8 Ball

By Tom Friend

Kobe vs. Phil, Kobe vs. Shaq, Kobe vs. an unnamed Laker, Kobe vs. the Los Angeles Times, the state of Colorado v. Kobe -- when will it ever end? You're either for the talented Mr. Bryant or against him, but just be advised, he's got a list of who's in and who's out.

His allies are easy to spot; they're the ones on his payroll. His bodyguards are practically nannies to his 15-month-old daughter, Natalia, and his pilots get him from Eagle, Colo., to LAX in an astounding hour 35, and that's exactly how Kobe Bean Bryant likes it: what can you do for me?

The reality is 14 players and coaches have to live with him, and when they say everything's copacetic, they're lying. But they know winning another ring will be simpler with him than without him, and so they let No. 8 have his way, if for no other reason than it's short term. The bodyguards carry his daughter's diaper bags, the players let him go 1-on-5, the media doesn't ask personal questions and the sycophants at Staples Center chant "MVP, MVP!" in his dour direction.

Somehow Kobe Bryant has managed to persevere through what one Laker official calls "the season from hell." He's dealt with shoulder sprains, a sliced finger, Shaq's scrunched-up face, eight Colorado court hearings and profane exchanges with his All-World coach. And look at him, he's winning playoff games with circus shots.

No one knows how he's doing it, how he's playing through a charge that carries a frightful sentence of four years to life. He says it's "God's work," while others in the organization say it's outright stubbornness. What you can't call it is dull.

The highlights, or lowlights, have been plentiful. There was the night of Dec. 19, when he flew back in a private jet from a hearing in Colorado to a waiting car, got stuck in LA traffic, listened to the first quarter on the radio and then beat the Nuggets on a last-second heave. Problem is, the shot wasn't supposed to be his, which ticked off the Lakers' three other Hall of Famers.

We could go on and on like this, and we will, but the point is the playoffs are here, and the Lakers will either keep bowing to him or implode. All that's riding on it is Phil Jackson's 10th and most trying championship. When all is said and done, they're either going to break up the Lakers or invite everybody back for an encore.

Yeah, like they'd all want to do this again.

We begin with the April 11 game in Sacramento. With Kobe refusing to shoot, attempting just one shot the entire first half. With an unnamed Lakers player telling the Los Angeles Times, "I don't know how we can forgive him." With a ballistic Kobe going locker to locker the next day, growling, "Are you the motherf--er who said that?"

None of them told Kobe yes, of course, not with those fangs sprouting from his mouth. In fact, most of them essentially said, "Get out of my face." Eventually, the team laughed it off, with Shaq approaching a Times columnist to pry, "Come on, who was it -- a guard or a forward?"

That 48-hour window is a clear snapshot of how the season has gone: horribly. There are two sides to the kid. There's the Kobe Bryant who is the most adored athlete in LA, and then there's the Kobe Bryant who's turned this season into a melodrama, the Kobe who, according to a prominent Lakers employee, has treated people around him "like slaves."

Many of his bodyguards are current or former members of the LAPD, paid by the Lakers on gamedays and travel days to watch Kobe's back, and yet Kobe has sent them racing back to his hotel to retrieve his cell phone or back to the team jet to see if he's left a carry-on. From the locker room in Phoenix, he sent a bodyguard to fetch a pregame dinner from McDonald's, and on the road, some have been seen lugging bags of Big Macs into the Lakers hotel.

It's a novel sight: men and women dressed in black, packing mace and walkie-talkies ... running errands. They're practically personal valets. They stay across the hall from Kobe on the road, and, at home games, they trail after Kobe's wife, Vanessa, as she walks through the concourse in her pink high heels and pleated miniskirts. If it bothers them, they never show it. At the least, it's put them inside his inner circle. A few weeks back, Natalia toddled over to a bodyguard stationed outside the locker room just to hold the man's hand.

Still, members of the Lakers staff do not approve of the way he treats his posse, and are tempted to sit Kobe down for a scolding. But what good will it do? He's been this way for years. A few summers ago, for instance, they say he brought his barber and the barber's mother on an adidas junket to China, only to fire him soon after they landed. It seems the barber took his mom to do some quick sightseeing and wasn't around when Kobe wanted a haircut. Kobe ordered his people to pack the barber's bags and book him and his mom on the next 18-hour flight home.

At times like those, Kobe exudes a certain contentious entitlement, and that's why some Lakers players were convinced he had sabotaged the April 11 game in Sacramento as a form of payback for the ongoing grumbling about his shot selection. Kobe, who denies it vociferously, says he was only trying to get his teammates involved, and was so angry at the accusation that he refused to talk to the Los Angeles Times, or to any beat writer, for 11 days. "One thing, I am stubborn," he said the day he ended the boycott.


