Once the roster had been determined in training camp, Phil Jackson gathered his players for a meeting at the Lakers hotel in Hawaii. All around the room, they were required to stand one by one, give their name and say something about themselves.
“Hi, I’m Kobe Bryant and I want to win a championship.”
For a moment, it had to draw the air out of the room. After all, this was the tension that hung over the franchise like an anvil.
“That’s all he said,” Jordan Farmar said by phone Thursday. “That’s all that needed to be said.
To the Lakers youth, the message was unmistakable: For the future of the franchise, they were on the clock. Between Bryant and management, all hell had broken loose, trade talks still swirled and the youngsters in the room understood that they were the source of irritation. Kobe Bryant didn’t think he could win with them.
Perhaps Andrew Bynum swallowed hardest listening to Bryant in the hotel. With so much of the summer of Bryant’s discontent borne of his frustration with Bynum’s development, with management’s refusal to trade the 7-foot teeny-bopper for New Jersey’s Jason Kidd, nothing could change for the Lakers until the light flickered for him.
Yet, there was one young Laker bred for this burden. He comes out of Woodland Hills, and played his ball at UCLA where he delivered the Bruins to the national championship game. In just his second season, no one needs to hold Farmar’s hand here. He’s a pro. He embodies the toughness, the tenacity, it’s taken for this young core to fight through all the doubts, the dismissals and ultimately be responsible for steadying a wobbly franchise. When you’ve grown up with the Lakers and played your ball under John Wooden’s banners, there’s no flinching in an environment that makes the demands of Bryant and Phil Jackson’s Lakers.
Along with Bynum, Farmar has played an immense part in what felt like the unthinkable mere months ago. Together, they’ve moved the Lakers back to relevance, and Bryant back from the brink. Suddenly, the Lakers are 18-10 and the Western Conference’s Big Three – San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix – find a fourth muscling into contention.
If the Lakers keep winning, it’ll be impossible to deny Bryant his first Most Valuable Player award. For Kobe, that hasn’t happened by leading the league in scoring and losing. The MVP will come out of trusting his teammates and elevating those around him. It’ll come because Bynum is turning into a low-post terror, Farmar a relentless pest and the rest of these young Lakers – Luke Walton to Sasha Vujacic and Trevor Ariza – are able complements to Bryant’s greatness.
“He has done a lot better job being a teammate,” Farmar said. “He’s been great this year. His focus is with us on the planes, going out to dinner, and practicing more when he could be resting up. He’s a member of the team, not bigger than it. He wants us to be great.”
Slowly, surely, Bryant must be coming to terms with the truth that there’s no championship salvation to be found in a trade. Out of stubbornness, he’ll never come out and say that this is where he wants to be, that this is best, because it would be admitting he was wrong. For now, it doesn’t matter. General manager Mitch Kupchak has shown a better eye for talent than most wanted to give him credit for this summer, and Jackson has done a remarkable job playing these kids through mistakes, through tough times and developing a bench.
“We’re a deeper team than we were last year,” Bryant said. He won’t give them much more because he knows it’s just December, and he knows that trailing the Suns by one game in the Pacific Division can be a mirage. He’s been desperate to find tough young guys able to withstand the pounding of life with him, to understand what it takes to chase contention.
“Listen,” Farmar said, “they don’t care what else happens here, except us raising a banner. This isn’t about getting through the first round of the playoffs, it’s about winning championships. That’s how it was at UCLA. Coach (Ben) Howland would chart our goals in the preseason and it would be: Win all of our games, win the Pac-10 and win the national title.
“They don’t hang any banners at Pauley Pavilion except national championships. And that’s the mentality with the Lakers. We are not here for stats. We are not here to get paid. We are here to win now. That’s the sacrifice we are all making.”
As Farmar and these young Lakers understand, he’s Kobe Bryant and he wants to win a championship. For now, these kids on the Lakers have him on the way to a winning season, on the way to an MVP. Out of nowhere, there are possibilities again. The Los Angeles Lakers have a basketball season. Slowly, surely, they’re winning back Bryant.
1.The embarrassments, the indignities, never end with the Knicks. Most of the league is just numb to the organization’s incompetence and indifference, but it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that Stephon Marbury has disappeared on the Knicks.
More and more it seems clear: He really doesn’t want to play basketball.
Yes, his father, Donald, died on Dec. 2, and everyone can understand the grieving that comes with losing a parent. He tried to come back two weeks ago, but quickly disappeared again. He hasn’t come to practice. He hasn’t played a game. Now, he’s sent word that he’ll come back to the team after New Year’s – just hours after Isiah Thomas suggested that, “I don’t know,” if he’ll ever return to the Knicks.
They’re still paying Marbury and they’re still losing. It doesn’t help Marbury’s cause that he walked out on the Knicks in November, choosing to fly home and miss a game with the Suns as a protest to his benching. Once Thomas discounted a team vote to sit the point guard in the next game, he lost the rest of the locker room, too.
