The thing about Kobe Bryant, says the rapper Snoop Dogg, is that he likes to jaw. The two had recently matched up in a pickup game, the rap star/wanna-be baller vs. the baller/wanna-be rap star, in a showdown that says everything about the synergies of Afrocelebrity in the year 2000. "Kobe got game," Snoop said. "I got game myself, so I took it to him a few times. He talks more trash." Sharing airtime with Laker regulars like Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington, the rapper has become part of L.A.'s new nexus of sport and celebrity. When the Lakers defeated Portland to advance to the finals, Snoop led a deep entourage through the locker room, chanting "West side [ballers] for life!" until they were escorted out. "I really love these hip-hop Lakers," he said, referring to young stars like Bryant, 21, and Shaquille O'Neal, 28. "Now with Phil [coach Phil Jackson], it's on like Donkey Kong."
For the last three seasons, the very talented young knights of the Los Angeles Lakers have watched the NBA finals on television, stewing in a funk of recriminations and vexing underachievement. But there is a different chemistry on the team this year. Bryant and O'Neal, open antagonists at times last year, held up their fragile peace; veteran role players like Ron Harper and John Salley, brought in to replace some marquee hotshots of past years, added an air of lunchbucket calm. More than anything, as they vie for their first title in 12 years, the team reflects the angular assurance and will of its modern-day shaman --the hypersuccessful, idiosyncratically authoritarian coach, Phil Jackson. Salley, who played on one of Jackson's six championship Chicago Bulls teams, described the coach's stamp succinctly. "Phil came in here and told this team to grow up and to stop being little boys. Be men and play the game the way it's supposed to be played. It's that simple."
If only. The contemporary big-money athlete is less a shooter or passer than a corporate conglomerate, each pulled by his own retinue, profit centers and agenda, not to mention his own pleasure principles. In the twin entertainment meccas of Hollywood and Compton, where the Laker players' star power makes them true players, the rules of engagement can get particularly complicated. So how do you turn 10 of these players into a championship basketball team? As Jackson tries to guru the Lakers toward his seventh championship ring, players can trace a line of cerebral tough love. He referred to them as "autistic" for their mental lapses; he laughed mockingly at some of O'Neal's sorry free-throw attempts. During timeouts, he often turns his back on players to confer with his coaching staff, sharing his thoughts with the team only just before they go back on the court. He cleared the friends and hangers-on from the workplace. Mostly, though, he got in the players' heads. "This is a team that needed discipline badly, and I knew Phil could bring it," said O'Neal, who threatened to leave after last season if the team didn't sign Jackson, who will earn $30 million in the next five years. For the first time, O'Neal put off making movies or rap records to spend the summer focused on the team. "After a few seasons of not getting where we wanted, we had to step back and see what the deal was."
If there is a familiar element missing from the Lakers this year, it is the bags under their eyes. The favorite sons of a neon party town, the Lakers of recent years often pursued the revelry with an old-fashioned devotion worthy of legends like Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain. Parties, of course, are an institution throughout the NBA, as in other sports. Millionaire players hold their bashes in public venues, booking top entertainers and charging an admission price at the door. But the Laker teams made the others look like amateurs. Sporting colorful suits and big jewelry, after a win or a loss, they strutted with the elite of black Hollywood and hip-hop. One player, since departed, required women to bring sleeping bags to his parties, and locked everyone inside once the guests had arrived. The undisciplined team burned through coaches. An exasperated Jerry West, the team president and former Lakers star, said, "I wish they'd all get married so they'd go home sometimes."
Jackson slowed the train down. "I'm not in their private lives or anything like that," he said after a recent workout. "That's not my place. But I do think a team should carry itself a certain way." The rebellious son of a fundamentalist minister, Jackson brought a slow-burning mix of high expectations and strategic derision. He used the media to question the team's intensity and motivation. And he brought in some veterans to steady the younger players. "Guys like A. C. Green, John Salley and Ron Harper all bring something that wasn't in the locker room before," says forward Rick Fox, who is married to the actress Vanessa Williams. "You also know they're going home [after the game], so you do, too." Another player, who is married, says Jackson also brought a moral discipline to the team. He was driving with a woman he'd dated before his marriage, and asked her to duck down when they got near the gym. "I can't let Phil see with me anybody but my wife," he said.
For O'Neal, who has emerged as the team leader, the new rigor was just what he needed. He refers to the coach as "my white father," an authority figure as formidable as Shaq's stepfather, Phil Harrison, an Army sergeant. "It's definitely not as fun as the first few years here," he admits. But now, he says, "Been there, done that." Shaq and Harper laid down a team mandate during this year's playoffs: No partying until the title is won. After the Lakers crushed Indiana in game one last Tuesday, several of the Pacer players made the scene at Goodbar in West Hollywood, a club partly owned by O'Neal; no Lakers were on hand.
Though known for combining his famed "Triangle Offense" with Zen and Native American rituals in Chicago --Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy called him Big Chief Triangle --he's downplayed the New Agey biz in L.A. "A lot of us were worried that Phil was going to have some real crazy stuff," says Bryant. Jackson had the team play without a ball at the first team meeting, but waited until January before he led the team in meditation for the first time. It was just enough, according to Bryant. "It gets and keeps us in focus. Everyone knows that was our weak point."
Some of Jackson's more heavy-handed attempts to play guru haven't been successful. As in the past, he gave players books to read: Nietzsche's "Ecce Homo" for O'Neal, Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" for Fisher. For Bryant, who grew up in Europe, he chose Paul Beatty's "The White Boy Shuffle," about the identity crisis of a black kid living in a white world. Teammates say Bryant was insulted by the choice. "Haven't read [it] and probably won't" was all Bryant would say.
The maturation of Kobe Bryant (whose playing status in the finals became uncertain after he sprained an ankle in game two) has been Jackson's biggest challenge. Prodigiously gifted, Bryant can also get under his teammates' skin --an occasional ball hog on the court and standoffish in the locker room. He keeps a distance from the team revelry, and recently announced his engagement to an 18-year-old high-school senior, causing a rumble of disapproval among his teammates. At a meeting earlier this year, Jackson was surprised by Bryant's desire to be team captain. "Well," Jackson told him, "you can't be captain if nobody follows you." Kobe's rapprochement with Shaq also remains a work in progress, rising and falling with the number of shots Bryant takes. "We don't hang out per se, but we've learned to make it work out there," says Bryant.
As the Pacer series opened in Los Angeles last week the rap world and the Hollywood glitterati were flossing in force. Actress and Laker die-hard Dyan Cannon lavished homemade baked goods on the parking valets; Jack Nicholson and Snoop both sported the colors. Showtime, as they say in Los Angeles, is back. In a season when television ratings are down 20 percent, the glam riot of the new hip-hop Lakers may be the league's, or at least the network's, last best hope. They can be inspiring or infuriating, gifted or spoiled. But don't you wish you could be there?