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Collision of stars rocks LA

LOS ANGELES -- One day after blistering his teammate and, apparently, former good buddy, Kobe Bryant couldn't even let his play speak for him. His right knee -- weak, stiff, sore, you choose -- rendered him unable to play last night in the Los Angeles Lakers' season-opening 109-93 defeat of the Dallas Mavericks. Thus, the sight of Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, the two bickering supernovae putting their gripes aside and aspiring to play team basketball for one night, will have to wait. Maybe this weekend. Bryant was fined an undisclosed amount yesterday by the Lakers for his remarks about O'Neal to ESPN's Jim Gray Monday night. He wasn't fined because of what he said. He was fined because he was told, as was O'Neal, to stop the public bickering and get on with the season. In other words, he violated a team-imposed gag order and did so knowingly -- mindful, we have to think, of the circumstances.

Was coach Phil Jackson surprised that Bryant went off? "No," the Lakers coach/encounter-session expert said prior to the game.

Did he think the feud had been resolved? "No."

O'Neal didn't address the media before the game, playfully telling reporters that he wouldn't talk to them ever again. He threw in a few choice epithets for emphasis. Seasoned Lakers scribes have seen it before. Jackson described O'Neal's pregame mood as "somber."

Perhaps the public sniping has indeed come to a stop, although both Bryant and O'Neal could easily afford whatever the Lakers decide to mete out in fines. Still to be worked out is any potential long-term effects between the Lakers' two top players as a season of great promise begins under a cumulonimbus cloud of uncertainty.

O'Neal is the unquestioned triggerman here in the not-so-elevated public debate. He had been sniping at Kobe throughout training camp, emphasizing Bryant's absence and lack of conditioning. Last Sunday, O'Neal took it to another step, basically daring Bryant to opt out of his contract at the end of the season and leave. Shaq said Bryant wasn't playing team ball, needed to modify his game because of his lack of conditioning, and reminded everyone that the Lakers were his team and that Karl Malone and Gary Payton came aboard because of one player -- and that player was not Kobe Bryant.

Bryant deflected the criticism Sunday but let loose a fusillade Monday. He said O'Neal was a poor team leader, that O'Neal was always out of shape, that he (Bryant) would probably bolt the Lakers if O'Neal continued to act with "childlike selfishness and jealousy." Oh, and Bryant also said Shaq's toe injury last season wasn't as serious as O'Neal said it was.

Just what you want on the eve of the opener, right (Dr.) Phil?

"I believe we've had the manifestations of conflict, of conflict resolution," Jackson said. "We've been close. We've had our arguments. I don't see this as insurmountable at all."

Jackson said that virtually every team with which he has been associated has had player feuds, but he conceded he was disappointed (his word) to see Bryant go public after the Lakers had asked them both to zip it. He navigated the 2000-01 Lakers through some choppy waters -- Shaq that season suggested the Lakers trade Bryant to Orlando for Tracy McGrady -- and turned them into a playoff beast by April. He looks at his calendar and sees it's not even Halloween. There's time. Lots of time.

"We have to stop and analyze a lot of things going on -- really take the whole gestalt and not just here, not just this situation. There's a lot involved in this picture and we have to resolve this and let time heal this as we go through the season."

(That may be the first and last time you will ever see the word "gestalt" in a basketball story.)

The Mavericks were sort of unwilling participants in the conflict as they arrived here. Don Nelson gave his take on the brouhaha, saying that two players who hated each other could still play and play well together. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was asked for his take and compared the Lakers, without mentioning names or titles, to any major business or corporation.

"If my president and CEO are publicly fighting, then my board of directors didn't do the job," Cuban said. "When your most visible figures are venting, then there's Enron-like activity behind the scenes which people ignored. It's the organization who's at fault."

Was this a shot at owner Jerry Buss? GM Mitch Kupchak? Jackson?

"If we had two players on the Mavericks go off like that, I'd be mad at myself," Cuban said. "If leaders aren't leading, you see what happens."

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