It's comforting to know that there are still a few things in this crazy world that you can count on. As the NBA opens its season Tuesday with home games for the Lakers, 76ers and the champion Spurs, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal are fighting again.
Shaq said Kobe needs to pass more while he's getting back in shape after knee surgery. Kobe said Shaq should shut up and worry about his own game. According to the Los Angeles Times, Shaq replied, "He's right, he doesn't need advice on how to play his position, but he needs advice on how to play team ball. As we start this new season, [stuff's] got to be done right. If you don't like it, then you can opt out next year. If it's going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he can opt out ... I ain't going nowhere."
Meow meow meow. Don't these guys know they're not the news anymore? Shaq snipes at Kobe. Kobe snipes at Shaq. Dog bites man. The NBA these days is all about the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that, one year ago, you hadn't heard about since the heyday of Mark Price, if then. That was before LeBron James, of course. LeBron James is everywhere. LeBron James is the new Kobe, the new Kevin Garnett, the new Shaq and Michael and Britney Spears too.
James will make his NBA debut Wednesday in Sacramento. The game will be on ESPN. LeBron figures to be the most entertaining of the rich teenagers who are flooding the television schedule this fall.
The season begins with James and Bryant set up as strange opposites.
James is what Bryant once was, the promise of youth, the excitement of the new. He's great for business. The Cavaliers were dead last in home attendance last year, drawing 11,497 a game in a league in which the average attendance was 16,887 and only two other teams failed to draw 14,000. The Cavs have been tight-lipped about it, but the Associated Press says season-ticket sales have tripled from last year, to around 9,000, and there's talk of every ticket to every game being sold this year.
The NBA says Cavaliers merchandise, the worst-selling gear in the league last year, will be in the top three this year. The Cavs won 17 games last year, same as the Nuggets. This season they'll be on national TV 25 times. The Nuggets, even with Carmelo Anthony, who would be the league's wondrous rookie most other years, will be on seven times.
Then there's Bryant, who is looking like the portrait hidden in James' closet, the bloom of youth gone. It's suddenly an ugly time to be Kobe Bryant. Not long ago he was the league's golden boy, or one of them. Now he stands accused of sexual assault in Colorado and faces prison if convicted. (Though as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban pointed out, Bryant's legal problems are not necessarily bad for the NBA's business. As usual for Cuban, he was fined for speaking the ugly truth -- witness the Lakers' rare sellout of an exhibition game in Las Vegas on Friday, the crowd cheering and chanting for Kobe.) Bryant's personal foibles, from his awkward thoughtlessness toward his girlfriend in high school to his aloofness with teammates as a Laker, have been detailed in the international media.
And the detente he'd worked out with O'Neal over the last couple of years has collapsed. Though they've been making nice in public since about the middle of the 2001-02 season, make no mistake: O'Neal started this latest skirmish not because of some new offense but because Bryant is vulnerable. Knowing that Kobe, for reasons physical and judicial, is in no shape to engage in an endless wizzing match, Shaq let fly. "Yep, it's my team," he told reporters. "You guys might give it to him, like you've given him everything else his whole lifetime, but this is the Diesel's ship."
Bryant would have been wise to let it go, but he apparently couldn't resist. Assuming his career continues beyond his trial, sometime in 2004, Bryant can opt out of his Lakers contract after this season, and it's getting hard to picture him not doing so. Why share a team with the game's most dominant player when you're good enough to own your own? And Bryant would likely want to leave behind memories of what figures to be a miserable year for him.
It'll probably be the right thing for Kobe to move on, but it'll also be another coat of tarnish for him. For solid-gold superstars from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal to Bryant's two new future Hall of Fame teammates, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, the Lakers are a destination, not a starting point.
There are plenty of interesting questions this NBA season. Can the Lakers' new lineup gel well enough, and survive the distraction of Bryant's case, to win the team's fourth championship in five years? Which newcomer will most affect the balance among the Western powers? Latrell Sprewell in Minnesota? Brad Miller in Sacramento? Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison in Dallas? The trio of journeymen -- Hedo Turkoglu, Ron Mercer and Radoslav Nesterovic -- brought in to replace David Robinson in San Antonio?
Can Anthony get anything worthwhile done in the wilderness of Denver? Can the Suns -- remember how they gave the Spurs so much trouble in the playoffs last year -- take another step behind last year's dazzling rookie, Amare Stoudamire? Can someone in the East -- New Jersey? Orlando? Detroit? Indiana? -- emerge to challenge one of the Western teams?
The next six months will be devoted to answering a few of these questions and eliminating the bottom 13 of the league's 29 teams from the playoffs, which are the real season. But mostly they'll be devoted to watching LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. One has the world at his feet. The other has it on his shoulders.
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