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Lakers: The Dream Team

Star-studded but star-crossed, the Lakers tempt fate once again

This time, the Los Angeles Lakers have given us not one but two seasons: the season that is and the season that might have been, that may yet be. If we were unprepared for this dizzying, if somewhat dispiriting, experience, the fault was ours, not theirs, for over two days in mid July, it became clear that this was the name of the game. On the first of those days, two of the NBA's perennial all-stars—Gary Payton, formerly of the Seattle Supersonics, and Karl Malone, formerly of the Utah Jazz—strode into the Staples Center and, before a throng of reporters, declared their allegiance to the Lakers.

Casual yet imposing, Payton and Malone were animated by the sense of possibility that Los Angeles engenders, at least for a time. As events of this nature go, this one was especially arresting, with its intimations of future glory, the titillation of star power, its echoes of the Old West courtesy of two genuine heroes who'd come riding into town to save our Lakers.

The difference between that and the next days event was the difference between roses and ashes. This was the pained and halting press conference of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' star guard, lately charged with felony sexual assault. As events of this nature go—well, there aren't many events of this nature, and there would be none at all were it not for social phenomena like The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Bryant, bone thin, eyes cast downward, seemed paradoxically frozen and on the verge of crumbling, his humiliation completed by the need to draw on the fortitude of the young wife sitting beside him, the woman he betrayed. Here was another exemplar: the sports hero gone awry. Terrible to witness, the occasion was made more terrible by the knowledge that Kobe Bryant had been destiny's child, a young man who had everything except, perhaps, an appreciation of how swiftly all of it could be taken away.

Thus emerged the elements of the brave new season. Who but the Lakers would try to reconcile realms so disparate? There was the Dream Team, calculation made palpable, a chance to reclaim the title that once set the Lakers dancing the macarena in the city streets while the Big Fella, now preferring to be known as Shaquille O'Neal MDE (Most Dominant Ever), grabbed the microphone in one huge hand and bellowed, "Can you dig it?" And then there was the Dream Work, that netherworld where we perceive things not as they truly are but as they are in our sleep. Bleak and beckoning by turns, the Dream Work is where history is meaningless and irony goes where it has never been before and logic is suspended.

SINCE HIS MARRIAGE 16 MONTHS AGO, Shaquille O'Neal had done what most observers were convinced he never would do. He had grown up. Not entirely, of course; that had no appeal whatsoever. But it was very appealing to be adult enough to approach life methodically. Last season, with an eye to his eventual retirement, he passed the qualifying exam for Los Angeles Port Authority police officers. This season, with an eye to someday running for sheriff, he bolstered his credentials by studying for a master's degree in criminal justice. He was also in that minority of players who recognizes how lucky they are. Midseason, as the Lakers embarked on a two-week road trip, a reporter asked what was the worst part of being on the road. "Nuthin'," O'Neal replied. "There is no worst part. I'm just glad to be working."

It was no secret that O'Neal regarded the Lakers as his team, and that his attitude toward it was distinctly paternal. He took the same attitude toward individual players, especially great players, and most especially, great players who were disrespected. Few things angered him more, and he was very angry on learning, at the end of last season, that the Utah Jazz had offered Karl Malone—the most prolific power forward ever—a salary of $3 million, $16.3 million less than he had been paid the previous year. That was disrespect, plain and simple, considering that the Jazz owed its existence to Malone and his teammate John Stockton, one of the NBA's 50 greatest, who'd carried the franchise on their backs for nigh on two decades.

O'Neal has known Malone since 1992, his own rookie year. He'll tell you that he's always hated him. It's not hate in a personal way; it's pragmatic hatred. O'Neal is the human equivalent of the neutron bomb, a player who can devastate other big men when he's playing hard. But he can't play hard against another big man unless he psychs himself into hating him. The one big man he could never make himself hate was Hakeem Olajuwon, the dazzling center of the Houston Rockets, whose number, 34, he appropriated. Olajuwon was his idol; there was no way that he could play hard against him, not even when the championship was at stake as it was in 1995, when O'Neal, then playing for the Orlando Magic, faced Olajuwon's Rockets in the NBA finals.

