The Lakers exploded Friday, blew apart like Bruce the shark at the end of “Jaws,” little bloody pieces of Karl Malone’s ambitions plopping into the water for a solid hour afterward.
Phil Jackson quit. Shaquille O’Neal asked to be traded. Kobe Bryant declared for free agency. It got so bad that two ballboys took lifeguard jobs and Jack Nicholson phoned the Clippers ticket office. Dyan Cannon and Andy Garcia were left pondering a world in which they never get their mugs on TV, even for a few seconds at a time. Suddenly, not returning those calls from “The Surreal Life” is starting to seem a little shortsighted. Fine idea, taking career advice from Meg Ryan.
Malone looks like he’s going to retire, and if he doesn’t he should, and Gary Payton, exposed as a washed-up star in the playoffs, wouldn’t be a major factor even in the unlikely event he re-signs.
And so ends the one-year tale of the damnedest, most weirdly fascinating team that’s played a season in my lifetime, and probably yours too. They went from being title shoo-ins to also-rans, then back, then back again, bickering and pouting and self-destructing all the way. By comparison, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was a pleasantly quiet evening over at the neighbors’ place. This bunch made “East of Eden” look like “Ozzie and Harriet.”
Bryant probably won’t leave. The Lakers can offer him more money than anyone else, and what he’s really wanted for a long time was to play for a team without Shaq on it and not coached by Phil Jackson, who has the odd idea that if you’re playing with the most dominant player of all time, you oughta think about passing him the ball from time to time. If the Lakers trade O’Neal, which they’ve said they’re going to try to do, Bryant will get his wish.
A lot is being made of team owner Jerry Buss “picking” Bryant over Jackson and O’Neal, and how that’s a risky choice, given Bryant’s on-court selfishness, which only figures to intensify without the most dominant player of all time demanding the ball from him, and his sexual assault trial in Colorado, which could send him to prison.
But what was Buss supposed to do? Jackson has pretty clearly had enough of being Bryant’s coach, so the choice was really Bryant vs. O’Neal, with Jackson as a possible bonus if you keep O’Neal and you’re willing to pay up. Letting them both get away is probably not an option, even if there’s little danger of the fan base jumping to the Clippers. There are plenty of other things for the glittering L.A. crowd to devote its time and attention to, you know, like having babies and shopping for ironic Jesus T-shirts.
Now, if Shaq and Kobe were at the same stage in their careers, I’d take O’Neal, easy. But Bryant’s only going to be 26 next season. O’Neal will be 33 before the next playoff year starts, and he’s slowing down noticeably.
For all of his justified complaining about his teammates, mostly meaning Bryant, not getting him the ball enough, the fact is that even with the season on the line, Shaq can no longer get himself in good position for an entire game. In Game 4 of the Finals against the Pistons, O’Neal dominated the early going, catching entry passes almost directly beneath the rim and scoring at will. By the third quarter, he was screaming at teammates during timeouts to get him the ball. But he was also calling for it out around the free-throw line. He was out of gas and not doing anything to beat his smaller, slower man to a spot.
That problem’s not going to get better. For the last few years, Shaq’s inability and/or unwillingness to get into top shape has cost him energy when it matters, in the playoffs. For the next few, it will simply be age.
With the exception of the freakish Robert Parish, who didn’t slow down until he was 38, all of the great true centers of the last few decades were well on their way downhill by 35. Even the seemingly ageless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won four championships after his 35th birthday, began his decline at 34. There’s simply no future in the Shaquille O’Neal business.
It’s not a sucker’s bet to wager on Bryant staying out of prison, and as long as he’s around, the Lakers at least figure to be more interesting. But unless they can pull something out of the hat this offseason — news that they’re talking to retread coach Rudy Tomjanovich doesn’t say much about the boldness of their thinking — you won’t have the Lakers to hate in next year’s playoffs.
You’ll miss them. They were interesting.
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Griff [cut] ey [cut] hits [cut] 5 [cut] hund [cut] redth [PERMALINK]
Not to harp on the subject of the annoying way sports are broadcast on American TV these days, with direction that calls attention to itself and subtracts from fans’ ability to follow the action, but did you see the highlight of Ken Griffey Jr.’s 500th home run Sunday? It was a work of art.
A work of really, really bad art.
Here’s how it looked on Fox Sports Net Ohio, which covers Reds games, when Griffey became the 20th man in history to hit his 500th:
From the center-field camera, Matt Morris of the Cardinals threw and Griffey swung and connected. Then the view switched to a camera behind home plate following the flight of the ball as it landed in the right-field bleachers, then to Griffey approaching first base. Fine. What followed was 13 cuts in the next 23 seconds as Griffey rounded the bases. It was like watching TV with a hyperactive cat, with the cat holding the remote.
Here’s a shot list: Griffey’s dad; his wife holding a daughter; Griffey approaching second; wife and daughter again; some guy’s head blocking the view of Griffey Sr.; Griffey heading for third; the Reds ambling out of the dugout, applauding; Griffey rounding third; wife and daughter again; Griffey approaching the plate, touching it and slapping hands with Adam Dunn; guy’s head in front of Griffey Sr. again; wife and daughter again; Griffey hugging Sean Casey.
Not one of the shots of the wife and daughter lasted as long as two seconds, and one of them was so quick I wasn’t able to time it, but it was less than half a second. We did get to linger on the irrelevant fan blocking the view of Griffey Sr. for about three seconds, though, probably the longest shot in the sequence.
My attention span is as short as any addled MTV-generation kid’s, but I was dizzy. The good news is that the guy who was standing in front of Griffey Sr. is getting his own Fox show in the fall. It’s a reality show called “In the Way of Something You Don’t Really Want to See Anyhow.” Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
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