O'Neal, Denver combine to put a chill on Bryant

February 21, 2005|By David Steele

DENVER - The theme for the 54th NBA All-Star Game: Grudges don't die easily. The evidence: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant haven't made up, and neither have Bryant and the residents of Colorado.

The capper of All-Star Weekend last night did not disappoint fans craving action, with the shots going up early and often and the players - in particular Vince Carter, author of the sickest dunk of the night late in the first half - eager to entertain. Yet on a weekend devoid of a consensus "big" story line, the Shaq-Kobe subtext remained alive and vibrant.

The villain of the continuing soap opera was obvious from the start. Bryant, voted a West starter, was the only one of the 24 players booed during the elaborate pre-game introductions at Pepsi Center. Of course, he also was the only one who had sexual assault charges filed and eventually dropped in Colorado over the past year and a half.

He also might be the only player in league history to be hooted down in two separate All-Star Games, following the feat in his hometown of Philadelphia in 2002.

Any chance that the crowd - normally devoid of local fans because of low ticket availability - would be neutral for the East's 125-115 win was dismissed first by a well-received rendition of Rocky Mountain High by country singer Toby Lightman, and then by the blizzard of boos greeting Bryant.

And any chance of a thaw between Bryant and O'Neal, more than six months after their notorious split as Lakers teammates after O'Neal's trade to Miami, ended almost as soon as both arrived in town last week.

One of the first times they were in the same place at the same time - during mass interviews Friday at a downtown hotel - they so blatantly avoided each other while walking no more than 20 feet apart, it was comical. That night at the rookie game, they sat one row apart at courtside and never looked in each other's direction.

TNT's broadcasters worked to stir the pot during warm-ups last night by asking both their feelings about being All-Star opponents for the first time after six years as West teammates. In typical fashion, Bryant talked around the question: "It's nothing out of the ordinary than when you face a competitor. It's really no big deal."

At the other end of the court, O'Neal was his usual blend of faux diplomacy and real bite: "Today is no day to make it a one-on-one thing. It's not about that today [big smirk]. So don't ask me that anymore."

In the locker room before the game, Shaq was asked if he had, in fact, answered too many questions about Kobe this weekend. His deadpan reply: "Who?" (Any threat of O'Neal taking this weekend seriously was dispelled by, among other things, the giant sneaker-phone prop, with antenna, he toted around to interviews.)

As the starters for both teams met and greeted at midcourt before the opening tip, two players managed to pass each other without as much as a glance. Guess which ones. The one time in the first half they were in close quarters, Bryant sized O'Neal up near the free-throw line on the left side and tried to blow past him into the lane - and Shaq reached and fouled him.

With the local papers and TV stations trailing players and celebrities all over the area all weekend, Bryant managed to stay out of anything resembling a spotlight. He pointedly refused to shy away from even being in Denver, even though a bad ankle sprain that had sidelined him for a month would have provided an acceptable escape.

On Saturday, he told The Denver Post that fan reaction in town had been positive: "When I walk around here, it's all love."

Both players were electric during their stints on the floor. O'Neal's best move of his 12-point, six-rebound night was a drive down the left baseline past Yao Ming for a first-quarter dunk (followed by a free throw with his left hand behind his back, which missed, of course). Bryant, who scored 16 in 29 minutes, swooped in from all angles, most improbably in the first quarter when he whirled on the left wing and banked in a jumper with his left hand.

But there was too much competition for airborne supremacy, none stronger than Carter, who lobbed a pass off the backboard to himself for a dunk at least eye-level with the rim. Besides, it would be hard for any of the players to beat out what might be the most memorable sight of the game: the horse accompanying country stars Big and Rich's halftime act.

Nevertheless, the NBA's cold war between two of its biggest stars rages on. And the cold shoulder from a state to one player has yet to warm up.

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