal: “This is how a great player, a great confident guy, makes a shot.” May 11: Trailing by 10 at the half, the Lakers rally for a 98-90 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, evening the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals at 2-2. Bryant, on the day he pleads “not guilty” to sexual assault charges in Colorado, scores 42 points and O’Neal has 28 points and 14 rebounds. May 13: The term “Go Fish” takes on new meaning. Derek Fisher shoots his way into Laker lore, sinking a turnaround 18-foot shot with 0.4 on the clock to give the Lakers a 74-73 victory--and a 3-games-to-2 lead-- in their series against the Spurs. May 31: Kareem Rush comes off the bench and scores 18 points--on six three-point baskets--to lead the Lakers to a 96-90 victory and a 4-2 win over the Minnesota in the Western Conference finals.


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