While channel-surfing recentlyor was I daydreaming?I flipped across an episode of Dr. Phil as he counseled America's most dysfunctional TV family.
No, it wasn't the Osbournes. Dr. Phil was talking to some of the Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone, Gary Payton and team owner Jerry Buss. Only here's where it got weird. Instead of Dr. Phil was Charles Barkley. Beamed in via satellite was departed coach Phil Jackson.
I must have dozed off during a four-hour Cialis commercial. When I woke upkind of like Coleridge when he scribbled down "Kubla Khan"I started typing everything I could remember.
Cue the dream-sequence harp music.
Dr. Sir Charles: "Man, how in the HAIL did y'all lose? You got three future Hall of Famers, maybe four. And Detroit still made y'all look like a bunch of fat white guys."
Payton: "You mean kinda like when you played with Hakeem and Drexler, and Y'ALL lost? Only you really WERE fat."
Barkley: "Man, we could always tell where you were on the court just by seeing who was scoring for the other team. You couldn't have stopped anybody with the 101st Airborne."
Shaq: "That's cold. True, but cold."
Kobe: "I love my teammates, but I have to acknowledge that my teammates were selfish in claiming that I was too selfish."
Shaq: "You don't feed the big dog, the house don't get guarded."
Jackson: "There's actually much zen-ness to that statement."
Malone: "See, this bull is why I'm retiring."
Unfortunately, that's all I can remember. But I can at least remember the lesson of the story, which is more than I can say for the Lakers and most of the other franchises in professional sports. Chemistry, as a seldom-used Detroit Piston put it, beats talent.
You'd think it would be obvious to everyone by now. Yet, year after year, teams sign an agglomeration of expensive stars, or maybe just one supernova talent, and figure things are bound to fall into place.
More often than not, they fall apart. A-Rod won MVPs in Texas while the team finished dead last. The high-salaried New York Mets couldn't be suckier. Keyshawn Johnson gave the Tampa Bay Bucs such a chemical imbalance that they paid him just to stay away. The NHL's New York Rangers are a more expensive fiasco than Donald Trump's hair.
And then there are the Lakers, who make Oz and Sharon look like Ozzie and Harriet. After acquiring Malone and Paytonand being anointed by the Media Geniuses, before ever playing a season together, as the greatest team ever assembledthe Lakers proved that a whole not only might fail to exceed the sum of its parts but might never even equal them. Not even Jackson, the maestro whose deft orchestration of ultra-head cases Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen suggested he could successfully juggle water, could keep this bunch together.
After their stunning debacle against Detroit, the Lakers have ridden off in different directions faster than the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Kobe became a free agent but wants to stay. Jackson is gone, as most in the Laker organization are reported to believe, because Kobe wanted him gone. Shaq wants no part of a Jacksonless team. Malone will likely leave without the championship ring he sought. Payton may or may not be sulking elsewhere next year.
With the expected retirement of Ma-lone and the much anticipated departure of Payton, you might logically think that the Lakers' old equilibrium could be restored, and Shaq and Kobe could resume winning titles together under a new coach. But that overlooks the other lessons from L.A.'s collapse. Sometimes, too much talent is not a good thing. And, sometimes, a team really needs to belong to one player.
Unfortunately, the Lakers appear not to recognize who that player should be.
I'll admit that it's hard to feel sorry for Shaq. His worst annual-salary scenario is around $25 million. He buys new cars for friends and writes the dealer a check. He's not just livin' large; he's XXXXL.
And yet I feel for Shaq because Shaq's getting the shaft. By all accounts, the Lakersthanks to Buss and his you're-so-not-Jerry-West general manager Mitch Kupchakhave decided that Kobe, not the Big Dog, is their building block. If they keep O'Neal for one more season until his contract expires, it will be only because he's too pricey to move.
This decision might be borderline ignorant if you could just figure out where to draw the boundary between "ignorant" and "super ignorant."
It's clear that the Lakers are no longer big enough for both Shaq and Kobe. But keeping Kobe over the Diesel is like killing the body to save the cancer.
The Lakers can only be Shaq's teamnot because he was there first but because no one else anywhere can bring to a team what he brings. Like Everest creates its own weather system, Shaq is his own dimension.
Kobe is the second-best player in the NBA. But that's a little like saying that Texas, not even half Alaska's size, is the second-biggest state.
There's really no comparison. Kobe has never played for an NBA title without Shaq. Shaq took Orlando to the finalsand he'll bring his next team there, too.
Kobe routinely shoots 40 percent or less. Shaq is what we call a high-percentage option.
It's worth mentioning that Shaq, so ungovernable by opponents, never gets in trouble off the court except from movie and music critics. He's not staring at the possibility of spending two decades in prison, like some we could name.
Both are unstoppable one on one. But most tellingly in the NBA Finals, when Shaq was double- or triple-teamed, he passed to an open teammate. When Kobe was double-teamed, he shot anyway. As a result, he allowed Detroit to succeed with a counterintuitive strategy: If you double Kobe, you can play Shaq straight up. Maybe you can't stop the big man, but with a little encouragement Kobe will do it for you.
Now you don't have to be a Dr. Phil to cipher out some psychology for this conflict. Had I only seen the rest of the TV show, here's how I imagined it would have played out, if only we could travel back to halftime of Lakers-Pistons Game Five, and if only Dr. Barkley were in the locker room riffing on the great Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke.
Sir Charles: "Kobe, what we got he-ah is failya... to... communicate. Kobe, you see this chart with all those shots you missed?"
Kobe: "I see 'em, Boss."
Charles: "Well, those are Shaq's shots. Now what are you doin' taking Shaq's shots, Kobe?"
Kobe: "I don't know, Boss."
Charles: "You better put 'em back, son. You gotta gitch yore mind right."
Kobe: "I know, Boss."
Charles: "See that bench, Kobe? That's Coach Jackson's bench. Your Italian-speakin', wife-sneakin' 7-for-21 behind is gonna sit on Coach Jackson's bench this next half till you get yore mind right. And in your place I'm puttin' in that rookie white kid who's so white, he's got some teddy bears for his tattoo. You know why I'm puttin' Walton in, Kobe?"
Kobe: "Why's that, Boss?"
Charles: "Because Luke Walton knows not to take Shaq's shots."
Of course, in the real world, the Lakers will allow Shaq to leave, just as they showed Jackson the door, because the Lakers believe that Kobe is their biggest fan magnet and buzz creator.
That's just where we, and Kobe, and the coddlers of top athletes live. But I think the fantasy makes a much more realistic reality.