If it is true that men intend the natural consequences of their acts, it may be that the Los Angeles Lakers played poorly this season because they wanted to play poorly Figure it this way: Three consecutive championships leave them seeing the regular season as an endless audition for a role they've already played and are certain to play again. So to pique their interest they play with an even greater sense of ennui and self-involvement than usual, losing enough games to make a mountain out of the 82-game molehill that leads to the play-offs.
This scenario may annoy those who expect their champs to be heroic and charm others who love the champs for being as skewed and self-defeating as the rest of us. What may surprise you is how it strikes the Lakers' senior player, Brian Shaw, who at the ancient age of 37, is what you might call the dean of the Lakers. "The way we've been going the last three years," says Shaw, "losing kind of is what we needed. I mean, it would have been nice to win 72 games and be the favorite again and get a little extra money for having a good record. But you know, there is something intriguing about being one of those bottom teams to make the play-offs and then come out and just roll through everybody."
When Brian Shaw joined the Lakers for the 1999-2000 season, he was that NBA staple, the have-game-will-travel player. In 11 years he had played on six of the league's 29 teams and was about ready to retire. But when Kobe Bryant broke his hand in the first preseason game, Shaquille O'Neal recommended Shaw to the Lakers' management. At six-six Shaw is a big guard, the kind Phil Jackson likes. "He looks like such a nice guy," his Laker teammate Robert Horry once said, "that he can kill you without you knowing it." Shaw and O'Neal had played together on the Orlando Magic, where Shaw's passing skills and superb court vision made him the ideal Robin to O'Neal's Batman. In Orlando they were known for a move they appropriated from the Spurs' David Robinson, a lob pass followed by a dunk that fans called the Shaw-Shaq Redemption. Plays like these relied on the fact that Shaw did not simply know where everyone was on the court; he sensed where they were going to be in a few seconds.
With most players, whatever upside you get has a downside that matches or exceeds it. Shaw's old legs were, to be sure, the downside of his experience and savvy, but there was no downside to his thoughtfulness and perceptiveness. These qualities made him the ideal addition to a franchise whose operatics led reporters to call their seasons "As the Lakers Turn."
Jim Cleamons, an assistant coach, would describe Shaw as "our safety net"; Stu Lantz, the Lakers' color commentator, dubbed him Mr. Dependable. Shaw was the quintessential role player, doing whatever he could to support the team's stars. He was also that rare player who befriends each man on the team, is uncowed by its franchise players, supports its rookies, and respects the opinions of the other team leaders—Horry, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher. "They play the right way," he says. "They have no ego. They have good hearts." The team, in turn, came to count on Shaw's interest, his praise, his ability to discern weaknesses in their game and to better them. Above all, they counted on his sense of ethics. "Be true to the game," he would tell them, "or the game won't be true to you."
Even Kobe Bryant, who does not usually seek the counsel of other players, reached out to Shaw. The two had met when Shaw was playing on a team in the Italian league with Joe Bryant, Kobe's father. Kobe was ten years old, a quiet, well-mannered kid who lived for basketball and could go one-on-one with most guys on his dad's team and beat them. When Shaw came to the Lakers ten years later, his relationship with Kobe was friendly and sometimes testy. Kobe would rib him about all the stretching he had to do before going onto the court. "Hey, I played with your father," Shaw told him. "That's like if my three-year-old son becomes a player, and you end up playing with him. When you've got 13 years in the league, then you'll be saying something."
The night Kobe called Shaw, there was no joking. Shaw had observed that Kobe and his parents had drifted apart, and he could sense Kobe's unhappiness. Kobe didn't want anything; he just talked, and Shaw knew not to press him. "We're here for you," Shaw told him. "We're all here for you if you ever need more from us than you need from us now."
Shaw had signed with the team for money that was slight in NBA terms, and because there were always new players to evaluate, for playing time that was even slighter. "There'll be stretches when you don't play at all," Jackson told him, "but I know what you bring to the game and that you'll keep yourself ready."
