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Parting Shots

Lakers: Season ends on a sour note with dissension between coach and point guard.

May 14, 1997|From Associated Press

The Lakers went down fighting--with themselves.

A spat between Coach Del Harris and guard Nick Van Exel reached a boiling point during the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz.

The Lakers lost the series, 4-1, Monday night, capped by a 98-93 overtime defeat in which Van Exel went shotless in the deciding moments of the game in favor of 18-year-old rookie Kobe Bryant--who put up four airballs.

"This year, the way it ended was just so senseless, it just doesn't make any sense," Van Exel said. "And it's going to be on me, I know that. I've just got to suck it up like I always do, and move on."

Harris claims Van Exel's difficulty in responding to authority makes him hard to coach, but Harris said it's not an insurmountable problem.

Van Exel, however, says he doesn't think he can co-exist with Harris.

Dissension has marked their relationship since Harris took over the Lakers three years ago. They clashed Saturday in Game 4 when Harris benched Van Exel barely two minutes into the game because the guard refused to come to the bench for instructions.

Van Exel, a volatile player since his college days at Cincinnati, kicked a chair. Then he and Harris shouted at each other.

"It's out in the open now, but I deal with this on a daily basis for three years for the good of the team, for the good of the fans," Harris said of his relationship with Van Exel. "I'm willing to continue to do what I can."

Tuesday, the Lakers cleaned out their lockers and packed up for summer vacation. Van Exel didn't speak to reporters on his way out of the Forum.

Shaquille O'Neal, brought in as a $120-million free agent to help the Lakers reach the NBA finals, downplayed the acrimony between Van Exel and Harris.

"I don't think it was a problem. This is a very, very close-knit team," he said. "I'd like to see everybody back next year."

Asked if he thinks Van Exel will be leaving, O'Neal replied, "I doubt it. Nick will be all right."

Lakers executive Jerry West doesn't like to see his team divided. He said the confrontation between Van Exel and Harris "just shouldn't have happened, period."

With speculation mounting about the futures of Harris and Van Exel in Los Angeles, West stuck up for his coach.

"He's done a good job in a season where we probably would have had the second-best record in the league if we hadn't had all our injuries," West said. "To try to point a finger at him is grossly unfair."

West, owner Jerry Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak will hold their annual postseason discussion about the direction of the Lakers in a few weeks, but West said there's no reason to think Harris won't be back.

"It's a little scary to think that the organization would actually want to change coaches as a result of this particular kind of circumstance," Harris said. "What statement are you making then to players in the future that you don't have to pay attention to the coach?"

Van Exel's future seems less certain.

"These things have to be resolved quickly," West said. "You just can't go the summer and have a situation existing in which a player makes complaints about a coach when maybe he should look in the mirror himself."

The Lakers finished with a 56-26 record but failed to get past the conference semifinals for the third consecutive season under Harris.

"This could be an enormous team if we don't screw it up internally," West said.

Injuries also played a major role. O'Neal and Robert Horry sat out two months because of bad knees. Van Exel's left knee kept him out of some games, while nagging injuries affected Elden Campbell and rookie Travis Knight.

O'Neal led the team in playoff scoring, averaging 26.9 points in nine games.

"I'm getting tired of going home early," he said. "I'm not happy, but we can always come back next year."

Harris brought Bryant along slowly, and the rookie responded in key situations. Van Exel wondered why he wasn't taking the final shots Monday, but Harris defended his choice of Bryant.

"I would give that shot to Kobe today, next week, next year. I don't care how old he is. He's our best one-on-one player," the coach said.

Van Exel was angry at the end of last season too. He didn't return with the team from Houston after the Lakers lost in the first round because he was upset with then-teammate Magic Johnson.

Van Exel's temper got the best of him when he pushed an official and was suspended for the final seven games of the 1995-96 regular season.

"He's an emotional guy. That's his strength, that's his weakness," Harris said. "Three or four months from now Nick will feel a little differently. Let's not judge Nick on these events. Neither judge me."

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