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Wizards Learn the Value of Star Power

By Mike Wise
Monday, February 4, 2008

In the wake of Kobe Bryant using Caron Butler and Nick Young as pylons yesterday, it's apparent Gilbert Arenas is needed back soon for more reasons than just winning basketball games. The Wizards, people, are in dire need of resuscitating their Q-rating.

It wasn't just the ooohing and aaahing each time Kobe levitated around the rim. Or even the hundreds wearing gold jerseys with the purple No. 8 lettering, who often sounded louder than a blase Washington crowd during an unsightly 103-91 loss by the Wizards.

It was the whole notion of the visiting team and its once-malcontented star, both of which were in utter disarray this past summer, basically reclaiming the mantle of Marquee NBA Team again. And the Wizards, who used to be thought of as that up-and-coming, stop-and-pop squad touted as the Phoenix of the East, having to deal with it.

Butler and Antawn Jamison, who have been carrying this team for much of the past three months, iced their knees on the bench in the final minutes realizing the harsh truth:

They cannot win without injured Arenas forever, and they and their teammates aren't going to fill the building up without a showman like Gil the Thrill consistently in the near future. Make no mistake, the game sold out because of who was in town -- not who plays here.

Almost two hours before tip-off, the Wizards -- and most of the NBA -- were being upstaged by the Lakers' literal sprint back to prominence.

Gobs of national and international media descended on Washington yesterday to expressly cover a 10:30 a.m. news conference -- involving a player for the Lakers. The acquisition of Pau Gasol was big enough news in Madrid that several Spanish reporters made the trip as well.

Gasol did not play, having arrived moments before the game. But he was the topic of discussion from the beginning, and his lanky, 7-foot presence put the Lakers -- who haven't had a skilled player that large since Shaquille O'Neal -- in a very good mood.

After Phil Jackson gave his postgame spiel, the Lakers coach had a little fun with a Spanish reporter who wanted to ask about Gasol's potential impact.

"We expect Pau to lead us to a championship immediately," Jackson said, straight-faced. "We're going to win 25 in a row."

They won't, but really, who among their Western Conference counterparts is better and more equipped for a playoff grind at this moment? Phoenix? Maybe. San Antonio? Possibly, but only if the Spurs remain healthy. Dallas? We'll see.

Utah's Jerry Sloan lamented the other night how the Jazz had lost Derek Fisher to the Lakers, whom Fisher helped to three NBA championships during the Shaq-and-Kobe Era. Sloan then shook his head at how the Lakers managed to finagle Gasol out of Memphis for Kwame Brown and some extras.

Eddie Jordan even got into the act yesterday. The Wizards coach rarely breaks out his 1982 championship ring, won as a reserve guard with Magic and Kareem's Lakers. But he had it on all afternoon, hoping for some L.A. mojo.

The game was over several minutes in when DeShawn Stevenson picked up his third foul on a lazy push-off under the basket. Whatever vision Jordan had of one of his players slowing Bryant, who finished with 30 points on a buffet of pillowy jumpers, disappeared.

Butler tried for a while and made Bryant work, but he's more of a steals guy. Putting him on Bryant exclusively ran the risk of sending the Wizards' stand-in franchise player -- the one guy who could match Bryant's gumption and possibly make this a game -- back to the bench with Stevenson.

Nick Young? He had a few moments offensively, but on the defensive end Bryant essentially gave him a richer Southern Cal education than USC could ever afford.

When he's not trying to play general manager in the offseason, Kobe is still as otherworldly and transcendent as a ballplayer as they come. For all the people who lambasted him after his YouTube tirade against the Lakers became fodder -- he wanted Andrew Bynum and General Manager Mitch Kupchak jettisoned -- give Kobe the benefit of the doubt for realizing what most of us who watched his cry-for-help behavior during the offseason realized.

A three-time champion saw his career and franchise slipping into the oblivion, and he panicked -- throwing everyone overboard but himself.

"He really kind of shifted his focus once the season started," said Fisher, who has added a stabilizing influence on and off the court that a youngster such as Smush Parker simply could not. "Kobe just talked about the players we had here and the team we had here. It became about what we could do to make what we have better."

Kupchak did his job, getting Gasol in a steal of a deal. And now, just like that, the Lake Show is back. The Lakers are 30-16, second in the West, behind just Phoenix.

Fisher, who remembers the celebrity-like nature of being on the Laker team that won three NBA championship between 2000 and 2002, is beginning to see a similar adulation developing.

"It's starting to get there, but I think it's bred by success," he said. "I mean, today is the Super Bowl. You think about what the Patriots have done. They've become rock stars from Massachusetts."

Stars and names like Bryant and Gasol help, though. They bring entertainment value to an already established product. They invite fan bases into their world far removed from their home court. Sometimes, in Kobe's case, one unique player on a good team is so captivating he can bring in the masses by himself.

That's why Gilbert Arenas needs to return by early March. Or else there won't be a mid-May for the Wizards.

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