HOW WRONG we were to think the Los Angeles Lakers needed a pending sexual assault trial for Kobe Bryant to stir up fan interest for the new NBA season.
Actually, we weren't wrong. That idea came from dot-com doofus Mark Cuban, owner of the There's No "D" in Dallas Mavericks. The moral simpleton suggested this summer that Bryant's status as criminal defendant would make him must-see TV this NBA season.
Not all of us think any publicity is good publicity.
If anything, the underweight, weak-legged, over-stressed but still aloof and arrogant Bryant is a far less compelling basketball figure -- if you like your Michael Jordan wannabe All-Stars to show up for tonight's opener against the Mavericks in shape, on time and without serious distraction.
Worse, if there were any hope that the Lakers would fall in line and support Bryant, if for no other reason than to circle the wagons and protect themselves from further mega-media scrutiny, the exact opposite seems to be happening. Bryant's absences, poor conditioning and me-first offensive mentality are under fresh attack.
The problem is, it's a Shaq Attack.
We'd like to thank our sports reporter colleagues in Los Angeles for tape recording this amazing tit-for-tat spat between Shaq and Kobe. David Stern wasn't happy when Cuban spouted off about Bryant's trial being good publicity for the NBA, but there's little doubt that this petty but nonetheless truth-based feud between Shaq and Kobe will prompt interest from casual fans.
Now, it's about the team. Now, it's about basketball. Now, it's about sharing the ball or not sharing the ball. Now, it's about whether Phil Jackson can Zen master these guys back into submission. If this doesn't make for terrific reality TV for the NBA, then all the Lakers need to do now is bring back Dennis Rodman, which was weirdly rumored during the preseason.
Here are some excerpts:
Shaq on why the Lakers are his team: "Everybody knows that. You [media] guys may give it to [Bryant] like you've given him everything else his whole lifetime, but this is the Diesel's ship."
Shaq on Bryant's being out of shape and shooting too much: "... if you [Bryant] ain't right [physically], don't be trying to go out there and get right on our expense. Use the people out there, then when you get right you [can] do what you do."
Bryant to Shaq: "I know how to play my guard spot. He can worry about the low post."
Shaq to Bryant: "He's right. He doesn't need advice on how to play his position, but he needs advice on how to play team ball. As we start this new season, [stuff has] got to be done right. If you don't like it, then you can opt out next year. If it's going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he can opt out. ... I ain't going nowhere."
Yesterday, Bryant upped the ante on ESPN: "It doesn't matter whose team it is. Nobody cares. But since it is his team, no more coming in to camp fat and out of shape."
The timing of this Lakers' outburst is impeccable, if you're the Mavericks, Kings, Spurs or even the Timberwolves. All four of these other Western Conference contenders made major personnel moves during the off-season, some of them nearly as radical as the Lakers adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
But there's no doubt the Lakers on paper seemed to be in the front of the pack -- providing Payton and Malone can adjust to new roles and Jackson can mesh this new group (including playoff stalwarts Bryon Russell and Horace Grant) as his past heroics seem to suggest he can.
The motivation for such radical roster swapping in the West was understandable. The past five NBA titles since Michael Jordan retired (the second time) have been won by teams from the West; three by the Lakers. There's little doubt that whoever makes it out of the Western Conference finals again next June is going to be the 2003-04 NBA champ.
Who's going to beat a Western Goliath? The Nets, who have now lost to the Lakers and Spurs in two consecutive Finals? Will they try for a third against the Mavericks or Kings? It could happen.
The Lakers officially start the season as Team Turmoil again. O'Neal seems to be bolstered in his public criticism of Bryant by the presence of Payton and Malone. They're his guys, further making the Lakers his team. No doubt those three superstars are aligned, with Bryant the talented satellite they may be willing to cast off, if Bryant doesn't do the team thing the way the other three want.
One can only wonder what books Jackson will come up with now to help Shaq and Kobe get through this contentious little episode. It's a good thing the Zen master had that heart procedure last season and is healthy for this heavyweight round.
Once, Jackson gave Shaq Hermann Hesse's classic Sidd- hartha.
"I wanted Shaq to take the steps to inner peace, to become quiet, to get into the attitude of non-attention to desire. Not to eliminate it, but not to fall prey to desire," Jackson said.
Two years ago, Jackson gave Bryant a book called Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. It's a tale about the adaptive ability of some Greek island residents during World War II occupation by the Italians.
"The point of the book was that you can't always dictate the terms of what your life is going to be," Jackson once wrote.
"Those Greeks are going to be overrun and organized by the Italians. So they learn how to win by losing, in a way. `We are going to be occupied, now how do we get along?' "
Opening of the season is tonight. Time for the Lakers to crack those books.