NOW THAT KOBE AND SHAQ ARE A COUPLE, THEIR OPPONENTS WILL HAVE A HARDER TIME
So here you are again at the Lakers pregame scrum, the literal scene that captured the figurative standoff between Shaq and Kobe midway through last season. The last visit remains indelible-Shaq and the team hugging and jumping and chanting like a bunch of 12-year-olds, Kobe standing apart with his collar flipped and sleeves pushed up West Side Story-style, stalling in order to beat Shaq for top-dog, last-man-out honors in the single-file jog onto the floor.
A year later, Shaq has a few more dings but remains a one-man ringmaster. The Lakers are about to play a March game against the Spurs when he gathers everyone into a frenzied group hug and sings a twist on the Outkast line meant to get everybody loose: "And the whole world loves us when we sing " followed by a collective "Woo-wooo!"
But what is this - Kobe clearly part of the swirl? Kobe hooting "Woo-wooo!" Louder than anyone else? Kobe beaming as Shaq puts a big hand on his shoulder? Kobe jogging out to the floor in the middle of the pack, almost incognito with his uniform, uh, uniform?
It's no mirage. In fact, it's the reason - despite a weaker surrounding cast, Shaq's arthritic toe, stiffer competition and suspicions that they've lost their edge - that the Lakers feel more invincible than ever. The Kobe-Shaq fission last season was Chernobylian, generating ferocious energy that made the locals nervous. Kobe-Shaq fusion, conversely, has created a Dr. Seussian warm glow that chases every shadow. Not even consecutive mid-March blowout losses to the Spurs and Mavs, which prompted Phil Jackson to declare the Lakers "weak in mind and body," has dented their confidence or camaraderie.
The climate is so rosy that Kobe affectionately refers to his coach as "PJ" - the same Jackson who added to last year's ill will by questioning Kobe's competitive integrity in high school. Jackson declined to talk to The Magazine, saying that last winter's story created the Kobe-Shaq rift. Actually, all three principals - Kobe, Shaq, Phil - have different views of what transpired. Phil, apparently, has taken the media-did-it angle. Kobe plays the challenged-team-coming-together card. Only Shaq concedes that he and Kobe disagreed over who should be first in the most lethal inside-outside combination since West and Wilt.
"We've both grown up," Shaq says. "It was two guys struggling for power. One had power and three-wasn't willing to give it up. The other didn't have the power he wanted and wasn't willing to wait for it.
"But it was never personal."
Which means Shaq looks back at his "It'shim-or-me" talk last season as strictly business. Hey, the good feeling of a second championship trophy can cast everything in a different light. The rest of the Lakers are simply grateful the atmosphere has changed. "We had an entire week last year where our team meetings were all about, 'What's wrong with us?' " says forward Mark Madsen. "This group is tight now. We've got the collective swagger."
Opponents have noticed a difference too. "They don't have any gray areas now," says point guard Avery Johnson, who played for the Spurs team that was swept out of the conference finals by the Lakers last May and is now part of the Mavs legion hoping to avoid a similar fate. "In years past, you could get them working against each other. Not now. Their body language says, 'Whatever you do, I'm supporting you.' And they're so good, it's like playing against three guys instead of two. Which makes it six on five."
THIS SEASON, the two Laker stars have been as outspoken about their mutual admiration as they once were about the enmity that existed between them. Shaq started by saying he wanted Kobe to win MVP honors, then dragged a half-dozen teammates along to Kobe's high school uniform retirement ceremony when the team was in Philadelphia in January. When Kobe was booed by his hometown fans after being named All-Star game MVP a month later, Shaq was the first to console him. When Kobe was suspended two games for his dust-up with Reggie Miller, Shaq wore Bryant's No. 8 - tighter than shrink-wrap-in warmups. It was a sight so comically heartwarming that one Lakers employee has it as her screensaver.
Shaq's always been like that - out front, over the top. "If you acknowledge how things should be, Shaq is the most generous person," says forward Rick Fox. But Kobe isn't big on overt gestures, which made his PDA even more impressive. When Shaq was suspended for three games for swinging at then - Bulls center Brad Miller, Kobe wrote Shaq's No. 34 on his shoes. It's a common practice, but Kobe had written something on his shoes only once before. It was when he was at Lower Merion (Pa.) High and only at the behest of his coach. "He had us all put 27 on our shoes because that was the number of wins we needed for a state championship," Kobe says. "I just wanted to show Shaq I had his back, no matter what his critics say. No matter what, you have a soldier next to you to the end."
