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Saturday, December 10, 2011
Lakers play out another drama

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The day began the night before. In a dizzying span of about eight hours on Thursday evening, the Los Angeles Lakers had been torn apart, shoved back together again, and told to go on about the business of beginning a new season together as if nothing had happened.

Digestion was out of the question. Acceptance was impossible. Only laughter felt good. And basketball. Definitely basketball.

New Lakers coach Mike Brown had instructed his players to report to training camp by 9:30 a.m. Friday. Practice would begin at 11. That was about the only plan that didn't change in the previous 24 hours.

Brown has had nothing to do but plan since being hired to replace Phil Jackson six months ago. The lockout left him isolated, able to talk with his staff but not his players.

He came up with a million ideas and got to enact none of them. For a detail-oriented coach like Brown, it was like singing a favorite song underwater.

When the league's owners and the players' association finally reached a handshake agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement the Friday after Thanksgiving, it was all supposed to get better. And it would have, too ... if things had gone according to plan.

Mike Brown
Only in Hollywood would Mike Brown have a first day like this.
Instead, the Lakers decided to dramatically change their roster -- after winning two championships in the previous three seasons -- by trading forwards Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol in a three-team deal that brought New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul to L.A. But then the NBA dismantled the blockbuster trade, leading to a long, uncomfortable night on the eve of training camp.

By Friday morning there was only more strangeness. The Lakers, Hornets and Rockets tried to revive the trade and reconstitute it in a more acceptable form for the league office at the same time all the players involved in the proposed deal were expected to show up to practice and somehow forget what had gone on.

Odom, understandably, could not. He arrived around 12:30 p.m. looking emotional and drawn. Gasol showed up on time at 9:30, but did not practice because of a quadriceps injury.

Brown coached the players in front of him, and wisely decided to give the others space.

"I really don't know what's going to happen now," Brown said after he'd made it through the day. "I'm just kind of playing it by ear and going by gut feel.

"I've never really experienced anything like this."


There have been stranger days in Lakerland than this one. Not many, but if ever there was a franchise that has lived through more than its share of dysfunction, crisis and generalized anxiety disorder, it would be the Lakers.

Chaos is called creative tension here. Angst is another way of saying the season has started. Superstars and their egos clash regularly. Occasionally they even pass the ball to each other.

Luke Walton
Luke Walton has seen his fair share of Lakers drama.
Four years ago, the Lakers began training camp wondering whether Kobe Bryant would even show up after he'd demanded a trade in the offseason.

A few years before that, the team simply hoped he and Shaquille O'Neal would speak to each other at some point.

Lakers forward Luke Walton was a rookie for that training camp in 2004 and something of a veteran by the time Bryant melted down after the 2006-2007 season ended with a first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns.

By now his skin is thick.

"When you keep going through more and more," Walton said. "Weirdness seems normal now."

Brown's first practice ended after 4 p.m. Walton was drenched in sweat as he came off the court. A morning of introductions, film study and the first attempts at healing had been replaced by an afternoon of drills, conditioning and strategy. The season is only two weeks away.

"I have no idea what time it is, but it feels like we were out here for a while," Walton said. "Today they gave us so much information, we didn't really have time to worry about anything else. We worked hard and we learned a lot today and we'll do it again tommorrow."


Kurt Rambis had risen before dawn to catch a flight home from Connecticut to Los Angeles. He arrived at the Lakers training facility a few minutes past noon, but still early for his lunch date with his wife Linda Rambis, a Lakers executive.

A few years ago Rambis would have been inside the Lakers training facility, helping Jackson navigate a mess like this. Now, as an ESPN analyst, he is just a spectator like everyone else.

"There's many things that have gone on, so many rumors, after you've been in the league for a while, it all just rolls off your back because the vast majority of stuff that is talked about never happens," Rambis said. "That's how I always approached it."

Jackson always had a way of diffusing tension like this. He'd come up with a line that would pop the balloon inside the press room on the first question, then slither his way around each hazard thrown his way, and end it all with a wry, satisfied smile.

It took the pressure off everyone. His team, his staff, the Lakers front office. They could focus on playing, he'd paint over everything else.

But Jackson is gone now. Retired, or so he says.

His lessons will have to be enough now.

While Brown did most of the talking Friday, it was clear Jackson's message was still resonating.

I asked Bryant whether he'd learned anything from Jackson that helped him deal with the previous 24 hours.

"Yeah," he said with a mischievous smile. "To hell with it. That's how Phil handles things. Just let it roll off of your back and keep on moving."


