From Our Archives: How Shaq and Kobe’s Rivalry Shaped the Lakers

In 2001, journalist Elizabeth Kaye followed a team pulled in two directions

In June of 2001, Los Angeles ran the following story by journalist Elizabeth Kaye. She spent months following the Lakers, taking a deep dive into the tug-of-war between charming “big man” Shaquille O’Neal and the disciplined young hotshot, Kobe Bryant, as they and the rest of the Lakers team learned to play well together. The piece was never published online before now; the full text of that article is below. 

WHEN THE CLOCK RAN DOWN LAST JUNE on the season’s deciding game, and the Lakers did what no one thought they could do, including themselves, Glen Rice hurled the ball into the air, and by the time it descended and Ron Harper caught it, the fans had gone crazy, and the gleaming maple boards of the court were buried beneath a profusion of purple and yellow streamers. Later, looking back, the players would see those moments as the point that divided their lives into Before and After.

It was their coach. Phil Jackson who noticed that while the rookies were ecstatic, the older players were quieter. These men were veterans of years of training, of the athlete’s requisite self-absorption, of the missed family gatherings that recast NBA players’ lives into cases of haven’t-been-there, haven’t-done-that. Winning a championship was an absolution, elevating what had seemed obsessive and selfish into something brave, sacrificial, necessary.

How many times, in eight years in the NBA had Shaquille O’Neal heard people say, Shaq’s a great player, but he hasn’t won a championship yet. “In this sport,” he’d taken to saying, “there’s always that ‘but’ factor. I just want to eliminate that ‘but.”‘ Now he had.

Forward Rick Fox had expended ten years on losing teams, years shadowed by a pervasive disappointment that afflicted everyone around him. “Kids, a wife, parents who let me leave the Bahamas to play ball at 15 and still struggle with whether that was the right decision–all these people felt my moodiness.”‘ Ever since his five-year-old son had learned to talk, he’d been asking, “When are you gonna stop playing basketball?” Now, as Fox smoked a cigar in the Lakers’ locker room, the boy was perched in his lap, saying. “Daddy, you won the trophy.”

As much as Rick Fox had wanted to win, he had not anticipated the power of victory. “It’s washed away a decade of pain,” he thought. “After all the years that basketball broke my heart, I’m in love with it again” Next year, he wanted to be the one to catch the ball hurled toward the heavens in exultation.

Just before the victory parade, Phil Jackson called the team together. With nine championship rings and more mystique than any other coach in NBA history, Jackson was a renowned, attuned observer of losing and winning. “Once you win.” he warned the players, ”the goal to repeat may not be as strong as that original goal to win.”

They listened, but didn’t believe it. If anything, most of them thought, winning next time will be easier. In any case, a double-decker bus was waiting to convey them through a city gone mad, a city celebrating them as conquering heroes, as deities.

IN WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS had exceeded themselves, sloughing off, at last, a nagging reputation for underachievement, taking the title for the first time since the golden era of the 1980s that was Magic and Showtime. In his first year with the team, Jackson’s enlightened coaching had elevated and strengthened each player, and the team had become greater than any of its members. In this sense, their victory had been about something more than mere athletics. It had been the victory of an ideal, of a way of being in a community.

It was in September that the Lakers arrived at training camp for the 2000-2001 season, convinced that their reign as champions would make this a year apart from any other. Instead, the season would teach what Phil Jackson always sought to inculcate in his players: that just as each of them has a challenge, the team has a challenge, too. And it was to honor the ethical system of generosity expressed in Sunday sermons and civics books, and in that way, contribute to what Jackson calls team wellness. In the coming months, that reservoir of wellness would be depleted with a suddenness that would leave the Lakers devolving into an object lesson in entropy.

Nothing hobbled the team more than the struggle between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ premier players, arguably the two premier players in the game, and the only NBA players known throughout the world by their first names. No two people could be less alike: one a self-styled big brother, the other neither wanting a big brother nor needing one. Their desires differed in all but one respect: the desire for a second championship. The season would determine which was more powerful, that desire or the breach between them.

As the season progressed, teammates tracked their behavior, eyeing them uneasily, and took the troubled, anxious aspect of a family in which children fret over whether their parents are getting along. “They didn’t even look at each other,” one player would tell another.

A pall hung over the team, dampening their spirits, generating confusion that would prove more toxic than anger. Whose team is it? the players wondered. Is it Shaq’s team? Is it Kobe’s? 

