Monday, February 19, 2001

Lakers can't decide who's 'The Man'

        INDIANAPOLIS — Kobe Bryant took the last shot, the three from the corner that would have won it for the L.A. Lakers. Two Indiana Pacers came flying at his face. Beneath the basket, Shaquille O'Neal was shouldering Sam Perkins like a bale of hay.

        Bryant never looked for O'Neal, who shouldn't take it personally. In the last two minutes, Kobe didn't look for anybody. His last shot missed. Indiana beat the defending world champions, 110-109.

        “We missed our last couple shots,” was Shaq's take on the final few minutes. “We were just shooting jumpers.”

        “I thought I had a pretty good look on that last one,” Kobe decided.

        “Do you want the ball at the end?”
someone asked O'Neal.

        “I sure do. I've been saying that all year.”

        To which Bryant replied, “They plugged the lane.”

        And so it goes with the Lakers. It must be hard defending a title when you're also a case study for Psychology 101.

Tension is human

        Shaq is the reigning Man. Kobe is the Man wannabe. The NBA allows only one Man per club. It's in the rules.

        The Lakers would be a whole lot better if O'Neal and Bryant ditched their egos and acted like teammates. Play nice. Don't fight. Share. This is what we say.

        But think about it. Would you?

        You're at your office, where you share a title with a colleague. Only, you think you're better than he is at what you do, and you've got the record to prove it. Plus, you've been around longer than he has.

        That's Shaq, isn't it?

        You're young and gifted. You spent a year deferring to your colleague's Man-hood. Now you want yours.

        That's Kobe. Can you blame him?

        We're questioning O'Neal and Bryant for attitudes as human as tears. You try staying magnanimous when you don't think you're getting what's due to you. Especially if you're rich and idolized and used to getting your way.

        O'Neal played seven seasons to win a ring and an MVP award. He comes back this season, he's just renting space in Kobe's world. Kobe works harder than anyone in the offseason. His talent shoots off him like sparks. Plus, he can shoot a free throw. He wants his turn at playing king.

        If the Lakers had a third wheel, it might be easier. As it is, Kobe and Shaq own the show. Everyone else is furniture.

Jackson no factor

        Phil Jackson, the Zen Man coach, is paid lots of money to figure this out. But Jackson never had this problem in Chicago, where there was never a 1 and a 1A, only a 1.

        The closest comparison to Shaq-versus-Kobe was Magic and Kareem. Abdul-Jabbar resented Johnson's fame. The difference was, Magic passed the ball.

        Nobody in the league can guard O'Neal straight up, which ought to qualify him for hands-down Man-hood. On Sunday, O'Neal working against the 900-year-old Perkins was borderline criminal. Jermaine O'Neal had a little better luck, by drawing Shaq away from the basket. But O'Neal outweighs O'Neal by 95 pounds. When Shaq caught the ball in the post, he swatted Jermaine like lint.

        Shaq didn't touch the ball the last two minutes. Kobe had it, attached to his palm. A reigning Man could get annoyed.

        But a young Man could feel it's his time to shine.

        This won't be fixed anytime soon.

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