While Judicial Process Grinds On, Angelenos Reserve Judgment
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, April 30, 2004; Page D01
SACRAMENTO -- Elsewhere, people may be a little squeamish about rooting so unconditionally for Kobe Bryant, what with him facing a felony sexual assault charge that could lead to God knows what. But here, they cheer him unabashedly, perhaps because being in closer proximity to this episode and following the details day in and day out allows folks to compartmentalize. Or perhaps they are just astonished at the way he's been able to perform on a basketball court, particularly in the hours immediately after court proceedings in Colorado where he is being charged. Either way, there was nothing reserved about the multiple ovations the crowd at Staples Center showered him with Tuesday night, nor about the reaction to his 31-point, 10-assist performance the day after.
Southern Californians don't know what happened in that hotel room in Colorado between Kobe and his accuser last summer, but they do know the Lakers might still be locked in a series with Houston were it not for his play in the first-round series, and they know the only way the Lakers can beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the second round, beginning Sunday, is if Kobe continues to successfully juggle his personal and professional lives and stays on this basketball roll.
They don't have pro football in Los Angeles, the baseball Angels play 60 miles down the road, and it's been a long time since the Dodgers won anything. Since Phil Jackson arrived five years ago, it's the Lakers who stir civic passion here. And if Kobe's leading, a great number of people appear to be ready to follow until other matters are resolved in court . . . especially with the Spurs on deck. Jackson and his players like to play mind games with opponents. He and Shaquille O'Neal have spent the better part of three years trying to publicly emasculate the Sacramento Kings, calling them "the Queens" and engaging in all sorts of silliness that sadly seems to work to some degree. The Lakers, plain and simple, don't respect the Kings, don't think they have the requisite heart to go with all that talent.
The Kings, after falling behind by 16 in the first half of their own Game 5 in Sacramento, led for much of the fourth quarter, then barely held on to eliminate poor Dallas, 119-118. It was the third game of the series that the Mavericks had a chance to win on the final shot . . . but lost. First it was Michael Finley in Game 2, then Steve Nash in Game 4, and Thursday night with the season on the line it was Dirk Nowitzki, whose 15-footer missed as time expired. Rarely in the modern era of basketball have two teams been so incompetent on the defensive end; the Mavs and Kings scored 102 points in the paint in Game 5, most of them uncontested.
The Lakers have no choice but to respect the Spurs. Each time the Spurs won a championship, 1999 and 2003, they went right through the Lakers. Last year, the Spurs ended the Lakers' three-year reign in Game 6 at Staples Center. And now, while all the drama and hype surrounding the Lakers might lead you to think they're the favorite, it's San Antonio that comes into this second-round series having won 15 straight. That's why it's fairly quiet down in Lakerland now. They know they can beat San Antonio, but they also know it's going to take something close to a Herculean effort, and it's going to require that the Lakers stop their bickering and channel every bit of their energy into practicing and playing. This is why Kobe said late Wednesday night, "You cannot beat San Antonio with momentum. They're too steady for that. You have to be purposeful in your actions. You have to break them down, possession by possession."
Jackson said beating the Spurs will take "thoughtful preparation and a real conscious effort."
"What concerns me," Bryant said, "is their consistency. I think that's their strength, their ability to pound you consistently."
To that end, Bryant planned to spend Thursday sleeping. He arrived at Staples Center on Tuesday just seven minutes before the starting lineups were announced. He was clearly drained from the day's activities in Colorado. Asked if he'd ever had a more taxing three days, Bryant said rather emphatically, "No." He also said he'd never been more exhausted following a game, as he was after Game 5. "My eyes," he said, "were getting really heavy. I actually meditated [on the trip back to Los Angeles] today. I didn't want to go to sleep. I would have been real sluggish."
Jackson noticed early on that Bryant was getting "lit up," to use the coach's words, by Houston's Cuttino Mobley, and sat his star down for a bit in the first half. "I'm never happy to come out of a game," Bryant said, "but I thought this was an excellent move because it allowed me to collect myself."
Whatever it was, Bryant was the best player on the floor when he reentered the game. Before this felony accusation, Bryant was one of the few great players who could explain in fine detail how and why he was able to do certain things with a basketball. But asked late Wednesday how he could play so well despite being physically tired, emotionally drained and mentally taxed, Bryant said, "It's prayer. It's God. He gives you the strength when you feel like you can't carry yourself anymore."
Away from the news conference and cameras, holding his baby daughter, Bryant said quietly, "It's God, I'm telling you. That's the only way I could do something like this when you have strength you didn't think you had."
Whatever the source of his energy is, at the most trying time in his life, at a point where the pressure has to be excruciating, he'll probably need it again in the San Antonio series. "We're healthy," he said, "and I like our chances. I'm really looking forward to this series, and I'm sure you are, too."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Lakers' Kobe Bryant has reason to smile after helping dispatch Houston. San Antonio looms next: "I'm really looking forward to this series, and I'm sure you are, too."
(Mark J. Terrill -- AP)
_____From The Post_____
Michael Wilbon: Fans in Los Angeles aren't shy about supporting Kobe Bryant.
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