The message of the championship season was obscured, abandoned. As Rick Fox understood that message, it was: “Everyone together creates something bigger than any one of them.” Why, he asked himself, is that not clear enough?

As the team struggled, Jackson was asked if he was trying to work things out. “Not everything can be worked out,” he said.

For in the end, basketball is a metaphor, and what pertains on the court pertains in life as well. “In this game you don’t change people,” says Phil Jackson. “They change themselves.”

WHEN SHAQUILLE O’NEAL CAME TO THE NBA, he studied what fans liked and did not like. “He smiles a lot, they like that,” he told himself, looking at Magic Johnson. “I ain’t crazy,” he thought, observing a player who cursed all the time. “I’ll stay away from that.” So he smiled and didn’t curse, at least not in public.

Kobe Bryant never felt a need to figure out what people liked. He had a glamour that made people eager to please him.

The prime cliché of Laker reporting was that Shaq had never become an adult, while Kobe had never been a child. Prior to each game, a telling moment validated this supposition. Players formed a circle, arms around one another as Shaq led them in jumping up and down, while Kobe watched off to the side, enjoying the spectacle, perhaps, but not part of it. Kobe was, Shaq would say, a good kid, but something of a nerd.

Kobe Bryant was born in 1978–the year before Magic Johnson joined the Lakers–and arrived at the Lakers’ training facility 17 years later. He’d learned the game from his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, an NBA player with a compelling one-on-one game.

In his second year, Kobe was the Lakers’ sixth man, but fans voted him an all-star, and he became the youngest starter in the history of the game. That event jolted the NBA mythmaking machine into high gear, as it hyped the game in full-page ads proclaiming Kobe vs. Jordan, heady stuff for a 19-year·old still living with his parents.

Del Harris, then coaching the Lakers, worried that too much pressure would be put on Kobe. “Take it easy with this kid,” he told John Black, director of the Lakers’ substantial publicity apparatus, and as such, a man caught between Harris’s reasonable caution and a sports world dreading the retirement of the player

Larry Bird dubbed “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

“What do you think about it,” Black asked Kobe. “You want me to downplay this stuff?”

“Bring it on. I can handle it,” said Kobe.

Bring it on. I can handle it. This would be the mantra of a player with no sense of limits, for whom obstacles read simply as challenges, who could not be derailed. Rarely, thought the insightful Fox Sports reporter Paul Sunderland, had there been a player who looked so wholly to himself for his game and his sustenance.

Shaq had a mantra, too, but of another nature. “I just want to be appreciated,” he’d said when leaving the Orlando Magic for the Lakers in 1996, and that craving had not been sated. If a single, critical divide existed between Shaq and Kobe, here it

was: One was preoccupied with the feelings of others, the other with his feeling about himself. But then, Kobe was the center of a family whose support he never doubted, while Shaq vied for approval from his stepfather, a hard-nosed army sergeant who never complimented his game until deep into the Lakers’ championship season. “You’re doing pretty good,” he told him.

Beneath Kobe’s confidence was more confidence. Beneath Shaq’s swagger–for all the talk about feeding the big dog and the tattoos proclaiming AGAINST THE LAW and MAN OF STEEL–there was something tender, wounded.

When Kobe made mistakes, he used them to better his game. He was not a player to wallow in anything, least of all in shame. On those rare occasions when he missed a free throw, he often laughed, especially when he missed one on the equally rare occasion when Shaq made both of his.

“I didn’t really care, man,” he said after being ejected from a game against the Clippers that the Lakers eventually won. But Shaq’s comment, when he fouled out in the same game, was an abashed “I ain’t got shit to say.”

kobe los angeles magazine cover

Photo by Kwaku Alston

IT CANNOT BE EASY TO BE SHAQUILLE O’NEAL, for whom settling himself into his silver Bentley is, as ESPN’s Charlie Steiner notes, “like double-parking.” At 13 he was six five, a source of jokes and derision, hunching over to make himself seem smaller. He reached seven one, a size that renders a man’s life choices to being a misfit or being an athlete. He wanted to play football but gave it up after an early injury.

“Basketball’s going to open a lot more doors for you,” his parents kept saying, and that prospect brought him to the game. To look smaller he did “small-guy things”–the running, driving, passing, and footwork that would set his game apart from those of other big men.

