EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Just a few hours before the start of the regular season Tuesday, all was not well in Lakerland.
Coach Phil Jackson fined Kobe Bryant an undisclosed amount for his highly critical comments of teammate Shaquille O’Neal, and the team met for 20 minutes to discuss a rift between two superstars that has escalated into a full-blown feud.
“There were no signs or indications that it would snowball the way it has in a matter of 36 hours, so we’ll see what happens from here,” teammate Derek Fisher said.
Bryant will not play in the opener against the Dallas Mavericks in order to rest his surgically repaired knee, which he said he was not sure was strong enough to withstand the rigors of a 48-minute game. He will join his Lakers teammates on the bench Tuesday night. The Lakers expected him to play until hearing otherwise Monday on ESPN.
The other thing hurting Bryant was his feelings, and it appears there’s no easy way for the Lakers to soothe them.
Bryant castigated O’Neal during a telephone interview with ESPN, calling him “childlike,” “unprofessional,” “selfish,” “fat” and “jealous.” He also accused the 7-footer of overstating the severity of his foot injury last season when he reported to training camp overweight.
Bryant’s comments came a day after O’Neal said the Lakers were “my team,” adding that Bryant needed to be more of a team player — an observation based on two exhibition games.
At practice Monday, Jackson ordered the team not to discuss the dust-up with reporters. He fined Bryant for defying that order by talking to ESPN later that day.
“We felt we had an agreement yesterday and he didn’t uphold that,” Jackson said. “I think this is something we’ve asked our players to work out on their own and in private if they have personality conflicts.”
The conflict between O’Neal and Bryant has been simmering throughout their seven seasons together, but their public potshots have never been as personal as the most recent ones.
Adding another layer of tension for the team is the publicity brought by the sexual assault charges against Bryant.
Bryant lashed out publicly after Jackson declined to get in the middle of the fight.
“He said: Do I want to address it, not calm it down, and I went back to him and said it’s not significant enough to comment on,” Jackson said. “But we did have an exchange, and that’s one thing I will verify.”
One member of the Lakers said Tuesday morning’s meeting lasted about 20 minutes, with O’Neal and Bryant addressing the team but not each other. The only other player to speak was Karl Malone, the player said.
“What we tried to do was not to overkill the situation,” Fisher said. “We all know it’s there, we’re aware of it, it’s not necessarily going to go away just today, so we addressed it.”
Among the bombshells Bryant dropped in his comments about O’Neal was a plan to opt out of his contract at the end of this season and become a free agent — something Bryant said he first discussed with O’Neal out of respect.
“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,” Bryant said.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said trading Bryant was not an option being considered.
Players said the rift between O’Neal and Bryant wasn’t surprising — they’ve feuded before. What caught them by surprise was how quickly the feud escalated, coming to a head the day before the season started.
“He (Bryant) definitely seemed extremely frustrated, “Fisher said. “It wasn’t something that he just came up with yesterday. But you have to respect the fact that he had some things to say in return to Shaq. He feels like Shaq insulted him in whatever manner.”
Bryant and O’Neal did not speak with reporters after Tuesday’s shootaround; O’Neal wore an exaggerated grin and made a hasty exit as the media entered the practice gym.
Jackson refused to disclose details of the meeting, including whether Bryant offered an explanation for his comments.
“We haven’t had a really good example here of maturity, and that’s one of the things we’ve had to discuss,” Jackson said.