The season hasn't even started yet and the Kobe Bryant drama has already begun.
By JOE McDONNELLFS West
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — What would a Laker season be without a little Kobe Bryant drama at some point?
This year it came a bit earlier than the team or its fans expected.
Content with his newly rebuilt team of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison, Bryant seemed very happy throughout the preseason, averaging 20.4 points, 4.8 rebound and 3.4 assists in just 28 minutes per game. While the rest of the team was struggling to learn the Princeton offense, Kobe didn't look at all like it was the third different system he was being asked to play in three seasons.
Then came the right foot injury he suffered when he tripped over Sacramento's Thomas Robinson, causing Bryant to go silent and sending the Lakers' world spinning right off its axis.
Bryant hasn't played, practiced or talked to the media since the injury, and Kobe Watch 2012 is now in full effect, with the regular season opener taking place at Staples Center Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs will definitely be without their superstar, Dirk Nowitzki, following knee surgery that's expected to cost him a month of games. But Bryantis listed as day to day.
"I see Kobe playing," forward Metta World Peace said. "Every time he's been hurt he always played. He's known for that. The players know him for that, the fans know him for that, so I can see him definitely playing.
"If he plays, it's not going to be a surprise."
The real surprise if Bryant doesn't play will be newcomer Jodie Meeks replacing him in the starting lineup.
Howard — who overcame serious back problems and subsequent surgery to be ready for Tuesday's opener, agrees with his teammate.
"He'll be alright," Howard said confidently following Monday's final preseason practice. "He's getting stronger every day, trying to make it back to play (in the opener). The popcorn and the bright lights come out. We're all ready to go, hopefully including Kobe."
Lakers coach Mike Brown wasn't quite as positive as MWP and Howard, saying that the final decision will be made by the medical staff.
"He's still day to day," Brown said. "We'll see how he is, find out what he can do.
"It's a medical issue. And if they say he can't play for medical reasons, then he won't play."
Even if the notoriously tough — and stubborn — Bryant decides he wants to give it a try?
"If the doctors don't release him, he can't play," Brown said. "I don't know of anybody in any professional sport that would play if the doctors don't release (him). So, that has to happen, and he obviously has to feel like he can go (and play). And I have to feel that way, too."
Bryant has never had an injury he'd didn't want to play through. That's the positive side of things. The negative? If he doesn't play; can't play or isn't allowed to play. Then the drama will only get ramped up 200-fold on the NBA's most talked-about franchise.
After he was done addressing Kobe's situation, Howard said he doesn't really have any immediate expectations for his performance early on in the season.
"I just want to get out on the court and play," the three-time Defensive Player of the Year said. "I want to get accustomed to playing (regular-season) games again, and I'm sure the other teams will do their best to go at me when I'm on the floor, and it's something I have to get accustomed to."
When Howard is out of the game for whatever reason, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill will take over at center in the majority of situations. But a young seven-footer named Robert Sacre will also get some minutes in the middle, proving that even when things look bleak, you can still get a chance to live your dream.
Sacre had hoped to hear his name called in the early part of the second round during last June's 2012 NBA Draft. But when there were only ten picks left and his name hadn't been called, he started preparing to modify his dream.
"China was looking pretty good to me right about then," said Sacre, who played collegiately at Gonzaga, with the hearty laugh of a man who received a last-second reprieve.
Which he did.
"I was so happy when I heard my name called ... definitely excited," said the native of Baton Rouge, La. "The fact that it was the Lakers, the greatest franchise in the NBA, made me so thankful and showed that things can work out if you believe and work as hard as you can."
Sacre was nearly breathless as he talked to Los Angeles reporters on a conference call when the draft ended. The final pick in the draft, No. 60, said that he was coming to the Lakers to do whatever he had to in order to make the team. Many times it's bravado from a young man who may not know what to say under the circumstances, but in Sacre's case it was prophecy ... with a little luck thrown in.
When training camp got underway, Howard was still getting back into shape, and after some outstanding work during practice, Brown decided to let Sacre start six of the eight exhibition games. Although the Lakers were winless (0-8), the 23-year old responded with 6.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and one blocked shot in 24.6 minutes per game, to earn a spot on the team roster. He knows he won't play anywhere near the minutes per game he did in the preseason, he' thrilled to have a job locked up.
"Especially with the Lakers," he said after practice Tuesday. "I mean, this is my job ... playing basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers and playing with guys like Kobe, Dwight, Steve, everybody on this team. We've got a great group of guys here and the coaches have been great to learn from. The other players, too.
"Whenever I've had questions, I go right to one of the guys and ask for help. Don't want to be out of sight, out of mind. And there are a lot of Hall of Famers on this team and it would be short-changing myself not to learn from them.
"It's all for real (Tuesday) night. And I'll do whatever I can to help this team win. Anything."
Wonder if he knows anything about healing a certain shooting guard's sprained foot. ...