By 15 he was what he calls “a child superstar,” seeing his photograph in the papers, garnering respect from boys who’d made fun of him and attention from girls who’d ignored him. He no longer stooped. “If it weren’t for basketball,” he thought, “this

would never have happened.” Thus a burdensome liability became an extraordinarily enviable asset. Still, long after he became one of the sport’s most rewarded players, the issue of his height persisted. When he collided with Exit signs and ceiling-mounted TVs, he’d pound on them furiously, as if beating up on a world not made to incorporate him.

Years ago, Phil Jackson noted that because big guys are consigned to the game, they usually aren’t the most impassioned players. In a sport where the average height is six feet seven inches, the rule generally is, the smaller the stature, the greater the dedication. But Shaq was utterly committed, with no tolerance for players who failed to share his seriousness. When guard Nick van Exel ended a practice huddle a few years ago shouting not “Lakers,” as was customary, but “Cancun,” implying that he was ready for vacation, Shaq complained to the existing powers, and van Exel’s vacation became permanent. This incident, Shaq later insisted, proved that he had no personal quarrel with Kobe. “If I did, I would have took care of it. I would have gone upstairs and said, ‘Listen. I don’t like this guy. Do something. Do it now.'”

Anyone who watched Shaq play knew that he had heart. He also had the will to win, and the willingness to absorb more poundings than anyone in the NBA since referees rarely called fouls on players who pummeled him. His game was brutal, engendering fear in the eyes of his opponents. The pride he took in this game was the tremendous, touchy pride of a player who did not want to be dismissed as an accident of nature.

Kobe’s game had a different aspect: It was founded in control and finesse, in practicing until technique is so engrained that you proceed on inspiration and instinct. Teeth bared, nostrils flared, betraying boundless desire. It was a game that returned him to himself, liberating him from an inborn reserve and refinement. Lts subtext was revealed the night some guys he knew were on the sidelines, messing with him, making him angrier than he’d ever been. He nailed an alley-oop dunk. Then, in fury, he turned to them and said, “Don’t fuck with me.”

Kobe’s game was a rite of communion. Shag’s game was a rite of redemption.

When those games came together last season under Jackson’s aegis, the Lakers were unstoppable. It became Shaq’s season, a time of kids in No. 34 jerseys, of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” of the ferocious, bodacious playing that left people stunned when the

vote that made him MVP was not unanimous. As the trophy was presented, Shaq broke down and wept, and it seemed that Kobe, though just 21, apprehended the event’s significance. “Give the credit to the big guy,” he said that day. “He’s been waiting for this moment his whole life.”

THE NEW SEASON BEGAN OCTOBER 31, 2000. On the way to the opening game in Portland, the team bus rounded a corner, and there it was a 60-foot-high poster of Kobe, one of many ads proffered by Adidas. If players were not picking up on certain messages, the message here–that a star had been born–was inescapable. In the early games, Kobe was like an avalanche, while Shaq lacked the fire that had made him so dominant. But then, big people, it struck Derek Fisher, need to rest for longer than two and a half months. “He expended himself so much last year to accomplish all those things in one season,” Fisher thought, “that he doesn’t have anything left to put into it physically.”

There was also the incalculable effect of what Shaq called “my free-throw thing.” Although his inability to make free throws had always plagued him, now it was altering the game the Lakers were supposed to be playing, as teams that had never found a way to contain him forced him to the free-throw line, where he generally

blew it. Not until he managed to make his free throws, Jackson insisted, could the Lakers hope to win consistently. For a man whose motto was “TWIsM”–“The World Is Mine”–all this was an ongoing humiliation. One could imagine the dread he must

have felt knowing that, as he went for a shot, he would be fouled, and again be required to betray this glaring weakness. He had refused the coaching staff’s attempts to help him, possibly because the problem was so painful that he simply could not face it long enough to make it better. “Everybody has a weakness,” Kobe observed, commenting on the matter obliquely. “It’s just who hides theirs the best.”

At the same time, Kobe had little to hide. He had improved over the summer in ways that took him far beyond the stunningly improved game he’d had the season before, reaching a level that everyone expected him to reach someday, but not yet.

Within weeks, the fans waiting at the bus for Shaq became fans waiting for Kobe. The torch had passed, an event for which Shaq was unprepared, though he had, in a sense, anticipated it. A few years earlier, asked who would supplant Michael Jordan, he’d said that a big guy would never be worshiped. Sure enough, now at the Staples

Center, No. 8 jerseys were outselling No. 34s nearly two to one. After games, reporters circling around Shaq would see Kobe enter the locker room and leave Shaq in midsentence as they hastened away, like birds flitting from one wire to another.

