WHEN A PLAYER of exceptional star quality wants to be traded, it's there for everyone to see and hear.
It's there for people to try to interpret body language, to try to figure out comments that seem offered almost in code.
But it's rarely there in level of play, or in how the player in question interacts with his teammates.
Allen Iverson always said he wanted to finish his career with the 76ers, but you always had the unmistakable feeling that what he really wanted was a fresh start with a team far more prepared to compete for a championship.
Kobe Bryant, here
tonight with the Los
Angeles Lakers to face the Sixers, has been more direct. According to stories in the Los Angeles Times, his relationship with the Lakers' front office "is arctic." But Iverson - until he all but forced himself onto the inactive list - and Bryant never stopped putting up numbers. Each, in his own way, continued to try to win as desperately as any player in the NBA.
But what's the effect in a team's inner sanctum? What's the degree of difficulty in playing with a marquee teammate who is, at the least, disgruntled, and, at the most, wants out?
"I think [the Lakers] do a great job of trying to keep it in-house," said Sixers assistant coach Aaron McKie, who played with both Iverson and Bryant. "A lot goes on in the league; a lot stays within. With stuff leaking out, it's kind of difficult for the players.
"When somebody tells you they don't love you anymore, then it's kind of
difficult to go in and work with that
individual. When things aren't going as
expected, you want to make changes and you want to make them overnight. You put the organization and the players in a difficult spot. But the way I'm hearing it [from LA], things are starting to work themselves out."
That's apparently the case. The Lakers have won six of their last eight. After Tuesday's victory in Chicago, Bryant told the Times: "We're playing extremely well. When everybody's contributing and playing well, it makes the game extremely fun."
The Sixers' Andre Iguodala said he could remember only one game when he could sense Iverson's frustration.
"He let us know from the jump that he might have a problem with 'upstairs,' "
Iguodala said. "Other than that, he did a great job of keeping it away from the guys on the team. As far as being on the court, we were all family. He'd play the same way he would if he was happy."
Of Bryant, Lakers coach Phil Jackson recently told the LA Times: "I do know that he's been barbaric on some of his teammates that need that type of activity, and he's been encouraging to guys that need encouragement. There's a lot of things he's doing differently . . . Brutal's good."
The Sixers, in reality, had little choice but to trade Iverson. The Lakers have had far more reason to keep Bryant, in part because Bryant owns the league's only
no-trade clause. He would have to agree to any deal, and no team can realistically offer anything resembling equal value for the player many believe to be the best in the league.
How close did Bryant come to landing with the Bulls earlier this season? Probably not as close as some might suggest. But, asked about Chicago as a preference if he were to be traded, Bryant told the Chicago Sun-Times the Bulls were No. 1 "with a bullet."
Sometimes, the only reasonable thing those around the star can do is go with the flow.
"You just go through day by day, you just do the things you're capable of doing, let things fall where they may," said Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks, who never once said anything negative publicly about Iverson. "Most players don't let a lot of things upset them. I just try to keep things on an even keel, hard as it may have been.
"I had a little taste of it [coaching] in Portland. It wasn't just one guy, it was a couple guys. I just tried to go about my day-to-day coaching as if nothing was
Some of my preseason picks are up in smoke, including the chances of Chicago being the No. 1 playoff seed in the East, Al Thornton being rookie of the year and Rick Adelman being coach of the year. Right now, it looks more like Boston, Kevin Durant and maybe Jerry Sloan. But I've written in Sloan's name more times than I care to remember, and I always seem to get outvoted.
This was Toronto coach Sam Mitchell on former Minnesota teammate Kevin Garnett: "He made me better, because we fought each other in practice. The reason I played 13 years was because of him. He told me, 'If you can't guard me, quit.' It made me better." *