But there are limits to what even these strong personalities can do. In fact, as conciliatory as both Malone and Payton have been to Bryant, their arrival may have driven him even deeper into his shell. Shaq, Malone and Payton have become something like the Three Amigos. There they are after practice is finished, bent over at the waist in mirth as they casually shoot free throws but mostly the breeze. There is O'Neal giving Payton a big bear hug while Malone punches Shaq on the shoulder. There is Payton offering nonstop commentary as O'Neal and Malone go at each other in an insult-laced three-point shooting contest that features more bricks than swishes. And there is Bryant, off to the side, hoisting free throws, working on rehabbing his right knee, running sprints in an effort to get back his wind. Kobe is no amigo.
There can't be many lonelier men on the public stage right now than Bryant. He's the Gray Davis of sports, but his public ordeal, unlike the jilted governor's, is not nearly over. While the Lakers took a team flight to Phoenix last Friday, Bryant, because of unspecified legal obligations, flew in on Saturday morning. Jackson approved the travel arrangement, but it could happen again, and it's just another thing that marks Bryant as a man apart. That's his life right now. He's been charged with felony sexual assault in Colorado and if convicted could serve four years to life in prison. He is reportedly estranged—re-estranged is more accurate—from his parents. Last month Saturday Night Live cast members added to his humiliation with a skit in which his wife, Vanessa, treats him well when others are around but berates him when they're alone.
In the off-season Bryant had worked to build up his body, but the demands of dealing with the rape charge hurt his conditioning and, until recently, he looked almost gaunt. Every time he goes on the road he must tune out the catcalls, try to keep his head in the game. It wasn't too bad in Phoenix—about two thirds of the crowd jeered him at the outset, though that quickly tapered off—but it's going to be a lot worse in places like Sacramento, Philadelphia and, of course, Denver. You have to believe that some wiseass arena P.A. operator is getting ready to pull out Jail-house Rock when L.A. comes to town.
Against this backdrop there are those who say that the Lakers should trade Bryant before he opts out and they get nothing for the game's best all-around player. Lost in the hubbub of his pending trial and the dustup with Shaq is the fact that the man, as troubled as his spirit might be, can play a little. Bryant looked tentative at times against Phoenix, his first game after sitting out the season-opening 109-93 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, yet he contributed 15 points, six rebounds and four assists in 37 hard-played minutes. Nor did he have trouble recovering for the back-to-back game against the Warriors, in which he scored 21 points, made five steals and was the Lakers' best player. ( Bryant received a sprinkling of boos but mostly cheers from the Staples Center crowd when he was introduced.)
It's inconceivable that Kupchak wants to be known as the Guy Who Traded Kobe in the Prime of his Career. And even if he were so inclined, owner Jerry Buss said on Sunday night that he wouldn't allow Bryant to be dealt. "I'm not about to trade my son," Buss told the assembled media.
Jackson (would Jerry call him son-in-law?) has been fairly quiet, adopting what he calls an aspect of "watchfulness." But he is the only one with the gravitas to get through to O'Neal and Bryant, as he has in the past. And though Jackson is not the general manager, it's up to him to get a sense of whether Bryant is inclined to stay or go, and, needless to say, urge him to stay.
There's one school of thought that Jackson orchestrated the whole Kobe- Shaq feud to deflect attention from Bryant's sexual assault case. That is absurd, even allowing for Jackson's reputation as a master manipulator. Jackson was serious when he said, going into the preseason, that he wanted to give Bryant a refuge, establish a "family atmosphere" for him, and the coach was disappointed when Bryant's "family" turned out to be the Osbournes. Even Jackson couldn't invent something this intense.
Nor, it must be added, could television.
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