Bryant has Lakers feuding

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 28, 2003

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - The tension engulfing Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers is growing, and the season hasn't even begun.

As the Lakers' ''Dream Team'' of Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton prepared for Tuesday night's opener against Dallas, Bryant indicated he might not play, and again lashed out at O'Neal, calling the center childish and accusing him of coming to training camp ''fat and out of shape'' in previous years.

''My knee is not strong enough to play yet. I know it. When it is, I will play,'' Bryant told ESPN by phone Monday. ''I probably won't play tomorrow night or until I'm ready.''

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Bryant, coming back from offseason knee surgery, traded barbs with O'Neal through the media over the weekend. Neither spoke with reporters after practice Monday, although Bryant did the telephone interview with ESPN.

The Lakers weren't so sure Bryant will miss the game.

''Our understanding is that Kobe might not play because of the knee injury,'' Lakers director of public relations John Black said Monday night. ''We think he probably will. That decision will be made tomorrow based on how Kobe is feeling and how his knee feels prior to the game.''

Malone and Payton each had said the team's other two superstars were getting along fine during practice Monday. They also said that, during a team meeting, they stressed working out problems in the locker room rather than airing them in the media.

Coach Phil Jackson said after practice that the Lakers needed to tighten up control over what players say to reporters, adding, ''We're going to make sure that guys understand that this is something we don't want to have happen.''

Bryant still spoke out in the phone interview, saying he didn't need any advice from O'Neal on how to play hurt.

''I've played with IVs before, during and after games. I've played with a broken hand, a sprained ankle, a torn shoulder, a fractured tooth, a severed lip and a knee the size of a softball,'' he said.

''I don't miss 15 games because of a toe injury that everybody knows wasn't that serious in the first place.''

O'Neal was hampered by an arthritic right big toe throughout the 2001-02 season and had surgery on Sept. 11, 2002. He missed the first 12 games of last season - nine of them losses.

Bryant had knee surgery July 1 in Colorado.

He faces trial on a charge of sexual assault that allegedly occurred the night before his operation. He has acknowledged having sex with a 19-year-old resort worker, but claimed it was consensual.

Bryant said he heard nothing supportive - or anything else - from O'Neal over the summer.

He did receive phone calls, Bryant said, from other teammates and team officials, other teams' players and coaches, from Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, even O'Neal's uncle.

''But yet from my so-called big brother (O'Neal), I heard nothing,'' Bryant said.

The latest in a series of feuds between the two flared over the weekend when O'Neal said Bryant needs to be more of a team player.

''That's ridiculous. I have been successfully sacrificing my game for years for Shaq,'' Bryant said Monday. ''That's what Phil wanted me to do, so I did it. Last year, Phil told me Shaq was not in physical condition to carry the thrust of our offense, so he asked me to do it.

''But then he saw Shaq was getting upset that the team wasn't running through him, so Phil asked me to pull back and I did. This year is no different. My role is whatever Phil wants it to be, period.''

Bryant intends to opt out of his contract after the end of this season, but said he won't decide until then whether he will remain with the Lakers.

''If leaving the Lakers at the end of the season is what I decide, a major reason for that will be Shaq's childlike selfishness and jealousy,'' he said.

O'Neal has said it's fine with him if Bryant leaves, adding the Lakers are his team.

''It doesn't matter whose team it is. But this is his team, so it's time for him to act like it,'' Bryant told ESPN. ''That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape, when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court.

''It also means no more blaming others for our team's failure, or blaming staff members for not over-dramatizing your injuries so that you avoid blame for your lack of conditioning. Also, 'my team' doesn't mean only when we win, it means carrying the burden of defeat just as gracefully as you carry a championship trophy.''

O'Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to three straight championships before the team was eliminated by San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals last May.

After the Lakers' practice Monday, Bryant was already off the floor when reporters were allowed into the gym. O'Neal grinned and pointed at the large group of writers and broadcasters waiting as he walked into the locker room.

Neither Jackson nor anyone else said anything about a possibility that Bryant might not play against Dallas in the season-opener at Staples Center. He played in exhibition games Thursday and Friday, and practiced the past two days.