Survivor Los AngelesLakers season is upstaging reality TV hits
By BILL HARRIS, TORONTO SUN
Following the Los Angeles Lakers this season has been like watching one big reality TV show. Call it Survivor: Los Angeles.
- See the Lakers' four mega-stars -- Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton -- try to live together without driving each other crazy, like The Osbournes.
- See those same four mega-stars battle injuries, of the straight-forward, bizarre and occasionally fictional variety, on a special edition of Fear Factor.
- See Shaq and Kobe try to bully each other into a subservient role, with the loser being dubbed an Average Joe.
- See omnipresent Lakers fan Jack Nicholson hanging around the locker room, like a Celebrity Mole.
- See young Lakers Luke Walton and Kareem Rush trying to win the favour of Lakers coach Phil Jackson on The Apprentice.
- See the Lakers try to put aside all the distractions and win enough games to be crowned NBA champions, after which they can lay legitimate claim to the title of American Idol(s). The last thing they want to be come, say, the third week of May is Americans Idle.
Speaking of being idle, two members of the Lakers' Fab Four -- Bryant and Malone -- won't be in Toronto today for the game against the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre.
Bryant received a 10-stitch cut on his right index finger Thursday when he accidentally put his hand through a glass window as he was trying to move some boxes in his garage.
"My first reaction was to put a Band-Aid on it and go to sleep," Bryant told The Los Angeles Times. "But I decided not to do that. I got lucky. I missed the tendon, so I'm good."
Bryant was playing with an injured shoulder anyway, so the rest may do him some good. He was placed on the injured list, which means he'll sit out at least four more games.
Malone, meanwhile, has been on the injured list since Jan. 4 because of a torn ligament in his right knee. The 18-year veteran, who isn't due back until March, never had been on the injured list before.
O'Neal and Payton should be in uniform today, but the way this season has gone, who the heck knows? While most reality TV shows are at least partially scripted -- although no one ever admits as much -- the Lakers' saga has been spectacularly unpredictable, with each week bringing a new twist.
The most serious story involves Bryant's legal woes in Eagle County, Colo., where he has been charged with rape. Lawyers for the defence and the prosecution continue to kick-box each other over microscopic details as the proceedings edge closer to an actual trail.
But it's a good indication of how nutty the Lakers season has been that the rape charges against Bryant have not dominated the headlines every day.
This was set up to be a dream season for the Lakers, who had assembled something of a Dream Team by adding Malone and Payton in the summer. The grand plan was that Malone and Payton (neither of whom have won an NBA title) would provide the hunger and would keep Shaq and Kobe (who have won three titles each) from destroying team chemistry with their petty jealousies.
The Lakers got off to an 18-3 start and their all-star lineup seriously threatened to make a mockery of the schedule. But slowly, over the course of the past four months, the only two things that realistically could scuttle the Lakers' mission -- in-fighting and injuries -- have reared their ugly heads. The former prompted an outburst from Payton in which he snorted: "I didn't sign up for this %@#$."
Actually, Gary, you did.
To be fair, Payton has a right to bitch, since he is the only member of the Lakers' Fab Four to have played in all 43 of their games. Kobe is at 35, Shaq 29 and Malone only 24.
Primarily because of those absences, not to mention an ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Lakers are only 9-13 in their past 22 games, including a 97-84 loss to the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday.
"Now it's just time for us to put together solid 48-minute games and try to get back on track," Shaq said afterward.
The Raptors only can hope that process is delayed for another 24 hours.
"If we get everybody back for the last couple of months, we'll be cool," Payton said recently, and all things being equal, that's not an unrealistic view.
When healthy and focused, there's little doubt the Lakers are the best team in the NBA. But there remains a significant risk that this mammoth reality TV show, however fascinating, could be cancelled prematurely.
AS THE LAKERS TURN
A brief look at a tumultuous four months:
- Kobe Bryant misses the first team flight of the season.
- Shaquille O'Neal pouts over the Lakers' reluctance to extend his contract at the maximum salary allowed.
- O'Neal suggests Bryant should pass more and shoot less. Bryant responds by calling Shaq fat, a poor leader and a bad teammate.
- Rumours heat up that Bryant will opt out of his contract at the end of the season and will get away from Shaq as fast as possible.
- Because of Bryant's contract status, state of mind and legal woes, some trade speculation surfaces.
- Karl Malone is suspended for a game by the NBA because of an incident with Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks.
- Malone hurts his right knee, although it isn't thought to be too serious at first.
- Shaq doesn't bother to show up for practice on New Year's Eve.
- Malone is placed on the injured list for the first time in his career. He isn't expected back until March.
- Malone fumes at his former team, the Utah Jazz, for an in-game skit that makes fun of Kobe's court case.
- Coach Phil Jackson reiterates that the Lakers are Shaq's team and if Kobe wants to stay, he'll have to accept that.
- Kobe is voted in as an all-star starter, Shaq is not.
- Shaq is criticized publicly for milking an allegedly minor right calf injury into a 12-game absence.
- A frustrated Gary Payton says: "I didn't sign up for this @#$%&."