But off the court, O'Neal liked Malone. He'd learned a lot from him. It was Malone who'd taught him about hunting, about going into the woods, being still, listening to the animals. You gotta think like they do, Malone would say.

To understand who the Lakers were as they readied themselves for the 2003-4 season, you have to think back to last year's play-offs, when the once-vital world champs relinquished the title they'd had a lock on for three seasons. The whys of it were obvious: In a sport all about dominance, the Lakers had grown frail. If in other seasons Phil Jackson, the Lakers' head coach, was obliged to pull a few rabbits out of his hat, this time, it seemed, he was also obliged to supply the rabbits. In the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers' small forward, Rick Fox, suffered a devastating injury that left the team without its most rabid defender. Then his backup, Devean George, went down. Jackson, a man both mythic and wily, knew the season was over. Then Jackson, too, fell ill. Three games into the series with the San Antonio Spurs, the dull chest pains he'd been ignoring sent him into emergency surgery, where a blocked artery in his heart was repaired. Days later he returned to the court. His face was the color of chalk. Ostensibly he had come to coach; more to the point, he had come to offer the captain's noble gesture: to stand on deck as the ship goes down.

Faced with a new season, management was poised to put together a team that would right the deficiencies of the team before it. This meant, among other things, signing a power forward who had more than a passing interest in playing the position. Karl Malone had never won a championship and hadn't needed one to twice become the league's most valuable player. Still, basketball has only one prize, and being asked for autographs isn't it. The prize is the championship ring, and no player could wish for more than to be worthy of the excellence it represents. Totemic and gleaming, the ring is as desirable as it is elusive.

In June 2003, days after his own season ended, O'Neal called Malone. "I need you here," he said. Truth is, Malone told O'Neal, if the Lakers had won another title, he wouldn't have been interested. But they hadn't won.

"It just feels right," Malone thought, musing on O'Neal's call. "In life we sometimes have to control our own destiny," he said to his wife. "Otherwise we'll be looking back five years from now and thinking coulda or woulda."

Malone did not kid himself about what being a Laker entailed. Nor did he care if the Lakers' penchant for drama resulted from proximity to the entertainment industry, as team members suggested. The only things that matter, he thought, are feeling right about yourself and living a life you're proud of. Those two things and giving yourself a shot at the title. Malone was the fittest player in the NBA. Still, he was about to turn 40, the age at which even the fittest athlete sees exit signs flashing in the near distance.

Prepare to enter the Dream Work. In early fall the Lakers repaired to their training camp in Honolulu, where melodrama was in go mode. This was where the press could corral Kobe Bryant for the first time since his emotion-drenched press conference three months earlier. Reporters were all over the place, scavengers and bottom-feeders providing comic relief. "Hey, Deron," one called out, by way of greeting veteran guard Derek Fisher. Others submitted requests for an interview with Chick Hearn, the Lakers' fabled play-by-play announcer, who'd been dead for a year.

The press could be a boon to the Lakers, Phil Jackson suggested. What group could better serve as the essential one-nemesis-fits-all and so unite the team against a common enemy? Those guys, John Black cautioned the team, will try to get information from you about Kobe. Black was the Lakers' public relations director and inclined to the prevailing view that reporters seek to manipulate players and trick them, especially younger ones, who aren't accustomed to being interviewed. In this situation, Black said, what you say or don't say can make it better or make it worse.

The team's veterans took off for Honolulu on a chartered flight that seemed to have on board everything they needed, except for Kobe Bryant. Where he was and why—those things were a mystery with Bryant, and had been long before he had anything to hide. "He plays, then he's gone," the team's departed guard Ron Harper observed a few years ago. "Where he goes, what he does, we don't know."

For one anxious day, Lakers management placed calls to Bryant, becoming ever more livid when he refused to take them. They turned to Brian Shaw, a former player and one of the few Lakers past or present with whom Bryant seemed comfortable. But when Shaw called, Bryant hung up on him.

As Lakers management saw it, if Bryant was able to play his game, he should join the team immediately. But if he couldn't or wouldn't, and if the season was going to be one of unexplained absences, management would rather he stay out. The next morning Bryant arrived at training camp. He was 15 pounds below his usual weight. His face betrayed the strain of two surgeries and unspeakable angst.

