Lakers visit with returning airmen

Updated: October 6, 2003, 12:38 PM ET
Associated Press

HONOLULU -- Coach Phil Jackson blew off practice Sunday morning and took the Los Angeles Lakers on a field trip that Karl Malone won't soon forget.

The Lakers took a bus across Oahu to Bellows Air Force Station, where they played paintball for a few hours, then met with 20 airmen and airwomen who recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Malone, who enjoys hunting, claims he dominated paintball. And he was clearly touched by meeting with the Air Force personnel and their families, many of whom brought basketballs to be autographed. A few children wore Lakers jerseys.

"This is real," Malone said. "These are men and women who put their lives on the line for us every single day. Some of the stuff that we see on TV. Just being able to share a little bit of time with them means so much to them. All we're saying is we appreciate what they do every day. It's fun and games for us, but they have the real people shooting at them."

Malone, who signed with the Lakers after playing 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz, said the trip was a first for him.

"I've been playing ball almost 30 years and I've never experienced anything like this, ever," Malone said. "It's always been, camp starts, go to work. That's what you're getting paid for. To break it up and do this, man, I don't know what to say."

Jackson planned the paintball game as a team-building trip, and the visit with the airmen and their families was a bonus. And it was something different after several days of practicing in hot gyms at the University of Hawaii, and answering questions about Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case.

"We want them to have some occasions to be together in situations that aren't all basketball, but still let them grow a little bit as a group so they can absorb the amount of energy people have," Jackson said.

"Gary Payton has a big mouth. We're learning that about him," Jackson said about the Lakers' new guard. "He's a heckler. He gets after people. Horace Grant, who's been with us, is a lot of times a fun guy to have as one of those guys who gets heckled.

"Karl, he's dangerous on the rookies. They're watching their step around him because they'll be sent for shaved ice, water, chicken, or whatever he wants. So there are some things the group's learning about each other's behavior right now that's important for team-building."

Jackson said he chose paintball because "there are some skills behind it. It wasn't just go out and shoot at everyone. It's about team-building, taking objectives, capturing a flag. We actually captured an ammunition dump."

Shaquille O'Neal, who would be an easy target at 7-foot-1, 340 pounds, "mostly stood in the background as a sentinel and a sniper," Jackson said.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press