Kobe's life in Lakers limbo hits the road

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- The latest Kobe Bryant rumor had him arriving at Bakersfield's Rabobank Arena for the Lakers' preseason game against Seattle Thursday night, only to return to the bus and stay there, like a cat refusing to come down from a tree.

Let the record show that Bryant was in uniform when the Lakers took the court. But such is the uneasy state of the Lakers that something as mundane as his participation in an exhibition game qualifies as news these days. Maybe it's because of the mounting feeling that each time he wears a Lakers uniform it could be the last.

Right now Bryant and the Lakers are like that shot in "Citizen Kane" where Charles Kane and his wife are sitting at opposite ends of a long table, reading different newspapers, a portrait of a couple trapped in a joyless marriage.

Bryant's comments these days don't exactly sound like the chorus of "I Love L.A."

"When I'm here, wherever I'm at, I'm ready to go," he said before the game. "It's not my job to be worrying about what management's doing at this point. I [expressed] my frustrations over the summer and I'll just leave it there."

For now he's still "here," and there are games on the schedule. His play in the preseason has wavered between half-interested and half-amazing. After dutifully playing what Phil Jackson calls the "facilitator" role in the first quarter, taking only three shots and letting Ronny Turiaf have all the glory, Bryant scored 16 points in the third quarter. It served as reminder of what he can do and what the Lakers would be missing if he's gone. Fans chanted his name, one held up a sign that read "Stay in L.A. Kobe." A couple of guys who waved a "Good-bye K.B." sign in the first half were nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, I've never heard such universal frustration and disappointment with Bryant permeating the Lakers' organization. In the past he had those who would defend him or simply decline to comment, even in private conversations. Not anymore.

Ironically, his closest ally right now is Jackson, once his most vocal (or published) critic. "Phil's my guy," Bryant said. "I confide in him."

Jackson provided some background vocals to Bryant's criticism of the front office this summer, and now he is providing counsel, keeping in steady communication with Bryant and reminding him to keep a serious approach to the task at hand. He pointedly has avoided passing judgment on Bryant.

Others can't believe the way Bryant's gone about this, with such public expressions of his desire to be elsewhere, the not-so-veiled shots at the Lakers' front office and his teammates. What good has it done? How has it helped?

Then again, Jerry Buss didn't help when he took an X-Acto blade to the old wound last week by saying the Lakers would trade Bryant if the right offer came along. That sent Bryant into a funk and subsequently sent Los Angeles into a frenzy when a radio station reported he had cleaned out his locker at the team's training facility, a possible precursor to his departure.

The model for how a team and its superstar should part ways comes from the Lakers' ancestral homeland in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves and Kevin Garnett managed to satisfy both sides and send him to Boston without any rancor.

But there was this quote from Garnett in Slam magazine: "I think [Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor's] loyalty is to Kevin McHale, and I had to swallow that. So that's what it was. I was kind of hurt by it, but he's known Kevin long enough, he's believed in Kevin, so that's what it is."

Timberwolves fans should be furious that the incompetent McHale means more to Taylor than Garnett. And Lakers fans should be terrified that Buss is feeling the same way about Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, whom he pointedly defended while meeting with reporters in Hawaii.

Jerry Buss has insisted that dealing Bryant would be a business decision. But if it's business, would it really be wise to choose Kupchak and Jim Buss over Bryant? Who's going to win more games and sell more tickets for you?

One concern that's floating around Lakerland: If Bryant can turn on a franchise that was nothing but supportive throughout his career, what would he do to a new franchise the first time things go bad? And if other teams think the same thing, will it diminish their willingness to trade for him?

If the Lakers are going to trade the guy some say is the best player in the league, they have to get the other team's best player in return. Have to. They can't make a trade just to make a trade, no matter how uncomfortable things are right now.

So for now the Lakers and Bryant continue on the voyage together. Long after the game, he got on the bus with his teammates and they all headed back to Los Angeles.That's no rumor. I saw it with my own eyes.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.