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From O’Neal to Bryant, showtime becomes go time

The truth? He can’t handle the truth.

Kobe Bryant wouldn’t accept a version of events that differs from his if a shaft of light illuminated his Newport Beach neighborhood and angels presented it to him on a DVD with a heavenly choir singing in the background.

But since he brought it up ...

It’s been three years since he and Shaquille O’Neal split up, a divorce that was overdue since they were sick of each other and everyone, including Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Coach Phil Jackson, was sick of their act.

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Not that any of them ever exactly took responsibility for plowing their dynasty under.

Buss said it was purely financial, putting it on O’Neal, whose demand for an $80-million extension, coupled with his age and work ethic or lack thereof, meant he had to go.

Bryant said he had nothing to do with it.

Personally, I always thought all three -- O’Neal, Bryant and, to a lesser extent, Buss -- were responsible.

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The 2003-04 season started with Bryant returning shakily to the team while standing trial, already focused on leaving as a free agent the next summer.

It even made Jackson’s book, “The Last Season.” Phil wrote that Bryant told him he wanted to get away from O’Neal, noting, “I’m tired of being a sidekick.”

I thought Buss would pooh-pooh the possibility of Bryant leaving and wake up July 1 to find Bryant gone.

Instead, Buss met with Bryant on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004. From all accounts, including Bryant’s, Buss said flatly that he wasn’t going to extend O’Neal.

At the height of this week’s media blitz, Bryant told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stephen A. Smith, “Sure, Shaq and I had our issues, so what?

“We always did and we won three titles. ... It doesn’t change the fact I never, ever, said to get rid of him. And it damn sure doesn’t change the fact that all these years later, promises made to make this team better have not been kept.”

Of course, nowhere in there, or anywhere else, does Bryant say he even uttered one word to Buss about keeping O’Neal.

This is how it works: Nobody is making anything up. Everyone clings to a scenario that absolves them.

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I’ll never believe the two things were compartmentalized in Buss’ mind. I’ll always believe Bryant’s looming free agency factored into Buss’ decision.

Buss had spent months trying to re-sign O’Neal, who wouldn’t budge from his then-$27 million salary -- $5 million more than Buss wanted to pay.

Bigger gaps have been bridged but O’Neal was also being O’Neal.

At their first exhibition in Honolulu, he came off the floor yelling, “Pay me!” Buss, sitting nearby, was obliged to tell the press he wasn’t offended.

Whether you believe Bryant and O’Neal are 50% at fault, or Bryant, O’Neal and Buss are 33% at fault, or Kobe is 34% at fault, one conclusion is inescapable:

As half of the years-long feud that finally broke up their dynasty, Bryant bears some responsibility.

All that was history before, in another jagged turn in Bryant’s jagged career, a lifetime of poise went out the window, stirring up a past he had gotten past.

After three days clarifying his position on Jerry West, Bryant was incensed by two paragraphs deep in a story I wrote, noting a “Laker insider” said they were in this mess only because of Kobe’s insistence on getting away from O’Neal.

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To Bryant, this amounted to a betrayal by the actual Lakers organization, which he said had also made promises “that have not been kept to make this team better.”

The last part went beyond rationalization to being on his own planet. Or what else is new?

The Lakers have spared no effort, with an $77 million payroll, not to mention the $10 million they’re paying Jackson.

In a detail that escaped Bryant, with Karl Malone, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox leaving alongside O’Neal, building a contender in the Wild West out of what was left was on the order of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Of course, Bryant is an amateur GM, himself. When he told Stephen A., “I was gone until Dr. Buss called me from vacation in Italy,” he isn’t kidding.

Bryant was already working on his next team. A Clippers source says Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, told them Kobe wanted them to take Andre Igoudala in the draft. Igoudala happened to be Pelinka’s client too. The Clippers thanked Pelinka for his input and took Shaun Livingston.

If last week was Sports Talk Show Heaven, it was awful for Bryant after three grinding seasons of resurrecting himself from the game’s most despised player to its most admired.

Not much surprises me with Bryant but this did. After all he had been through, this was only basketball.

He’s a great player stuck on a mediocre team. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have carried that burden for years.

Dug in on Planet Kobe, Bryant kept changing his posture with every interview Wednesday, telling Smith he wanted to be traded on ESPN radio in the morning, going on AM 570 to say he hoped to stay in the afternoon, finally telling our Mike Bresnahan he still wants to be traded.

The Lakers are willing to treat the whole thing as temporary insanity but in the really bad news, Kobe hasn’t said anything he didn’t mean.

Unless something promising happens next season, over which he has cast such a pall, he’ll ask out. He’ll only be a year from his 2009 opt-out and the organization will have had as much as it can take.

The circus can’t stay in the same town forever, the Lakers just learned.

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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