Few players could do what Shaw could do: warm the bench for 46 minutes, then come into the game and have an impact. Still fewer admitted they could do it. "It works against me a lot," Shaw said on occasion. He'd get calls from friends who had seen him on the sidelines. "Are you in the doghouse?" they'd ask. He didn't care how things looked. "I just have to quietly stay ready," he told himself. "There will be times when Phil does call to me, and I just have to be ready when those times come."
The 2002-2003 season began with O'Neal recovering from toe surgery and with Fox suspended for six games after mixing it up with the Sacramento Kings' Doug Christie. Without Fox, the Lakers were missing one of their most intense players, a guy who hated to lose so much that his presence made the team more focused on winning. O'Neal's absence changed the way the offense ran, since it was supposed to run through him. Players got the ball to him in the low post, he drew a double team, then kicked the ball out to whoever was open. Without O'Neal, the double team didn't come, which meant that players weren't making shots because opportunities for open shots were fewer.
This may be why Kobe kept the ball when the Lakers played the Boston Celtics the second week of the season. Looking back, Shaw traces the team's problems back to this game. "He took 47 shots and missed 30 of them," says Shaw. "Then he made comments about his teammates not hitting shots."
They often weren't. They were all scrambling to find their game, and having played into mid June three consecutive seasons, they were grappling with what their trainer, Gary Vitti, called "the attrition of three championships," as injuries regularly removed players from the lineup of a team that could not include depth as one of its pluses. Sports commentators, looking even more self-satisfied than usual, offered up as revelation what any five-year-old could see from a $10 seat: The world champs were tired.
If they came off as less energized than other teams, Shaw maintained, it was because they'd stuck with the same guys through three winning seasons. The difference in energy was like the difference between that of a courtship and a marriage. "You can't compare us to other teams that are loading up with new guys to beat us," he told the team. "They're bound to have a different energy."
Still, they were losing more than they were winning. By Christmas they had gone 11-18—more losses than in the entire regular season of their first championship. If they had been looking to lose, they had achieved that goal with such startling efficiency that they were left struggling to go into the all-star break at .500. An uncharacteristic wistfulness crept into their public utterances. They would be a new team, they said, when Shaq returned, when everybody was healthy and back together.
But for the present they were a team waiting for their shots to fall, for their passes to be perfectly calibrated, a team waiting to be what they had been and lacking the winning mix of viciousness and serenity, a team awaiting a miracle. One day it would seem the miracle had occurred, as they came back from 30 points down against the formidable Dallas Mavericks to win 105 to 103. Four days later they would lose to the lowly Golden State Warriors.
It would be different come the play-offs, they told themselves. "Nobody can beat us four games before we beat them four games," Shaw would say The others agreed. It will be different in the play-offs. They repeated the phrase so often that it became their mantra.
To the rookies Kareem Rush and Jannero Pargo, the mantra rang hollow. They had not been present when late in previous seasons the Lakers had hit the switch that turned their game on. This idea that things would be different in the play-offs, Pargo told Rush, overlooked one little thing. "You can't be different in the play-offs if you don't get to the play-offs," he said.
Three seasons ago, as O'Neal and Bryant battled over who would lead the team, the salient question for the Lakers was, Whose team is it? This season the salient question was, Whose fault is it?
Was it the fault of Shaquille O'Neal, the game's once and future most dominant player? When the postsurgery Shaq returned to the lineup in late November, he was not the explosive threat that he had been. He was an earthbound hulk whose playing was less reminiscent of the early days of Hakeem Olajuwon, his idol, than of the latter days of Arvydas Sabonis, his nemesis. Was the season the fault of the supporting cast, who could find no way to score given Shaq's deficiency? Was it the fault of Phil Jackson for not providing more direction?
