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L.A.'s Story
March 17, 2008
The Superstar wanted out. The Coach might have followed. But after the G.M. pulled off a blockbuster, the Lakers now hope for a Hollywood ending
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March 17, 2008

L.a.'s Story

The Superstar wanted out. The Coach might have followed. But after the G.M. pulled off a blockbuster, the Lakers now hope for a Hollywood ending

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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 California.
—SAUL BELLOW, Seize the Day

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?

"Apart from what was going on with Kobe," Jackson said last week, relaxing in the team's El Segundo facility after practice, "I had to see if I was even ready to do this job. I was walking with a cane for a while. And then we go to camp and everything is disheveled, everything is dissipating. Doctor Buss"—Jackson still refers to owner Jerry Buss in that formal manner even though he is romantically involved with Buss's daughter Jeanie, the Lakers' executive vice president of business operations—"and Mitch had decided they would try to accommodate Kobe with a trade if they could, so I [held Bryant out of workouts] for a while and let the business part run its course.

"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.)

Meanwhile, Kupchak worked the phones, using a list of teams that Bryant, the only player in the league with a no-trade clause, had provided. (Kupchak, reliably closemouthed, would not name the prospective trading partners, but sources say that they were the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs in the West, and the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls in the East.) But in every case Kupchak wanted—as he should—the club's best players in return. On Oct. 29, the day before L.A.'s season-opener against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center, Buss, Kupchak and Jackson sat Bryant down and delivered the news: Nothing had worked out and he was going to remain a Laker.

"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."

Somewhere along the line, a franchise player will call out his bosses. Magic Johnson got a coach (Paul Westhead) fired early in his career, and Michael Jordan used to routinely torch his general manager (Jerry Krause). But they did so subtly, mostly privately. It takes a particular kind of person (arrogant? ballsy?) to do it as openly as Bryant did, then clam up and compete like the first-ballot Hall of Famer that he is.

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