He took the lion's share of the shots, scored nearly half the points and almost stole the game at the end.
About the only thing different between the way the Lakers ended last season and began this one is that most of the people booing Kobe Bryant happened to be sitting in Staples Center.
A healthy chorus of catcalls greeted his introduction Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and it turns out the crowd was only warming up. They howled again the first time Bryant touched the ball and coach Phil Jackson, who should have seen this coming, didn't.
``I turned to one of my coaches,'' Jackson told the Los Angeles Times, ``and said, 'Are those boos?' And one of them said, 'Yeah, those are boos.' I was surprised.''
This could be a messy season in the NBA. There is so much unfinished business left that commissioner David Stern should have been required to write an essay, ``Things I Didn't Do Over the Summer,'' before the league opened its doors. There's the lingering aroma of disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, the borderline competence of some officials he left behind, competitive imbalance, the growing West vs. East divide - and that's just the opening paragraph.
But nowhere is it going to be messier than in Los Angeles.
At least until Kobe splits.
One game doesn't make a season, but this one was close. Bryant was his brilliant, maddening self. And the other team - in this case, Houston - was better. The Rockets, coincidentally, also happen to be one of (insert your own number here) teams rumored to be a possible destination for Bryant.
But like almost all the others, the front office there devoted no more time trying to win the Kobe sweepstakes than it did the Publisher's Clearing House. Instead, it brought in help for their superstar duo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming - a fact that couldn't have escaped Bryant's notice.
Ever since Shaquille O'Neal lit out of L.A. with the three rings he and Kobe won together, the Lakers haven't had a supporting cast even that good. It's hard to say whom that has frustrated more.
There hasn't been enough talent in Los Angeles to swap for any of the sidekicks that have topped Bryant's wish lists the last few seasons: Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal and Jason Kidd. And even if there had been, most of the teams that want Bryant wouldn't be worth playing for once they met the Lakers' demands.
To the growing legion of Kobe-haters, it's a perfect standoff; there's no reward more just than losing for someone who's desperate to win - but only on his terms.
There might be something noble about Bryant's stubbornness, if only he suffered his fate a little more nobly. More typical, though, is what Bryant did this summer, telling one radio interviewer that he wanted to be traded, then going on a second show later the same day and rescinding his request.
Instead of getting mad - or madder, since the soap opera has been going on for some time - Lakers owner Jerry Buss decided to get even. He told an interviewer barely three weeks ago that the Lakers were listening to trade offers for Bryant.
``At any time, I think you have to do that with anybody,'' Buss said. ``It's just part of the game, to listen to somebody who has a dissatisfied player that you think is going to fit. You can't keep too many loyalties. You've got to look at it as a business. (Bryant) looks at it the same way I look at it.''
Question Buss' timing if you want, since optimism runs so high at the start of every season that few teams are willing to blow up their roster. But questioning his motives is another matter. Bryant might be the best player in the league. But if Buss is finally serious about unloading him, then Bryant has probably become its biggest headache as well.
He came into the NBA saying all the right things, deferring to his elders, and cultivating an image that turned out to be more polished than purposeful. He's come back a better player year after year. But somewhere along the way, the selfishness that is in the DNA of every great scorer began defining his behavior away from the court even more.
Based on the scant evidence so far, Jackson's concerns that Bryant would be too distracted by the trade talk to perform at his best turned out to be unfounded. The funny thing, though, is that the more Bryant succeeds, the more he entices general managers around the league to take a shot at prying him away and the less likely the Lakers are to move him.
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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