With problems off the court, Lakers' Bryant turns to faith

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

November 23, 2003|By MILTON KENT

Facing a jail sentence and alienation from one or more of your teammates can drive a player in a number of directions. In the case of Kobe Bryant, the direction has been inward.

The Los Angeles Lakers guard, who is facing sexual assault charges from a June incident in a Colorado hotel, told a group of New York media before a game last week at Madison Square Garden that he has turned to faith.

"When you go through something like I'm going through. ... Everybody in this room has something that they're going through," Bryant said. "Everybody has their breaking point. And I've been there. And it brings you closer to God."

Bryant, who faces a preliminary hearing on the Colorado charges next month, said the basketball court has been a refuge of sorts from all his cares and woes, and that when he is playing, "everything feels good."

Fan reaction has been surprisingly mild toward Bryant, so much so that some New York columnists proclaimed the Garden was dead because Bryant wasn't hassled more.

"I go in expecting the worst," Bryant said. "Some arenas have been great, some not so great. There's nothing I can really do about it. We just go out and play the game. Whatever happens, happens. Whatever the things they say to me, I can't change that. I can't affect that."

Bryant's only complaint comes in the way his family has been treated, as rumors of estrangement between he and his parents and between he and his wife have flown about since he was charged.

As for his play, Bryant, whose scoring average is down almost nine points from last season, said he's trying to get into shape from offseason knee surgery.

"Some games, my legs feel great. Other games, they don't," Bryant said. "So I've kind of had to adjust my game a little bit. But playing with so many great players makes it a lot easier. I don't have to step up and play as well as I did last year."

Even before Bryant was charged, the Lakers added future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone to the roster last summer, and save for three road losses, the team appears to have integrated its new pieces well.

"I think we're doing a pretty good job considering all of the circumstances," Bryant said. "Everybody thought it was going to be truly difficult. But we've been able to work everything out and just play. There have been games where we've struggled, but it's all part of the process. We'll get there."

Quiz

At his current pace, Cleveland's LeBron James would play 3,362 minutes this season, assuming he plays in all 82 games, at an average of 41 minutes a game. That would not be a record for rookies. Who holds that mark?

Bickerstaff at courtside

Don't be surprised if you see Bernie Bickerstaff, the coach and general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats, sitting courtside at some NBA arena. The Bobcats open play next season, and Bickerstaff and his scouts have work to do on five fronts, evaluating talent that he will eventually coach.

"We have the international covered, the NBA, the minor leagues, the colleges and high schools," Bickerstaff said. "We're just basically looking at talent. We'll rank all the players. We won't just rank the players that people think will be from eight to 15, but we'll rank everybody. That way, when you go to the board, as the names come off, there are really no surprises."

Each of the other 29 NBA teams will be able to protect eight of the 15 players on their roster in the expansion draft, so Bickerstaff and his staff are getting a look at what will be available.

The Bobcats will also have the fourth pick in the June entry draft, and Bickerstaff, a former Washington Wizards coach, plans to go as young as possible, even if the Charlotte fan base wants a winner quickly.

"The one thing I've learned is the quickest way to failure is to try to appease everybody," Bickerstaff said. "What we're going to do is do what we think is in the best interest of the franchise in the short term and in the long run, because it's important to sustain what you're able to build."

Realignment

The Bobcats' entry forces the league to realign the 30 teams into six divisions within the Eastern and Western conferences, rather than the current four divisions, and the biggest winner may be the Wizards.

The Wizards will be placed in a new Southeast Division in the East, along with Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and Charlotte. Assuming Washington's young players develop, the Wizards should start next season as the favorites to win the new division, which will assure them a playoff spot, even with a sub-.500 record.

The New Orleans Hornets were forced into the West to make room for the Bobcats, and can't be happy with an arrangement that has them in the new Southwest Division with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

The Minnesota Timberwolves also appear to get the short end of a deal that has them as the only Central time zone team in the new Northwest Division, with Portland and Seattle in the Pacific time zone, and Denver and Utah in the Mountain zone.

Shock waves

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