Bryant had always been isolated. It had been his choice, though possibly it was the only choice available to an 18-year-old entering the league in 1996, "a boy in a man's game," as the Lakers' coach at the time, Del Harris, put it. Bryant defined himself in those days by the ways he differed from other players: skin unmarked by tattoos, earlobes unpierced, absent of the requisite diamond stud that guys wore because Michael Jordan wore one. "I don't mean to put anybody down," he said, "but it's not for me—that ear-piercing stuff."

There was a purity about Bryant, a sense that he was untouched by a world that hardened others, for he had always been so consumed with basketball that he'd paid little heed to anything beyond it. This made him naive in certain respects, though he was unusually savvy in others, especially when they pertained to shaping his image. Unlike most players, he understood how to deal with reporters, recognized why cooperating with them was in his interest, and intuited how much to give to keep them happy yet avoid compromising himself. "Need me for anything?" he would ask the beat reporters after a game or a practice.

Within the Lakers organization, there were those who worried about him, sensing how impressionable and special he was. They had seen players come and go. They knew how corrosive the NBA life could be. One, who knew Bryant better than most, often found himself thinking, "Don't let this kid change." But a teenager making upwards of $6 million a year is bound to change.

This season Bryant had one of the most expansive tattoos in the locker room and some of the biggest studs, including one of his own design, a Lakers stud composed of sapphires in purple and yellow. Now he was facing the possibility of a life sentence, and his isolation was inescapable. The Lakers' general manager, Mitch Kupchak, was struck by how alone Bryant was, in a situation where not one person he encountered could tell him, I know how you feel. "We don't know what dread or lack of it he experiences walking into an arena, the courtroom, going home," Kupchak thought. "And we'll never know."

But Bryant was raw, and inevitably, there came a moment when he opened up. That was his first day at training camp. He told reporters he was terrified—terrified of the effect of all this on his family, on himself. That would be the last intimacy he would offer. He had never been one to reveal himself easily. From then on, the revelations would come by accident, as when a reporter noted parenthetically that the Lakers now had four future Hall of Famers.

"Four?" asked Bryant, taken aback.

"Yes, four," said the reporter.

"Thank you," said Bryant.

In the Dream Work, a recurring theme is the power struggle between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Their struggle has created a permanent fissure that underlies all of Lakerland and threatens, at times, to split the organization. One side holds that Bryant can be replaced more easily than O'Neal; the other maintains that O'Neal can be replaced more easily than Bryant.

The deal that brought O'Neal from Orlando to Los Angeles in 1996 was hammered out by Jerry West, basketball legend and the player pictured on the NBA logo. West served as the Lakers' general manager for 12 years; by his own account, acquiring O'Neal was the most important thing he ever did. West protected what would be a $121 million investment by keeping his promise to always surround O'Neal with first-rate players. This was a perfectly straightforward agreement, though threatened by the probability that sooner or later, one of those first-rate players would fail to see why the team shouldn't be built around him. Naturally—for this is the Dream Work—that player would turn out to be the team's most gifted, a player unwilling or unable to be a planet orbiting O'Neal's sun.

This player was, of course, Bryant, younger than the rest, in some ways brasher and perceived initially as a ball hog. With Jackson's arrival in 1999, Bryant's playing would grow ever more faceted and refined. He began to value the dirty work—rebounding and defending—and came to understand the game he played. "It's not about scoring," he said before the 2000 play-offs. "It's about stopping people." Still, he was human, and he was a gifted shooter, and it rankled him that Jackson's offense called for O'Neal to be the first option.

When Jackson's Lakers won their first championship in 2000, Bryant had jumped ecstatically into O'Neal's arms. Everyone assumed that Jackson had settled their respective resentments with a wave of his wand. But Bryant remained disaffected, and this became apparent in the middle of the next season when he wondered aloud to ESPN: The Magazine what playing without O'Neal would be like. For his part, O'Neal made clear he was the first option whether Bryant liked it or not.

So it has gone, the paradigmatic Lakers food fight. That it would start up again two days before the Dream Team would play the first game of the 2003-4 season was outrageous, even in the Dream Work. O'Neal informed reporters that Bryant was shooting too much and should concentrate on defense until he regained his strength. Bryant responded by telling reporters, "I'll play my position. He can play his." Then O'Neal came back with what appeared to be the final word: "It's my team. If the doesn't like it, he can opt out right now." An apoplectic Lakers management called each player in for a meeting.

