- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Once again Kobe Bryant’s real-life circumstances will intrude upon the drama that is always connected to the Los Angeles Lakers’ run for a championship. And as usual, no one knows what to expect.

Bryant, one of the key components in the Lakers’ push for a fourth NBA title in five seasons, once again will make a court-to-court trip on game day.

Bryant, who has helped give the Lakers a 2-1 lead against Minnesota in the Western Conference finals, will begin his day in a courtroom in Eagle, Colo., where he will hear motions in a preliminary hearing concerning the rape charges he faces in connection with a 19-year-old Colorado woman.

In the past, Bryant has turned in unbelievable performances on the same day he has been in court. Most recently, in the Lakers’ clinching win over San Antonio in the conference semifinals, he hit some spectacular shots on his way to 42 points.

Maybe even more amazing were the 31 points and 10 assists he deposited on the Houston Rockets in the clincher of their first-round series. In that matchup, Bryant had to make three round trips between Eagle and the site of the game.

However, Bryant, who admitted after the Houston series that “this is the most tired I have ever been in my life,” might encounter more trouble on this trip than he has in the past.

His hectic schedule today is slated to begin at 9:20a.m. (Eastern time). However, the proceedings could last longer than in the past. And tonight’s game starts at 9p.m. (EDT). The previous games in which Bryant has appeared in on the same day of his court appearances have started later.

Asked if he would be back in time for the tip-off, Bryant replied simply, “I don’t know.”

The Lakers, faced with the opportunity to take a 3-1 lead in the series, didn’t seem flustered by the possibility that Bryant might be late or even miss the game entirely. They have learned to deal with such uncertainty. And yesterday they even sounded more supportive of Bryant’s situation than at other times.

“As best as possible I think, under the circumstances, it’s turned out in our favor. And that’s a hard thing to put in those terms,” coach Phil Jackson said. “We’ve had success, and he’s had success recovering from that.

“I’ve just told them that we can’t rely on that. Kobe has his instructions from me as to what I want him to do to get his mind focused when he can get his mind back on basketball.”

Basketball seemed to be the farthest thing from Bryant’s mind in the first half of the Lakers’ 100-89 victory over the Timberwolves on Tuesday. He was scoreless but rebounded with 22 points in the second half.

And if he was distracted, teammate Gary Payton understands why. Payton has watched in amazement as Bryant has made the trek between courts to deliver his superlative performances and remains absolutely baffled as to how he pulls it off.

“If I was in his situation, I would be thinking that I have the possibility of going to jail for the rest of my life, and I’m going to do something that I love to do and it might be taken away from me,” Payton said. “He’s playing with the pressure that he’s going to a trial and he doesn’t know what might happen. You might go to jail, you might not. And that’s a bad feeling for a guy that’s 25 years old, especially with the life he has had and the celebrity that he is right now. All he can do is keep positive and keep praying that he’s not going to jail.”

Karl Malone said Bryant’s forays, had they begun later in the season, might have become a problem.

“We’ve been doing this all year so we know how to deal with it,” Malone said.

Malone said he has shared more laughs with Bryant in the last two weeks than he has at any point this season. He said he feels he is almost a “big brother” to Bryant and will do all he can to support his teammate.

“It takes people awhile to trust you,” Malone said. “I just told him and Shaq[uille O’Neal] that I’m going to be myself and that I’ll be there if you need me.”

Bryant, according to Malone — the Lakers’ public relations staff won’t allow any nonbasketball questions to be asked of Bryant — has started to open up to him in recent times.

“The conversations we’ve had recently have been unbelievable,” Malone said. “Every now and then I’ll say something to make him laugh because I realize the seriousness of what he’s going through. We’ve been through a lot of adversity all year long, and this has been refreshing.”

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