Team to Kobe: Take your time

Updated: October 15, 2003, 11:37 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

HONOLULU -- From the team that has amassed all that otherworldly talent, the message was universally supportive. From the two new stars who sacrificed millions to come to training camp with him, and from the returning veterans who know him best, Kobe Bryant received the same encouragement.

The reconstructed Los Angeles Lakers held their first real practice together Friday, albeit with only three future Hall of Famers on the floor instead of the expected four. When practice was over, many of those Lakers -- getting their first taste of what kind of daily distraction this will be -- urged Bryant to spend as much time in solitude as he needs.

"I know I'm going to play with Kobe [eventually], so it's going to be fine," said Newcomer No. 1 Gary Payton, scoffing at the notion that he might regret taking a sizable pay cut to share a backcourt with Bryant now that Bryant's availability is in question.

"We wouldn't want him to come in here with his mind not really focused. As soon as he gets focused, whatever he wants to do, I'm going to accept that. I'm going to be really grateful when he gets here because it's going to make it more fun for me.

"Let him settle himself down. People are human. If you see yourself in the paper every day, and people keep talking about you, you [would] have a little breakdown in yourself, too. Until he gets his mind right, I'm 100 percent behind him. He shouldn't come here until he gets his mind right, so he can be basically focused on basketball."

Said Lakers forward Rick Fox: "We were hoping and looking forward to being a support system for him. He has a great one at home right now and at this time possibly he made the right decision to be at home, considering the pressures that are coming up here in the weeks ahead. We're OK with that. You [media] guys are going to want us to obviously be upset about that, but we're not. We want him to show up when he's ready and when he does show up, know that we're here for him without any judgment and without any concern for his basketball skills. We know he's going to be fine basketball-wise."

Hours after the practice floor was rushed by about 100 reporters -- 20 times larger than the usual press contingent when the Lakers are in Hawaii -- it emerged that Bryant was scheduled to arrive here late Friday night and join the team at practice Saturday.

It is not known for sure if Bryant will address reporters after the session, in what would be his first public comments since the news conference in July to proclaim his innocence in the face of a felony sexual assault charge.

It is not known if Bryant, still recovering from knee and shoulder surgery, will even be healthy enough to practice.

It is not known if Bryant will remain in Hawaii until he has to leave Wednesday for Thursday's pre-trial hearing in Colorado, or if he is flying in merely to tell his teammates face-to-face that he needs more time away.

Most crucially, it is not yet known if Bryant is rethinking his plan to play this season while facing such a serious charge.

All that's clear, for now, is that the other Lakers sound ready to wait for him. Virtually everyone but Shaquille O'Neal seemed prepared to discuss Bryant's absence at length, and O'Neal said his refusal was based more on a wish to frustrate the baying media pack.

"I'm gonna always have a clear head," said O'Neal, whose noticeably trimmed physique barely generated a ripple of interest from a Kobe-centric press corps. "No earthlings, or no group of earthlings, can ever break me. I'm here to play ball with this group of guys. It's going to be a great year.

"There's 90 [reporters] here looking for something new. What's been done has already been done and what's been said has already been said. Everybody's here trying to get close to people and trying to get a new story. I'm not going to be the one to talk and speculate, so I'm not going to answer anything about it. You're wasting your time if you're asking me about it."

Said Newcomer No. 2 Karl Malone, after his first practice for an NBA team other than the Utah Jazz: "When he's comfortable, he'll be here, and we're going to support him -- when he's ready. Not when you guys want him to be here and not when anybody else wants him to be here. When he's ready to be here, that means he's ready to play basketball."

If it sounds as though the Lakers were ready for the onslaught of Kobe questions, that's only because they were. Coach Phil Jackson prepped them at a team dinner Thursday night, devoting a significant portion of his sermon to the legal cloud that hovers over all of them, not just Bryant.

"I think his main message overall was -- we're all going to be affected by this," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher. "So be respectful to you guys in the media, understand that you have a job to do and that you're going to ask questions even though we may not want to answer them. And just be responsible and be accountable for what we say. It's going to be a long year, and there are going to be some things said at times that guys probably wish they could take back."

Not Fox. He all but thanked the audience that cornered him near a courtside elliptical machine, where Fox spent much of the morning rehabbing his surgically repaired foot.

"You'd like to be able to embrace [Bryant] and to show support, but you can only do that through the media, [so] we can appreciate you guys being here asking these questions," Fox said.

O'Neal was the exception, but he wasn't really aggravated. He doesn't think the Kobe frenzy or his simmering contract stalemate with management or even his first injury of the season -- a bruised left heel -- will do anything to prevent the Lakers' new constellation of stars from restoring the recent three-time champs to trophy-worthy glory.

"We got a great team out there on the court," O'Neal said. "Whether it's four Hall of Famers or three Hall of Famers, we got a damn near perfect team."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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