Most men with Bryant's recent troubles would he inspired to caution. But the attitude they seemed to induce in him was damn the torpedoes, otherwise expressed in his insistence on riding to games on a motorcycle. Lakers management had instructed him not to air his grievances with the press. Instead, he called Jim Gray, an ESPN reporter, and proceeded to belittle O'Neal's toe injury from the previous season, implied that if O'Neal were more of a man, he would have played through the injury, mentioned that O'Neal had not bothered to get in touch with him in the mouths following his arrest. ("I called," O'Neal would later say "I just didn't leave a message.")

It surprised no one when Malone turned out to be the one who drained the sandbox. "Listen," he told Bryant and O'Neal, "I'm not getting paid enough to put up with this shit."

Karl Malone was the best thing that had happened to the Lakers since Phil Jackson became their head coach. In 19 years in the league, he'd become known for toughness of mind and body, for his Harleys, for cutting lumber and hauling it in his customized 18-wheeler. Less familiar was Malone's spirit, his conviction, his lack of guile, the aspect he projected of one whose authority was so much a given that he never needed to invoke it.

As a kid, Malone loved basketball, but for a family of nine children in rural Louisiana, the expense of a hoop was prohibitive. Instead, his mother would stand before him, arms rounded into a hoop shape while he shot the ball, hour upon hour. In this way, she gave him life twice. No wonder that his stated goal was to never do anything that would embarrass her.

He was the thirteenth pick of the 1985 draft, selected by the Jazz. He was 21 years old, a country boy in a short-sleeved shirt and a bow tie who respected his elders and had a work ethic to match his talents. Talking to the press that day he cried. His emotion was assumed to be gratitude, and that was just as well. Years passed before he allowed that he had cried because he didn't want to live in Utah.

In his time with the Jazz, few phrases in the basketball lexicon would get more of a workout than "Stockton to Malone." The connection between them was intuitive, just something Malone felt sure of, the way he felt sure of where the ball would be as he headed up the court to receive it.

When Utah lost to Sacramento in last year's play-offs, Malone recognized instantly that Stockton had had enough. They didn't talk about it. Their communication had never depended on talk. Stockton walked away from the game as the NBA's all-time assists leader. He left Malone, his chief beneficiary, second on the list of all-time scorers, some 2,000 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His absence, Malone knew, would create an unfillable gap, even as it freed him to discover the player he was when he wasn't being fed the ball by Stockton.

With so much yet to be known, Malone felt at times that he had always been a Laker, that he'd regained the excitement, the thrill of the game that he experienced so acutely his second and third years in the league and not much since. Yet everything was so new that after the morning shoot-around before the season's first game, he found himself leaving the court by habit through the visitors' tunnel.

Shortly after Malone signed with the Lakers, his mother died. It was an unthinkable loss. "She was there for me always," he would say He missed her especially at the opening game. "There's her seat," he thought, looking up at the stands, "and she ain't in it."

On October 28, 2003, the Dream Team played its first regular season game, against the Dallas Mavericks. As it happened, Bryant needed to rest his leg and sat out. Payton had told O'Neal and Malone, "Let us get gradually into it," and they were prepared to heed this Kennedyesque admonition. The crowd also went for gradual. For most of the game, the Staples Center was more subdued than one would expect. Maybe the Shaq-hates-Kobe/Kobe-hates-Shaq redux had been a turnoff, the kind that sends even the most devoted fans into agitated rants about the self-indulgence of overpaid players. There were also doubters who insisted that these four guys could never play together, that they had too much history and too much ego to make it work.

But the game finally won them over. In the second quarter, Payton stole the ball, brought it up court, and tossed it to Malone, who whipped it into O'Neal for a dunk. With four minutes to play, with the Lakers up by 17 points, Jackson took Malone out of the game. He walked off the court to an ovation. Then he pulled Payton. Another ovation. Another for O'Neal. On the bench, they gave each other five. Bryant patted O'Neal on the head.

