THE WAITING GAME : NURSING A BROKEN WRIST, LAKERS ROOKIE KOBE BRYANT IS IMPRESSING EVERYBODY WITH HIS ABILITY TO PLAY . . .
So just how is Kobe coping?
After asking about Shaq, that's the biggest question at the Lakers' Hawaii headquarters.
How is high school star Kobe Bryant handling his first pro injury, the broken wrist that is keeping him out of his first pro training camp alongside Shaquille O'Neal?
``He's incredible,'' said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.
``He's excellent,'' said Lakers trainer Gary Vitti.
``He's like a caged animal,'' said Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
Proving as versatile as the club anticipated when it traded for the 18-year-old on draft night, Bryant has indeed been all those things in his first week-plus in the real world.
In order, that makes him perpetually positive, extremely dedicated and admittedly hyper.
``I can't play basketball yet, but I'm dealing with it,'' Bryant said. ``It's not like I sit here sad and depressed all the time.
``The hardest thing is watching this right here, knowing I can't get out there and mix it up with these guys.
``This right here'' was a mere pickup game on the eve of camp. His pangs to play are sure to hit a new peak tonight, when Kid Kobe has to sit through an actual game for the first time.
The Lakers open their exhibition schedule against Denver at the University of Hawaii's Special Events Arena this evening at 10, and it's because of a visit to the concrete of Venice Beach that Bryant will be in street clothes on the bench.
It was the first week of September and Bryant, like anyone his age, had a thirst for competition. Unfortunately, rather than head for UCLA - where almost every L.A.-based NBA player goes to stay sharp - Bryant went outside and lost his balance going for a rebound.
Just what he wanted after deciding to bypass college for the pros . . . a broken left wrist.
``It happened,'' Bryant said. ``Things happen. I don't regret it, because I just move on. You have to try to find the positive in everything. So I've tried to work hard on my conditioning and hope the injury doesn't set me too far back.''
Having traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte for Bryant - before knowing if they'd be able to sign O'Neal - the Lakers had reason to be furious.
But, hard as they tried, Kupchak and executive vice president Jerry West couldn't get too upset. Much as Bryant really needed these 10 days in Hawaii - guarding fellow Philadelphia native Eddie Jones, banging with new mentor Byron Scott, sizing up NBA giants like O'Neal and Elden Campbell - he has been too diligent to draw the Lakers' ire.
Despite wearing a splint over his left hand, Bryant can't be seen without a ball in his hand. He dribbles when he runs laps, shoots hundreds of jumpers when teammates are scrimmaging and has been spotted practicing moves in the lobby of the team hotel.
And just about every day, he challenges Magic to a game of one-on-one, only to be told by Johnson ``to just sit down and wait your turn.''
``His attitude for a young guy with this injury is truly incredible,'' Kupchak said. ``I talked to him immediately after he found out he broke (the wrist) and it was like, `No problem at all, I'm going to be fine, don't worry about me, I gotta go, I gotta go do something.'
``It didn't seem to me there was a point where he was down at all, and here it's the same way. He's out there running, shooting and doing drills, and he doesn't seem down at all.
``To be honest, what do you do? When I was 18 years old, all I did was go to school and look to play basketball. I'd drive around looking for a place to play every single day. And now for me to imagine myself being 18 years old and not even have to worry about school . . .''
Said Vitti: ``He's exactly what you want in this case, because you have to hold him back. Sometimes, when players come off an injury or a surgery, you have to push them. Kobe, he wants to play before he's ready to play.
``You see me out there running with him every day. I've always been an active trainer, trying to (train) with the athletes to gain some credibility with them. But he doesn't get tired. He just doesn't get tired. He's making it awfully hard on me. I'm 42.''
It's the team's hope that Bryant, who'll earn $3.5 million over the next three seasons, will be able to make his debut in full-contact drills by the time the Lakers are back in Los Angeles on Monday for their first local practice.
They really don't want to rush things - rest assured no one in the organization has forgotten Bryant's age - but coach Del Harris knows that the more time the prep phenom loses, the longer it'll take him to get acclimated to this level.
``We're still shooting in the dark, until we see him playing against these guys.'' Harris said. ``We were very pleased with his work against wannabes (in the L.A. Summer Pro League), but doing it against wannabes and the real thing is a big difference.
``We're as excited and anxious to see him go against live ammunition as everyone else is. He's the only 18-year-old backcourt player who's ever done this. I have nothing to reference it to.''
No one does. Even Bryant has no predictions on how he'll do as a rookie.
All the youngster knows for sure is that, when he finally starts playing, he's going to feel great.
As opposed to feeling like a caged animal.
``That is how I feel a little bit,'' Bryant said of the present. ``So when I get out there to play, I'll have a lot of emotion to let loose.''
Notes:Elden Campbell was down in the lobby for Wednesday's 10 a.m. bus to practice at 8:45. Only one problem: Campbell forgot his basketball shoes. He had to wait on the side for the first hour of the workout until someone could go back to the hotel and bring him a pair. . . . Is O'Neal nervous about his first game in Lakers colors? ``I always get butterflies,'' said O'Neal, who'll start at center tonight against the Nuggets. ``I'm human.''. . . . Magic Johnson confirmed that he has finalized the repurchase of his minority interest in the Lakers. He's been at camp since Saturday, back in his role of vice president and part-owner.
Photo: (1--color) Kobe Bryant, the 18-year-old rookie wh o already has made an impression on the Lakers with his dedication, is trying to stay sharp despite his wrist injury.
(2) Kobe Bryant