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Thursday, December 9, 2004
Kobe sets another bridge afire

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

There is an easy second thought on Karl Malone's position in the Great Kobe Talkathon and One-Way Avenue of Ideas. That Malone is using Kobe Bryant's words as a convenient means of relieving himself of his own statements, which at one point included him saying he'd play only for the Lakers if he came back from injury.

It's tempting to go that route, isn't it? After all, Malone's whole point in continuing to battle the ravages of age and a lousy knee was to get one more chance at an NBA championship, and right now there are better options (San Antonio, cough, cough) than the one at Staples Center.

Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Kobe Bryant
When Kobe speaks from the heart, his Laker teammates soon find themselves in new uniforms.
Alas, the truth just isn't that simplistic and self-centered. At least not on Malone's part.

All great players, not just Kobe Bryant, have egos. Karl Malone has an ego. His ego tells him, certainly, that he is still good enough to matter to a great team, which means he probably has the luxury of not having to matter to a merely OK one.

And what that suggests above all else is that Malone, in his basketball dotage, absolutely can afford not to play with a guy who bugs the hell out of him.

You want to know about Malone? Go back to last year. Go back to that slowly disintegrating team and ask around. Malone was perhaps the only great entity among the Lakers who refused to jump into the muck.

He was the veteran who provided leadership and locker-room continuity. He was the player who publicly gave support to Bryant during his legal troubles -- but then again, Malone essentially publicly supported everybody around that franchise.

He admired Shaquille O'Neal. He praised Phil Jackson. He urged Gary Payton to sign with the Lakers. And he backed up his words with a willingness to take a $17 million pay cut in order to spend that year in L.A. chasing a ring.

An angelic figure? Hardly, even though Lakers owner Jerry Buss has said he believes those dissension-wracked Lakes still would've won it all had Malone been healthy in the postseason. Still, when Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, says that " All (Karl) did was lay down and let everybody use him and give," the words have a ring of truth even through the self-serving tone in which they're delivered.

Now Malone hears the words that Bryant means to say (not the backtracking apologies that come later), and he wonders for whom it was he was working all these months. Was it really to come back and join a Lakers team that has been almost completely co-opted by Bryant?

Kobe & Vanessa Bryant
Kobe Bryant never smoothed things over with Karl Malone the way he did with his wife in the wake of rape allegations.
What was Malone supposed to make of Bryant's comments? Was there really some other way to take those words? Was there a way to hear Bryant say things like, "The guys that we have here are working hard, practicing hard every day. It's kind of tough for them to be looking over their shoulder, wondering if he's going to come back and then everybody's going to disappear," and think nothing of them?

Malone can read. And he can read between the lines of a radio-interview transcription. He understands what it means when, even in passing, Bryant speaks of his L.A. teammates "giving me 110 percent." Really? "Me"? You don't think maybe the dynamic has changed around the Lakers in the past year?

Malone also can hear. And despite Bryant's insistence that he and his Orange County neighbor spoke regularly, Malone and Manley give the strong indication that Kobe and Karl weren't exactly pals. In fact, Manley said that on the occasions when the two NBA stars did speak, the conversations weren't particularly pleasant.

This is not, in other words, about what Kobe Bryant said on the radio one day. This is about who Kobe Bryant is, and who Karl Malone is, and what the Lakers have become, and the basic question of what there is about the situation in L.A. that could possibly interest Malone at this point.

He is a proud veteran (some would say too proud at times) who, frankly, doesn't need any crap. He is under no obligation to take it. If he continues to play, if he risks his surgically repaired knee in the heat of an NBA contest again, it will be -- it absolutely has to be -- for the sole purpose of chasing the one thing that has eluded him in a Hall of Fame career.

Malone thought he was headed for that closure a season ago, only to discover that the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Jackson alliance was ready to blow apart in Los Angeles. When Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Colorado just after Malone's signing, the power forward had to know the script was being irrevocably altered.

But Malone persevered, through injury, through the dissension, through Payton's growing unhappiness. Mostly he persevered through Kobe Bryant's personal travails -- only to experience the odd sensation of seeing Bryant ultimately handed the keys to the company Bentley, with O'Neal the franchise player traded away in favor of the franchise player who stayed.

"I don't want to throw daggers at anyone, but I would have quit my job before I traded Shaquille O'Neal," Malone told the L.A. Times. "I would have been unemployed before I would trade him, and that's all I'll say."

It is all he has to say. He is Karl Malone, and, among other things, he has a career's worth of experience in figuring out what he believes to be right. He has heard Bryant speak. He doesn't need to hear any more.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.