Saturday, January 13, 2001

Selfishness killing Lakers

        Shaquille O'Neal is stifling Kobe Bryant's development. Kobe is trifling with Shaq's stature. Both men want to be The Man. Neither seems to comprehend the value of coexistence.

        If the Los Angeles Lakers' nascent dynasty should disintegrate after one NBA championship, it will not be because of a lack of excellence but a surplus of ego.

        Selfishness has ruined more teams than alcohol, drugs and Mike Brown combined. It is the most insidious attitude in sports and perhaps the most inevitable. Human nature is to aspire to a larger piece of the pie and a little more of the limelight. This helps explain Antwan Jones' decision to bolt the University of Cincinnati and Michael
Richards' misguided attempt at playing a lead character.

        To succeed in a shared enterprise, however, it is necessary to curb one's natural narcissism.

        “Take from man his selfish propensities, and he can have nothing to seduce him from the practice of virtue,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1814.

        Still true.

        The Lakers have lost their way this season primarily because Bryant has become more interested in expanding his role than his ring collection. He is leading the league in scoring but at the expense of sharing, strategy and the standings.

Drop in standings
               Last season, the Lakers went 67-15 with an inside-out philosophy based on getting the ball in to O'Neal (and averting their eyes from his free throws). Now, with Bryant insisting on more shots and missing many of them, the Lakers have slipped to third place in the Pacific Division. Asked Wednesday how he might reconcile his two stars, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, “I don't even want them in the same room right now.”

        It all looks so silly, so stupid, so short-sighted. In O'Neal, the Lakers have the most powerful inside player in basketball. In Bryant, they have the most gifted player of the post-Jordan era. Getting the two to work together already has yielded one title and could mean a decade of dominance. If they won't coalesce for the sake of their common goals, Kobe and Shaq should consider how much their individual careers are enhanced by each other.

        Each game the Lakers win means more exposure for both players and the products they endorse. Each pass they throw and each pick they set will burnish their reputations as team players. Both men benefitted last season from the validation only a championship can bring. If they should allow their spat to subvert their team, both men will bear the scars.

Share the wealth
               There ought to be enough glory to go around. It might be different if the two players played the same position (Joe Montana and Steve Young) or romanced the same woman (Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh), but basketball is not a zero-sum game. One player's points do not inherently diminish his teammates' potential. In theory, every good player enhances every other player on his team because of the amount of defense he draws.

        That it doesn't always work this way on the floor is usually a function of players failing to recognize the difference between an appropriate percentage shot and a self-indulgent prayer. Bill Russell won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics while averaging fewer than 14 shots a game.

        Russell was selfish about only one thing: winning.



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