After the humiliation of his arrest in Eagle, and then his public admission of adultery, Lakers players and coaches expected a more docile Kobe this season. According to one Laker, Kobe told teammates in training camp that he'd been humbled. And early in the season, he did seem contrite, and genuinely concerned about the bashing he was due to get on the road. The worst was in November in Milwaukee, where a fan held up a sign that read "Kobe Raped Me." In that same game, he drained a clutch jump shot, wagged a finger, mouthed "No, no, no ... " and heard a man in the front row sneer, "That's what she said, Kobe." But fairly soon, after details of his court case leaked out and public perception began to turn in Kobe's favor, the jeers subsided. Once again, No. 8 jerseys popped up everywhere, mostly on kids.

"It's died down a lot," Kobe said during an interview in Seattle late in the regular season. "I'm just like a normal player now."

So back he went to being the headstrong Kobe, the Kobe the Lakers have come to know and love and hate. It's made for a curious last six months, starting with Kobe's admission at the All-Star break that he "didn't like Phil" as a person.

Jackson -- who describes Kobe with terms such as "untrusting" and "iconoclastic" and "arrested development" -- wasn't surprised. "Kobe had been snapping back at me when I made comments to him," the coach says. "I could tell it was very difficult for him to take any authority from me at all, in practice and in games."

The players kept waiting for Jackson to reprimand Kobe, or at least bench him for a quarter or two, but that didn't happen until Jan. 7, in Denver. It was Kobe's first game in Colorado since the arrest, and to keep the media circus to a minimum, Jackson canceled the morning shootaround. But in the first quarter, when Kobe threw one of his rare passes out of bounds, Jackson shouted, "You've gotta make a better pass than that." Kobe's reaction, according to witnesses, was, "Well, you need to teach these motherf--ers how to run the offense." So Jackson yanked him.

But the drama would only escalate. Four weeks after the Nuggets game, a report surfaced that Kobe had previously made advances toward a hotel worker on a road trip to Portland. Shortly before the news broke, he badly sliced his right index finger. The Lakers released a statement saying he'd cut himself on a window pane while moving boxes in his garage, although whispers around the organization were that he'd actually injured himself in an emotional outburst at home. Kobe says, "I'm not going there," but Jackson said, "It was very suspicious."

Compounding the mystery was the fact Kobe immediately dropped out of sight. No Lakers player or coach saw him from the day of the accident, Jan. 30, through Feb. 6. He was supposed to join them in Philadelphia on Feb. 5, but neither team officials nor his bodyguards could reach him. "We hadn't even seen his finger yet," Jackson says. He finally joined them in Orlando, though he didn't play, but Jackson says he "felt completely disconnected" from Kobe, and that it was "probably the most disjointed period" of Kobe's season.

Kobe was chronically late at that time too, and not even exorbitant fines could get him up on his Ducati motorcycle and to practice on time. "My normal fines are like $100, and if you're late a couple of times, it's $250," Jackson says. "But for him, it was beyond any level of embarrassment. It didn't matter to him anymore. That's when you've become an impediment to the team's progress. It's like a slap in the face to the group."

By the All-Star Game, Jackson was boiling over. In his first game back from injury, Kobe played soft defense on Cuttino Mobley in a 102-87 loss to Houston right before the break, so on that Monday, the coach called him in. He implored his star to embrace basketball again.

"I said, 'Let's tighten this up a bit, because it's gotten too loose and out of joint between you and the rest of the team,' " Jackson says. "The conversation went well -- or as well as they go with Kobe."

Presto. Kobe began showing up at the arena three-and-a-half hours early on gamedays, to lift, shoot and stretch with his trainer, Joe Carbone. Then he'd do late-night training afterward at home. In the first seven games after the talk, Kobe averaged 32.7 points, and by late March, Jackson was saying Kobe had re-emerged as "the top player" in the sport. It was as if the kid had simply flicked on a switch. "I thought for six weeks there, he played as well as anybody's ever played," the coach says. "It was great."

Now if he'd just pass the ball to Shaq.

Make no mistake: this is still Shaquille O'Neal's team.

Lakers fans may cheer louder for Kobe than for Shaq ("The city likes child stars, like Drew Barrymore," Jackson says), but they haven't set foot in the locker room. They haven't seen the way Shaq runs the place, or keeps his teammates in stitches. When he won Game 1 of the playoff series against the Rockets with a last-minute dunk, Shaq's quote was, "I'm no hero. A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich, and I'm trying to cut down on my carbohydrates." Or when teammates were comparing Vince Carter's dunks to Michael Jordan's one day, Shaq's quote was, "That's like comparing apples and pumpkins." The guys adore him.

So imagine what happens to them when the games start ... and Kobe won't hand the ball over.

