Karl would rather help Kobe than win ring

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When Karl Malone joined the Los
Angeles Lakers last summer after 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz, he
did so for one reason -- to finally be part of a championship team.

The pay cut Malone took, from $19 million to $1.5 million, was
no big deal since he's earned far more money than he'll ever be
able to spend.

It was all about the ring.

That being the case, his benevolent remark concerning teammate
Kobe Bryant was quite touching.

"If I had a choice between winning a championship and making
things better for that little brother, I'd probably help him out,"
Malone said after the Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 92-85
Thursday night for a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western
Conference finals.

"That's how much he means to me, and this team," Malone said.
"He's being strong right now, real strong."

Bryant had 31 points, eight rebounds and four assists in putting
the Lakers within one win of their fourth NBA Finals in five years.
He did so after spending the day in a Colorado courtroom for a
pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case.

Bryant has pleaded not guilty to raping a 19-year-old woman at
the Vail-area resort where she worked last summer, saying the two
had consensual sex. If convicted, he faces four years to life in
prison or 20 years to life on probation, and he could be fined up
to $750,000.

When asked about Malone's remark on Friday, before the Lakers
flew to Minneapolis for Saturday night's Game 5, Bryant paused
before saying: "It means a lot. Karl's been like a big brother to
me this whole season. We have a very close relationship."

There's not a great deal of logic to that. For one thing, the
40-year-old Malone is 15 years older than Bryant. For another,
Malone is a self-professed black redneck from Louisiana and Bryant
is a city kid who spent eight years of his childhood in Italy.

But they're both great players -- Malone is the second-leading
scorer in NBA history and Bryant, although only 25, has been a key
member of three championship teams with the Lakers.

And both live in Newport Beach.

"They've kind of gravitated to each other because of the
proximity they have living near each other," Lakers coach Phil
Jackson said. "I think it's competitiveness that really gravitates
them toward each other. When Kobe was injured and Karl was injured
during the year, they spent some time in rehabilitation and really
got to understand each other.

"Karl's really a softy, an emotional guy. He's caring, and I
think that comes across to Kobe."

Malone said earlier in the week that recently Bryant has been
the happiest he's ever seen him.

"I just like to make him laugh," Malone said. "It's been
great. The conversations we've had the last two weeks have been
unbelievable. I've seen him laugh more in the last two weeks than
the whole season."