The question, of course, remains: How did it go from you a bitch to you my dog? How did two such disparate personalities and equally-if-diversely talented stars go from seeking a divorce to swearing their undying devotion?
Getting a taste of life without the other when each was injured late last season certainly helped. A thinner supporting cast this season has also forced them to lean on each other more. But most of all, it was, and is, the unique summit they've climbed together. bird and McHale, Magic and Kareem, Scottie and MJ - none were exactly butt buddies. But they came to appreciate each other. As two-time champions and the league's new standard bearers, Kobe and Shaq are under pressure only a few can understand.
Shaq, simply called "big" by his teammates, lived up to his nickname by making the first conciliatory gesture. Rick Fox had a front-row seat for the pivotal moment, parked directly next to Shaq on the Lakers' bus after game 1 of the Western Conference finals last spring against the Spurs. Shaq was only marginally effective but Kobe's 45 points and 10 rebounds pulled them through. After the game, the Daddy told reporters that No. 8 was his idol and the best player in the league "by far." More important, Shaq told Kobe directly when he climbed onto the team bus. Kobe stopped, let it sink in for a second, then said, "Thanks, man."
"Kobe was overwhelmed," Fox says. "It caught him off guard, but then, it caught everybody off guard. It was such a huge statement. I'm thinking, 'Man, if he said it for real, that's the respect Kobe was looking for.' And as soon as he said it, Kobe couldn't wait to pay back the respect."
Just to show Kobe hasn't gone all Stepford on us, he insists Shaq's comment wasn't a big deal. Instead, he believes the Lakers' transformation occurred as they squeaked out a pivotal game 2 win. "That was the biggest challenge we'd ever faced and the turning point for all of us," he says. "Every individual learned something about themselves, even Phil. I learned I could lead by doing little things. I learned to trust my teammates."
To understand how far Kobe's come and how much it has meant to the rest of the team, check out the Lakers' March 14 trip to Oakland and compare it to a similar encounter last season. A year ago the Lakers lost in OT to the Warriors, with Kobe and Antawn Jamison each scoring 51. Kobe and Shaq were at the height of their on-court snit, and Shaq was ready to strangle Kobe after having not touched the ball on a halfdozen consecutive pick-and-roll plays down the stretch.
Fast-forward. Kobe is now the guard against whom every player measures himself. Warriors rookie shooting guard Jason Richardson is no different. The athletic Richardson, making a late run for Rookie of the year, comes out firing. "Kobe is going to start jacking it up, just watch," says an LA TV reporter. Two years ago, definitely. Last year, probably. Now - no chance. Kobe distributed the ball as if he wanted it autographed by the entire team, while still keeping JRich in his place by attacking the rim, scoring second-chance hustle baskets and snuffing the rook's aggression by swatting his baseline jumper. Not for one second did Kobe go to the I-have-to-do-this-myself 'tude. "It's still there," he says. "I've just learned to pull it out only when needed."
No need this night. The Warriors are still down one after three quarters by playing Hack-a-Shaq, with the Daddy missing 12 of his first 16 free throws. Last year that's how he would have finished because Kobe wouldn't have trusted him with the ball down the stretch. This year Kobe pumps the ball into him like quarters into an arcade machine. The Warriors pound Shaq, but he responds, making 10 of his last 12 free throws for 20 fourth-quarter points. The Lakers win in regulation. Shaq is besieged afterward to talk about his 40 points, 13 rebounds and how the Warriors' rough stuff sharpened his eye at the stripe. He delivers, describing Danny Fortson as an "average high school player."
But he's also effusive about the new Kobe, whose 21 points on 50% shooting, 7 rebounds and 6 assists and defense on JRich goes almost unnoticed. Better yet, Kobe couldn't be happier, backslapping and cracking wise on his way to the team bus. "Shows you what kind of individual he is," Shaq says. "Shows you he's real."
THEY REMAIN starkly different personalities - "frick and frack," Shaq says - but at ages 23 (Kobe) and 30 (Shaq), their lives suddenly seem to be on similar tracks. Kobe lost a grandfather at the start of training camp; Shaq's grandmother died a month before the All-Star break, which Laker sources insist contributed to his losing his cool against brad Miller. Shaq, who ribbed Kobe about getting married as much as anyone, is now bragging about being in a committed relationship himself.
