AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGift Box shows no rust in San Antonio Stakes win at Santa Anita LeBron James and Kobe Bryant on the same team in 2008? Relax, Lakers fans. It’s not what you think. James and Bryant might be teammates in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. At least that’s what James was hinting at when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers kicked off a six-game trip Thursday night at Staples Center. “It’s looking pretty positive right now,” James said. This comes as welcome news to USA Basketball, which has been holding its breath about a James commitment after his disastrous experience at the 2004 Games in Athens. If you remember, USA slumped to a bronze medal, and James chafed at the diss job Larry Brown did on him by playing him just 12 minutes a game. James took his anger out on Brown by dropping 40 points on Brown’s Pistons the next time he played against him, but until recently he only showed lukewarm interest in potentially putting himself through a similar experience in Beijing. He’s expected to meet with Team USA director Jerry Colangelo this weekend in Phoenix, and if all goes well, an announcement about his official commitment could come soon. If so, he and Bryant will play on the same team for the first time, a tantalizing thought for basketball fans curious about how effective a James-Bryant tandem can be. James sounded confident he and Bryant could share the spotlight, not to mention the ball. “I can play with anybody,” James said. “You know me, I don’t mind playing with anybody in this league or in this world. And if you ask him if he thinks he could play with me, he’ll say the same exact thing.” James’ traveling circus hit Los Angeles pretty hard this week, and judging by the crowd of reporters at his locker inside Staples Center, he’s quickly developing into one of the league’s most interesting subjects. Aside from dropping the hint about the Olympics, he didn’t necessarily say anything noteworthy, but the fact he was actually talking 90 minutes before taking the floor against the Lakers was news in itself. The NBA opens locker-room doors to media members for 45 minutes before each game, giving reporters a chance to fill out their daily notebooks. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, it’s become a ritual in absurdity, as media members mostly chat among themselves as players conveniently retreat to the inner sanctuary of the players-only lounges. Either that, or they just decline any interview requests until after the game. So it was refreshing – and surprising – to see one of the biggest stars of all sharing his thoughts with reporters before Thursday’s game. James seems to have embraced his responsibility as the league’s next great superstar with a grace and willingness not seen since Michael Jordan left the game. A steady stream of would-be MJs have been paraded up to the stage over the years, but something always seemed to sabotage the passing of the torch. Injuries derailed Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill. Vince Carter’s overall game never resonated and Tracy McGrady hasn’t found the right team or situation to properly present his talents. Bryant was as close to as Jordan as anyone, at least on the court. But off-court issues and the war of wills he waged with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal did major damage to his image. Along comes James, who’s got the game and The personality to make it work. “I’m just being myself,” James said. “I’m just waking up every morning not taking any of this for granted and just appreciating the fact I get to play basketball every single day.” Of course, he still has a ways to go on the court, as he learned on Thursday when Bryant torched him for three straight jumpers over the final 90 seconds to give the Lakers a 99-98 win. James had a chance to win the game with a last-second shot, but he came up short by inches with Bryant draped all over him. James has yet to hit a game-winning shot in the NBA, one of the few individual feats he’s yet to accomplish in his young pro career. “I dream of those moments, being down one with the ball in my hands. But in the dream in works out differently,” James said afterward. “But I’m going to get more opportunities like that and hopefully make the most out of them.” Judging by the fun Bryant and James had playing against each other on Thursday, it would be fascinating to see them as Olympic teammates. “When you have those two on the floor, just their charisma alone creates an energy that can’t be matched,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. Big words:It was only a six-word sentence, but considering the source, it was one of the greatest compliments ever paid to New York point guard Stephon Marbury. “He’s playing like a point guard,” Knicks coach Larry Brown said this week. Brown, a noted purist when it comes to his point guards, has tried all year to get the notoriously free-shooting Marbury to curtail his game in favor of a more team-friendly approach. Marbury is finally making the adjustments over the last two weeks. As a result, the Knicks won four straight games, with Marbury leading the way with his passing, defense and – yes – scoring. “We have a lot of guys that are playing at a very high level, and it really starts with Stephon,” Brown told The New York Times. “He’s been great.” It’s a remarkable turnaround, considering Brown was criticizing Marbury just three weeks ago and Marbury was practically begging to move to shooting guard earlier this season. “I’m learning about him,” Brown said. “I’d rather raise the bar for my players than lower it. I’m learning what he can do. And I