Curtain goes up on Lakers' show
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers' 16-ring circus rolled back into town Saturday and the show is as compelling as ever.
There were new faces; more than a third of the roster was overturned as the team said hello to Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter and goodbye to Josh Powell, D.J. Mbenga, Jordan Farmar and Adam Morrison.
There were new costumes, as the coaching staff dressed in matching black polo shirts and tan khakis and the players sported new lightweight jerseys that even have perforated numbers to wick out sweat quicker.
The dunk of the year just might have come in the first practice Saturday night, with Shannon Brown imitating how he leapfrogged Sasha Vujacic on the depth chart at guard by leaping over him for a dunk, taking off from just a few feet inside the foul line.
"He forgot how high he jumps," Kobe Bryant said. "It was just silly. He just went over him. He didn't actually go over him, but if he spread his legs he would have. Sasha fell down and tried to get the charge call. It wasn't a victory for Slovenia."
There was Lamar Odom, who spent his summer helping secure a victory for the United States in the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, looking downright relaxed as he approaches his one-year wedding anniversary to his wife, Khloe Kardashian.
And there was Pau Gasol, dubbed the "world ambassador" somewhat mockingly by head coach Phil Jackson, telling reporters about an additional vacation he took to Greece over the summer. And here I had his travel itinerary including only China, India, South Africa, Spain and Ethiopia.
Bryant was his usual self, refusing to dwell too much on his knee or finger injuries that still linger, albeit to a lesser degree, from last year. After five titles in 14 years, a sixth in year 15 would put him past Magic Johnson and tie Michael Jordan, and yet
"I love competing, I love playing, I love working," Bryant said. "I don't really need any outside motivation to get me going."
Ron Artest found time when he wasn't driving the streets of L.A. in an Indy race car this summer to take the two rookies, Ebanks and Caracter, under his wing.
While we're talking about the rookies, congratulations are in order as they finally had numbers sewn on their jerseys. Ebanks mugged for the camera for his first trading card shots while wearing a blank uniform a couple of weeks ago, but proudly wore No. 3 on Saturday. And even though Caracter was discouraged from wearing No. 58 (which was his draft position) because somebody in the organization told him it would be "too loud," he found peace with No. 45. ("It was my baseball number and it's my birthday backwards," Caracter said.) Plus, nothing was going to bring Caracter down after he weighed in earlier in the week and came in at less than 275 pounds, thus fully guaranteeing his contract for the season.
It was good to see Derek Fisher, the basketball player, rather than Fisher, the guy who is out to make me look worse at my job after he filled in so naturally as a guest host of "Jim Rome is Burning" this summer.
Fisher, the players' association president who assured me that negotiations to establish a new collective bargaining agreement before the old one expires June 30th would not distract him this season, also taught the media a lesson in diplomacy. Even though he's still burning a bit at what he feels was a low-ball offer from the Lakers' front office, which chose to bring him back at $10.5 million over three years, instead of blasting the organization he merely omits praising it, putting Bryant as reason No. 1 and the city of Los Angeles at reason No. 1A that he chose to come back.
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Had he left town, one of the potential destinations on his short list was Miami. Even though LeBron James & Co. weren't in the gym on Saturday, you could still feel the Heat's presence when Odom stood in front of a green screen and read from a cue card, "Coming up on ABC We're gonna give our fans a present with a win over LeBron, D-Wade and the Heat."
(Side note: What? No Chris Bosh? I guess that cameo on "Entourage" didn't give him as much juice as he expected.)
Perhaps the biggest "Entourage" fan on the team, Andrew Bynum, revealed he's out for training camp and could miss the first month of the season as he recovers from his knee injury. As much as I truly think he wants to be totally healthy right now to help the team, he still laughed and gave a knowing nod to the guy who told him that he has it best because he gets to miss all the sprints and defensive slide drills that come with camp.
Without Bynum on the court, the team isn't complete, but at least its sneaker collection is. Blake is one of the few guys left in the league who wears And1 shoes, joining the Nike, Peak and adidas wearers already on the team.
Yes, it's a circus again in Laker Land, but don't let all the seeming distractions fool you into thinking any less of this team.
They've won back-to-back championships and a third isn't just likely, it's expected, because the rest of the league hasn't figured out how to tame these lions.Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.