Kobe and the Bench Mob (cont.)
Gaining Bryant's trust was one thing, but each member of the Bench Mob had something to prove on his own. Farmar spent his rookie season, 2006--07, playing behind Smush Parker (which ain't like backing up Elvis), and on three occasions he was sent down to play a game with the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the D-League. It made sense -- the 6' 2" Farmar was out of the rotation and coach Phil Jackson wanted him to learn the triangle offense -- but it was still a D-motion. "Inside, I was upset and frustrated," says Farmar, 21. "But at the same time it's a business, and if they ask you to do something, you do it."
Last summer general manager Mitch Kupchak threw Farmar another curve, informing him that L.A. had drafted point guard Javaris Crittenton of Georgia Tech at No. 19. But after Farmar shone early this season, Crittenton was packaged along with serial underachiever Kwame Brown in the February deal -- make that steal -- with the Memphis Grizzlies that brought Gasol.
Farmar's speed was a major reason that Jackson, for much of this season, used the second unit as an entity independent of the first, excused from running the triangle and permitted to run-and-gun and play full-court defense. Jackson calls it "live ball" and allows it to go on with certain restrictions. "On all dead-ball situations," says the coach, "they know they have to get into traditional triangle play." But against Utah, Farmar's quickness-based game had suffered in the yoke of the Jazz's physicality.
With his fellow reserves Walton generally performs the role of stabilizing influence -- the Mob's godfather, as it were. Then again, sometimes that's his role even when he's with the starters. Ever since he came to the Lakers as a bargain pick from Arizona (No. 32) in '03, the mention of Walton's name has sooner or later been followed by the phrase high basketball IQ. One wonders if Walton's status with the Bench Mob is iffy, because he's an occasional starter (31 of 74 games this season) and a frequent finisher (he averaged 14.0 points in the first round against the Nuggets). Plus, he's the only Mobster with a sandwich named after him. That the half-pounder (Luke Walton's Ragin Cajun Burger) is on the menu at a restaurant chain (Joey's Smokin' BBQ) he co-owns is beside the point. "Has the Mob cast me out because I used to start?" says the 6' 8" Walton, who was on the floor for the opening tip in all 60 games he played last season. "No, I'm O.K. I fit right in." Still, as much as Walton likes his guys, he'd like to leave them. "Let's face it," he says, "everybody wants to be a starter."
Turiaf's elbows-and-knees style presage a career as a classic backup big man. On the court he is nothing like his French national-team frères, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker and Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw, whose games are built on speed and finesse, respectively. But the 6' 10" Turiaf, the 37th pick in '05, was a bona fide back-to-the-basket threat at Gonzaga (he averaged more than 15 points in each of his last three seasons) and has worked hard to develop a nice touch in the paint. Plus, as he says, "I have a great basketball IQ for the triangle."
Whatever his future, Turiaf, 25, doesn't act like a bench player. Before games he skips and prances around the court as if he's warming up for Dancing with the Stars. On and off the court, he can talk the shell off a hard-boiled egg. Maybe that's how you act when you have an NBA career despite six-hour heart surgery to correct an enlarged aortic root, which was diagnosed in July 2005. He has also achieved YouTube immortality (for this year anyway) by costarring in a clip in which Bryant jumps over a speeding Aston Martin. "It was a lot of fun," says Turiaf, "but I always have a lot of fun with Kobe. I promise you."
Vujacic and Bryant had much of their fun together in Vujacic's second season, when they often met for 6 a.m. workout sessions. "I have always been a fanatic about basketball," says Vujacic, a 24-year-old who was the 27th pick in '04, "and I had been frustrated in my rookie year. I wanted to get better. So did Kobe. Kobe always wants to get better. We are much alike." They are also alike in the feelings of animosity they engender from opponents -- Bryant's stemming from his on-court arrogance and, well, his proclivity for putting up three- or four-dozen points; Vujacic's from his nonstop, nose-to-nose aggression and sometimes deadly accurate jumper. "Getting in people's faces," says Vujacic, "I learned that from Kobe."
The 6' 7" Vujacic plays kind of a 1.5 guard in the Lakers' offense. "Sasha sees himself as a point," says Kupchak, "but we don't always agree." That debate has existed since Vujacic arrived in '04 from Snaidero Udine of the Italian league as a skinny, short-haired bundle of energy and continues even though he has picked up a nickname, the Machine, for his three-point shooting proficiency. "I did not give it to myself," says Vujacic, who has distinguished himself in the Utah series with 15 and 12 points in Games 1 and 2 along with his 11 in Game 4. Moreover, his frenetic, arm-waving defense has bothered Jazz swingman Kyle Korver -- as it would even a Buddhist on Valium. "When I first got here I didn't get in the games much because I played defense like every European player," says Vujacic. "In Europe we play occasionally defense."
Vujacic also gets his hair cut only occasionally, and not much off the sides when he does. It was a huge moment for him when Lisa Estrada, the longtime director of the Laker Girls, found him a black suede hair band to keep his locks out of his eyes. "It is a special band," says Vujacic.
What the Lakers have going now is a special bond, forged in conflict, strengthened by success. "Give credit to the organization for drafting character guys like Ronny, Sasha, Jordan and, of course, Luke," says Bryant. "I think the most important thing for us this year was how hard our young players worked and how much they developed. None of this would be happening without them." It is indeed rare -- a killer Mob that doesn't feel the need to take over.