Lakers star practices, speaks out

Originally Published: October 4, 2003
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

HONOLULU -- Kobe Bryant stood at the center of a rugby scrum at lunchtime Saturday, surrounded by cameras and tape recorders and a melting pack of at least 75 journalists. Most everyone in the vicinity was pouring sweat in the Lakers' steamy practice gym, except one person.

Kobe Bryant.

Kobe was cool. He was calm. He was strong and open, answering every question without a flinch and admitting that he came back to work only after strongly considering not playing this season. Bryant might even have been a bit too open for some attorneys' liking, saying that the uncertainty of his future makes him feel "terrified." Truth is, though, he didn't look terrified.

It wasn't quite the surreal scene of his last news conference in July, when he clasped hands with wife Vanessa and proclaimed his innocence against a felony assault sexual charge, but Bryant definitely made an impression. He made a few impressions, actually, and the sum of them had to infuse the curious (and any skeptical) Lakers with some needed confidence.

Concern about Bryant's ability to stomach the challenge of playing through an NBA season while facing such serious accusations had been mounting since Thursday, when Bryant refused to fly on the team's charter to Oahu, forcing him to miss a team dinner and the first day of full practices. The only explanation given -- to the Lakers and the public -- had Bryant feeling "under the weather," but even Gary Payton, possibly Bryant's staunchest supporter at Lakers camp, called it "a mind thing."

Suddenly back in a basketball environment, Bryant's mind seemed rather sharp. There was confidence in his voice, the kind we've always known from Kobe until that quivery press conference in July. He was also seen smiling and joking with teammates from the minute media members were allowed in the gym, looking happy even on the sideline, excluded from drills. Bryant's conditioning had been deemed insufficient to let him participate in five-on-five play.

The way he handled his 18 minutes in the heart of the scrum only added to the notion that Bryant looked as comfortable as anyone could with every set of eyes trained on him. As comfortable as anyone could answering these kind of questions.

In the midst of it all, asked whether he was nervous to face Saturday's crush of reporters, Bryant said: "No. Why should I be? I have nothing to hide."

In that mood, Bryant freely described himself as "out of shape." He said he "wavered back and forth" about whether to play in the face of the assault charge and the resulting unprecedented scrutiny, ultimately deciding to try when "my wife kind of encouraged me to go back and play."

Bryant didn't deny that stress has "affected me to the point where I didn't train this summer." While admittedly "concerned" about the energy it will take to play under such scrutiny, he insisted that he's ready to try. "This is my job," Bryant said. "I'm coming back to work. My wife, my family and I, we've been dealing with this for a while now. We're going to continue to deal with it, we're going to continue to fight through it, and I'm just going to come back to work and do what I do."

If there was a truly disconcerting statement Saturday, it was Bryant's acknowledgment that he won't be making any long-term promises about his availability, which means the Lakers, as a group, have only just started flirting with uncertainty. "I just take it a day at a time," Bryant said, knowing he doesn't have much choice. Later, speaking specifically about possible court appearances during the season, Bryant added: "Do you think I should stay here and play if I had something to do for the case?" When that elicited a "no" response, Bryant said: "Exactly."

On this day, Bryant was transported to practice separately from his teammates (which isn't unusual) and arrived in the gym while most of them were putting on their shoes. He got welcome-back hugs from each player and spent most of the session trading gibes with newcomers Payton and Bryon Russell and new assistant coach and former teammate Brian Shaw.

As for his actual on-court participation, Bryant was limited to skill drills, bike work and some low-intensity shooting because of his recoveries from recent knee and shoulder surgeries. He also stayed behind after the practice was over to do his own shooting and conditioning work, accompanied by five members of his personal security team, all wearing tan vests in the heat.

When it was time to walk across the gym to be circled by the press hordes, Bryant refused the more comfortable option of sitting at a table with a microphone. He wants his Laker life to be as reminiscent of how it used to be, given that the rest of his life -- for the first time in Bryant's charmed life -- is in the hands of the Colorado court system instead of his own.

Lakers forward Devean George, the teammate who stayed in contact with Bryant the most during his tumultuous summer, sensed right away that Bryant seemed at ease to be back in a hoops environment. "I think this is one of the things that makes him happy," George said.

Shaquille O'Neal didn't practice (bruised left heel) or meet with the media Saturday, so his impressions weren't immediately available. Payton, though, insists that the rest of the Lakers are cool with whatever challenges Life With Kobe presents as the new normal for this team.

"We can't worry about (the distraction factor), and I don't think he's going to worry about that," Payton said. "If we go out on the basketball court and win basketball games, y'all will start talking about us winning. If we go 30-5, y'all ain't going to talk about nothing else. If we go 40-2, what (are) you going to talk about? Y'all going to want to talk about how we got 40 wins and two losses. So once we start playing basketball and winning, y'all ain't even going to talk about that. Y'all going to talk about how dominant of a basketball team we are."

"I think (there's) a lot of stress off of him now," Payton continued. "A lot of relief. Just get it over with, talk to you guys -- now he can come out and play basketball and now he can get into the focus of things. Prolonging (his arrival), I think it took a little bit more out of him, but now he's here, he's having fun. We're over there, we're giggling, laughing, we're talking about things, and that's the way it should be. Put his mind off of it. He's relaxed right now. Now all we've got to do is get him back to practice and get his knee right and get these four guys together and have a good time.

"The one key piece was missing, and now he's back. That key to our success is back. Now we just got to get him to rolling the way he was last year, and that's not going to be a problem for him, I don't think. We're going to get him into that mode, and he's going to get back to where he was supposed to (be)."

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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