Over the next six weeks, the Lakers went 18-3, at one point winning ten consecutive games. In those weeks the members of the Dream Team established themselves as avatars of expertise and grace. They had always been bold; running together seemed to further embolden them, as when Bryant scored 37 points in 49 minutes or Malone became the first player over 40 to get a triple double. Their game was swift, clean, joyously communal. It was a near-perfect game. If it had a flaw, it was their inclination to defer to one another. In Lakerland, where doubts abound—where victories give rise to Whose team is it? and losses lead to Whose fault is it?—the Dream Team was fashioning a new, hybrid query: Whose fault is it that we don't know whose team this is? To the degree that the game of basketball is a metaphor, their feats had resonance: Each calibrated pass, each dunk, each fallaway jumper was a reminder of what they had known all along, that a dream is worth pursuing.

Were this a team other than the Lakers we could end the narrative here, with its intimation of a bright future. But this is not some other team, and the Lakers are nothing if not skilled practitioners of the blunt art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

This they accomplished on December 12 while playing the Dallas Mavericks, a team that had not triumphed on the Lakers' home court since 1990. Last season, in their second matchup against Dallas, the Lakers were down 27 points going into the fourth quarter. They came back and won it, in what was perhaps the most astounding turnaround in franchise history Maybe that's why they weren't all that fazed when they were down i8 points with five and a half minutes to go. But this time, their defense was lackadaisical, as if prevailing were of minor interest. "Give them credit," Malone said of Dallas. "They wanted it more than we did."

We are in the Dream Work. Kobe Bryant, the NBA player deemed least likely to pose for a mug shot or to cheat on his wife, emerges from a Cadillac Escalade, his expression sober, his turtleneck, slacks, and jacket a discreet, subdued brown. He offers his hand to a small woman dressed in black—Pamela Mackey, his lawyer. Outside, in the cool Colorado air, hordes of the chattering class come to watch them enter the courthouse where pretrial motions will be heard in case No. 03CR204, People of the State of Colorado v. Kobe Bean Bryant.

"I really don't think it impacts his game as much as it impacts his mood," Jackson says that afternoon when a reporter asks how Bryant is handling the charges against him. "I want him to be a receptive and happy player. That's important. It's going to be difficult for him to face this, given his mood swings."

That night the Lakers have a home game against the Denver Nuggets. Bryant is anxious to get to the arena, to return to where he feels alive and safe. At 5:30, his representative calls the Lakers to say that his chartered flight has taken off. At the end of the first quarter a rush of excitement throughout the arena indicates his presence. He plays 31 minutes. With 2.5 seconds left, the score is tied at 99. He receives an inbound pass, throws the ball up, scores. Later, he comes out to talk to the press, wearing his court clothes. He smiles. "It's just the irony of it," he says.

He lives in two worlds now, the basketball world where his fate is literally in his hands, and that other world where everything that means anything is beyond his control.

Karl Malone enters the Dream Work the first week of the season when he pulls a hamstring that's slow to heal. In all his years with the Jazz, he missed only six games because of illness or injury. Now, a reporter asks if he'll play the next games. He says, "Next question."

Four days before Christmas, in a home game against Phoenix, Malone shoots a jumper. As he comes down, he gets tangled with his defender and they end up on the floor. There is an ominous pop. Malone grasps his right knee. Malone in pain ... a dissonant image. The team's doctor examines him. The diagnosis is a sprained medial collateral ligament, basically a sprained knee. You'll be out two months, the doctor tells him.

Me? asks Malone.

Yes, you. It's an injury

Ten days go by before Malone accepts that he's hurt. He thinks about the teachings of his church. How you're supposed to have faith in God's will and never ask, Why me? Still, he asks. But he knows the answer: Why not?

When you're injured, it's a whole new deal. You join in the huddle before games, but you don't want to be heard. You give the guys five as they come off the court, but you don't criticize or even offer suggestions, because basketball has its own etiquette and there's a lot you don't do when you're not playing.

To hasten his recovery Malone works out on the StairMaster. He works out hard. Eight weeks into his rehabilitation a new doctor tells him that he was misdiagnosed by the Lakers' medical staff. It's not a sprain. It's a tear, further aggravated by his aggressive, misguided efforts to heal it.

