Through each playoff round, Rick Fox has heard the gallows humor. "People will say, 'Hey, Kobe should go to court every week if he keeps playing like this.' "

Uncouth yucks are plentiful in Los Angeles, where Kobe Bryant continues to negotiate the role of criminal defendant by day and basketball supernova by night.

Fox and Bryant's other teammates have been asked how "tough" and "draining" it is for the Los Angeles Lakers to live in this realm of uncertainty, not knowing whether Bryant will make it to a game on time -- as if missing 12 minutes of the postseason held any seminal importance.

Versus a sexual assault conviction, four years to life, they rightly scoff. The day before Bryant embarked on another California-to-Colorado-and- back-again legal jaunt, some even tried to envision what those lonely plane rides back to Staples Center are like, what might motivate Bryant to lift his game.

"I have a possibility of going to jail for the rest of my life, and I'm going to something I love to do, and it might be taken away from me," Gary Payton said, putting himself in Bryant's shoes. "And when I go out there, yeah, I want to play hard as I can, so people can remember me as that great basketball player. Yes, I would be thinking that."

On TNT and ESPN, they banter about what team has enough salary cap room to acquire a free agent like Bryant, should he opt out of his contract this summer and not re-sign with the Lakers.

Free agent? What if he's not even a free man?

What if the unbeatable combination of wealth and fame -- the combination that helps win high-profile athletes, entertainers and white-collar criminal defendants their freedom -- does not pan out this time?

What if a Colorado jury finds the most gifted basketball player in the world guilty of sexually assaulting a woman in his hotel room last June?

What if the end of this Lakers season amounts to Bryant's career-ending moment?

No one wants to go there, because of the obvious issues of sensitivity. But while some have managed to appreciate Bryant as a player and not yet passed judgment on him as a person, the Lakers quietly deal with reality, that Bryant may have other motivations than just pushing his team toward its fourth title in five years each time he returns from a criminal proceeding.

"I think he's definitely taking a hold of every moment he has right now, whether it's with his family or on the basketball court," Fox said. "It's no more evident than when you come around the corner and his wife and daughter are there. His daughter is on the podium with him. What does that say?"

When Bryant goes to court, he always comes home to play. In the four prior games he ventured from Los Angeles to Eagle, Colo., and back again, his numbers are astonishingly Kobe-like: 31 points per game. He dropped 42 points on the Spurs, showing up minutes before game time a couple of weeks ago.

With a 6 p.m. Pacific Time start for Game 4 on Thursday in Los Angeles, a fair amount of concern remains. Will Kobe make it on time? How much energy will another trip siphon from his mind and body? Will there be any carryover that might prevent him from carrying the Lakers down the stretch of the Western Conference finals against Minnesota?

Fatigued after making five flights and playing three games earlier this month -- including four back and forth to Eagle, Colo., for a pretrial hearing in his sexual-assault case -- he nearly fainted in the locker room moments after Game 5 of the San Antonio. He needed two liters of fluids intravenously to recover.

During his last trip, a certain all-sports cable network used the occasion to dramatically portray his journey, using a timeline and then treating his entrance into Staples Center as if a conquering hero had returned -- as if Bryant had given a kidney to a relative or, at the least, played two sports in less than 48 hours, ala Deion Sanders. When it comes to Kobe, perspective is at a premium.

"When I get here, if I get back in time, I'm just going to be ready to play," he said Wednesday afternoon at the team's practice facility. The Lakers discourage all questions alluding to his possible criminal trial, so his teammates are often left to sort through the odyssey.

"I think we all need to realize how serious it is," Karl Malone said. "Sometimes we forget the fact that this could be everything for this kid. Sometimes we think, 'Oh, he's going to show up and give us 30 points a night.' After you get to thinking about it, wait: That's life, that's real. And a lot of consequences go with it."

Malone is asked often whether he thinks Bryant will opt out of his contract and move on to another team.

"We all think about that," he said. More often, Malone added, he thinks about Bryant's freedom, how so many have taken it for granted amid the craziness of another riveting Lakers playoff run.

"Forget all of that; he's fighting for his life in court," Malone said. "The penalty for that is unbelievable."

To so many of his adoring legions and most legal analysts, the prospect of prison seems so remote for Bryant. But you wonder on those long flights back and forth whether Kobe Bryant is frightened, so frightened that he cannot wait to come home each night and ensure his basketball legacy -- just in case.

"When I get here, if I get back in time, I'm just going to be ready to play," Kobe Bryant, right, says of his scheduled trip back to L.A. from Colorado.