Both also are fighting for respect from the officials. That's long been the case with Shaq; NBA supervisor of officials Ed Rush freely admits he is the game's most difficult player to officiate. Kobe faces a similar challenge. The leaguewide strategy now is to platoon big, active bodies on him. He'd also like - but feels he doesn't get - that superstar attention from the referees. Considering he averages the fewest free throws per game among the league's top six scorers (even Jerry Stackhouse, at 13th, goes to the line more frequently), he appears to have a case.
In typical Kobe fashion, he's demanding respect from the officials, which is working about as well as you'd expect. When the Pistons doubled him hard and referee David Jones called traveling rather than a foul, Kobe picked up his 11th technical foul of the season by skipping the ball at Jones' feet. (Jones did a double-take when Kobe gave him a friendly wave after the final buzzer.)
Earlier in the week against the Spurs, when referee Luis grillo pulled Shaq aside to explain why he got T'd, Kobe followed them to midcourt.
"Get out of here," Grillo said.
"No, I'm the captain," Kobe said. "I'm staying."
The ref run-ins, the dust-up with Reggie and the horseplay-turned-serious that left teammate Samaki Walker with a black eye have brought out the pop psychologists in force. All of it is being attributed to strife in his personal life, with rumors ranging from wife Vanessa falling ill to multiple lawsuits involving his aborted move from the Pacific Palisades to Orange County. While declining to discuss any of those topics, Kobe scoffs at the notion they're derailing his composure: "I laugh at that stuff because I have total control over what I'm doing."
He's taking extreme measures to make sure. Three years ago, he'd invite a writer to his hotel room and spend an afternoon talking and watching hoops on TV. Now, he is accompanied by a security detail, unofficially called the K Team, both at home and on the road. A guard sits next to Vanessa at the Staples Center and another patrols the other side of the floor, scanning the crowd. You can talk to Kobe by phone, but a security escort to his room is required if you actually want to see him.
And while he is far more personable with his teammates than ever before, his ascension into the team-leader vacuum left by the departure of Ron Harper (retired) and Horace grant (free agent signing with Orlando) has been as up and down as his interaction with officials. In a loss to the Mavs, Kobe railed at Lakers guard Lindsey Hunter when swingman Adrian griffin slipped out of their trap for an uncontested layup. The argument continued as they sat on the bench in an ensuing timeout, while Shaq, sitting stoically between them, stared straight ahead. But the next night, when a bad inbounds pass intended for Hunter started a Spurs fast break and Lindsey landed awkwardly racing back to challenge it, Kobe was the first there to help him out. He may have popped Walker on the team bus feb. 21, but at the team's shootaround before facing the Spurs, he pulled Samaki aside to share a joke.
CONCERNS ABOUT the Lakers overlook what the bulls did in the third season of their two three-peats-57 wins the first time, 62 the
second. That's not far from what the Lakers
have accomplished after winning two straight titles. but also keep
in mind that there are four
newcomers this season-Walker and Hunter in
the regular rotation, Mitch Richmond and
Jelani McCoy in reserve-and none have champion credentials.
"We still think we're the team to beat, but this isn't a championship
team," says brian Shaw. "We have too many guys playing
roles who have never won anything."
As with everything, Kobe is barreling ahead and repairing the
damage as he goes. "It's new ground for me," he says.
So is the cozy relationship with Shaq, but it's already looking
familiar. before facing the Spurs, Kobe strolls into the locker room
wearing jeans, retro adidas and a blue T-shirt adorned on the back
with a cartoon pit bull and the words "bring It On." That's a switch
from last year too, when he was either in suit and tie or modeling
t h e
latest Kobe-brand adidas casual wear and Gucci shades. Shaq,
dressed in only his jersey and underwear, suddenly bear hugs him.
"Agggh, nasty," Kobe says, struggling to break free, then shaking his
head smiling as he walks away. Seconds later, Kobe is waving a pair
"big, you need two?" he asks.
"No," Shaq says. "I'm good."
Shaq then lifts that LA TV reporter who had questioned Kobe right
off his feet-doesn't everybody warm up this way?-and playfully
threatens to body slam him. Now that's having a guy's back.
Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks and Temple alum Rick Brunson were recently reminiscing about Philadelphia landmarks when Philly native Rasheed Wallace sat down next to Cheeks. Anyone wondering why Sheed's run-ins with refs are down and Portland's postseason stock is up can start right there.
It's no secret Wallace doesn't respond positively to authority figures. But when Cheeks talks, Sheed listens. More older brother than stern taskmaster, Cheeks can needle Wallace about driving an older S-Class Benz than his head coach, then mention matter-of-factly how wrong it is that people talk more about Sheed's T's than his talent. "Terrific kid," says Cheeks. "But you've got to to talk with him about stuff beyond basketball."
Last fall, when Wallace threw a training-camp tantrum at a pair of rent-a-refs, Cheeks said nothing. Two months later, with the blazers a game under .500, it was a different story. A ball bounced out of bounds on a busted play during practice. "We're all right," said a way-too-casual Wallace. "No, we're not," said Cheeks, choosing that moment to deliver a message to his franchise player.
Normally, Cheeks prefers to defer. He doesn't bark at Damon Stoudamire for trying to create shots, especially in the clutch. And he lets Sheed set up outside for threes as often as he posts up. So when Cheeks makes a point, it gets through.
Portland's prayers that Mo's cred would help calm Wallace were answered: Sheed has 14 fewer T's this season than last, when he set a NBA record with 41. Cheeks, typically, demurs: "Maybe I planted a seed, but he wanted to change."
Not that everything's perfect in Portland. The blazers still want Wallace to defer less to Damon. And they want him to practice harder. But at least Wallace isn't passing off last-second plays designed for him, as he did under former coach Mike Dunleavy.
"I'm excited that we have a new coaching staff in here," says Wallace, who grew up watching Cheeks win a title for the Sixers on Channel 17 in Philly.
"Sheed respects Maurice," says Scottie Pippen, who cautions that Portland is still no more than a first-round upset threat. But hey, a little brotherly love can go a long way.
Tracy Mcgrady shed his second-banana status when he bolted Toronto for Orlando, but he also left behind his ace running mate, Vince Carter. No matter. T-Mac and new partner Mike Miller not only have melded into the NBA's best young scoring combo (40.1 ppg): they have become one of the league's tightest off-court duos as well.
Miller's crib is just a one-minute scooter ride from Mcgrady's mansion, so the two are rarely more than a blackberry buzz from the next video game or poolside chowdown. Says Mcgrady: "We've been tight since the day we met." Miller, a second-year forward, knows Mcgrady's idiosyncrasies. (Example: TMac won't venture outside if it's raining.) And the two constantly swap favors. (Example: When Miller bought a boat but lacked a lake, he docked it at Tracy's.) But it's when the Xbox is switched off that they really hum in harmony.
"They sit around and talk for hours," says T-Mac's longtime personal trainer, Wayne Hall, under whose whip the pair work out daily in the summer and most days in season. They talk about goals, rings, more rings (they're both engaged), yardwork and their favorite movie (Scarface).
One minor downside: T-Mac doesn't appreciate how much he influences his protege. "Mike only works as hard as Tracy," says Hall. "If Tracy goes hard, so does Mike. If Tracy doesn't, Mike doesn't." Recently Hall had them running full-court sprints with huge rubber bands tied around their thighs to improve their stride. Hall ripped into Mcgrady for goofing because of the effect it was having on Miller. They finished the drill double-time.
And one big upside: On the floor, Mcgrady is constantly in Miller's ear to get after it on D and go hard to the hole. "I want to get where Tracy is," says Miller. "So I want him to get on me."
This summer Mcgrady and Miller plan to take their fiancees to Italy. but first they plan on taking
the Magic to the Finals. Together.
Booed by the locals, beset by officials and berated by former mentor Rick Pitino, Antoine Walker was at a crossroads. The Celtics had just taken Paul Pierce, a forward with a knack for scoring, with the No. 10 pick in the '98 draft, leaving Walker's role in Boston unclear. Wanting an early read on his new teammate, Walker traveled to LA to play a little pickup with Pierce. "You always have to test and see what type of person you're getting," Walker says.
Walker learned two things that day. One, Pierce wasn't some chill kid from LA. He responded to Walker by talking as much smack as Antoine could handle. "Paul's a guy who will get in your face," says Walker. "He's going to give it to you brutally honest." The second lesson: The kid could play. Instead of a rivalry, a partnership was born.
