LOS ANGELES - Allen Iverson feels for Kobe Bryant.
Iverson, the Eastern Conference’s starting point guard in Sunday’s All-Star game, can relate to Bryant in many ways. Both have excelled during their careers despite strained relationships with coaches, and both have endured brushes with the law — though Iverson has never faced anything nearly as serious as Bryant’s pending trial on a sexual assault charge.
“It’s draining,” Iverson said. “You try to be strong, but at the same time, you can only be so strong. When I come out in public (during troubled times), it don’t look like it hurts. But when I’m in the house and you’re talking about the possibilities of going to jail or not being able to play basketball, it hurts.”
Both players also are dealing with questions about their future. Iverson is the subject of trade rumors, while Bryant’s likelihood of leaving the Lakers in the offseason has been widely debated this week.
Iverson said he couldn’t give any advice to Bryant because he has no championship rings, while Bryant has three — but Iverson also knows a good thing when he sees it.
“Kobe Bryant has Shaquille O’Neal,” Iverson said. “He’s got the most dominant player in the league on his team. I don’t know where my career would be if I’d been the one to play with Shaquille O’Neal. Maybe I’d be the one with the three trophies. Maybe four. Maybe more.”
Iverson is aware of the personality conflicts among the Lakers’ stars and coach Phil Jackson. Though he enjoys strong relationships with all his teammates in Philadelphia, he believes such bonds are secondary.
“I would ride it out, if there was a championship at the end,” Iverson said. “It has everything to do with just basketball and winning. ... If I didn’t have a great relationship with somebody on my team, and we win a championship, it doesn’t matter.”
Though Iverson’s future is under speculation, Bryant and the Lakers were the center of attention in the days leading up to the All-Star game — which is just the way they prefer it, Iverson believes.
O’Neal feels the same way. He has been everywhere during the All-Star weekend, appearing at parties and youth events throughout the area. He got a standing ovation when he was introduced in front of the home crowd at Staples Center on Sunday.
“I’m glad I don’t play for a perfect, bland organization,” O’Neal said. “It’s fun here. We’ll be remembered for a lot of things — winning championships, having little arguments, having spats. It’s kind of fun, because every day when I wake up, my children see a picture of me in the paper.”
Said O’Neal with a grin: “It’s called marketing.”
Kobe Bryant showed up late to the game, missing the team photo and arriving a few minutes after the pregame media availability concluded.
“He called after he was supposed to be here saying he was going to be late,” NBA spokesman Tim Andree said.
Bryant, a starter for the Western Conference, entered the locker room at 4:30 p.m. PST — an hour and 20 minutes before tipoff. His locker was conspicuously empty during the media availability as dozens of reporters awaited his arrival.
The late arrival didn’t hurt his game, however: He hit a 3-pointer in the opening minutes.
After the game, Bryant gave the reason for his tardiness: “L.A. traffic.”
As you might expect, Staples Center was crawling with celebrities.
Hip-hop impresarios P. Diddy and Jay-Z sat courtside near Ashton Kutcher, who made the scene without girlfriend Demi Moore. On the other end of the row, Paris Hilton munched cotton candy and chatted with Big Boi and Andre 3000 from OutKast while sitting next to her Backstreet Boy-friend, Nick Carter.
Husband-wife duos were popular — Heather Locklear and Richie Sambora; Denzel and Pauletta Washington; and the Lakers’ Rick Fox and Vanessa Williams, who sat next to actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson.
A stunned Star Jones accepted a diamond engagement ring from boyfriend Al Reynolds during the game. Washington led the cheers as “The View” daytime talk show host covered her face in amazement.
Standing alone at midcourt in a spotlight before the game, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger welcomed everyone to “Cali-fornia.”
Others in the crowd were Serena Williams; “American Idols” Ruben Studdard and Kelly Clarkson; late-night talk show host Craig Kilborn; Penny Marshall; Wanda Sykes; Elliott Gould; Taye Diggs; Usher; Chris Tucker; Dr. Phil McGraw (who was booed); Richard Lewis; Will Smith; Joe Pesci, with a cigar in his mouth; Gladys Knight; Vivica A. Fox; Gabrielle Union; Chris Noth from HBO’s “Sex and the City;” fellow Brits Lennox Lewis and Naomi Campbell; and, naturally, Jack Nicholson.
Cassell the coach
Minnesota guard Sam Cassell got his first All-Star invitation this season, but he hopes to return — if not as a player, then as a coach.
“I’m going to be a head coach in this league someday,” said Cassell, who had four points and seven assists in 13 reserve minutes.
“You’ve got to connect with your guys. I want to be the coach of the next Allen Iverson. That’s the challenge I want. You’re going to have your conflicts, your spats, but it’s all about respect, and I think I could do that.”
Cassell also believes his numerous moves during his career will make him more capable of dealing with the league’s ups and downs. Cassell won a championship in his rookie year with Houston, but he has moved steadily around the league since then.
“You might be used to winning 50 games, and when 50 turns to 27, that can ruin you if you’re not strong,” Cassell said. “I’ve been there.”
'Fro on the floor
Detroit’s Ben Wallace wore his hair to its dizzying full height for his second appearance in the All-Star game. He laughed when asked if he had inspired Denver’s Chris Andersen, who spiked and gelled his hair to the extreme during Saturday’s dunk contest.
“I had to get it out,” Wallace said of his own hair. “It’s for the fans. That’s what they want to see.”
Wallace had four points, seven rebounds and three steals.
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