In December, Kobe was NBA Player of the Month and the league’s leading scorer, while Shaq was making 39 percent of his free throws and feeling stung by Jackson’s remark to the press that the only guys playing hard were Rick Fox and Kobe. In a petulant moment, he asked to be traded. Having spent Christmas morning in Watts handing out half a million dollars in gifts he’d purchased, and the afternoon playing dispiritedly in a losing game against Portland, Shaq seemed less a candidate for MVP than for the J. Walter Citizenship Award.

And guys like Derek Fisher could understand how he might feel robbed of his victory. “Almost any human being would feel that way,” Fisher thought. “Would feel like, ‘After all I’ve helped you accomplish, after all I’ve done for the team, not only for myself, and it’s only been a few months since that happened.’”

KOBE A NOT HAPPY, EITHER, though the degree of his discontent did not surface until mid January, when ESPN The Magazine ran a piece by Ric Bucher. “Kobe’s gotten even better,” its subhead read. “And that’s the problem for Shaq and the Lakers.”

“Everybody wants me to just do what I did last year,” Kobe kept thinking. “For me to do that would be like cutting off my hand.” He wanted, he told Jackson, to be the best player in the game. “Well,” Jackson told him, “you have 14 years to be that.”

But Kobe was hungry, ready, telling people who told him to turn down his game, “I haven’t turned it up yet.” He played with a killer’s edge, unwilling or unable to heed Jackson’s Zen-derived admonition to let the game come to him.

For Kobe was not playing Jackson’s game; he was playing his own game, a game about creating shots, about self-expression. It was not the game that forward Robert Horry had in mind when he reflected on his childhood in Alabama, where kid asked one another after school, “What time we meeting at the park?” Those kids had caught the team spirit through the fun of basketball, and cared about winning only for the bragging rights it got you when you beat a team of older kids. Nor was it the game that the rookie forward Mark Madsen invoked when he called basketball “a game that unites,” nor the game that Rick Fox was thinking of when he spoke of basketball as “a brotherhood thing.”

Most guys, Phil Jackson had concluded, get hooked on basketball as kids playing on a winning team, and their continuing success in a group bonds them and creates a joy of the game.

Kobe had that joy in abundance but had not come to it in that way. He fell in love with basketball because, as an African American growing up in Italy, it was something he could do alone. As a boy, he spent hours studying basketball videos his grandparents would send him. “I can do that,” he’d think, watching Jordan and Bird and Magic, and soon his fascination was less with what they did than with why they did it and why it worked.

But now, the crux of Kobe’s unhappiness was a mode of playing called the triangle offense, which Phil Jackson brought with him from his years with the Chicago Bulls. Devised by assistant coach Tex Winter, the triangle revolved around an apex, ideally the center, and involved successive cuts and passes that kept the game flowing until one man got open. Michael Jordan had complained about the triangle, too. “An equal

opportunity offense,” he’d call it, a characterization not intended as a compliment. But he’d come to appreciate what it could do for him, and his team.

“For Kobe this is a very elemental offense,” Jackson told the press. “He wants a little bit more.” Kobe wanted “to showcase my skills” as he put it, but the triangle was not intended to showcase any particular player. Its purpose was to be inclusive, to quicken the rhythm of the game, so that no single player took off with the ball, making the other four players into his audience. This was its appeal for the Lakers’ many seasoned players, who held basic assumptions: The more touches you get, the better you play; running the offense through Shaq keeps things simple and frees opportunities for other players. “Kobe and Shaq draw so much attention from the other team that it’s good for the rest of us,” said guard Brian Shaw. “If one guy is being is being double-teamed, that means another guy is open.”

As a guard, Kobe brought the ball down to the Lakers’ half of the court. When he kept the ball instead of passing it, his teammates assumed he’d take the shot, and a crucial edge went out of their shooting energy. Then if he kicked the ball out, they often weren’t ready.

At its most reductive, the battle was between the two premier guys, as Kobe flouted the basic strategy of running the offense through Shaq. If he passed to Shaq, Kobe figured, he’d be fouled and miss his free throws; if he passed to a teammate, they were less likely to make the shot than he was.

Resentment was inevitable, as guys sensed that Kobe did not feel bound by a system they were all expected to live by. “Every guy on this team,” thought Robert Horry, “has sacrificed some part of their game to play with the Lakers.”