Friendship came first. That helped, since both needed someone to lean on. It wasn't just the losing, either. Two years ago, Walker was robbed at gunpoint on Chicago's South Side, and Pierce helped him get over that. Then Pierce was stabbed at a Boston nightclub in the fall of 2000, and Walker was there for him. Celtics GM Chris Wallace now likens the co-captains to inseparable twins. Besides palling around in their down time, the two share a program - known as Pierce's Playground and Walker's Way - that invites underprivileged kids to each Celtic home game.
The two have clicked on the court the past two seasons under coach Jim O'Brien. The first Celtic since Larry Bird to achieve back-to-back 2,000-point seasons, Pierce has enough power to slice or spin his way to the hole, but it's his shooting touch (40% from three, 44% overall) that makes him so dangerous. At 6'9", 245 pounds, Walker plays like a point forward in a power forward's body. His ability to handle the ball and shoot the three draws bigger defenders away from the basket and frees Pierce to operate. "I like passing the ball," says Walker.
Especially to Pierce.
After a recent workout, Hornets coach Paul Silas kept his team on the floor until all 14 players made free throws in succession. Ten minutes went by. Then 20. Then 25. By the time guard Baron Davis clanked one off the back of the rim, the drill had taken on the look of a Snickers commercial. You know: "Not going anywhere for a while?"
Silas calls it the ultimate team-building drill. And it's hard to argue with his results. Amid the nasty bickering associated with the Hornets' proposed move to New Orleans, the players are still getting along. That's so even at center, where Silas is managing a transition from Elden Campbell (left, top) to second-year man Jamaal Magloire while trying to drive through a weak East to the finals.
"They can't guard you, big Monsta," Magloire chirps frequently from the Hornets bench. Magloire was the 19th pick in last year's draft, and he's advancing faster than expected. When Campbell missed five games earlier this month because of a pulled hamstring and the death of his father, Magloire averaged 8.2 boards and 16.4 points on 67% shooting. That left Silas to consider - albeit temporarily - starting him full-time.
Both centers are soft-spoken, enigmatic types, separated by 10 years in age (Campbell is 33, Magloire 23) but not much else. Campbell stops walk-throughs in practice to ask questions, a trait Magloire now mimics. They exchange tips as they pass each other at the scorer's table, and spend time after practice going over opponents' tendencies.
A cynic might say Campbell, whose intensity has been questioned throughout his 12-year career, doesn't care enough to protest lost minutes. Not fair. If, as has been speculated, the Hornets move him this off-season, give Elden credit for playing well - and unselfishly - in transition.
Two for one, one for two. If Steve Nash goes club-hopping with Liz Hurley or ginger Spice, Dirk Nowitzki makes it a three-point play. If Nowitzki goes to the gym for a dinner-hour shooting session with personal tutor Holger Geschwindner, Nash tags along. A couple of summers back, Nash dragged Nowitzki to an England-Argentina soccer friendly at Wembley Stadium. Last summer, Nowitzki enticed Nash to Germany for a tour of Bavaria's vineyards and castles. ("Showed him a little culture," Dirk says.)
They've been the Two Musketeers since sharing a press conference five days after the 1998 draft day trade that brought them to big D. Hard times early on sealed their bond. The lockout cut short their first Mavs season, but left enough time for them to become co-scapegoats for a 19-31 nightmare. Nowitzki shot 21% from the arc to play his way out of the starting lineup, while Nash - after signing a $33M, six-year contract extension - shot 36.3% from the field to edge Nowitzki on the local boo-meter.
Turns out Nash was hurt and Nowitzki just needed a little time. Nowitzki, who'd arrived in America not knowing how to write a check or tip at a restaurant, was wise enough to move into the same apartment complex as Nash, who took his German teammate everywhere - especially on the road, where Nash has a pack of friends in every city. "Steve always put his own troubles aside to look after Dirk," says Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson. "That's why we wanted him."
Back-to-back 50-win seasons have a way of healing all wounds, so life today is good. Each has improved his game every season. And their unspoken communication - Nash slashing deep into the lane, then kicking it out to Dirk for an open triple - is the hallmark of Nellie Ball. They drive to practices and home games together, share every postgame meal and even made their All-Star debuts together, checking in at the scorer's table in tandem.
All that's left is to win a title side by side.
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