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Harris Finds Some Support in Utah


SALT LAKE CITY — Given that nothing in life or especially the NBA is fair, here's a big-picture question to rankle the soul of every old-school, down-in-the-trenches hoop maven who ever drew up a zone trap:

Is Laker Coach Del Harris' continued cross-fire with his pouty point guard a vivid signal that this droll and distinguished but hardly state-of-the-art coach may not be the ideal candidate to lead a squad of Generation Van Exels to an NBA championship?

Laker dabblings at the time with the likes of Bob Huggins and Roy Williams aside, Harris was hired three years ago to fix things at the Forum after two troubled seasons of Randy Pfund and a notably unsuccessful 5-11 finishing kick by a team coached by Magic Johnson, who didn't take a particular liking to the new breed of player, either.

And, despite the seemingly random substitution patterns and repeated tension with Van Exel, Harris has organized things adroitly enough to have lifted the Lakers from 33 victories the season before he got there to 48, 53 and this season's 56.

With the Lakers failing to get past the Western Conference semifinals for the third straight season under Harris, with a young and rowdy roster built around Shaquille O'Neal and triggered by Nick Van Exel, if this is a time for Laker reevaluation, two avowed Harris supporters would have none of it before the Jazz eliminated the Lakers with a 98-93 overtime victory in Game 5 Monday night at the Delta Center.

"I don't think one kid is an index to judge this by," said University of Utah Coach Rick Majerus, a close friend of Harris. "Right now, it looks as though he might not be relating to Van Exel.

"But, I don't think 11 other guys on the team feel that way. If they did, I don't think they would've had the year they had. I think Del's done a great job to bring them along, given the factors of injury, youth, inexperience as a team, and the fact that they're playing a helluva team in Utah.

"I think sometimes you have to look at Van Exel, or he's got to look at himself. What has he accomplished for that team?"

Harris has been to the NBA finals once, after the 1980-81 season with the Houston Rockets. And Jazz President Frank Layden, who coached the team from the 1981-82 season into the 1988-89 season, says that any assumption that Harris isn't a title-caliber coach is at best knee-jerk.

"To say that a coach can't take them to the next level . . . who do they want?" Layden said. "We'll dig up Joe Lapchick? I don't see any rings on Van Exel's hand.

"If you asked the players where they wanted to play, they'd all play in New York. If you asked them who they wanted to coach, they'd pick Jesus Christ, but he doesn't want the job."

Layden loudly refutes the premise that the pieces are all there for the Lakers, just waiting for the right coach to come around to put it all together.

"No way," Layden said. "The big guy might be good enough in two years to do it, to take the team himself. But, no, now you've got some parts missing."

Said Majerus: "I think people forget, the Lakers are extraordinarily young. They haven't played together. They're facing a machine.

"They're facing two guys [Karl Malone and John Stockton] who have played together their entire career. I think every player on the Laker team has missed more games this season than those two guys have missed in their whole careers."

Saturday's give-and-take between Van Exel and Harris, Layden said, isn't a sign that Harris can't adapt to today's headstrong players, it is an indication that he has already adapted.

Even after refusing to recognize his coach's request to come over for a talk and then yelling at him on the sideline, Harris put Van Exel back into the game, Layden points out, and he played 42 minutes.

Is that the action of a coach out of his era?

"No, it's quite the contrary," Layden said. "He's moved to the next millennium. This is a life of in-your-face. I'll tell you what, the days of the coach being the total authoritarian are over. These are the kids who yelled at their high school coach, and their college coach and their parents and the cop on the corner."

For Majerus, the situation is simple. The coach is the boss, the player listens, and any questions past that are irrelevant.

"The way I think, the coach calls you over, you come. You know what I'm saying?" Majerus said. "I haven't heard anyone put it that way, but isn't that what happened?

"Is there any other line of work where you can dis your boss and basically you're taking a posture of I'm the man, and not be reprimanded. That's what I don't understand in this whole thing.

"I maintain Del's the best X-and-O coach in the game. And Del is extraordinarily kind and considerate to people. Like anybody, the media push gets on him and he'll get his back up.

"But, he's a better man than I am. I couldn't have handled with much aplomb as he did in that situation. I was there. I sat right behind the bench. And he took the high road.

"How does that make him wrong?"

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