|Trouble in paradise|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of Charley Rosen's two-part look at the Lakers opening the 2002-03 season without Shaquille O'Neal. Today, Rosen examines how Kobe Bryant abandons the triangle offense when Shaq is sidelined, prompting assistant Tex Winter to label Bryant "uncoachable." On Monday, Rosen will explain why Kobe often feels inclined to fly solo -- a tendency that can be traced to his father, Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant -- and what Phil Jackson plans to do about it.
LOS ANGELES -- The memory of three consecutive NBA championships isn't enough to stave off trouble in paradise.
Sure, the Big Aristotle is still recovering from the offseason toe surgery and won't be ready to play until ... Thanksgiving? Christmas? Valentine's Day? And yes, Rick Fox is serving a six-game suspension for fighting with the Kings' Doug Christie during a preseason game.
The one problem that most disturbs the Lakers coaches is a chronic condition that has flared up in each of the last three seasons before going into remission in time for L.A. to claim back-to-back-to-back titles. This time, however, there is real fear among them that the same-old-same-old problem has reappeared with a renewed virulence that threatens to lay waste to their chance to defend their championship.
Forget about the Kings, the Trail Blazers, the Spurs and all the other pretenders to the NBA crown. If the Lakers do indeed flounder in 2002-03, it will be because the brilliance of Kobe Bryant's game has been dimmed by an incurable disease.
Here are the symptoms:
Without Shaq roaming the lane and attracting double-teaming tactics, defenses can now afford to body-up on Kobe. That means Kobe's every spin, dribble and shot must be executed under maximum duress. The situation piques Kobe's fiercely competitive nature, and he views it as a personal challenge, so much so that he mostly disdains the rare open shot, determined to drive the ball into the teeth of the defense and thereby prove his dominance.
Dribble, dribble, spin and dribble ... follow the endlessly bouncing ball. Kobe is out to show the world that he is The Man, that the uninhibited expansion of his own genius is sufficient to overcome the absence of the Big Toe.
And even though Kobe gained 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason, the Game is still bigger than him.
To a certain degree, Kobe's teammates are encouraging his habits. Just as he holds the ball too long, so do they -- looking for Kobe, especially whenever the shot clock threatens to suddenly end the Lakers' latest offensive misadventure.
Kobe's me-first attitude in training camp (this was also the case in preseason games) destroyed the value of too many intrasquad scrimmages. Instead of concentrating on reorienting themselves to the triangle's basic geometries, the players' attention was focused on man-to-man competition, bickering over real and imagined fouls, looking to short-cut their way to victory, and ignoring the increasingly caustic scolding of the coaches.
In one preseason game, Kobe missed 20 shots. In another, he committed nine turnovers. Forcing bad shots, hogging the ball, and generally running amok, Kobe unilaterally devolved the Lakers' multidimensional offense into a straight line.
Perhaps, some of the coaches hoped, Kobe would mend his ways when the games counted. But Phil Jackson remained dubious, predicting the Lakers would lose six of their first seven games.
The turning point of the Lakers' season opener against San Antonio indicated that Phil's dour prognostication might very well come true, and that Kobe's swollen ego will not be cured by the bright lights of reality. With 4:02 left in the game, the Spurs led 77-72, but the Lakers had possession. Kobe claimed the ball at the top of the key and backed Bruce Bowen into the pivot, dribbling in a furious fever, desperate to create a shot for himself, hoping for a three-point play, hungering to be a hero.
The visitors soon stretched their lead to 82-72 and cruised to the victory.
For the game, Kobe shot 9-for-29 and had six turnovers.
"Kobe looked to go one-on-one every time he touched the ball," was the post-mortem that Jackson delivered to the media. "His rare pass surprised his teammates. I can only promise that, even before Shaq returns, things will get better."
Longtime assistant coach Tex Winter, the gadfly of the coaching staff, was a lot more direct when he confronted Kobe in the locker room after the game. "You played stupidly," he said, bluntly.
Kobe bristled. He believes that the triangle is boring, is stifling. Hey, even M.J. said it was "a white man's offense." Kobe's talents need more room. It's time to win a different way -- Kobe's way.
Or, as Kobe responded to Winter's no-sugar-coating criticism: "You coached stupidly."
Later, when I mentioned to Phil what Tex had said, he just laughed, explaining Tex is a perfectionist who overreacts to ugly losses and ugly wins.
Speaking of the former, the very next night the Lakers got trounced in Portland 102-90, with Kobe scoring 25 on modest 9-for-18 shooting. For the first quarter (and only the first quarter), Kobe made a minimal attempt to "line up the offense." Yet, as we watched the proceedings on TV, Tex, who's not traveling to away games with the team, was soon saying, "There he goes again, off on his own selfish trip."
And soon enough, the three-time defending champs were 0-2.
The night before the opener, I had had dinner with Phil and two of his children at a Mexican restaurant. We are old friends -- I was an assistant for him when he coached the Albany Patroons, and we later wrote a couple of books together. This season, Phil is going with the clean-shaven look -- no beard, no 'stash, no soul patch. I call him "Mister Potato Head," but he does look younger.
Even though Phil is more obsessed than he's willing to admit about winning a 10th championship and breaking the record he shares with Red Auerbach, and even though he's distressed by his team's atrocious efforts in the preseason, there's little talk of basketball. Instead, the primary topics concern our various offsprings' latest doings -- jobs, relationships, plans for the future.
During dessert, the roving mariachi band approaches our table, welcoming "Mister Jackson" and offering to play whatever tune he might want to hear.
Phil is actually a reluctant celebrity who's marginally embarrassed by the preferential attention he often receives in public places. After some hesitation he comes up with "I Did it My Way."
"Dad, that's so corny," his daughter complains.
And corny it is, as the band huddles, then "fakes" its way through a surprisingly accomplished bi-lingual version.
And Phil listens intently, wearing one of his quixotic Cheshire grins, thoroughly enjoying this kitschy maverick's anthem, knowing that win or lose, that whether the media muppets identify him as a Zen Master, a master of the preemptive psyche, or an arrogant blowhard, he'll always remain true to himself.
Which strongly suggests, of course, that PJ already has a secret game plan in mind to deal with his young star.
Despite all the difficultites, Phil has always harbored a sincere affection for Kobe. Three years ago, he vetoed a proposed swap of Kobe for Grant Hill, because he believed in Kobe's talents, intelligence and heart.
But that was then. So maybe the operative game plan is Let's Make a Deal. Don't laugh. If Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could be traded, then so could Kid Kobe.
And so, we are faced with two questions: One, what will Phil do ... and when will he do it?
And two, why is Kobe creating so much trouble in paradise? Aren't three gold rings (and the probability of more) enough to convince him that Phil's way is the way?
For the answers, read Part 2 -- "Of Genetics and Destiny" -- on Monday on Page 2.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."