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MIKE DOWNEY

At Least Shaq Was Special

November 04, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

A woman who couldn't think of anything else to ask, after Shaquille O'Neal's 35-point, 19-rebound performance Sunday night, asked him, "What do you see as your main role with the team?"

"Cinnamon roll," Shaq said.

The same woman pressed on, asking, "What is your goal for the season?"

"Win," Shaq said. "Anything less would be uncivilized."

Everybody seemed a little punchy after a too-hard Laker victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves and before an all-night flight to New York. Things got so nutty, Coach Del Harris began doing bird calls. First he did a screeching blackbird, then he made way for O'Neal, who announced his presence in the room by emitting the world's loudest belch.

It was that kind of night.

A forgettable game, 2,000 fans short of a sellout, it marked O'Neal's second night as a Laker and, officially, Kobe Bryant's first.

Shaq earned his money.

He looked great, then said later, "My teammates made me look good."

Kobe worked six minutes.

He did little, then said later, "I got a sweat going."

The bottom line was, the Lakers won, for the second time, without looking particularly impressive. That's what the good teams do, win games on their off-nights. Remember, one of the Bulls' 10 losses last season came to the Toronto Raptors.

"We have to learn to get up for every team," O'Neal said.

"First thing we did, we set a formula for ourselves--beat the teams we're supposed to beat. You never want to lose to a team you aren't supposed to."

A crowd of 15,406 normal-looking people plus Cindy Crawford came to see a Laker game, and a Timberwolf game broke out. Trying to prove how cool they were, the Lakers kept attempting to make slick one-on-one moves, only to travel with the basketball. They had 15 turnovers in the first half alone (while Minnesota had three).

Harris thought about screeching something other than a bird call at his players at halftime, but changed his mind, reminding himself how young this season is and his players are.

"Later in the season," Harris said, "I might have a different reaction."

He might not even tolerate much of this kind of play Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks, or the next night in Charlotte when the Lakers run into their old pal, Vlade Divac. Then again, Harris thinks the schedule-maker is so insane, scheduling a trip like this, he tends to be sympathetic to his players.

Harris observed, "We've got to fly clear across the country, lose three hours, lose sleep, get up for a game Tuesday night in New York, then fly straight to North Carolina. We'll probably just practice at the hotel."

And these guys can use all the practice they can get.

Working with strangers, the Lakers are looking for a rhythm. Their starting forwards, Cedric Ceballos and Elden Campbell, were virtually useless in Sunday's game. Ceballos remained on the bench with the game on the line, with Harris asking rhetorically, "Who could we have taken out?"

Funny way to think of the Lakers' leading scorer of 1995-96, but it's a new day and a new ball club.

Bryant barely broke that sweat, taking one shot.

It won't be remembered the way Magic Johnson's debut was, but Kobe's got the right attitude, saying, "I was able to get my first taste of the atmosphere. I'm just glad we came out with the victory."

O'Neal, meantime, sweated all but seven minutes.

He sank several clutch free throws, made fadeaway jumpers, played excellent defense and scooped home a fast-break basket with 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the game, getting teammates so pumped that Nick Van Exel gave Shaq a vigorous scalp massage while Ceballos rolled on the floor, kicking his legs like a synchronized swimmer.

"I love to run," O'Neal said.

Shaq outscored Minnesota starting center Stoyko Vrankovic by a slight margin, 35-0. Stoyko is no Vlade, though, and certainly no Patrick Ewing.

Looking forward to taking his purple jersey on the road, Shaq said of the season's first road trip, "Any time a team plays the Los Angeles Lakers, that team's going to play way above their heads. It's us against the world when we're on the road."

Especially with the Lakers still getting acquainted.

"We're very acquainted," Shaq disagreed. "But the more we play, the better acquainted we're gonna be."

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