think the sky is the limit for him, because he does want to do what’s right.” Circus atmosphere: James wasn’t the only one-man show to hit L.A. on Thursday. Embattled Indiana star Ron Artest watched the Kobe-LeBron battle while sitting one row off the court at Staples. Aside from a short interview he granted TNT’s Cheryl Miller, he declined all other media requests, but he didn’t mind interacting with Lakers fans expressing their desire for an Artest trade to the Lakers. Artest seemed open to the idea, continually giving fans the thumbs-up sign. Bryant seems to be cool with the idea, too. “I love Ron,” Bryant said. “I’ve known Ron for a long, long time. Me and (Lamar Odom) both have known him a long time. So, would it be fun to play with him? Absolutely.” The T.O. effect: NBA teams are taking a page out of the Philadelphia Eagles’ playbook this year by suspending players who become a distraction. Ruben Patterson was the first to get the T.O treatment earlier this year when the Portland Trail Blazers sent him home from an East coast trip after he berated coach Nate McMillan during a game. Patterson is back with the Blazers, but not after a lengthy stint on the inactive list. Artest still hasn’t played after he challenged the Indiana Pacers to trade him last month, serving out his final days as a Pacer on the inactive list. Now comes Orlando’s Steve Francis, whose refusal to re-enter a blowout loss against Seattle on Wednesday resulted in an indefinite suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. Francis’ refusal to enter the game was the last straw for the frustrated Magic, which is tired of Francis’ crybaby act. He hasn’t played hard in weeks, and has complained openly about the team’s offense. Orlando assistant general manager Otis Smith and Magic coach Brian Hill have sat Francis down on numerous occasions this year, trying to get him to play harder, if not better, but they haven’t cracked through yet. About all Smith can get out of Francis is that he’s “thinking too much (out on the floor).” Vincent Bonsignore covers the NBA for the Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] RAIL STUFF CHANGE FOR THE GOOD Desperate to get his team back on the right track, Washington coach Eddie Jordan benched long-time starters Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison in favor of Calvin Booth and Michael Ruffin this week. The Wizards responded with a 103-72 win over the Hawks, with Jamison and Haywood combining for 23 points off the bench. In all, Washington got 59 points off its bench, including a season-high 15 from rookie Donell Taylor. “The rook did (well),” former Grant High of Van Nuys star and Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said of Taylor, a first-year player out of Alabama-Birmingham. “He came out and was confident. His shot was good; he got to the lane and did what he does in practice. (Jordan) let him play through mistakes early (in the season) and his confidence is high now.” K.G. KEEPS ROLLING Kevin Garnett recorded his 500th career double-double on Wednesday with 28 points and 14 rebounds in a 99-93 win over Chicago. Garnett, who’s trying to get Minnesota back to the playoffs, trails only Shaquille O’Neal (640) in double-doubles among active players. EASY ANSWER Philadelphia star Allen Iverson almost seemed surprised by the question. “How many of my (four scoring titles would I trade for the championship rings) Kobe Bryant has?” Iverson said, just to make sure he heard correctly. “Man,” he continued. “Every single one of them. Winning a championship is all I care about. That’s all I play for.” It’s an interesting turn for Iverson, who said he cherished his first scoring title. “I cried,” he said. ACTION JACKSON Cleveland second-year forward Luke Jackson might have earned himself more playing time by coming off the bench to make three big 3-pointers against the Lakers on Thursday. The mop-topped former Oregon star has been buried on the bench most of the season, falling out of favor with coaches after continually turning the ball over during his brief playing time. “He’d have quick turnovers, not just one … and it just didn’t seem like he was comfortable in the offense,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. But even Brown was impressed with the former first-round pick’s showing Thursday. “He’s got to be rewarded (with more time)” Jones said. “And that’s (my) job to make sure.” FIVE QUESTIONS WITH DAMON JONES Cleveland guard Damon Jones is playing in his first season with the Cavaliers after playing last season in Miami. He’s not only one of the league’s top long-range shooters, he’s also one of its most entertaining personalities. He sat down when the Cavaliers visited Los Angeles this week and answered five pertinent questions. Q: You seem to be a pretty funny guy. Any chance we can see you performing at a Comedy Store? A: Man, I just like to have fun. I wouldn’t do it for a job because that’s too hard. Too much hard work. Q: What about acting? A: I’ve definitely thought about that, being an actor. Maybe after all the air goes out of basketball for me, I’ll look into that. Q: Stage, TV? A: Maybe grace the big screen. Cruise over to Paramount or Disney. Q: Any roles you’d like to play? A: I can play a couple of different roles. I can be serious. I can be funny. I can throw in a little drama if you want it. Q: If there’s one actor in what role, what would it be? A: Jamie Foxx is my favorite and he’s done a great job in some very serious roles. The Ray Charles movie was a great performance. Not knowing Ray Charles myself, I felt I knew who Ray Charles was after that movie was over. -Vincent Bonsignore 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!