- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

Step aside, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Allen Iverson is "the man" in the NBA at the moment, the MVP a year later than Fred Hickman deemed it to be.

It is funny how it works. O'Neal and Bryant have been feuding with one another about being "the man." As it turns out, "the man" is an itty-bitty fellow with a big heart and a lot of energy. Iverson weighs about 50 pounds, 45 of which is in tattoos.

Iverson dropped 40 points on Bryant and the Lakers the other night. Bryant now has sore ankles to go with a sore shoulder.

The NBA's glamour team is in the midst of a six-game road trip, looking to restore its dignity. It won't be easy. It may be too late.

The Zen master apparently has ascended to a higher state of consciousness and can't snap out of it.

He has remained above the O'Neal-Bryant tempest, perhaps because he is distracted.

He is dating the owner's daughter.

As O'Neal and Bryant squabble in public or in the privacy of Mitch Kupchak's office, the NBA crosses its fingers and hopes it all goes away.

O'Neal vowed to let "bygones be bygones" until he got to talking with a columnist from the Orlando Sentinel last weekend.

"Look in my eyes," O'Neal said. "I'm not lying. I love Tracy McGrady. I could play with him. He's the most unselfish player of all the young guys. He's the model for the next NBA stars."

O'Neal denied making the comments after they bounced around the country. Another reporter confirmed the exchange, as did O'Neal's agent in a roundabout way. The agent said O'Neal was joking.

That's a good one. The joke is on the Lakers. They are missing the point. They are missing a pretty good season. They eventually may get around to the season, if a second championship matters to O'Neal and Bryant.

That is the question accompanying the Lakers this season. They do not have a sense of purpose, a sense of direction, only a soap opera.

They were pushed into overtime by the eternally anemic Nets in East Rutherford, N.J., Tuesday night. Then, the next night, in a game dripping with meaning, the Lakers showed no resistance against the 76ers.

If Bryant aspires to be the next Michael Jordan, he possibly needs to be reminded that Jordan was as ferocious on defense as he was on offense.

Bryant received a back-to-back roasting from Stephon Marbury and Iverson. Marbury scored 50 points, Iverson 40, and all the Zen master could do was bite his tongue.

The Zen master has done a lot of that this season. As is his custom, he distributed a variety of highbrow books to his players before the team's bus ride to Philadelphia, but not one that proved beneficial against the 76ers.

The Lakers are not out of the chase, at least not in a tangible way, but they are not doing the requisite lifting essential to a successful playoff run.

They needed their homecourt advantage in the playoffs last season, first against the Kings and then against the Trail Blazers. They were possibly only one or two baskets away from being eliminated early in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Trail Blazers. O'Neal and Bryant must have forgotten how close they were to being denied.

They also have neglected to check the personnel around them. Hello? Glen Rice is gone. They miss his straight-arrow shot. They miss his presence, his ability to extend the defense.

Ron Harper's knees are as bad as ever. Horace Grant may be an improvement over A.C. Green, but the improvement is not significant. Brian Shaw, Robert Horry and Rick Fox are streaky, undependable. Isaiah Rider? He merely is a sign of the team's desperation.

If anything, given the personnel around them, O'Neal and Bryant have needed to be more at one with each other this season than last. Instead, they have set a counterproductive tone. They have told their coach, teammates, supporters and league that how they are perceived takes precedence over everything else.

It isn't about the numbers with them. Their numbers are excellent. It is about being "the man."

If it helps any, that concern has been eliminated by "the man" in a 76ers jersey.

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