Weeks before the Lakers' latest soap opera episode, the fourth member of what had been the team's famed and fatalistic Fab Four sounded off about the quartet's remaining member...

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Weeks before the Lakers’ latest soap opera episode, the fourth member of what had been the team’s famed and fatalistic Fab Four sounded off about the quartet’s remaining member in Los Angeles.

Several thousand miles away from his new home in Boston, Gary Payton could see the events unfolding before they happened and predicted Kobe Bryant would alienate the one person who publicly supported him through his rape trial, basketball tribulations and off-court troubles.

“The way things are going there right now, I’m not sure I could have played with those guys this year,” Payton said at the time. “And it’s not just him. Kobe is a great player, but everything is different, and I didn’t sign there for that.

“I went there to win a championship. Same with Karl (Malone). Now all of that is changed. It’s about him. It’s all about him. And you watch: Karl won’t stand for that.

“You’ll give up a part of who you are, sacrifice your game, if you think you’re winning (a championship),” Payton said. “You ain’t doing that just so someone can do this and that and run the whole damn show. Nah, that ain’t happening.”

Payton, who was traded to the Celtics last summer, made his comments on Nov. 20, long before the agents for Bryant and Malone revealed their clients’ relationship turned sour after Malone allegedly made unwanted advances toward Bryant’s wife last month.

It doesn’t really matter which player is to be believed. What’s important is that Bryant, who likes to purport himself as a team leader and Everyday Man, has failed to cultivate a working relationship with yet another teammate.


Lakers @ Sonics, 7 p.m., FSN

His reputed disputes with Shaquille O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson led to their departures — even though general manager Mitch Kupchak vehemently denies those accusations — and forced the Lakers to dismantle a core group that had won three NBA championships.

The Lakers who play the Sonics (17-4) at 7 p.m. today are nothing like their former selves. They have compiled a 12-8 record while weaving in 10 new players.

They have been wildly inconsistent, an up-tempo team that has been able to feast on inferior opponents but also lost badly on the road to the lowly Chicago Bulls.

All of the old names — Rick Fox, Payton, Malone, O’Neal and Jackson — have been replaced by Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Chris Mihm and coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

These new-look Lakers — much like Bryant, their leader — are a work in progress.

“He certainly knows that his role has changed,” Sonics coach Nate McMillan said. “He is much more aggressive than he has been in the past. … Phil’s system was more of a half-court ball movement, and Rudy wants to get up and down and attack.

“Kobe sets the tone around here,” teammate Lamar Odom says of Bryant.
“He’s out top running pick-and-rolls. He didn’t do a lot of that last year. It’s a different style. You really didn’t see a lot of Shaq and Kobe pick-and-rolls.”

All that is good and bad about the Lakers is wrapped up inside Bryant.

He is second in the NBA with a 26.8 scoring average and tied for first with 91 turnovers.

He has recorded three triple-doubles, but his 39 percent field-goal shooting is the worst of any Lakers starter.

He has led Los Angeles in scoring in 16 games. But when he doesn’t have top scoring honors, the Lakers are 4-0.

So what to make of the 26-year-old, six-time All-Star and three-time world champion?

Is he a basketball diva with incredible hubris who has yet to learn humility even after the sexual-assault case was dropped?

Or is he simply the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan in his prime?

The folks in Los Angeles look at him differently than others do.

He is still the prince of the city and can do no wrong.

Just listen to the Lakers:

• “Kobe sets the tone around here,” Odom said in October.

• “Kobe has been a wonderful person to work with, a great leader,” Tomjanovich said.

• “It’s hard for me to read everybody’s portrayal of Kobe,” Lakers owner Jerry Buss told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s just a different person than everybody seems to think.”

Opinions may vary on Bryant, but the Lakers appear to be in agreement on their leader. They’re committed to return to prominence with their star at the forefront and a trail of discarded future Hall of Famers and unseemly controversies in the rear.


• Sonics G Ronald Murray will likely play tonight after missing 19 games with a left quadriceps strain, McMillan said. The coach may expand his nine-man rotation or keep rookie F Nick Collison on the bench, depending on the situation. Murray averaged 12.4 points, 2.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds last season.

The Sonics have no plans to insert C Vitaly Potapenko, who is recovering from a broken right hand, because the front line has played well.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com