Sports stars can no longer keep feuds in the family
By Phil Taylor
Very little stays behind closed doors anymore. Locker room feuds, no matter how minor, find their way into print, on the air or into cyberspace. Trade demands, no matter how quickly recanted or dismissed, become public knowledge. This isn't to say that the contretemps between Lakers stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are insignificant, just that the media scrutiny of celebrities of their magnitude amplifies even the whisper of discontent into a roar.
Friction between famous teammates is nothing new. Magic Johnson implied last week that he and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found it difficult at times to get along when they were the cornerstones of the 1980s L.A. teams, but it didn't keep them from winning five championships. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale sometimes sniped at each other when they were Celtics teammates, but they won three titles. "Put great players on the same team, and you're going to get big egos at the same time," says Johnson. "Guys bump heads. It's always been like that. The difference is, you used to be able to keep that stuff in the locker room and let it blow over. Not anymore."
Not to say that the media need to shoulder all the blame. After all, if you use the press to turn yourself into a mononym, as these two have done, it's going to stick around for all the less carefully scripted moments, too -- that double-edged-sword thing.
So it's likely that the chill between Bryant and O'Neal -- Shaq thinks Kobe shoots too much, and Kobe refuses to indulge Shaq's insecurities -- isn't a terminal disease for the Lakers but just another flare-up of a chronic condition. O'Neal's Dec. 28 request to be traded was made in the heat of the moment, after a 115-78 victory over the Suns in which Bryant outscored him 38-18, and general manager Mitch Kupchak treated it as such by ignoring it. Similarly, when Bryant reportedly urged another team to make a trade offer for him last month, nothing came of that. Neither player is going to talk himself out of an L.A. uniform, at least not this season.
The Lakers' best hope is that Bryant and O'Neal will realize how much they are both diminished by their squabbling. Shaq's bellyaching about Bryant's domination of the offense and Shaq's hinting that he gives less than his best on defense when he isn't getting his shots make him appear unprofessional. Bryant's refusal to adjust his game to help maintain team harmony makes him look immature and selfish. Whether coach Phil Jackson likes it or not, meetings with the antagonists are inevitable -- in private, away from the spotlight. You can be sure we'll hear all about them.
Issue date: January 22, 2001
For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, January 17. Click here to subscribe to SI.