- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

The Zen master is wedged between Kobe Bryant’s legal mess in Colorado and the championship-seeking desperation of Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

His assignment is to manage the Bryant fallout, try to instill harmony among four massive egos and win another NBA championship.

If he pulls it off, Red Auerbach finally might have something nice to say about him.

The Zen master’s tranquility is certain to be assailed along the 82-game march, starting perhaps this week at training camp in Hawaii, where the Lakers will line up in support of Bryant and reduce the serious claim before him to a “distraction.”

The Zen master already has stepped on one verbal land mine, suggesting in an interview with ESPN that Bryant’s fight to stay out of prison just might serve to be a team-bonding mechanism.

That is an interesting theory, even by the loopy standards of the Zen master, considering the high number of NBA players who hang out with lawyers out of necessity and rarely end up inspiring their teams.

If being a danger to society was beneficial to a team, Rod Strickland would have been a paragon of NBA citizenship. At the peak of his powers, Strickland was usually up to the challenge of one roadside sobriety test a month. Unfortunately, this remarkable intangible failed to rally the various teammates who played alongside him in Washington.

As always, the Zen master is considered a deep thinker by the limited thinkers entrusted with evaluating the one-game-at-a-time tenets of the playpen. The Zen master is said to take it one book at a time, as one who both reads and writes books.

All his intellectual muscle, overstated or not, will be necessary this season. Dennis Rodman, by comparison, will come to represent the good old days of placating a high-maintenance diva in short pants.

The Lakers have been a circus at times under the stewardship of the Zen master, if only because Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal have had a pathological interest in charting each other’s shot attempts.

That dynamic is expected to be stressed even further by the additions of Malone and Payton, both of whom have a compelling need to shoot the ball.

There are not enough basketballs to go around with the Lakers, assuming David Stern does not tweak the rules in the hope of broadening the NBA’s appeal.

The Zen master, being the part-time shrink that he is, already is on the ball-sharing case, specifically with Bryant, the easiest target who hardly needs another national discussion on his proclivity to throw up 40 shots a game.

Bryant is no longer the golden one looking to assume Michael Jordan’s place at the top of the game. He no longer is in a position to be as petulant as he once was. He is vulnerable and thus possibly more open to instruction.

“I have to be a coach still, and he still has to accept coaching,” the Zen master says. “That’s the only thing that we have butted heads over in the past.”

It is encouraging to know the two have never clashed over the quality of the Zen master’s incense, just over the Zen master’s obligation to run the team and Bryant’s obligation to accept it.

The Zen master also is going to have to push the right buttons with Malone and Payton, both pros but both prone to bouts of irritability.

Malone, the old dog who insists he is willing to learn the new tricks of the triangle offense, is bound to come down with a case of culture shock, and not just because of the crowded freeways of Los Angeles.

Malone may appear to have a body that has been chiseled out of stone, but he has certain sensitivities about him that inevitably led to rifts with Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan.

The three were like old family members who squabble one day and then kiss and make up the next.

No such mindset lurks in the psycho-babble den of the Zen master.

Malone and Payton, as the newcomers, have promised to be on their best behavior this season.

That promise, made in pursuit of a championship, figures to be even more essential amid the twists and turns of the Bryant case.

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