For Phil Jackson, it's time to come in from the playground. Recess is over.
The Los Angeles Lakers coach said Thursday he's going to take a firmer grip on his team after superstars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant took their long-simmering feud public.
Jackson said he faced similar problems with the Chicago Bulls when he guided them to six championships during the 1990s.
"I just have to take the order over; it's my job," he said. "That's my responsibility, to find the collaborative effort to put the best team on the court."
Jackson expressed annoyance with the NBA and the media, as well as the two players involved.
"This is really juvenile stuff, sandbox stuff," he said. "It's silly."
Bryant Wants to Turn His Game Up
Perhaps the NBA's two best players, O'Neal and Bryant have had their ups and downs since joining the Lakers in 1996, but they led the team to its first championship in 12 years last June.
The Lakers survived a rough stretch last season when they lost six of nine games, capped by a 103-81 loss at San Antonio last Feb. 1. But they closed the regular season by going 33-4.
Although the Lakers have struggled at times this season, no major problems were evident until comments Bryant made two months ago for an article in ESPN The Magazine were made public Tuesday. (ESPN The Magazine, like ABCNEWS.com, is owned by the Walt Disney Co.)
Bryant was quoted as recounting a conversation with Jackson in which the coach privately asked him to continue making O'Neal the focal point of the offense.
"Turn my game down? I need to turn it up. I've improved. How are you going to bottle me up?" Bryant told the magazine.
Bryant even talked about perhaps playing elsewhere, although he said this week he was "going to be a Laker for life."
Jackson said he remembered telling Bryant in November: "If you're not going to be happy here as a player, then I would want to move you on, if you can't be happy coexisting with Shaq."
‘I Don’t Have to Coexist With Anybody’
O'Neal responded by pointing to the success of last season, when the Lakers won an NBA-high 67 games en route to the championship.
"Now, we're 23-11," he said. "So you figure it out. I'm a proven commodity. I don't have to coexist with anybody. When everything went through me, the outcome was good."
The Los Angeles Times reported today that O'Neal told Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak after a Dec. 28 game at Phoenix that he wanted to be traded.
Kupchak told the Times he did not take the demand seriously. It was made after the Lakers defeated the Suns 115-78.
He said he believed O'Neal was merely venting his season-long frustration with the offense in general and Bryant in particular. O'Neal, who signed a three-year, $88.4-million extension in October, has not followed up, Kupchak said.
"You have to take the conversation for what the moment was," Kupchak said. "Never for a second did I consider it. This is something that will be worked out. There haven't been and there will be no discussions about trading anyone. Period."
Both Players Have Made Mistakes
O'Neal won the NBA scoring championship, came within one vote of becoming the league's first unanimous MVP ever, and was the MVP of the NBA Finals.
Bryant, the current NBA scoring leader who has taken 171 shots more than O'Neal, said Wednesday his teammate was living in the past.
"It's a different ballclub, it's a different year, we have new players and things change, things evolve," Bryant said. "I improve as a basketball player every day, and I want to show that improvement.
"All we ask from Shaq is to be the dominant presence that he is and play solid defense. That's it. Scoring shouldn't affect his defense. We've been losing games on the defensive end. Offensively, there's nothing wrong with us."
While both are obviously very good, neither has been perfect. Some of the defensive problems have been in transition, after Bryant has taken ill-advised shots. And O'Neal's horrendous foul shooting has hurt at times.
Jackson: Situation Has Affected Team
Jackson said the situation isn't serious, but it could be in the future.
"To blow it up out of proportion over an article that was written two months ago doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "It keeps burning."
Asked if the team's mood has been affected, Jackson said, "Of course. It becomes an irritant."
Jackson said he doesn't blame the media because the NBA mandates too much accessibility to players.
"That daily access sets this up," he said.
He added that he hasn't heard O'Neal say that Bryant is selfish, as O'Neal essentially told reporters.
"He's not vocal with us," the coach said. "That's where it counts. If he wants to say that to you guys, I'll let it ride. I gave him ample opportunity to say that today, and he didn't.
"Shaq is angry; you can see that in his demeanor and hear it in his voice. He's got to find a way to work through that. Anybody who's angry can't perform. Shaq has retreated a lot into himself. Kobe is a joyful personality having a lot of fun on the court."
The Lakers won eight of nine games before being blasted by the Clippers 118-95 last Sunday night. They return to action today against Cleveland before traveling to face Utah on Saturday.
"We don't have to be the best of buddies off the court," Jackson said. "We're pretty comfortable with who we are. We are a team that has to play a certain way. If we do, we're champions. If we don't, we're a good team."