Bryant's bright arrival can't overshadow questions about his team
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There was Kobe Bryant, as if nothing at all had happened, walking nonchalantly across the Lakers' practice court to a waiting camera and nailing a one-take taping of a lengthy greeting and ground rules message for Staples Center fans that included this request: "Please refrain from any disruptive behavior."
Of course it was Bryant's behavior that was the most disruptive in Lakerland this summer, with his trade demands, his criticisms of the front office and his swipes at Andrew Bynum.
But here it was, media day, with Bryant still a Laker, Bynum still a Laker, no apologies offered, no resentment revealed and, as of the moment, nothing more to the story.
Seeing the entire Laker roster and coaching staff together served as a reminder that: (a) there actually are other Laker players and (b) there are greater issues at hand for this season than whose feelings got hurt.
When will Lamar Odom's surgically repaired left shoulder be ready for him to play and how effective will he be? He expects to be back on the court by the end of the month, but said he wouldn't rush it if he doesn't feel right.
What's in store for Phil Jackson, who has one year left on his contract?
We'll have to wait a little longer for those answers than the 30 minutes after Monday's appointed start time that Bryant finally provided visual confirmation that he would be in uniform for the Lakers this year.
Monday, we saw once again that while Bryant creates more drama than anyone else in the league, there's no one better at shutting it out. This might not even crack the top two in terms of tense, tough media days for him. Four years ago he showed up the day after his first pre-trial hearing for his sexual assault case. The next year he had to answer questions a week after it was revealed that he dropped dime on Shaq during his initial chat with the police in Colorado.
And that was just dealing with reporters. What about his courtroom-to-court performances during the 2003-04 season? Wear a suit and say "Yes, your honor," in Eagle, Colo., during the day, fly back to L.A. and drop 40 that night. "No matter what's going on in and around the peripheral of his life and the team -- his focus once he steps onto the court is unmatched," said Derek Fisher, who finished up his initial eight-year stint with the Lakers that 2003-04 season and now is back for another tour of duty. "As he steps back in here, his focus will be on playing basketball, and if everybody else's focus is on that, then we'll be okay."
Bryant explained his summertime blues thusly: "I was frustrated, so I blew up. Now it's about taking this team that we have to greater heights, and doing what we can. Priority No. 1 for me is to bring the title back here in Los Angeles. "I know they tried [to make moves.] It wasn't a lack of effort. That means a lot to me. They really pushed to get it done. It just didn't happen."
Of his teammates, he said: "It's going to be the same old, same old. I'm going to demand a lot from them, I'm going to demand a lot from myself, we're going to be ready."
There was at least one indication they weren't on the same page. After Bynum said he hadn't spoken to Bryant since that parking-lot video surfaced in which Bryant lamented the Lakers holding onto Bynum and passing on a possible trade for Jason Kidd, Bryant said they had exchanged text messages while Bryant was in Rome.
"I just let him know, 'Sorry how that came out,'" Bryant said. "He understood where I was coming from and the frustration that I feel because I want to win right now and that was that."
After Bryant spoke Bynum was asked again if he had communicated with Bryant. He said no.
Still, Bynum claimed there were no hard feelings, and he practically echoed Bryant's words.
"I thought it was kind of messed up, but he was a frustrated veteran," Bynum said. "He wants to win, and he had an opportunity to get a Hall of Fame point guard. I would have been upset too. The only thing it made me do was work harder this offseason."
Did he work hard enough to become a frontline center? Will the Lakers be good enough to make a dent in the Western Conference, and show enough progress to keep Bryant around beyond the escape clause in his contract in 2009?
Can they get back to being the team that was 26-13 last season after an impressive victory in San Antonio on Jan. 17? Or will they be more like the injury-riddled squad that went 16-27 the rest of the way and folded meekly to the Suns in the first round?
Even if things go right, it's hard to envision anything better than a trip to the second round for this group. Other than Bryant, the Lakers don't have any night-in, night-out matchup advantage. They haven't proven themselves defensively. And if they can't improve dramatically this year, they might need to get themselves a new coach before they get to the task of replacing Bryant.
"They'd like for me to step up and sign again," said Jackson, who is in the final year of his $10 million-per-season contract and is walking with a cane after offseason hip surgery. "But for me, I've got to see that I can physically and mentally get back on beam with this team and they can get back on beam with me.
"We want to run for a championship. If we're not going to challenge, I don't want to be a guy that's coaching this team on the salary I'm getting."
With all of the swirling intrigue, Fisher was asked if it felt familiar. To be honest, for those of us who have been around the Lakers over the past decade there was something almost nostalgic about seeing Fisher standing with his fingers crossed in front of his chest, addressing the latest threat to the team's chemistry.
Fisher said it was, "Not really like old times, because I think those things were centered around bigger personalities and a number of people: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, other personalities that we had on the team. Right now obviously there's a lot of focus on Kobe, but outside of that it's really about, 'Who is this team? What are they really capable of?' And that's really kind of different from before. Before, everybody knew who this team was and what we were capable of doing. It was just a question of would we do it, would we win a championship every year? Now, nobody really knows what this team is capable of doing.
"We're a very young team. At this point we don't have the experience or the maturity to get into a lot of the sidebar stuff. At that time we had some of the most talented and well put-together teams in all of basketball. There was a desire to be successful and want to win, after we experienced some setbacks early in our run together. Once we tasted that first title, no matter what was going on, there was still that desire to get that taste again. Then the fact you had the two best players on the same team, in their prime.
"Now we're in a different place. We don't have that veteran leadership and experience that we had with that group before."
And that was the lesson from Media Day Monday. Bryant is the last thing this team needs to worry about.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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