Vlade Divac got a pretty successful homecoming Wednesday night, playing Shaquille O'Neal to a virtual statistical standstill with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and even a parade to go with it, most of the 16,980 cheering as he exited.
Of course, they were cheering because he exited. How he exited is more like it, returning to the Forum for the first time as a visitor and then helping the Lakers seal an eventual 101-97 victory over his Charlotte Hornets when he fouled out with 6.5 seconds left after charging into Derek Fisher.
Fisher went down and Divac went out, the chances for heroics gone when his move to the basket from the top of the key with the Hornets behind, 99-97, resulted in his sixth foul. So much for the storybook ending.
"Yeah," Fisher said, smiling. "But I don't know Vlade, so I don't really care."
Given that reprieve after seeing the Lakers' 18-point lead with 9:03 left cut to almost nothing, Nick Van Exel supplied the final points with two free throws after being fouled intentionally with 5.1 seconds remaining. It was part of Van Exel's 17 points and 10 assists, which went with the 23 points and 16 rebounds from O'Neal.
"Really strange," Divac said of the ending. "Nobody wished the win more than I did."
Divac appeared much more at ease compared to his impression of a statue Nov. 6 in Charlotte. That reunion was a success for Divac because the Hornets won, but his contribution was four rebounds and no points in 17 minutes.
As if to prove he was feeling more like himself, Divac arrived 15 minutes late. He walked down the hallway, made a theatrical hesitation at the Laker locker room, then kept on going, to the visitor's room.
But it was still the Forum.
"It's like being on the road a long time and coming home," Divac said. "Coming home."
Only fitting, then, that he was welcomed like a returning friend. The ovation during pregame introductions brought a hint of a smile, before his expression turned businesslike.
Yes, this was Divac at the Forum. About a minute in, he blocked Eddie Jones' driving layup. A couple of possessions after that, he dribbled downcourt, tried to go down the lane to finish, put the ball behind his back on the run . . . and slammed into Jerome Kersey. Offensive foul.
But there were far more positives. Divac, who still makes his home in Pacific Palisades, made three of his first four shots and had 11 points in the first half to help keep the Lakers from turning the game into a blowout.
Recovering from an early seven-point deficit, they were up by 10 near the end of the first quarter and by 18 with 2:29 left in the second quarter, settling for a 14-point cushion, 60-46, at halftime.
This came a few hours after the Lakers had learned they will be without Corie Blount for four to six weeks because of torn ligaments in his right thumb, an injury that the reserve forward suffered in practice Dec. 31 but had played through.
Blount, hurt while catching a pass from Kobe Bryant, becomes the third Laker in as many seasons to miss extended time because of torn thumb ligaments, after Cedric Ceballos and Jones. Blount probably will be put on the injured list today.
That opens a roster spot for Ceballos' return, likely for Tuesday's home game against the Vancouver Grizzlies, barring a setback in his rehabilitation from a torn tendon in his right knee. If not for the Blount injury, the Lakers might have been forced to cut someone.
That also gave them 10 players to face the Hornets because Byron Scott was home with flu, making him the third Laker in four games to sit out because of the bug. Charlotte was without Muggsy Bogues for the second game in a row because of a sore left knee.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A Season of Expectations
\o7 The Lakers acquired nine new players this season, including Shaquille O'Neal and his $120-million contract. In turn, with big acquisitions come big expectations. Throughout the season, The Times will monitor O'Neal's numbers along with how the team compares to some of the best Laker teams in history.\f7
GAME 36 OF 82
* Record 26-10
* Standing 1st place
1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS
Year Gm. 36 Overall 1987-88 28-8 62-20 1986-87 28-8 65-17 1984-85 25-11 62-20 1979-80 24-12 60-22 1971-72 33-3 69-13
Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships
THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD
* Wednesday's Game:
Min FG FT Reb Blk Pts 42 10-19 3-7 16 4 23
* 1996-97 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 39.6 .562 .488 13.1 2.9 26.4
* 1995-96 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.1 26.6
* Wednesday's Salary: $130,658.53
* Season Totals: $4,703,707.08
* FACTOID: The 1971-72 Lakers extended their winning streak to 23 in Game 36 of the season with a 129-99 victory over Golden State. "Right now, they are the best team in pro basketball," Warrior Coach Al Attles said.