It was only in the final minutes, when rhythm was no longer a primary consideration, that Kobe was free to take off and engender headlines like La Opinión’s KOBE BRYANT IS AGAIN A HERO. For his part, Shaq later observed that a hero is just a sandwich.

“Do I give in?” Kobe asked himself. “Or do I persist and go with what I envision?” To persist, to envision–this was the language of nobility, language worthy of The Fountainhead, of Don Quixote. It was language that revealed an involvement in the game that had as much to do with romance as with athletics. It was not surprising that he took shots that left announcer Chick Hearn exclaiming that he’d “gone as high as you can go and not be an angel.” Nor was it surprising that, when a man from Notre Dame asked him, “What do you tell a guy who’s thinking of going pro?” he answered, “Follow your heart.”

But one person’s romance is another’s immaturity, and Phil Jackson was insisting that players were coming to the game too young, too green, lacking the experience that college provides. Basketball, he noted, is a man’s game, and he recalled that, in his days with the Bulls, they’d taken to saying that the initials NBA stand for “No Boys Allowed.”

By December, Kobe was regarding his relationship with Jackson as a battle of wills and instructing the Laker deejay to play the opening bars of a particular song each time he made a big play. The song was Eminem’s “The Way I Am.”

Increasingly, a single question reverberated through the Staples Center: Is Kobe selfish or inspired? Everyone had an opinion, and for each man and woman who adored Kobe and agreed with the 12-year-old boy who said, “He lights up the game,” there were others who shouted at him, “Take it back to Philly, man.” That he would inspire such impassioned views was predictable in a nation that worships success but is deeply suspicious of ambition.

INEVITABLY, THE PRESS TOOK a beating for exacerbating the breach between Shaq and Kobe, a beating not entirely undeserved given that the chattering class is well aware that a drama of this sort boosts ratings and sales. “This is not your business. This is our business,” Jackson told an enclave of reporters. Among the players there was a sense, shared by Jackson, that the press put words in players’ mouths. Kobe,

for example, was unsure that he should believe what was attributed to Shaq in the papers. “You know what, Kobe?” forward Horace Grant told him. “You can’t even believe things you say in the paper.”

The press turned up in force when forward Isaiah Rider was suspended for failing to comply with NBA drug requirements, ready to cover a sexy story that seemed to corroborate a recent remark made by the Toronto Raptors’ Charles Oakley that 60 percent of NBA players took drugs. This was widely believed since it affirmed what many suspected about the players’ self-indulgence and arrogance. Jackson could not have been in the mood for his pregame press conference, but he showed up because the NBA mandates such encounters and because, as much as anyone who ever played or coached the game, he understood the imperative of responsibility and discipline, qualities, he would observe later, that had no meaning for Rider.

Standing before reporters, cameramen, and microphones, Jackson looked around and uttered five telling words. “Flies on a manure heap,” he said.

Rider was fined and suspended for five games, during which time his locker was empty except for a fishnet bag stuffed with dirty laundry, a nice touch for those inclined to the symbolic.

IN JANUARY SHAQ BEGAN A STINT on the injured list that continued through six games, the result of a strain in what L.A. Times reporter Tim Brown described as “the Most Valuable Arch in basketball” A rest, Shaq said, would do him good “mentally and physically,” his first admission that anything was wrong. Knowing how Shaq responded to criticism, Derek Fisher sensed that the Big Man would use this interlude to take his own measure.

“He’ll deny things at first,” thought Fisher, “but if it’s the truth, then he’ll say, ‘Okay,

I’m out of shape’ or ‘I have make my free throws better.’” Now Shaq lost weight. He worked on his free throws with a coach, a near-perfect free-throw shooter who’d offered his services to Shaq’s agent, against whom he’d played basketball in college. The day the coach reported for duty, Shaq was sitting at a computer, reading his email and having second thoughts. “I’m only doing this,” the coach remembers him saying, “because they want me to do it.”

Shaq returned to the game in mid February. By then both he and Kobe were weary of the controversy. Each offered his final word on the matter in his own way.

“The things that don’t kill you only make you stronger,” said Kobe.

“I’m ready to stop answering these stupid questions,” said Shaq.

