- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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HONOLULU -- The media masses have made it across the ocean and the time zones to blanket the island, never supposing that Kobe Bryant wouldn't be there to swarm.
Funny. Phil Jackson can picture that exact scenario rather easily.
When he is asked if Bryant should play this season, in the face of a felony sexual assault charge, Jackson speaks hopefully. If not quite as definitive as NBA commissioner David Stern, who thinks Bryant should "absolutely" keep playing no matter the accusations, Jackson sees his team's locker room as a "safe ground" for Bryant, and the season itself as a source of "space" from Bryant's legal travails.
The tone, though, turns decidedly less optimistic when Jackson is asked about Bryant joining the Lakers in Hawaii for training camp. That notion suddenly seemed in jeopardy Thursday, after Bryant informed the team he was too ill to join Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone on a chartered flight that would land them in Oahu in time for a team dinner Thursday night. More doubts were raised when the Lakers declined to offer specifics about Bryant's condition.
"We're just going to have to be real fluid, not get rigid or anticipate anything," Jackson said. "... We're hopeful Kobe will join us, and that's as much as I can say."
Pressed further, Jackson later admitted that Bryant's decision not to fly "caused us to think a little bit about (a long-term absence) when we started to hear information."
Even more ominous from Jackson: "We're concerned for Kobe's well-being. He's part of our inside group. That's why this is part of the limited (support) that we have to offer now: 'Come back, join us when you're ready and we're ready to go on with you. Or without you.' "
Even if Bryant is deemed well enough to fly Friday, he likely wouldn't be able to practice (or be made available to reporters) before Saturday. And Jackson acknowledges that Bryant -- who is recovering from knee and shoulder surgery on top of everything else happening -- might not be ready to practice immediately anyway. Bryant also is expected to leave Hawaii a day earlier than his teammates because of his preliminary hearing next Thursday in Colorado.
Given all those variables, the possibility certainly exists that Bryant won't come to Hawaii at all, waiting instead to rejoin the team when it returns to the mainland. That would naturally be less than ideal for the team at large, given the court time it needs to integrate Payton and Malone into a team structure that sometimes struggles to accommodate both O'Neal and Bryant. But Jackson wouldn't protest if Bryant decides he needs more time before coming back to work.
"I don't have any worries about that," Jackson said. "I'd be perfectly comfortable if Kobe would miss half the training camp (or) the whole training camp. He knows what we do. He's got a basketball mind. He's very good at what we've done over the court of the last four, five years.
"We have to trust that he's doing the most responsible thing for himself. Ultimately, at this point, Kobe has to think about himself before the team. But we have to think, as an organization, about our team (first).
"... I have to understand that we have to play out some of this and be prepared to absorb some of these things that are going to go on, and yet we have to function as a basketball club without as much distraction as possible."
That's why the Lakers proceeded with their team dinner, even without Bryant. Jackson's plan going in was to "talk about the team in general," with a speech prepared to invoke memories of the 1971-72 Knicks team that added Earl Monroe to Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. Jackson then intended to review the team's rules for the season, followed by a seminar on how to address Kobe questions from the press.
At least 50 reporters were present Thursday at the University of Hawaii, with more expected Friday for the first practice featuring O'Neal, Payton, Malone and the Lakers' other veterans. It's even safer to expect those Kobe questions coming in bunches ... whether he's here or not.
"It looks as if it's going to be that kind of year," general manager Mitch Kupchak said.
It's not known when -- or if -- Kobe Bryant will join the Lakers' training camp. And that's just fine with Phil Jackson.