The first week of January, O'Neal is nursing a sore right calf and not playing. The Lakers lose four games in a row, the second time they've had more than three consecutive losses since Jackson began coaching them. The next week, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bryant takes to the court, where the newly 19-year-old guard LeBron James waits for him. Lately James has supplanted Bryant as the league wunderkind; it's whispered that Bryant resents this, but if he does, who can blame him? Midway through the first quarter, when Bryant fakes a jump shot, a defender lands on his shoulder. Bryant staggers, his expression agonized, as if the everyday agonies he has grappled with have at last found an appropriate venue. He's certain that he's sustained the injury a player spends his whole life dreading. Even so, he continues playing for a few more minutes until Jackson pulls him out. As Bryant is being led to the locker room, the look on Jackson's face is that of a man who has butted heads with fate and knows what it means to be powerless.

With Bryant sidelined, the Dream Team consists of Gary Payton. If you were allowed only one guy standing, Payton would be a good choice. Rarely has the game known a defender as relentless, with so little letup. In 13 years with the Sonics, he got them to the play-offs ten times and once to the finals. At 35, he was no longer a kid, but he played with a kid's unambiguous conviction. The Lakers' next game is against Denver. To say they are not favored to win is putting it mildly. The bench steps up. Their win over Denver, says Malone, is the most important game all season. But they lose four out of the next five. They are heading toward one of the worst road records in Laker history Payton's frustration increases with each loss and finally spills over. "This ain't what I came here for," he says after yet another loss. "Hey, Gary," you can imagine legions of Laker fans saying, "it ain't what we came here for, either."

One night in January the door to the trainer's room opens and in walks Mitch Kupchak. Once the protege of Jerry West, now his successor, he is the first option for taking the heat if the Dream Team tanks. Kupchak knows all about the trainer's room, having spent too much time there himself when he was still one of the most promising young players the Lakers ever drafted. He played one season before succumbing to a knee injury from which he would never recover, though he returned briefly and helped out with the successful 1985 championship run. He played well, but the experience left him sad and unsatisfied. "I was a shadow," he says, "of the player I'd been."

All that has left Kupchak fairly sanguine about any injury that is less than career ending. Players get hurt. They heal. "That's the way it is in this game," he says.

Now, in the trainer's room, Kupchak sees something remarkable: Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, and Rick Fox. Which is to say, he sees the Lakers' entire starting lineup, absent Gary Payton. What can a GM say in such a circumstance? There's "Get well soon," of course, but it seems a tad insufficient. In fact, words seem insufficient altogether. Kupchak settles for saying, "You can't win a championship in here."

ON NIGHT THE host of Laker radio, Larry Burnert, airs the play-by-play of the concluding minutes of the 2000 finals, the game that vanquished the Indiana Pacers and gave O'Neal and Bryant their first championship. Chick Hearn relays every move. Listening, you can see them as they were, so young, so vital. They had their troubles even then. Still, it's as if every perimeter shot, every dunk, every pass were suffused with some kind of magic and that this magic would sweep them up, keep them safe, make them victorious.

That magic is something unseen, something higher. Phil Jackson doesn't use the word magic. He talks about the gods of basketball. Before those gods let you triumph, he'll say, you have to honor and appease them. You satisfy both conditions by working hard. Last season, the Lakers didn't work hard, and this was reflected in the outcome. Simple as that.

But what about this team? Is it that the gods of basketball have tired of the Lakers? Is it that they simply don't care? Or is it that everything has its own time and the Lakers' time of dominance has ended and now it's someone else's time? Does that explain why Bryant talks about playing for other teams and why the Lakers have not secured Jackson's contract for next year? Or is it that the gods of basketball, such as they are, have parity in mind and take a dim view of stacking the deck? Or is it that the gods are putting the Lakers through a trial, embarrassing them, making them suffer, before they are allowed to emerge triumphant?

Malone throws to O'Neal in the low post. He elevates and takes it in both hands. The crowd, riveted, expectant, waits for him to jam it down. Instead be passes off to Payton standing at the top of the key. Payton brings the ball inside past five seven-foot defenders and passes off to Bryant on the perimeter. The dome of the winter palace opens. Malone, O'Neal, and Payton soar. Bryant hits a 20-foot jumper, then elevates, floats, joins them in the sky.