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In Los Angeles all
the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted
and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern
IT IS October 2007, the middle of NBA training camp, and the Lakers are the perfect team for Los Angeles, a city that has inspired countless disdainful musings such as Bellow's. The once-proud franchise, which has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2004, is a couple of weeks into what promises to be a full-blown autumn of discontent, followed hard by a winter of the same. ¶ Superstar forward Kobe Bryant, unhappy that management hasn't upgraded his supporting cast, wants to be traded. Phil Jackson, four months removed from a left-hip replacement (which came eight months after a right-hip replacement), isn't sure that he's up to the arduous task of coaching the team and its lightning-rod leader. And general manager Mitch Kupchak, facing an even larger fusillade of ditch-Mitch criticism, is, as always, stiff-upper-lipping it through the chaos.
"You don't realize how bad things had gotten when you're not here," says guard Derek Fisher, a reliable member of Los Angeles's three-peat teams of 2000, '01 and '02 who had returned after three seasons with the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz. "We had some work to do, no doubt about it."
It is now March, and that work has been completed. The Lakers, whose 44--19 record through Sunday was the best in the Western Conference, are bona fide title contenders. Bryant, playing with a torn ligament in his right pinkie that requires daily taping and probably postseason surgery, is a top MVP candidate. Jackson, his Zen master mojo having returned, is again managing the team like someone who has won nine championships. And Kupchak, having pulled off a blockbuster trade last month, is likely to cause Executive of the Year voters to think beyond the Boston Celtics' Danny Ainge. Everyone is happy and harmonious, and the team song could be (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?
It is indeed an astounding turnaround, especially given that it is taking place in a town where a thousand deals fall apart every day, where breaking up is never hard to do. How did it happen? How did the Lakers become that rare Humpty Dumpty that was put together again?
"This process eventually got me animated and reenergized. I had to assure everybody that we were going to be all right. I had to tell the team, 'Kobe's not going to practice with us for a while, but don't feel like he's deserting you or that he doesn't feel you're not good enough.'" (Which, at the time, is exactly what Bryant felt. Coaches have to stretch the truth once in a while.)
"We told Kobe that even if a deal could be done, he would be going to a team that would be so depleted it wouldn't be as strong as the one he was leaving," says Kupchak. "Kobe is smart. He understood."