Bryant hears mix of boos, cheers in his NBA return

Sunday, November 2, 2003

PHOENIX -- Kobe Bryant heard mostly boos, but more than a few cheers, as he made his return to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night, and wound up playing more than he expected.

Bryant made three of four free throws in the final 66 seconds, finishing with 15 points in the Lakers' 103-99 victory over the Phoenix Suns. He scored 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting in 37 minutes.

Bryant's two free throws with 1:06 to go put the Lakers up 99-97. He missed one of two with 10.9 seconds left, and Los Angeles leading 102-99, to give the Suns a chance to tie it.

But Los Angeles held on to win.

With Lakers' fans scattered among the sellout crowd at America West Arena, Bryant had his supporters as he was introduced in the starting lineup before the Lakers' game against the Phoenix Suns.

But he was booed early in the game each time he touched the ball.

Earlier in the day, Bryant said he was expecting the worst but wouldn't let the reception bother him.

"I've been through a lot, much heavier stuff than worrying about what the crowd is going to say. That's not really my concern," Bryant said.

"I'll just come and expect the worst. Everything's pretty much up from that point, if you expect the worst."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson announced after Saturday morning's shootaround that Bryant would start. The All-Star guard was held out of the Lakers' season-opening victory Tuesday night because of weakness in his surgically repaired right knee.

That surgery was in July in Colorado; Bryant is awaiting trial on a charge he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman in his hotel room the night before the operation.

"Kobe has always shown himself to be a self-contained. Self-control has always been one of his biggest things. He's going to be fine," Jackson said. "I hope the fan response to him is going to be as controlled."

Bryant received a standing ovation when he joined his teammates on the bench in the third quarter of Tuesday's home game.

"It's just natural that you hope he gets support from the fans," Jackson said, "because it's obviously a very delicate matter, and it's a personal matter."

The coach expects Bryant to play well despite the knee and his serious off-court problems.

"He's been known for his individual style, his ability to play the game at such a high level," Jackson said.

The feuding between Bryant and teammate Shaquille O'Neal has been brushed aside, at least for now. Bryant said during the week that he had put the disagreements with O'Neal behind him.

O'Neal ended his media boycott Friday and addressed the matter.

"It happens, it's over with, we just have to move on," O'Neal said. "He's boisterous. I'm boisterous. I don't take anything personally."

Bryant lashed out at O'Neal during a telephone interview with ESPN on Monday, calling the center "childlike," "unprofessional," "selfish," "fat" and "jealous."

Jackson said Bryant's minutes on the court would be limited Saturday night.

"I would hope he can play half the game," Jackson said.

Bryant agreed with the coach's assessment.

"I told Phil I don't expect to play 35 minutes," Bryant said. "I don't think my knee would carry me that long, plus we've got back-to-backs."

He wound up playing 37. The Lakers play at home against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.

"To come out here and play the game that I love to play, it's fun," Bryant said. "The game of basketball is just so much fun."

He and O'Neal led the Lakers to three straight NBA titles, a run that ended last year with a second-round playoff loss to eventual champion San Antonio.

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