By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Word on the Shaq & Kobe Long-Running Feud creeps through Cali with you, whether bowling with big-league ballplayers named EDavis, Dunston, Edmonds, Lankford and others at Sports Center Bowl on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, or brunching in Malibu, or skidding along the avenue listening to the bomb beats with low-riders down Crenshaw Boulevard in Inglewood-Always-Up-To-No-Good. Everybody in El Lay -- young, old, blind, crippled, crazy, Robert Downey Jr., all of them running on image, fumes, the whole of Angel City, Floss Angeles -- knows the Lakes are about Shaq & Kobe. And they're talking Splitsville.
Michael Douglas, Steven Soderbergh, Tom Hanks ... they're nice and bankable and all, babes, but they can't open vs. the Portland Trail Blazers, or C. Webb, or on the same weekend as Allen Eyeball. Shaq and Kobe have the marquee value, the Q, but they still have to win it all in the end, because in Hollywood happy endings count, put black on the bottom line. Message? You got a message? Better call Western Union.
What we need here is a hero. And the bigger the second-act obstacles overcome, the better our hero.
The way we're pitching it is this: Our Hero is Kobe Bryant. His role has the biggest upside to it. If it's written right, it does. He can always rewrite it, and he probably will, since he's the leading man. But if he's smart, if he's really smart, if he really gets it, if he understands that only in our pitch is he the hero of this little action-adventure-slash-romance, Kobe not Shaq has the opportunity to be the Biggest Hero Here.
Why? Well, this is going to take thought, so let's all go on retreat, north, maybe, up the coast, along Route 1, into the Monterey Peninsula, yes, perfect, Cannery Row, once the crib of my main man Steinbeck; write in Phil Jackson as narrator, a Nobel-prize winning spinmeister. Phil's a book guy. His people will like this.
OK. Here's the story: Remember "Of Mice and Men," by John Steinbeck? Remember the big goof, Lenny? John Malkovich played him in a recent adaptation. Remember how Lenny was running buddies with George? (Gary Sinise was George in the adaptation.) Remember how George was looking for a way to go, that's all, and Lenny could help, sometimes, because he was strong like bull? Remember how Lenny liked to go off into his dreamland by asking George what it was going to be like when George got that farm he was always talking about, and Lenny could help him there, raise rabbits or what-not? Remember George & Big Lenny?
"Tell me what it's going to be like, George, when we get the farm. Tell me agin, George," Lenny would pitifully beg. And George would tell him everything was going to be all right, even though we all know everything is never going to be all right, that's why we need movies in the first place, to escape that fact.
Well, that's what Kobe has to do with Shaq now, what George did with Lenny. Just placate his big ass. Tell him, "We're gonna live off the fat of the land."
Realize it's all midseason diversion, shoptalk, bull, water-cooler gossip. Look around. How many of your co-workers could you feud with if you wanted to? Plenty of 'em, if you wanted it that way. That's the universality of our hook. The better one of you, the bigger man, the hero, is the one who in the end will consider a feud beneath him. Neither Shaq nor Kobe is going anywhere, not this season -- and this season, right now, is the only season that counts. Next year counts next year. Contracts run out whenever they run out (Shaq's doesn't run out until 2005, by the way). So it's up to Kobe to make the peace. Be the real man.
Tell me how it's going to be, Kobe.
It's gonna be a'ight, Shaq. I'm gonna get the ball down low to you. Even in the fourth quarter. Your free-throw shooting will magically get better. You're the best in the world, Shaq. Everybody watches you and only you all the time, pays attention to everything you say and takes it to heart. You're a diplomat, Shaq. The Big Aristotle, just like you said you were. That hot Superman S you put on everything? Dude, that's original, and will never play itself out. You da man. It's your world. I'm just a squirrel. Trying to get a nut.
Now we all know, in point of fact, it's Kobe who makes the Lakers image-worthy in L.A. It's Kobe's artful play and head-slapping athleticism that makes us all occasionally emerge from our jaded national slumber and go, "Wow!" It's Kobe's flexibility and sweet extension jumper that results in those great action photos that best describe the potential heights of the NBA and make great One-sheets to publicize the Lakers and league. So Shaq's bigger and stronger than everybody, can power over everything much of the time, dunk on people and make every other free throw, when he's hot. Where's the obstacle in that? Arvydas Sabonis?
It is Kobe, not Shaq, who is the future of the NBA, the signal image that the Lakers and league should want to propagate, emulate, procreate. KOBE IS THE NEXT LEVEL OF BALL AFTER MICHAEL JORDAN.
Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson and Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady are in the image of Kobe.
Shaq needs to get a grip. But the hook is, only Kobe -- not Phil, not our narrator, not anybody else -- can tell super-strong, super-naive, super-egotistical Shaq how to handle himself. Kobe can do this only by making Shaq think he's bigger and stronger than everybody, even in the artistic, marketing and historical senses.
Kobe has to make Shaq think he's All That & A Bag of Salt & Vinegar Chips, even though it isn't true.
In fact, in all the ways that really matter, it is Kobe who is already much bigger and stronger than Shaq.
And if Kobe will sublimate, hide this from Shaq, then they'll all live happily ever after. Until next year.
Music rises, fade out, roll credits.
Whaddaya mean, you don't like it? Suppose I told you we've already got Kobe in the package?
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."