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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER

Let Them Show Something Before It's Showtime Again

November 03, 1996|Mark Heisler

Can everyone around here take a deep breath?

OK, you look out at the court and there's this . . . giant . . . with shoulders the width of the lane. The other Lakers, even the high school kid, are running all over, throwing each other lobs to dunk. The crowd's yelling as though the '80s never ended. Everyone, including the Lakers, agrees they're great, deeper than the Showtime teams, etc.

Here's a news flash: They're not anything yet.

Compared to Showtime, the only meaningful stat is, those teams won five titles. This one has won one regular-season game.

Part of being talented is balancing confidence and humility. The Showtime teams had plenty of swagger. Pregame introductions were a pageant of nonchalance, starting with players' rhythmic clapping--we're cool (you're not)--reaching its zenith when Magic Johnson sauntered out, face expressionless, as if this night's business was beneath him.

"He had a tremendous amount of respect for his opponents," Byron Scott says, "but maybe also had the look of, 'I know you guys are good, but we're much better and we're gonna beat the hell out of you. It's just the way it's gonna be and you're gonna take it.'

"I think when we used to get off the bus and we would walk into the arena, nobody smiling, the guys wearing nice clothes and shades, yeah, a lot of teams, it definitely intimidated them."

It wasn't merely a psych job, though. If Showtime teams acted arrogant in victory, they were genuinely miserable in defeat. If this crew works as hard and cares as much, it could be a purple and gold league for a long time.

Now for this year's introductions:

Shaquille O'Neal--You'll hear a lot of things about him: He's great, he has never won anything, he's a hard worker, he cares only about rapping and acting. . . .

In real life, he's one of the serious young guys. If he warmed up to his celebrity role slowly and made his share of mistakes, it was partly because he was thrust into superstardom at 20 and free agency at 24, a bewildering, no-limits kind of world that, on balance, he handled well.

Basketball people have been impressed by his development, except for free-throw shooting, of course. He tries, night in and night out. Vlade Divac was a sweet guy, but as far as effort goes, Laker fans are in for a treat.

Del Harris wants O'Neal to worry less about offense, more about rebounding and shot-blocking, the one trick they overlooked in Orlando. If O'Neal takes to it, everyone else is in trouble.

Happily, he has even grown a personality or stopped hiding it. Let's hope he keeps smiling. Even in La-La Land, it isn't a musical comedy every day.

Elden Campbell--Talk about peaking at the right time. He posted highs of 14 points and 7.6 rebounds and got a $7-million-a-year contract. He'll score less, but if he can get up to nine rebounds, they can book the parade route now.

Cedric Ceballos--A season of good behavior and everyone might stop with the "spring break" jokes. The league's best player off the ball, he was meant to play with someone like O'Neal. He should be happier playing a role than he was when circumstances allowed him to envision himself as The Man.

Let's put it this way, if he isn't happy now, you can't like his chances in the future.

Nick Van Exel--He's a better player than people remember and has tried harder to grow up than people realize. He got a tough break--he probably did bump official Ron Garretson by accident--but he was someone who had to learn things the hard way.

Eddie Jones--As everyone says, he really should get more shots. In the playoffs when teams foul O'Neal, they're going to need someone who can go one on one.

Kobe Bryant--Now comes the hard part, when his playing time gets rationed carefully, according to how few mistakes he makes. With two years of college, he'd have been a superstar lock, a No. 1 pick--and a Clipper?--but this way is harder. On the other hand, the Lakers haven't had a rookie this gifted since Elgin Baylor, or ever.

CLIP JOINT IN HIS REARVIEW MIRROR (CONT.)

Let's give Fred Slaughter the benefit of the doubt for a moment.

Maybe Brian Williams' agent isn't returning the Clippers' calls because his phone is out of order. Maybe he isn't home when those pesky repairmen come by, the ones who say they'll be there between 8 a.m. and midnight, and can't call local reporters back, either.

Maybe it's not true the Seattle SuperSonics offered Williams $35 million for seven years but Fred said no and by the time he called back, they'd already given it to Jim McIlvaine.

Maybe Slaughter and Williams haven't bungled the entire thing, missing out on every team Williams could start for, so that now if he intends to leave, it'll mean coming off the bench and making less than last season's $2.8 million.

It doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter if the Clippers' $4-million-a-year offer topped the market. It only matters they don't have their center. Agents are often difficult. This is basketball and requires that when Clipper players are free to leave, they do.

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