Much of the local press placed the blame on the role players, who ignored fundamentals of the game, like offensive rebounding. They also blamed the Lakers bench, which was routinely outscored by other benches. These were sore topics, ones that Kobe had raised on many occasions. "And when Shaq came back," says Shaw, "he bought into the same stuff that Kobe was saying."
Soon players were trading accusations. "It's a war of words," thought Shaw. "And it's never really happened on this team before. We've never let outside forces chink our armor."
The infighting was getting to players. Shaw took it on in a team meeting. He turned to Bryant. "I'm hearing all these things through the media about our bench compared to the other benches," he said. "Well, our bench doesn't get a whole lot of minutes. Even when the bench is in the game, it's not like Sacramento or Detroit, where they have a wholesale substitution and it's all bench guys in. When our bench is in, you and Shaq are still there, and they defer to you.
"As for the rest of the team, these guys are the same guys that won championships with you. The problem here isn't just us. We count on you and the big fella to give us 60, 70 points a game, and we'll score 30 or 40 points a game and hold the other team to under a hundred. And we win. You're coming up short on your end. You make all the money You got to carry your load. You got to take what comes with it instead of blaming us."
There was silence, and then other players seconded what he had said. Bryant listened, and heard them. "The only way this thing is gonna work," said Shaw, "is for all of us to shoulder the load together."
Gradually, the injured list lightened, but the team was performing no better. "We're physically healthy," thought Shaw, "but we're not mentally healthy because of the war of words that's been going on."
Phil Jackson's immediate solution was to have Kobe take over games, an unexpected choice for a man who had predicated his career on the triangle offense, which created high percentage shots for every player; it was a wily, egalitarian system whose founding precept—pass to the open man—was based on the nonegalitarian recognition that all players are not created equal.
Jackson had long been at odds with the steely evangelistic verities of his upbringing and had found in the triangle the one codified system he could believe in wholeheartedly But there are times when a man's honor lies in doing what is practical. What made his reliance on Kobe especially tricky was that Jackson already had him playing the point guard position, which meant that the player bringing the ball up the court was the player taking the shots, and other players would not get many touches. There was also the inherent danger of placing one's eggs in a single basket.
In the next games Kobe outmaneuvered double and triple teams, found openings in the defense where none seemed to exist, hit 12 three-pointers against Seattle to break the NBA record, scored 40 points or more in nine consecutive games, and scored with seconds on the clock by hurling the ball from a distance of 60 feet. "You could play your whole life," thought Shaw, "and never see someone get this hot."
On March 21, against the Boston Celtics, Shaquille O'Neal found his game, scoring 48 points, elevating, dunking, arcing hook shots into the basket. He pulled down 20 boards, instilling fear in the opposition. The crowd cheered as it had not cheered all season. This was the night that they had all needed, and the players on the bench rose and joined in the cheering. It was a night that communicated what O'Neal had made obvious: that men heal, that there is such a thing as a happy ending, that old wounds disappear, that a season can be resurrected.
So it was that the three-time world champs were spared the indignity of mid-April vacations, and entered the play-offs in the fifth spot, going up against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round. The play-offs came at what would be for Shaw the anniversary of the tragedy he recalls every day of his life. It was at play-off time ten years ago that his mother, father, sister, and niece had kissed him good-bye after visiting him in the Nevada desert. They never got home. His infant niece survived; his father, mother, and sister perished when their car overturned ten minutes from Las Vegas on Interstate 15.
A day didn't pass when he didn't miss them. He wished his parents could see the life he had made with Nikki, his friend then, now his wife. He and Nikki had two small children. He would have liked to see his father toss a basketball around with B.J., to see his mother brushing Bianca's hair.
Losing them had shown him what is important. He tried to pass that sense along. "My parents are gone," he told Kobe in their phone conversation. "They used to be at every game I played. And they're not. Whatever's going on with your family, nothing's more important than they are. Make it right with them, and keep it right." For his part, Brian Shaw believed his family was always with him. Win or lose, that is the way it would always be.