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In Los Angeles, where lines that separate fact and fiction are often blurred, there are two ongoing dramas involving the Lakers. Trade publications such as Variety have been carrying stories about the one-hour dramatic series NBC is developing based on the life of Jeanie Buss, the team's executive vice president of business operations, the daughter of owner Jerry Buss and, famously, the significant other of coach Phil Jackson. Meanwhile, the sports pages—and at times the front pages—have been reporting on the reality series that is the NBA outfit itself, particularly the very public contretemps between those two superstar combatants, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. � If truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, it is also sometimes more dramatic. Certainly the creative team behind the Buss show will have a hard time replicating the electric tension that hummed through the team in recent weeks after Shaq and Kobe started flapping their gums. That tension had diminished by the third game of the season, on Sunday, when Los Angeles beat the depleted Golden State Warriors 87-72 at the Staples Center to keep alive the prospect of an 82-0 season. Shaq and Kobe had lobbed carefully worded conciliatory comments; teammates, particularly veteran newcomers Karl Malone and Gary Payton, had leaped spryly to both players' defense; Jackson had assumed the role of Switzerland; and Shaq (among others) had laid down the kill-the-messenger card, blaming the media for a firestorm that he himself had started.
That is how it usually goes in sports—even feuding teams eventually circle the wagons, particularly if they're playing well. While L.A. showed its proclivity for getting lazy on perimeter defense and playing down to the competition in weekend victories over the Phoenix Suns (103-99 at American West Airlines Arena) and Golden State, the Fab Four was basically doing what it's supposed to be doing. Shaq was a mountain in the middle, Malone a rock at power forward, Payton an ageless jet at point guard and Bryant a consistently spectacular contributor. "Karl and Gary said it best: On any given night you can pick your poison," says O'Neal. "It's funner this way."
Ah, but will it stay funner? Believe this: The enmity between the superstars still exists, and the fate of this fascinating franchise—a team loaded with four future Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach, a team that Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy says could win 75 games, a team that will be considered successful only if it is the last one standing in June—depends upon how well the Lakers deal with it. Or don't deal with it.
Even before O'Neal remarked two weeks ago that Kobe should shoot less until he has recovered from his arthroscopic right-knee surgery (a procedure that was performed, as the free world knows, on July 1 during a fateful trip to Colorado), Shaq had taken a few jabs at his teammate. While Kobe was late reporting to training camp in Hawaii because of legal obligations, O'Neal said, "The full team is here." When Shaq stayed out of a preseason game to rest a bruised left heel, he pointedly excluded Bryant in noting, "I want to be right for Derek [ Fisher], Karl and Gary."
Bryant, always the counterpuncher, responded to Shaq's blows with some of his own. In what seemed to be well-thought-out comments delivered to his Boswell, ESPN's Jim Gray, Kobe questioned Shaq's friendship (he said he was angry that Shaq didn't call him when the sexual assault case came to light), his leadership and even the toe injury that kept O'Neal out of the first 12 games last season. Bryant was fined a reported $2,500 for violating the gag order that general manager Mitch Kupchak had issued earlier that day. If Bryant was truly angry, and he seemed to be, that was a pittance to pay to get it off his chest.
Two years ago it seemed as if Shaq and Kobe had patched up their differences, with an ample helping of counseling from Jackson. And during the Lakers' dreadful 11-19 start last season O'Neal and Bryant were more or less aligned against their less gifted brethren. So what is really the root cause of this new discontent? The obvious theory is that O'Neal is upset at Bryant, guilty or not, for putting himself in such a dubious spot, thereby creating the circus that has overshadowed the arrival of Malone and Payton, both of whom Shaq personally recruited. That may be part of it, but several team insiders point to something else.
For a while now Kobe has suggested that he may opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent after this season. He first mentioned that possibility going into the playoffs last spring and has repeated it often. That does not sit well with O'Neal, who views the Lakers as a private and exclusive club, with himself the unchallenged president. Anyone with the temerity to suggest that he might not want to share the clubhouse with President Diesel can get the hell out.
But is Bryant serious about leaving? Folks, he's as serious as a court date. Kobe truly respects Jackson, he of the nine rings, but nevertheless longs for freedom from the Zen Master's triangle offense. (Ironically, with Payton running what could be the best Lakers fast break since the halcyon days of Magic Johnson, he could probably find it now.) More important, Bryant longs to put distance between himself and the human redwood with whom he's played since 1996-97. No matter how many championships Kobe will have when he hangs it up—at 25, he has three more than Michael Jordan had at that age—he knows that as long as Shaq patrols the paint he will never truly possess the Jordanesque status of being Alpha Man on Alpha Team. Bryant believes by going to another franchise and lifting it to a championship, nobody could say he had been riding on Shaq's XXXXL coattails.
The fact that the Kobe- Shaq conflict erupted after the arrival of Malone and Payton shows how serious it is, for, to this point, the newcomers have been positive influences on both of the primary combatants, not to mention everyone else around the Lakers. Malone's work ethic—at 40, he invariably finishes near the front in wind sprints—and Payton's tough-minded competitiveness are on display for all to see. And what ever their personal feelings about the rift might be, neither has slipped up once despite being endlessly asked to deconstruct the Shaq-Kobe relationship. "Man, we just want to play basketball, all of us, together," Payton said after last Saturday night's win in Phoenix. Malone had put it more colorfully a day earlier. "It is over," he said. "You guys [in the media] are trying to get a fart out of a dead mule."