Shaq vs. Kobe: Who’s right?

Michael Jordan, of course. He gracefully handled a situation similar to the one that's scuttling the Lakers.

Topics: Football, Basketball, Super Bowl, Peyton Manning,

Does anyone remember anything in basketball history comparable to the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant feud? Even remotely comparable?

When I ask that question on radio shows, some callers are quick to say “Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.” Well, that may be the closest thing, but it’s not that close. Michael Jordan didn’t like Scottie Pippen and Pippen was jealous of Jordan, but Jordan was mature enough to know that the Bulls needed the childish, truculent Pippen and pressured management to keep him on the team.

Phil Jackson, of course, deserved a lot of credit for keeping the team together, especially after Dennis Rodman’s arrival, but Jordan was the real glue. When he talked, which wasn’t often, the team listened. And Scottie Pippen, for all his whining, knew he’d never be Michael Jordan, so he whined but he took the championship rings and played.

Right about now, Jackson, currently the Lakers’ coach, might be considering asking Jordan to drop by the locker room for a pep talk. The Lakers have already lost as many games this season as they did all last season, and, worse, are on the verge of losing perhaps the game’s top young player. How bad is it? I don’t know if you hear the rumors where you live, but it was being whispered that O’Neal faked an injury to get out of the Lakers’ game against the Knicks the other day — his way, said the rumorist, of saying to Bryant, “OK, you’re the man. Well, prove it.” I think the rumor was silly, but the Lakers’ thrashing at the hands of the Knicks ought to prove the point O’Neal has been making all year: He is the man.

I’m not taking Shaq’s part in the argument. Both O’Neal and Bryant are being selfish and immature and hurting the Lakers by making this silliness public. More than that, they are hurting the NBA, which desperately needs a marquee team with instantly recognizable superstars. Right now the Lakers have the instantly recognizable superstars but not the marquee team.

Two seasons ago, the San Antonio Spurs had perhaps the two most dominant players in the game in the “Twin Towers,” Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Those two were content to share the spotlight — indeed, they forced the spotlights to grow larger to accommodate them. The same can be said of the Lakers of the Kareem-Magic era; no one was whining about whether the game should be played more inside (to Kareem’s game) or outside (to Magic’s). The Lakers just won, and when they did it seemed as if there were enough championship rings, accolades, endorsements and magazine covers to go around.

There are apparently not enough of these things out there to satisfy both O’Neal and Bryant, and that is the really unusual part of all of this. Usually, losing is what creates this kind of controversy. It’s happening to the Lakers because they win. Or rather, because they won last year. The controversy isn’t happening because they are losing more games this season; they are losing more games this season because of the controversy.

Who is wrong? Both men are. But Bryant is more wrong. The best way for the Lakers to win is to feed O’Neal on the inside, with Bryant becoming the man in the final minutes. That really shouldn’t be an argument — it was already proven last season. It can and has been argued that the Lakers’ problem is the absence of Glen Rice and his outside shooting, but with all due respect to Rice, a Glen Rice is not going to be the difference between a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant winning or losing.

On the other hand, there seems to be a very definite correlation between Bryant’s increased scoring — and vastly increased shooting and missing — and the Lakers’ inconsistency. It was highlighted early in December when Bryant scored 51 points and the Lakers lost to Golden State in overtime, much to the visible disgust of teammates Ron Harper and Rick Fox.

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Bryant’s argument is that Jackson’s strategy “bottles him up,” that he is now at an age when he needs to be “turning my game up, not down.” But how can his game be “turned up” at the expense of his team? How can he really feel he has become the best player in the game — and that’s really what this is all about — when he is padding his personal stats at the expense of this team? And isn’t it worthwhile to trade a scoring title for a ring?

These are questions Phil Jackson had better start buzzing around in Kobe Bryant’s brain before the season gets any older. Bryant’s still young and thinks opportunities for seasons like the one he had last year are limitless. They are not. One bad decision and you find yourself at age 30 in Denver or Vancouver or even New Jersey, wondering where it all went wrong. For his sake, though, if Kobe does leave the Lakers, I hope he goes to Washington, to the only man who might be able to help him acquire some perspective.

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Ravens’ pass coverage beats Giants, CBS

Forget the Super Bowl — I’d shell out $37.50 on pay per view to see the Baltimore Ravens’ defense vs. the St. Louis Rams’ offense. No boring punts or inept tackling, so we’ll eliminate the Ravens’ offense and the Rams’ defense. Just Ray Lewis and company vs. Kurt Warner and his. The Rams get four downs; if they don’t convert, Baltimore gets two points. I’m serious about this. Wouldn’t you pay to see that match? Wouldn’t you rather watch it than the Super Bowl you just saw?

I thought CBS’s coverage of the game was dreadful. The key to the greatness of the Ravens’ defense is not how they rush the passer — I don’t think I saw more than five plays where Kerry Collins didn’t have adequate time to set up and throw — but the way they disguise their coverages.

The way it looks to me when I’m watching the Baltimore defense is that teams are always throwing under the coverage — that is, the coverage of the defensive backfield — and then getting their receivers whacked by 250-pound linebackers. I’ve never seen a team where linebackers made so many tackles or broke up so many passes downfield. In fact, it seemed that during the entire Super Bowl the Ravens’ linebackers and secondary were moving toward Collins’ passes before the Giants’ receivers even made their cuts.

I just watched the tape of the game again, and four of Collins’ first five passes were tipped or nearly intercepted, and for the game I counted seven tipped balls — six well beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s what separates the Ravens from other great defenses like the ’85 Chicago Bears, which were primarily pass-rushing defenses, and I don’t think the CBS analysts stopped one time to analyze the Baltimore coverage. Former Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms was as stymied in the booth as Collins was on the field.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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