Yet the pall over the team did not disperse. Like a cloud blackening the sky, it hovered, threatening and useless. The troubles between Shaq and Kobe, Rick Fox told a friend, had “really, really drained our wellness.” This was potentially lethal when every team they confronted was revved up to put away the champions, when they had what Brian Shaw calls “a bull’s eye on our back.”

If how you play is who you are, then what had been a supremely confident team was no longer sure of itself. In mid February Tex Winter said that in all the years he’d worked with Jackson, he’d never seen him more concerned. For his part, Jackson often thought back to what the veteran guard Ron Harper had told him early in the season. “You know,” Harper had said, “for some reason we’re lacking the intelligence we had last year.”

This was true, Jackson knew, and the lack was not so much in individuals as in that larger entity, the team itself. Before the season, he’d told the Lakers that he wouldn’t dictate to them. Rather, he’d see if they could figure things out for themselves, thus according them the respect due champions. A few months into the season he told them they were playing “depressed basketball” and that he could no longer give them that respect.

It was a perplexing situation, and even as telephone operators at the team facility were answering calls with a bright “World Champion Lakers,” the team and their coaches tried to explain it. “This time last year was our lowest time,” Jackson observed on a bleak winter day. “I think it corresponds to the weather.”

In Philadelphia, after an especially disappointing loss against the 76ers, a bystander watched as the Lakers filed into an elevator.

“Are you basketball players?” he asked Rick Fox. “Sometimes,” Fox said.

THE SEASON’S DYNAMIC CHANGED on the late February evening when the Lakers played the Dallas Mavericks, Shaq kept the promise he’d made his teammates when

his arch was healing. “I’m coming back,” he said, “with a vengeance,” Then Kobe, who’d strained his right ankle two nights earlier, stumbled over Shaq’s size 22 EEEEE shoe in the game’s final minutes, a weirdly ironic moment that left him on the floor facedown, stricken, unmoving.

His absences over the next weeks verified the paradox Shaq’s absence had indicated earlier: While their teammates knew they could not win a championship without both of them, the team played better whenever one or the other wasn’t in the lineup. This was, to some extent, an index of how reflexively the team deferred to Shaq and to Kobe. It also showed that with one gone, the players had an answer to their query, Whose team is it? Without Shaq, it was Kobe’s team; without Kobe, it was Shaq’s. Even that certainty failed to ignite them, or even persuade them to get the ball in to Shaq, as they were supposed to. “Why don’t they come to me?” Shaq thought. “The Spurs always get it to Tim [Duncan]. The Bulls always got it to Michael [Jordan].”

Still, there were games when the air seemed suddenly changed and the players seemed uplifted, like their second defeat of the Sacramento Kings, when Greg Foster, the backup center, scored 11 points in the first 11 minutes and Robert Horry racked up 20 points while the crowd chanted “Horry, Horry.”

“You looked like you were about 15 years younger,” a reporter told Horry after the game. “I wish,” Horry said.

Such games inspired winners’ words, winners’ smiles, and afterward players talked about turning a corner and joked about the free chalupas awarded to ticket holders when the Lakers scored 110 points. “The players really wanted to redeem that coupon,” Jackson said, smiling, on a night they swamped the Phoenix Suns.

Then came games when they scored low and lost. “If the other team scores 110,” asked radio talk show host Tomm Looney, “do we still get the chalupa?”

On those nights, the brave new start would dissipate, as only Shaq and Kobe scored

in double figures, or as they folded in the fourth quarter or failed to step up against half baked teams like the Atlanta Hawks, leaving wives and assistants who met them at the airport to prepare for the ride home to be long and silent. Most disheartening were the losses that came even when they played well, as in a meeting with Seattle, after which Jackson employed the familiar phrase about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. While last year they’d had a 19-game winning streak, this year they never put together more than five wins in a row, and even this they did only twice in the season.

“What was it you guys had last year defensively?” a reporter asked Jackson. “Was it a player?”

“It was esprit de corps,” said Jackson.

But then, too, it was a different group of guys. For most of the year they were without Derek Fisher, whose stress fracture had deprived them of the person they all viewed as their “spark plug.”

Another major absence, Jackson thought, was that of the newly retired John Salley. If Ron Harper was the team father, who put an arm around a young player like Tyronn Lue when he made a mistake, telling him, “Keep your head up,” then Salley was the team policeman. “This guy,” Brian Shaw thought, watching Salley confront players about laziness or selfishness, “would get in any of the players’ faces, from 1 to 12, for the betterment of the team.”

