The NBA spent the offseason staring at its navel.
Not the players as much as the fans who love it and worry how the people in charge will screw it up this time.
They fret about the lingering aroma of disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, the borderline competence of some of the officials he left behind, competitive imbalance, the growing West vs. East divide - and that's just the opening paragraph of commissioner David Stern's ``Things I Didn't Do Over the Summer'' essay.
Fortunately, not everybody is quite so introspective.
Kobe Bryant, for one, is still looking out for himself. The odyssey of basketball's unhappiest superstar is dominating headlines once again as the season kicked off Tuesday night, reminding us, if nothing else, that bad is better than worse news.
There was a healthy chorus of boos when Bryant was introduced at Staples Center, and the end of the game was just as predictable. Bryant was his usual brilliant, hardworking self, taking just over 40 percent of the shots and scoring nearly half the points as the Rockets nicked the Lakers 95-93.
Houston is one of (insert your own number here) teams rumored to be a possible destination for Bryant.
Like almost all the others, management there devoted no more time and resources trying to win the Kobe sweepstakes than it did the Publisher's Clearing House.
The Rockets concentrated instead on finding some help for their superstar duo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, a fact that couldn't have escaped Bryant's notice.
He can still win plenty of games by himself, and almost stole this one at the end, which is exactly what makes the story so compelling.
Ever since Shaquille O'Neal left L.A. with the three rings he and Kobe won together, the Lakers haven't had a supporting cast good enough to put Bryant over the top most nights, and especially once the loaded Western Conference playoffs begin.
There isn't enough talent on the Lakers to entice a swap for any of the sidekicks he has lobbied for. Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal and Jason Kidd topped his wish lists in recent years
Conversely, 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, there's no more just reward than losing for someone who insists winning has to come on his terms, and his terms only.
Even so, there might be something noble about Bryant's stubbornness, if only he suffered his fate a little more charitably. Coach Phil Jackson has just about exhausted his bag of motivational tricks trying to keep Bryant focused on the task at hand, and after a brief outburst this summer - when Bryant said during one radio interview he wanted to be traded, then rescinded his request in another interview later the same day - things looked quiet on the Western front.
But Lakers owner Jerry Buss popped off barely three weeks ago, going public with the Lakers' desire to listen 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 the season that few teams are willing to blow up their roster, but not his motives.
Bryant 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. His performance on the floor has improved year after year, but somewhere along the way, the selfishness that is part of the makeup of every great scorer began to define his behavior away from the court even more.
Watching Bryant take on the Rockets for long stretches almost single-handedly in the opener suggests this is going to be an interesting time in Los Angeles for however much longer it lasts. Based on the scant evidence of one game, Jackson's concerns that Bryant would be too distracted by all 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

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