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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Key to Lakers' Rebuilding Effort? It's Classified

May 01, 1994|MARK HEISLER


Wanted: Big-time coach to revive dynasty. Must baby-sit young players and weather a bad season or two while we sign some superstars. Total salary exceeds $20 million for the right man. Contact Dr. J. Buss, Forum, Inglewood, Calif.

Ask Jerry Buss if it isn't hard to find good help.

He reportedly offered the job that Magic Johnson gave back, plus a $21-million, five-year contract, to Kentucky's Rick Pitino. Pitino reportedly turned it down.

Then they went back to their offices to play charades.

The Lakers refused comment, suggesting it was media hype.

Pitino insisted he hadn't been offered anything. Then he asked: If he had been offered the money in the headlines, wouldn't he have had to check it out?

Of course, the Lakers aren't keen on acknowledging that people are turning them down.

For his part, Pitino is sensitive about going down as the new Larry Brown, even though he has moved around and does like being courted.

When Pitino recruited Roderick Rhodes two years ago, he promised he would stay at Kentucky until Rhodes left.

What is he supposed to tell the kid now: "I thought about stiffing you but decided not to?"

However, Buss gushed about Pitino all last winter. Then Pitino showed up in town for a "speaking engagement," just as reports circulated that he had been offered the job. This is a lot of coincidence for a lifetime, much less a weekend.

Unlike my colleague, Mike Downey, I think Pitino would have been great. Of course, Pitino has an ego as big as all outdoors, but I prefer that to a humbler man with more to be humble about.

Pitino has turned around every stumbling program he has taken over--Boston University, Providence, the New York Knicks, Kentucky. He'll make a fine NBA coach one day, but probably didn't intend to leave this year or to start at the bottom with a team like the Lakers, even if Buss' offer must have taken his breath away.

Buss might have trouble accepting a hard reality--that the Lakers as he knew them are finished--but he remains a great owner for one reason: When he says he wants the best, he means it and will pay for it.

While the guy across town cuts his offer to his newest franchise player, after having alienated his old franchise player the same way, Buss offers Pitino more than twice the salary of the game's highest-paid coach, Pat Riley.

With Johnson and Pitino out of the picture, Buss' wish list has run out, making that old Jerry West favorite, Roy Williams of Kansas, a prime contender.

Williams turned West down two years ago but is said to be intrigued by the NBA.

"I know he's interested in pro ball," a friend of Williams says. "He started two years ago to prepare himself for it."

Williams was in Phoenix when the NBA was holding a draft camp last week but said it was a coincidence, that he was vacationing with his son or something like that.

Coincidence is very big this time of year.


No one has ever seen young players like today's, stars of the boffo NCAA tournament, entering a prosperous NBA, full of sneaker money and themselves.

It makes you shudder to think what the next century will offer.

How about: no uniform pants and shirts down to their ankles?

On the other hand, it wasn't right for Johnson to equate the '94 Lakers he joined as coach with the '79-80 Lakers he joined as a player.

The '94 guys don't have the attitude the '79-80 guys had? Guess what? There are a few other things these kids are missing.

The '79-80 Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon. The '94 team had Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell and Nick Van Exel.

Attitude is wonderful, but I'll go with the 7-2 guy who takes the occasional siesta but can drop a sky hook at crunch time.

Johnson blasted his young players several times. Once, OK. They pulled a no-show in Phoenix and he was just telling it like it was. Twice? OK. He was explaining one of his frustrations on the job.

After that, it was too much. The Laker youngsters aren't any worse than anyone else's. Management in basketball and other major league sports has always involved the art of handling head cases.

Divac has improved from the days when Johnson, the player, snarled, "C'mere!" at him on the floor, although Vlade does not yet have the fire of, say, Alonzo Mourning.

Doug Christie is a 45-r.p.m. record playing at 78, but a talent they'd better think twice about before trading.

Anthony Peeler is a mystery.

Van Exel is a prospect, if a stubborn one. George Lynch is a plus, even if he gives new dimension to the term small forward.

Campbell is a write-off. He actually is making progress, but at his pace, he won't be a good NBA starter until he's 40.

This club was never two years away, or two players away. It doesn't need to be revamped, overhauled or shaken up, it needs to be rebuilt.

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