You want to give Marbury the benefit of the doubt on a bereavement leave this long, but it is not cold to suggest that he had an obligation to be back at work sooner than this. It wasn’t so long ago that Marbury had aligned himself with Thomas, and promised to do everything in his power to make the Knicks’ emperor grateful that he brought the Coney Island guard back home. Marbury is just one more symbol of Thomas’ failed regime.
Now, maybe Marbury will return after New Year’s. Or maybe not. Whatever. These are the Knicks. Anything goes.
2. They always go opposite for the next coach. That’s how it works in sports. You fire the fire-breathing tough guy and you hire the reasonable man. For now, that’s how it’s gone with Bulls general manager John Paxson firing Scott Skiles and making assistant Jim Boylan Chicago’s interim coach.
Once, Boylan was unfairly fired at the University of New Hampshire after his third season. The AD made himself coach and won a few games with the players that Boylan had recruited to campus. Who knows? Maybe Boylan was on the fast track and never had a chance to prove it. Nevertheless, Boylan now gets the rest of the Bulls' season to prove his worth.
If that doesn’t happen, Paxson should pursue the best defensive mind in the game now, Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau. With the way he’s transformed Boston on the defensive end – turning them into faraway the most proficient in the league – he’s finally getting the notice that escaped him for so long on Jeff Van Gundy’s Houston and New York staffs.
Rest assured, Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers will fight to keep Thibodeau, but it’s hard to imagine that’ll he be back for a second season in Boston. He’s too good.
Out of sight with an injury in Las Vegas over the summer, Chris Paul was out of mind.
Well, what do you with the fact that the New Orleans point guard could be the best American point guard now? He’s been beyond spectacular for the Hornets. He told me in the preseason that he was determined to use this season to make his case to Team USA officials for Beijing. Billups didn’t play well for Team USA over the summer, but he’s been terrific for the Pistons and his ability as a winner, a leader, almost assure him a spot with Kidd.
The argument for Williams is that coach Mike Krzyzewski preferred big guards in international play, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny Paul. So far, he’s averaging 21.7 points and 10 assists. He’s shooting 49 percent from the floor and 91 percent at the free-throw line. In Memphis this week, Paul dropped 40 points, including five three-pointers and also had nine assists and five steals.
Yes, he’s making it difficult to deny him the red, white and blue in Beijing.
4. First, it was Andrei Kirilenko for Jerry Sloan.
Now, it’s Gordan Giricek.
Either way, it’s hard to miss management’s message in Utah: Take on the coach and you’ll lose.
For a coach without the top executive title, Sloan’s the closest thing to a tenured coach in the NBA. Sloan and Giricek got into it on the bench Dec. 19 in Charlotte, and Sloan just sent his seething guard straight to the locker room and tossed him off the road trip for two games. Along with GM Kevin O’Connor, Sloan and Giricek met on Thursday and the result was little surprise.
“What we expect is for Giri to play and do what the rest of the team does,” O’Connor told the Desert Morning News.
Translation: The coach wins again. If only the rest of the league only backed its coaches this way.
5. Memphis freshman Derrick Rose promises to be the first point guard drafted in June, but several NBA scouts will tell you: Don’t be shocked if North Carolina sophomore Ty Lawson turns out to be a comparable pro prospect.
As one Eastern Conference scout said, “He’s come back such a stronger, better point guard. He’s the best player on Carolina’s team. To me, right now, he’s far more of an NBA-ready point guard. If this kid stayed in school, he would go down with the best in Carolina history.”
Back in the D-League, our Yahoo! Sports correspondent, Jeff Ruland, has officially tired of playing the Colorado 14ers. He’s lost three of his five games to them and never, ever wants to see them again.
“They’ve got enough freakin’ pros on that team,” Ruland said.
His Albuquerque T-Birds lost, 109-94, to drop to 4-5, and this wasn’t the worst of it. Another D-League hotel “that reminded me of 'The Shining.' We just needed Jack Nicholson there. No hot water, no heat, the pillows sucked, ghosts. …”
“Yeah, freakin’ ghosts.”
“I mean, I froze my ass off. I had icicles hanging off me.”
The T-Birds play a classic D-League back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.
Friday in Albuquerque. And then, they got up early on Saturday to fly to Salt Lake City for a Saturday night game at Utah.
“Great travel plans, huh?”
Here is one Western Conference assistant coach’s report on the Mavericks’ relative inconsistencies this season.
“To me, they aren’t playing defense like they did last year. Right now, they’re a complete jump-shooting team, just like Chicago, with no low-post presence. Over time, too, Josh Howard has become as important to them as (Dirk) Nowtizki. Eddie Jones and Trenton Hassell have added nothing. Jones has really lost it. I wonder how much of a hangover is still there from last year’s playoffs.”
“That said, I will be shocked if they don’t get it together this year. They’re still one of the elite.”
- Eddie Sutton