Whose team is it? Senior writer Ric Bucher spent many days with Kobe, Shaq and Phil, and prepared this story for ESPN The Magazine. Here's Part 3:
This unfolding drama is a rerun of sorts for a couple of Lakers. When he was with the Bulls, Horace Grant watched Phil coerce a young Michael Jordan into involving his teammates. Both Brian Shaw and Grant played with Shaq and Penny in Orlando and saw firsthand how that battle over proprietary rights soured their partnership and ultimately sent them their separate ways.
The difference: Shaq knows the importance of having that other great player, and how difficult life is without one. Kobe doesn't. All that matters to him is escaping Shaq's shadow. It galls Kobe to hear talk that Iverson and Carter could be everything he is if they played with Shaq. He wants people wondering what Shaq would do without him. And he'll do anything to prove his point.
"I have German shepherds, and the guy who trains them does no obedience work for the first six months," Shaw says. "He just lets them play, so they don't lose their aggressiveness. If a dog constantly hears 'No!' it'll look around before acting on its instincts. It's the same thing with Kobe. You want him to keep that attack-mode mentality."
But there's a lot of bark that goes with that bite. At least once a game Kobe becomes embroiled in a heated dispute about the offense with a teammate or Jackson, sometimes both. When he missed a forced shot off a pick-and-roll with Grant against Houston, Bryant immediately let Grant know he understood he should have passed it. Still, Jackson yelled admonishingly, "Kobe!" His young star glared back. Kobe was playing so well-he finished with 45 points, the most anyone had scored on the Rockets since MJ's 45 in '98-that he figured he earned some rope. "I was pissed," Kobe says. "I was thinking, 'Calm down, Phil, I got this.'"
Later, while protecting a lead down the stretch, Kobe had Stevie Francis posted up. But Shaw ignored him, swinging the ball to the other side of the floor. At the next stop in play, Shaw explained that he had strict orders from Jackson to run the play all the way through to completion.
On the last possession of the first quarter in a recent game against Phoenix, Kobe roared down the court and lost the ball on a spin move into the middle. Kobe beelined for Jackson to explain, and they argued. Jackson had directed Kobe to run a high pick-and-roll to get open and then kick the ball to one of the team's perimeter shooters. But Kobe ignored the pick and tried to draw the defense by driving directly to the basket. "I don't need a pick to get a shooter an open shot," Kobe said.
Phil's real purpose, of course, was to get other players involved, since more offensive touches, whether for Shaq or Penberthy, result in more defensive effort.
All of which often amuses rather than deters Bryant. Talking in a reception area on the second floor of the Lakers' practice facility, as Jackson and various assistant coaches stroll past, Kobe gleefully talks about Phil's attempts to control him. "Phil told us to run '53' and then said, 'This is not your play, Kobe!' So later in the game in another timeout, he asks us, 'What do we want to run, 53?'
"I said, 'Yeah, run 53, the Kobe play.'"
Shaq fails to see the humor. He has overcome his image of being nothing more than a dunker, of being distracted by movie and musical interests, of being a deserter for bolting Orlando. After all that, one season in the sun doesn't feel like enough. He'll grouse about the Lakers' offense and then cryptically ask when the trading deadline is. Or muse about retiring in a couple of years. Jackson was stunned when Shaq waved for a sub several times in the Lakers' Christmas Day loss to the Blazers. "That game wasn't played at a pace that he could've been physically fatigued," Jackson says. "I think he's mentally fatigued."
It doesn't help that each player resents the other for not acting his age. Shaq is an ultrasensitive 12-year-old in a monstrous 28-year-old body; 22-year-old Kobe acts like a bloodless 50-year-old corporate raider. Shaq just picked up his college diploma in, as he claims, "crayon biology," while Kobe has his eye on matrimonial parchment this winter. Shaq has appeared in funny commercials being flummoxed by a 9-year-old and a raspy-voiced baby named Bob. Kobe does ads in which he's a Roman philosopher, reflecting on creativity in an Italian courtyard, or talking trash-in Italian.
While talk of Shaq using hand signals to deprive Kobe of the ball is roundly denied -- "If I am," Shaq says, "they sure aren't working" -- their relationship will never be idyllic. But personal feelings aside, there's still no tougher combination in the league. On that they agree.
"What we built last season is still there," Kobe says. "Every time we need something clutch, Shaq and I are there. The formula's just changed a little." True. With the game on the line against the Raptors, Shaq didn't hesitate to help Kobe defend a potential game-winning jumper by Carter. And against the Blazers, Kobe didn't hesitate to throw a lob for Shaq to flush.
But chemistry at crunchtime may be useless unless they can avoid the early-game conflicts, when Kobe all too quickly gives up on an entry pass to Shaq, or Shaq fails to stop Kobe's man driving for a layup. Until some sort of accord is reached, the Lakers are not likely to repeat and inspire Kobe to leap into Shaq's arms as he did after they dispatched the Pacers last June, a moment immortalized on the Lakers' media guide -- and a moment of bonding not seen since. "They want the same goal, to win a championship," says Grant. "But until their minds meet about other things, we won't be the team we can be."
More or less, the rest of the Lakers still consider themselves Shaq's team, although they're not happy that he's letting his personal tussle with Kobe affect his play. When Ron Harper refuses to discuss the matter because "I might hurt the feelings of some of these sensitive people," there's little doubt he's referring to Shaq.
The allegiance to Shaq comes from the punishing screens he sets, the double teams he draws to get teammates open shots and the layup-saving help he can provide when they're beaten off the dribble. He's also the team cut-up. He'll tell teammates that if he were a pimp, he'd change his name to It's-Not-Him. Then, if any of his girls were questioned about who they worked for, they would point to Shaq and say, "It's not him."
Kobe, distrustful of teammates who have talked behind his back since he arrived in the NBA five seasons ago, has pursued no such rapport. Grant believes Bryant must reach out if he wants to develop the support he seeks. "I remember Phil telling MJ that he had to trust his teammates," Grant recalls. "Mike didn't go overboard, but he'd invite guys to his room to play cards, just enough to let them know what he was about. To be a leader, everybody has to have respect for you on and off the court. You can't just be a great player. Every once in a while, you have to be able to say, 'I made a mistake. My fault.' I really don't think we have a leader right now, unless it's Phil."
Part of Jackson's genius is knowing when to take a stand, and that time hasn't arrived yet. He knows from his repeat days with the Bulls that first-time champions suffer a postseason hangover that carries into the next season. The Lakers' schedule, a whirlwind of 32 games in the first two months, slows to 12 in January. That means practice time to whip Shaq into shape and convince Kobe that curbing his attack is best for the team. The Lakers already have lost almost as many games as they did all last season, but Jackson has yet to challenge them. "It's hard to tell a team that plays into June what's an emergency," he says. "You can only say 'Wolf!' or 'Fire!' so many times before a team's response level decreases. And they're right, it's not an emergency right now."
And until he reaches the ever-enigmatic Rider and gets Derek Fisher back from foot surgery in February, Jackson knows he can't survive without Kobe, who can dribble through traps, defend the league's best point guards, attack the offensive glass, consistently get out on the break, create his own shot at crunchtime and make his free throws.
Kobe also has the most precious attribute a team or a player can have-an unshakable faith that he will come out on top. His faith is so strong that 29 teams, including his own, and a seven-time championship-winning coach have not been able to alter his flight plan.
And if they take a good look at where it has taken him -- and them -- they'll stop trying.
To read the first two parts of the story, use the links at top right. To talk back to Ric Bucher, email email@example.com.
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