CHICAGO – Dwight Howard walked over to the opposite corner of the Los Angeles Lakers’ road locker room late Monday night, taking the long route because of a food table and a crush of reporters and cameras starting to clog the middle.
When he got there, over where Metta World Peace and Earl Clark were sitting, Howard raised the score sheet already clutched in his hand. His large right thumb already was planted next to the offending numbers. He didn’t have to say much, nodding to the piece of paper as he held it in front of those two teammates’ eyes.
Uh huh: 2-for-5. Even allowing for Howard’s 4-of-8 foul shooting, it was clear he was unhappy with his shot total. His opportunities to be Superman-with-a-bad-back.
With a smirk and a head shake, Howard trudged back to his corner of the visitors’ dressing room at the United Center, whereupon he huddled and whispered with some media types-slash-Dwight pals over his and the team’s miserable predicament.
That’s how the Lakers’ locker room is these days, a collection of parts laid out on tiny separate parcels of carpeted and walnut- or oak-stalled real estate. Inhabited by famous basketball players, all gathered within 20 or 30 feet of each other, but separated by resumes, agendas, histories, supporters and dueling ideas for what might end this nightly hell they’re enduring.
A Chicago team without its two All-Stars from last season — Derrick Rose and Luol Deng — had just turned a two-point game with six minutes left into a 10-point bulge with two minutes left. And so it goes.
“I don’t know [what changes can be made]. We have to look at some things — we have to change something,” said “the late” Kobe Bryant — late because the room mostly had cleared by the time Bryant emerged from the trainers area to meet the press. He still was in uniform and he slumped on the wooden seat built in his stall.
There are screens between those stalls, cut into the wooden panels to lighten the look and allow the athletes to see each other even when hunkered back on the seats. At that moment, glimpsing Bryant from the side, it looked like a Catholic confessional.
“There are so many pieces. So many things going on,” he said quietly. “It’s a little different.”
The Lakers are 17-24. Their push to an NBA championship, to thwart Miami’s title defense, to win what for Bryant would be his sixth ring, has turned into a scramble just to reach the playoffs. And who wouldn’t want to extend into spring a season as happy as this one?
Bryant was asked if he’d been blindsided by this struggle, so deep into a marvelous career. “Yeah. It hasn’t happened too often,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career. But I’ve been through a lot of systems and players coming and going and coaching staffs coming and going. It’s just part of the process, man. You’ve got to try to stick with it and … self-assess. It’s not about making excuses.”
Fifteen minutes earlier, Pau Gasol was in yet another corner of the room — let’s see, that’d be the southeast quadrant — being asked about his “permanent” demotion from the starting lineup Monday by coach Mike D’Antoni, beleaguered and grasping for answers.
Gasol isn’t happy. He has had a target painted on his back by many Lakers fans and, with his play, he’s put some finishing touches on it too. He knows he might be dealt by the February trade deadline. But he tried for the high road. ”It starts by us being on the same page,” the veteran power forward said. “Having each other’s back, just being supportive of each other. Not making excuses. Not pointing fingers.”
Or, in Howard’s case, thumbs. The reporters dispersed from their huddle around Gasol, not quite satisfied.
Steve Nash had worked the room quickly from the northwest corner. Asked if there was anything left that they haven’t tried as a fix, he said: “No. We’ve just got to get better. We’ll get better. I mean, we’ve got to get better. Go to Memphis [Wednesday] and do it.”
The point guard talked about the hiccups in the offense, the breakdowns defensively, missed shots at wrong times, his level of aggression and who needs the ball where. Then he looked up.
“Anything else? It’ll be more of the same,” Nash said, with a brief smile.
By the way, through much of this, World Peace hunched over a plate of food, wolfing it down while coming up for air for occasional words with Clark (hey, a bright spot!) or an equipment kid toting ice bags.
Nearly a month before the NBA’s big weekend in Houston, there was a distinctly All-Star feel to the visitors’ locker room at United Center Monday. Few things in sports are as exciting before such a game – all that talent brought together on one floor, the best of the best.
Few things break down and clear out as fast afterwards, though, each star back in his private orb. Whatever connections existed between them were transitory, gone in 48 minutes.
The Lakers have strung together a bunch of those locker rooms this season, All-Star postgame in search of a postseason.