"People can say it's a Kobe town, but I don't really care, because the world knows if The Diesel ain't flowing, nothing's flowing," Shaq says. "That's why I don't understand how they don't keep The Diesel involved sometimes. It's an insult to me to run down the court 10 times in a row and not touch the ball. A lot of people say, 'Well, you've got to demand it.' I don't see Tim Duncan demanding the ball when we play them. He runs down and turns, and as soon as he puts his hand out, it's there. We've done that in the past, and look what we got. Three gold balls. When you have different agendas, that's when things get messed up. But see, the powers that be need to handle that."

But just who is the Power That Be? Is it Kobe? Is it Kobe's biggest fan, Jerry Buss? It's certainly not Jackson. The coach's contract is up after the season, and the owner has suspended negotiations, even though his daughter Jeanie is Jackson's girlfriend. The sense, according to a Buss confidant, is that Buss doesn't want to rehire Jackson if pending free agents Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton leave and the team decides to make a movement toward youth. Even Jackson agrees there's "no reason to pay the kind of money they pay me if it's not in the cards to chase a championship."

But Shaq says he wants Phil to stay. He doesn't want to start over. If Kobe leaves, he says, he'll go out himself and recruit another superstar -- like his "boy" Tracy McGrady, who can opt out after next season. "If Kobe left, a lot of guys would want to come here," Shaq says, "because they know playing with Diesel makes it easier. I can make a phone call to anybody. You kidding me?"

But here's the twist: Buss might keep Kobe instead of Shaq. According to that Buss confidant, the Lakers "will fight 'til the end" to keep the 25-year-old Kobe, even as they're in no rush to extend the 32-year-old Shaq. Any team thinking it can work a sign-and-trade for Kobe this summer -- the only way most teams could pay him the max -- is just wrong. "I'm not trading Kobe," says GM Mitch Kupchak. "They're going to have to hire another GM to trade him. This GM won't do it."

O'Neal, who can opt out after next season, has begun to sense the hard truth: Kobe comes first. Kobe always comes first. Worse, Kobe knows it. And that bothers Shaq, because he's the one who recruited Malone and Payton, because he's the one who thought the front office would reward him for it. Instead, he feels they want him to take at least a $10 million pay cut, like Kevin Garnett did in Minnesota. "That would be an insult for me to even listen to," says Shaq.

"That's why my e-mail address is A32DejaVu," he continues. "Because this is the same thing that happened when I wore No.32 in Orlando. You get a young guy, you bring him in, you mold him, but he's got people in his ear and now he thinks he's the man. That's what happened with Penny down there, and that's what's happening here. And I understand they want to go younger. I'm not tripping over that. But if you don't want me here, just let me know. The good thing is, somebody will want this. I've got about five, six good years left."

Right now, the franchise is more preoccupied with the next six weeks, with winning a 10th gold ball. But as usual, a lot of that hinges on the whims of Kobe. In Game 4 of the Houston series, he was passive for the first 42 minutes and then suddenly wouldn't part with the ball. He missed seven straight -- "it's addictive," he says of shooting -- but then a make in OT gave him the gall to attempt a contorting layup in gridlock. It fell in, clinched the game and had one of his bodyguards cheering in the pressroom.

His teammates bit their lip afterward, never bashing him. His closest friend on the squad, Derek Fisher, who hugs him before tipoff, says Kobe deserves the benefit of the doubt. "I mean, to battle these personal things and still perform at a high level is impressive," Fisher says. The three other Lakers superstars are trying to toe the line too. Believe it or not, Shaq admires Kobe's pure ability ("a courageous little brother," he says), and doesn't believe Kobe tanked in Sacramento. As for Malone and Payton, they have enough to worry about just staying healthy and mastering Jackson's triangle offense. But they're grateful Kobe hasn't quit because of his legal entanglement, and they tolerate the drama because they just want a ring. After Sunday's game, Malone even kissed Kobe on the temple.

By all appearances, it's a congenial Lakers locker room. But that doesn't mean any of his teammates, except maybe Fisher, has broken through the facade. Even part-owner Magic Johnson has failed to get Kobe to warm up to him this year. A friend of Magic's says, "No one gets in with Kobe."

In the end, the Lakers' title hopes come down to whether they can stomach Kobe's mood swings -- he's generally less selfish with the ball in the postseason -- and whether he'll have to miss playoff games because of two more sets of hearings in Eagle. "Well," says Kupchak, "we can only get a jet for him, not a rocket. Although we wish we had a rocket."

That says it all. Kobe may be a pain in the butt, but he's their pain in the butt. Think about it. Would you rather be the Lakers with Kobe, or the Lakers without Kobe?

It's like comparing apples and pumpkins.