There was also the departure to the New York Knicks of shooting guard Glen Rice, an infamously weak defensive player nonetheless renowned for the outside shooting that made him the third option. Brought in to replace him, Isaiah Rider, usually a prolific scorer, was a graft that had failed to take. “They keep pretending

they don’t need me,” Rice remarked cheerily to The Daily News‘s Howard Beck after the second time the Knicks beat the Lakers.

THIS WAS THE CONDITION OF the World Champion Lakers as they departed for the season’s final road trip: Their most glamorous player was out for his longest stretch

of the year, their most dominant player remained disaffected, their coach had given an interview saying he wasn’t sure he was the right coach for them, and the guys on the team would tell you they had not played all season as they wanted to play. For all of this, the Lakers were playing better than most teams in a league in which it was the way of seasons to rarely run smoothly.

Without what Jackson termed ”the luxury of Kobe,” the team was required to compensate for the 29 points that he customarily supplied. This they did, and they did it by doing what Jackson had always told them to do: Run the offense through Shaq, and execute it with deliberation. It was, Rick Fox thought later, this “submission to the offense” that changed everything. It resulted in teamwork that in turn created that amorphous state of being they call wellness.

Against the Minnesota Timberwolves Brian Shaw made three 3-pointers, and Fisher scored 19 points. Against the Celtics, Fox scored 19, while the 35-year-old Horace Grant made a 16-foot turn-around jumper. “That was a prayer,” said Shaw. “That’s why Horace keeps his Bible with him all the time.”

“I had it all planned out,” Grant joked. “I told Rick to throw it down by my feet so I

could be the hero. It was a blessed shot for this team.”

And it was, in ways that Grant could not have intended, for it was part of a growing

confluence of events demonstrating that the team belonged, in fact, not to any individual but to every man who played on it. As they journeyed from Salt Lake City to Chicago to Boston to Minneapolis, they won every game.

Observing from the sidelines, offering encouragement, Kobe must have noticed a level of playing he had not seen all season. Back home, with four games won and four more to go, he returned against the Phoenix Suns. “Watch these guys,” the Suns’ coach told his team at halftime. “They’re getting ready for the playoffs.”

In the fourth quarter, Kobe passed to Fox, though he himself had an open layup. It was a sign of an altered playing style, of a trust he’d lacked previously, of a sense of his own place among them.

He had waited to return, he said, until he could play defense. “It’s not about scoring,” he said, after the Lakers won. “It’s about stopping people.”

Shaq, too, had changed his game. Early on, as his free-throw average improved, his coach told him, “I want you to wake up thinking about me. I want you to dream about me.” Seven weeks later Shaq said to him, You SOB, you were in my dream. Now Shaq was making 67 percent of his free throws.

Putting away the Timberwolves gave the Lakers their sixth win in a row, their best streak all year. By then, Derek Fisher was wearing his championship cap, and the injured Ron Harper was displaying his championship ring when the TV cameras panned to him. Their seventh win came against Portland, their toughest rivals from last season’s playoffs. In the third quarter, a flagrant foul was called when Kobe went up for a shot and was knocked down by the 300-pound hulk that is Portland center Arvydas Sabonis.

Shaq charged over to Sabonis, treating him to a few choice words, while Kobe stood silently beside him, and in that moment Shaq became the big brother he so wanted to be. Their relationship seemed to have come full circle. If Kobe had felt no previous need for a big brother, he may have discovered an abiding verity. “In team sports,” as Rick Fox puts it, “everyone needs a big brother.”’

By the season’s end it seemed that, at their best and brightest, there was no team the Lakers couldn’t defeat now that their game had been distilled into that flowing dance it was meant to be. “Heat refines impure things,” Phil Jackson had noted at the height of the Shaq/Kobe colloquy, and the observation had become a prophecy.

In the final game, the team played as a team. Shaq made 13 of 13 free throws, a triumph preserved on a video camera by his free-throw coach, who was seated beside the publicist he’d recently hired.

Then the game was over, and the buzzer sounded, and the announcer intoned, “The Pacific Division Champions–your Lakers!”

So the season ended, with grit and generosity and eight straight wins. For the rest, it would come down to hunger and skill, to dumb luck and to wellness, and to whether these existed in sufficient abundance to bring the team, once again, to that moment when the final game ends and they stand triumphant and the ball is hurled toward the sky.

“Can I catch the ball this year?” Rick Fox wondered. “Can I have that memory?”

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