A chat with Luke Walton about Kobe, old-school basketball and the Olympics

Luke Walton is a Los Angeles Laker. Alas, in 2005, that's akin to finally getting around to seeing a Rocky movie, only to discover it's Rocky V. The Lakers are no longer a team to be feared or revered or hated. After losing 19 of their last 21 games last season, they not only finished out of the playoffs; they finished behind the Los Angeles Clippers, which is like running for office in Southern Arizona and getting fewer votes than Joe Sweeney.

The Lakers have become a team to be ridiculed and/or pitied, and everybody knows why. After losing in the NBA Finals last year, Laker owner Jerry Buss had to choose between keeping the tandem of Coach Phil Jackson, who has won nine NBA championships, and Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant big man of the past two decades, or throwing them aside to placate the childish whims of Kobe Bryant, the adulterous ball-hog who is to winning what George W. Bush is to statesmanship.

In a move even more mysterious than Mira Sorvino winning an Academy Award, Buss sided with Bryant, and the Lakers quickly degenerated into a one-dimensional team with all the appeal of goat-scrotum stew. So, for the past year, as I watched the team I rooted for as a child and a young man turn into a documentary about all that is wrong with basketball today, I couldn't wait to ask Luke Walton the question that's on every true basketball fan's mind. And when I ran into him downstairs in McKale Center a couple of weeks ago, it was the first thing I asked.

"So, Luke, exactly how big an (slang term for rectum) is Kobe Bryant?"

Luke flinched ever so slightly, then quickly regained his composure. Suddenly, his eyes glazed over, like someone who had heard one too many Grateful Dead songs (or one Grateful Dead song, for that matter). He said, "Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player in the NBA and is a delightful teammate."

Yeah, OK. Well, how do you explain the fact that, after Buss got rid of Phil Jackson and Shaq, the Lakers took the Kobe Express right into the toilet?

"Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player in the NBA and is a delightful teammate."

Uh-huh. Crazy weather, huh? Is it hot enough for you?

"Kobe Bryant is the greatest ..."

All right, fine; I'll wait until after you've signed your next contract. I don't know what you're worrying about. It's not like he's going to pass you the ball or anything. He's more likely to pass a lie-detector test than he is a basketball.

Walton is in town for the Luke Walton and Richard Jefferson 2005 Summer Basketball Camp (www.lwrjbballcamp.com), which will run next Monday through Thursday (July 18-21) at McKale Center. It will be the second annual camp for the two, and camp director Jesse Mermuys says it will be the best camp experience in town. Mermuys, it must be noted, could probably sell confidence to Muhammad Ali, but his enthusiasm is definitely infectious. Still, in a town awash in basketball camps, and camps of all kind--I had a kid on my basketball team miss a week of morning workouts last month because she was attending law camp!--can Mermuys really make such a claim?

I attended a couple of sessions last year at Catalina High School and was impressed that the two stars were there almost the entire time. (Jefferson had to leave town during the second week to go practice with the U.S. Olympic team, of which he was a part. That's a pretty good excused absence.) Both Walton and Jefferson spend a lot of time working with kids, with a strong emphasis on fundamentals.

But Luke, I asked, isn't it hard to stress fundamentals to kids when they turn on the TV and see all that crapola that is being passed off as basketball these days?

"What's interesting," Walton explains, "is that while I've always been known as a fundamental player, Richard goes out of his way to let kids know that even though he plays a lot of the game above the rim, he's still a very fundamental ballplayer. He got great coaching when he was young and (at the UA), and he plays a very fundamental game. He just does it 11 feet off the ground while the rest of us do it at nine or 10 feet off the ground."

Last year, Argentina won the Olympic gold medal in basketball. They were led by Manu Ginobili, who last month led the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA championship. A lot of old-school ballers were impressed with the Argentine style of basketball, but one national columnist went so far as to say that it's "racist" to root for anybody other than the United States. Does Walton agree?

"That's ridiculous. I really liked the way Argentina played. They all shoot real well, they move without the ball, they pass and set screens and rebound. They play the game the way it's supposed to be played. I wanted Richard to do well, but I definitely found myself rooting for Argentina."

Now, about Kobe Bryant ...

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