LOS ANGELES -- Karl Malone and Gary Payton thought they were coming to Hollywood simply to help Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, to be the thuggish power forward and sleek point guard they have never had and to get the rebounds and the steals and get the fast break moving again. They thought they were coming to L.A. to finally get their rings.
Mailman and Glove thought wrong.
Better get them some stripes first. Turns out, without warning, they also came to the Lakers to be referees, willing or not.
Didn't take long for the season to get weird, did it? It's already fairly clear, even before their first real dribbles together as a foursome, that it will be Malone and Payton trying to keep Shaq and Kobe in line -- not the other way around like many suspected. Shelved, rather suddenly, are all the questions about how Payton and Malone can possibly squeeze their egos into the same team framework that has often struggled to accommodate both Bryant and O'Neal. A fatherly Mailman? Glove the voice of reason? On their new team, there's no choice. They have to be the marriage counselors. They might be the only guys out here who can get Shaq and Kobe to reconcile.
At least to the point they can all get along during the games.
"That's what me and Karl (are) here for," Payton said. "We're supposed to keep the peace. ... They're gonna get along. There's no doubt about that. With me and Karl being here, they're gonna get along."
Actually there is considerable doubt about that, in the wake of the venom that has spewed back and forth in the past 48 hours. Shaq sparked the first real furor by suggesting Kobe should leave as a free agent next summer unless he was willing to play more of a team game, and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak responded by saying he was "a little bit more disappointed with Shaquille (than Kobe) for taking the issues to another level." Then, a few hours later, Bryant kicked things up a few more notches by defying a team order to avoid the media for a day and lashing back at Shaq more pointedly than ever in an interview with ESPN's Jim Gray.
There was some initial hope locally -- OK, more like a prayer -- that somehow the whole reawakened feud was really a plot the Lakers concocted to deflect attention from Kobe's legal travails. You're not hearing that line any more. The rift has gotten so big now, and so out there again, it's too much to suggest that even the accomplished Phil Jackson can smooth this out alone. Especially when O'Neal and Bryant have both taken their swipes at the coach in recent days.
The only solace for the Lakers, at present, is the presence of those two new graybeards. These two famously volatile vets who were supposed to make Lakerland too crowded are the two guys who could find themselves taking on the biggest roles in saving the Lakers' season.
One season is as far forward as the Lakers can afford to think right now, with Bryant speaking so openly about his forthcoming free agency and O'Neal barking about another contract extension. Yet again, even after three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2003, they're tussling for control of the team and organization, almost inviting Kupchak and Jackson and owner Jerry Buss to pick between them.
What's different about this group is the stature of the players around Shaq and Kobe. They've never had a third teammate of equal standing in the game's star structure and now they have a third and fourth teammate at that level. Best of all, Payton and Malone have consciously avoided the picking-sides problem that has always lurked as a backroom issue for the Lakers.
Payton and Malone both signed on at Shaq's urging, but they have been among the most publicly supportive Lakers throughout Bryant's off-court crisis in Colorado, speaking up for Kobe at every opportunity. That's actually not such a surprise coming from Payton, whose friendship with Bryant has featured offseason workouts in Vegas in the past, but not the expected from Malone, famously waved off by Bryant in their first All-Star Game together.
After the barbs began to fly in earnest Sunday, it was Malone who spoke to Bryant by phone, with Payton taking O'Neal's call. Malone seems to relish his job as the good neighbor, having moved into a house near Bryant's in Newport Beach.
"This still hasn't put a damper on the way I feel about this team, and what we're trying to accomplish," Malone said, insisting that it will take drawn-out chaos before he starts regretting the $17-plus million pay cut he took to become a Laker.
Sensing that he has to do a lot of that dealing, Malone added: "I'll tell you what now -- (Jackson has) a hell of a job. He really do."
Strange as it sounds to describe Mailman and especially Payton as the guys who have to scold Shaq and Kobe about yapping too much, Lakers guard Derek Fisher is another teammate who believes it can work. Until now, it was left to a Fisher or a Rick Fox to try to intervene in these disputes. Fisher has always been willing, having joined the Lakers as a rookie in Shaq's and Kobe's first season in L.A., but acknowledges his limitations.
"Over the years, it's gotten tougher (to speak up) because those guys have risen to such a level of greatness," Fisher said. "That's another great part about having Karl and Gary around. From a respect standpoint, they can get in anyone's face and say whatever comes to mind."
Safe to say there have already been some choice words bandied back and forth among the four of them, even though O'Neal and Bryant aren't speaking to each other. Malone made his position clear early in camp and said it again Monday after the controversy erupted.
His position: "Like I tell (Shaq) all the time, 'Hell, y'all didn't pay me enough for (controversy).' "
Mailman and Glove are pretty much in the same position, signed to short-term contracts far below their market value, and so they united Monday to stiff-arm the media skeptics making it sound as though their dream season is already spiraling out of control. Said Malone: "It's not at that point, guys." Added Payton: "It's not that kind of party here."
"I came here to win a championship," Payton continued, "and that's what's gonna happen."
The Lakers don't look anything like a champion or a party troupe yet, but you can believe this much: If Shaq and Kobe listen to anybody, it'll be Malone or Payton. Or both, if coach Jackson is lucky.