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Kobe stars in theater of the absurd

Never a dull moment with these Lakers
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

No reality TV can touch this. The script doctors who sit down close near courtside would be laughed out of Hollywood if they delivered a story where the star leaves a pre-trial court proceeding in Eagle, Colo., in a private jet and flies home in time to take the court and lead his team to a playoff victory. But that's the reality of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers and it becomes harder to believe every night out. It's impossible not to be drawn to this bizarre story now, regardless of what you think of Bryant, regardless of what happened or didn't happen in that Colorado hotel room last summer.

Of course it's twisted and yes it makes a lot of folks flinch or feel a little uneasy unless you're wearing a Kobe jersey or find yourself knee-deep in celebrity controversy, which is absolutely what makes half the people here tick. Airborne while his teammates practiced free throws and shot layups before the game, Bryant landed, then scored more points, passed and defended better than anybody on the court in another Lakers victory. After 21/2 days in Colorado participating in his own legal defense, Bryant authored another bizarre chapter in the story of this Lakers' season by personally tossing the Houston Rockets out of the playoffs Wednesday night with a 97-78 victory.

It's not the first time Bryant has done this; in fact it's the third. But that doesn't make it any less numbing, especially when you're sitting at courtside watching a man who only hours earlier was absorbed in defending his reputation and perhaps his life enter a basketball arena and perform with both passion and precision. Get this: here's what he did in the three games he reached by private jet after court proceedings in Colorado: he made the game winning shot against Denver, scored 36 against Sacramento, and had 31 points and 10 assists against the Rockets (and he didn't even play the final six minutes).

Kobe seems to have none of the angst of those around him, not on the court anyway. Fewer than 90 minutes before Game 5 of a series that had seen his team struggle desperately with the Rockets in three of four games, Coach Phil Jackson stood before a small group of reporters and talked about -- what else? -- managing Bryant. The actual game seemed secondary to the daily drama of the Lakers, to Kobe arriving in a white Chevy Suburban 26 minutes before tip-off while adoring folks inside Staples Center cheered wildly watching him enter the building live on the big overhead screen. For nearly a half-hour Jackson talked, in depth even, about managing Kobe and his trial and tribulations that through no fault of their own have become the Lakers trial and tribulations.

Asked about their relationship, which seems to fluctuate between frosty on the worst days and civil on the best, Jackson said it has become pretty good, "comparatively. For the most part, we're in sync." Jackson second-guessed his own handling of Bryant during the regular season, faulting what the coach called, "my hands-off attitude and letting him go in his own direction."

Following Bryant being accused of rape back in July, Jackson took the tack he thought a coach, an employer, should take in such a situation. "A person needs a lot of space," Jackson said he thought. "My understanding is oppressiveness and control might be more an impediment than it would be productive."

But in light of Bryant's defiance and expression of disdain for both his coach and sometimes his teammates, Jackson came to the conclusion he had to deal with his young star differently. "He may have thought," Jackson said, "that I didn't care, as opposed to the relationship I wanted him to have, to come into the group and be a part of the group."

Of course, Kobe has never really been one to join the group, and nothing Jackson does is going to make him. "I thought the basic menu," the coach said, "was to be lenient. No, that wasn't the word. What was the word we used? Yes, flexible. We wanted to be very flexible." Jackson paused and said, "I felt like Kobe might have taken advantage of our flexibility."

So Jackson has the responsibility of trying to figure out what to do with probably the best basketball player on the planet, an individualist in the best of times, when he is under the pressure of being tried for rape. What do you forgive and what do you hold him accountable for? Do you let every utterance and selfish act slide because he simply isn't himself while trying to play a public game and live a rather hellish private life? What are you supposed to think when you pick up the newspaper and read where Kobe, whose private flights to Colorado and bodyguards you've encouraged management to pay for, is telling the Los Angeles Times he would rather not have lunch with his head coach?

Ultimately, Jackson said, he came to the conclusion recently that, "more attention is better than less" when it comes to managing Kobe, though it's fair to wonder if Kobe would have been offended by that approach as well. Some of the closest Lakers watchers believe Jackson was in a lose-lose situation no matter what he did.

So with 3 minutes 16 seconds left before the lights were dimmed for pregame introductions, Bryant trotted rather purposefully out of the locker room and onto the court to a standing ovation, of course, and to the theme from "Rocky", no less.

The Lakers simply are not a championship-quality team right now, and if they don't get their act together quick and in a hurry they're going to be knocked out in the center of the ring by San Antonio. Right now, the Lakers are more theater of the absurd than anything else, but that's exactly what makes them so compelling to watch during this appetizer portion of the playoffs.

Asked if he had ever seen anything like this in his 19 seasons of NBA play, Karl Malone said, "not close. It's not even a comparison. It's kind of amazing really."

I asked Malone what passed for controversy in Salt Lake City all those years with Jerry Sloan and John Stockton. "Coach Sloan kicked us out of practice a couple of times," Malone said. "He said, 'Get the hell out of my gym.' And we did. I went duck hunting or something."

Some of us have been under the impression that this whole melodrama must be wearing on a no-nonsense guy like Malone, a self-described Louisiana country boy. "But you know what? I'd do it again, I'd come here again," he said. "I knew every bit of what was going on here when I came. Other than my injury [the first of his career that forced him out of the lineup]. I'd do it again. Not one time did I ever say, 'What the hell did I do this for?' "

Malone sat talking in a mostly empty locker room, not knowing whether Bryant's driver could negotiate L.A. traffic in time for tip-off. Jackson was preparing a team to play Game 5 without its best all-court player. Individually and collectively, it's almost a certainty that the Lakers have never done anything this hard that was basketball related. And it's unlikely anything is going to change during these playoffs that will make it easier, or make us look away.