Meanwhile, lest anyone forget Shaquille O'Neal, he had issues too,
starting with management's refusal to extend his contract, which runs
three more seasons at an average of $29.3 million.
This turned out to be a misunderstanding. After O'Neal stalked out of
an exhibition in Hawaii bellowing "Pay me," the Lakers said they were
willing, but at something like $50 million for two seasons, rather
than the $68-million maximum. Shaq then announced his willingness to
Of course, as soon as that was cleared up, O'Neal suggested his
displeasure with the usual suspects: Jackson, who was challenging him
through the media, and Bryant, whose mere presence now complicates
Jackson laughed it off, but he's an old hand at this and has nothing
more to worry about than the imminent season.
Bryant, on the other hand, has bigger problems than O'Neal, and is
holding himself together with baling wire.
So it wasn't that considerate of Shaq to declare, "The full team is
here," when Bryant reported late, or to say he was resting his sore
heel because "I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl [Malone] and
Nor was it the optimal time to help Bryant with his shot selection,
especially since their problems have as much to do with Shaq's defense
as Kobe's shooting.
Bryant once ignored O'Neal as a duck ignores dew, but that was then
and this is now. In private, Kobe fumed about Shaq's comments, vowing
to opt out of his contract and leave, and finally fired back as he
never had "He can worry about the low post."
Then O'Neal said what was on his mind as he never had "If it's
going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he
can opt out" and the Lakers were in disarray.
Once he seemed to have it all. He was not only gifted and dedicated to
the point of obsession, but bright, cute and personable. Raised
religiously when he ventured into hip-hop, it was Christian
rap he wanted to do everything the right way. If he'd been a
little king in his family as youngest child and first son, he was also
respectful and well-mannered, one of the Lakers who would say hello if
you passed him in the hall.
But even at 17, before he had anything to hide, Bryant was into
denial. Cocooned by his family, he was polite but slow to open up. He
didn't acknowledge fears, doubts or regrets. It would be years before
he'd talk about driving around the UCLA campus, wondering what he was
He seemed truly bulletproof then, oblivious to what anyone outside the
family thought, even teammates. Former assistant Larry Drew told of a
meeting at which then-Coach Kurt Rambis tried to heal the breach and
player after player went off on Bryant. By way of reply, Kobe went out
and fired off 20 shots in that night's game.
Nor was he dismayed when he first heard that O'Neal was upset with
him. Bryant said O'Neal was always nice in person and couldn't imagine
what the problem was.
The bottom line was that Kobe didn't think much about Shaq, one way or
Bryant endured the wrenching break with his parents and sisters over
his marriage with nary a peep. If he was on his own planet, he always
returned in the nick of time. That was how the volatile Lakers won
three titles in a row; in crunch time, Shaq would become enthusiastic
and Kobe would become lucid.
Now Bryant can't hide his living nightmare, and often he doesn't even
He has a Lost Boy-in-Never Land quality as he tries to put his life
back together from the ground up. As if reconsecrating himself, he
often enunciates the guiding principles of his life: 1) God; 2) his
family; 3) basketball.
His devotion overflows, as it always has, but now in the direction of
Vanessa, his wife. He buys her a $4-million diamond and a $2.6-million
house near theirs for her mother. He gets his first tattoos as a
tribute to Vanessa and their daughter, Natalia.
Not that any of this plays well, publicly.
The New York Daily News' Mike Lupica writes: "He perhaps could have
thought about his purpose on Earth a little more before he ordered up
a 19-year-old concierge the way some people do something off the
24-hour room-service menu."
Nor can Bryant's legal team, which is getting hundreds of thousands of
dollars to worry about appearances, be enchanted, but they work for
him. There's never a question about who's in charge in any Bryant
endeavor and at the end of the day, Kobe is going to be Kobe.
Yearning to get his former life back, he tries to reassert his old
routine. He talks to the media as much as he ever did, but tries to
keep it about basketball "My lungs didn't burn once!" he
exclaimed after his first exhibition. That stuff was once of some
interest but now pales in importance.
The reality is that Bryant's life could not be more different.
Where he once did hours of interviews, photo shoots and commercials
after practice, he now can go home. Only one of his sponsors, Nutella,
has said it will not renew his contract but none has any of his
commercials in rotation.
The preoccupation with security is constant. In Hawaii, Bryant's
bodyguards took the rooms on each side of his suite. At the Arrowhead
Pond, two security people with Vanessa cleared out a ladies' room
before she entered.
Where Bryant's inner circle once included his parents and father
figures such as Jerry West, his agent, Arn Tellem, and older teammates
such as Byron Scott and Derek Harper, now it's tiny: Bryant, Vanessa,
Natalia, Pelinka and the legal team.
Insiders say Pelinka doesn't try to talk Bryant out of things, as
Tellem did. Kobe doesn't want anything divulged to the media, so
Pelinka doesn't return calls.
Last spring, Bryant seemed to begin reconciling with his parents, but
Pam and Joe have been out of sight since his arrest. Reporters who
call their home in Philadelphia get a recording saying the voice mail
is full and they can't leave messages.
This will be Kobe's life until his trial. This may be why his
attorneys tried so vigorously to keep it from going to trial, although
that was considered to be a longshot, or no shot.
Distractions, however welcome, are only that. When Bryant began
practicing, his mood seemed to lighten, prompting someone to ask
whether he had good days and bad days.
"Every day is a bad day," Bryant said. "You just kind of take the good
Once it was good days and better days. Now it's bad days and worse