It was lost on no one that one of the most chaotic days in Lakers history occurred while owner Jerry Buss was in a hospital bed, recovering from blood clots in his legs. The condition is always a serious one, but Buss seems to have caught it early enough.

Shortly before 1 p.m., Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss left the training facility to visit her father during lunch.

Derek Fisher
Derek Fisher did his best to clear the distractions around him.
"He's doing much better," Jeanie Buss said. "I just want to go see him."

She'd represented the team in New York at the Board of Governors meeting to ratify the new CBA on Thursday, then flown home late at night. Buss said she learned of the trade while boarding her flight home, then connected her iPad to the WiFi onboard a few hours into the flight and learned that it had been nullified by the NBA for what commissioner David Stern called "basketball reasons."

Jeanie Buss' job is to handle the Lakers business affairs. She leaves basketball decisions to her father and brother, Jim Buss. So her opinions on the trade, and then the rejection of the trade, were limited to her emotional connection to Gasol and Odom, both of whom she considers friends as well as employees.

Even though the trade was nullified, those bonds are inevitably damaged by what's gone on.

Odom barely made it to the office on Friday. He arrived over three hours after everyone else, met with general manager Mitch Kupchak briefly, then left as quickly as he'd come in.

Those that saw him meeting with Kupchak said he looked emotional and upset.

"Disappointed is probably the best word for it," said a team source who saw Odom upstairs in the Lakers offices Friday. "He seemed hurt and disappointed."


There really is nothing anyone can say to Gasol and Odom to make them feel better at the moment.

The problem is that none of this is over yet. The deal was killed Thursday night, but by Friday the sides were still trying to make it work again.

Closure is impossible.

Brown is just trying to be human.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant said the business of trades in the NBA is just "the nature of the beast."
"You understand how those guys are feeling and you respect it," Brown said. "And so for me right now to try to get macho and tough and say this or that when those guys been through an emotional time, that doesn't make sense. I know I'm OK giving them some time and some space and we have more than enough guys."

This is Brown's first test of leadership and strength. He is the new guy around here. It is the Lakers players who are sizing him up, not the other way around.

Each move he makes inevitably will be compared to what Jackson would have done. There's no reason to duck that. There's also no reason to focus on it.

Wisely, Brown seems to understand that veterans like Bryant, Walton and Derek Fisher should take the lead on consoling Odom and Gasol.

"You don't win back to back championships by being soft emotionally," Bryant said with a stiff upper lip. "I'm sure it's a little tough at first, when you first hear it. It's kind of the shock of the whole situation. But after that, they'll get over it."

Walton said he'd been able to reach Odom on his cell phone Thursday night, but did not see him at all on Friday.

While Walton said he felt badly for Odom, he did not seem worried. The gifted 6-foot-10 forward has endured more than his share of real life tragedy in this life, losing his mother and grandmother to cancer and an infant son to SIDs.

This summer, he was a passenger in a car that struck a motorcycle, leading to the death of a pedestrian in New York City. (He'd been in town to attend the funeral of a cousin.)

"Lamar has been through a lot in his life," Walton said. "Being traded isn't even close to the top of the list of stuff that he's had to deal with. He'll be fine."


The day ended with a bit of normalcy. Players stayed late after practice to get some extra shots up and get time in on the elliptical machines.

Veterans grabbed ice bags in the training room and sat in the whirlpool to help the inevitable soreness of the first day of camp. Loud music blared through the weight room.

While Metta World Peace was still getting used to being Metta World Peace, his teammates were still calling him Ron.

"It's going to be weird for a while," World Peace said. "It's going to be a an interesting start to the season."

This place has seen strange days before. It has won in spite of them, or maybe because of them.

This feels different though. Less secure. Less centered, maybe.

Jackson is retired. Jerry Buss is in a hospital bed. Lamar Odom is wounded and hurt, Pau Gasol has been scorned.

Kupchak spoke to the team but not publicly. Jim Buss continued to operate behind the scenes. Bryant and Fisher tried to lead, even as they were careful to let Brown take the reigns.

It was too much for one day. Too much for one team.

And yet one man who has no reason except loyalty or nostagia to cheer them on anymore, ended on a hopeful note, with the possibility that some good might come from all of this in the end.

"Part of the environment here, because of the desire to win, and because of the caliber of athletes that you get here," Rambis said. "It always has the potential to be volatile, but it always has the potential to be extraordinary too."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.