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BILL PLASCHKE

Only the Season Is Over

May 14, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

Summer came early to the Forum on Tuesday, bringing with it the usual blisters. It was quickly apparent that one of them was Nick Van Exel.

As the Lakers cleaned out their lockers after the disappointing second-round playoff loss to the Utah Jazz, club officials cleaned the air of the recent point-guard pollution.

Del Harris wins.

Van Exel loses.

Harris probably returns for at least one more year, unless Jerry West is convinced otherwise by Jerry Buss.

Van Exel probably is traded, unless West is convinced otherwise by Van Exel.

Hey Nick, don't bother.

It would be nice, for once, to be able to walk into an NBA locker room and pick out the boss.

It would nice if his floor leader were not in the corner mimicking him.

West promised Tuesday that he would "try to resolve" the feud between between his coach and guard, because, "we can't go into the summer like this."

Here's hoping he fails.

At least the chain of command was reestablished Tuesday, on an afternoon featuring, appropriately, news conferences in hockey dressing rooms and players carrying equipment in garbage bags.

The only stunner was Van Exel, who after yapping for three days, was finally faced with the inevitable.

He ran out of Del rips.

"I ain't got nothing to say," he said.

He was the only one.

Harris, after biting his tongue for what he said was three years, said, "I can't take responsibility for his past scars. At some point, Nick has to realize that somebody has to coach you."

West, Laker vice genius, piled on.

"We can't have a player complaining about a coach when maybe he should look in the mirror himself," West said, later adding, "To say this is the perfect environment for Nick, I don't know. He'll have to decide that himself. . . . This is not going to be easy to resolve."

Don't try too hard.

Maybe a phone call in mid-June. Maybe goes something like this, "Uh, Nick, Jerry West. You probably still think Del is a total idiot, right? What do you think about living in Houston?"

As Van Exel reminded everyone in what could have been his final Laker game Tuesday against the Jazz, he can be a wondrous celebration of the sport.

But as Van Exel reminded Harris even before an inexcusable postgame tirade against the coach, he can also be poison.

Lost in the shuffle of the most discussed shot in this town since Magic Johnson's baby hook against the Celtics--Kobe Bryant's last-second airball in regulation--was what happened in the final seconds of overtime.

With his team trailing by three and bringing the ball upcourt, Harris shouted for a timeout. And shouted. And shouted.

He was loud enough to be heard in the third row.

But apparently not loud enough to be heard by a player who ran directly in front of him. Guy by the name of Van Exel.

"Somebody on the court should have had the presence of mind to call that timeout," Harris said.

When asked if that somebody should have been Van Exel, he said, "I'm not getting into that."

But you can bet the Lakers will get into it. Officials will spend the next several weeks discussing the last four years with the increasingly unpredictable guard.

They will talk about the fights with referees, fights with Magic, trashing of coaches, inattention in sideline huddles.

They will probably listen to West say what he said Tuesday.

"I'd like to think I know him, but sometimes I don't know him," he said. "Nick has come a long way, but he still has a long way to go."

And this is the player that all of Southern California wanted to take the last shot in regulation Monday night instead of Bryant?

"I would give that shot at the end of the game to Kobe today, tomorrow, next week, and 15 years from now," Harris said. "Kobe is our best one-on-one player. . . . He gets the ball in those situations at the end of all our practices."

A funny thing happened after that shot.

Fans who have complained all year that Bryant does not get the ball were complaining that he was given the ball. They were crying, how could Harris put the game in the hands of a 18-year-old rookie?

Just a guess, but by the middle of May, nobody is a rookie. And few saw Van Exel limping during the final minutes while losing battles with John Stockton.

"And what are the odds that Nick would have gotten a call if he drove on Stockton?" Harris said. "When he took that final shot the other night in Utah, did he get that call?"

This is not a total defense of Harris, who needs to admit some fault in his dealings with Van Exel.

He needs to become more consistent in his substitution patterns and discipline, both of which suffered sometimes during what amounted to his first season with this particular team.

"This was an experimental year for Del," West said. "He needs to find players he wants to use, he needs to know what he wants to focus on."

But Harris is still the coach, and deserves to have one full season with a sound Shaquille O'Neal.

Yet as long as Van Exel is around, the coach will have to watch his back.

It would be nice if Harris had a little help from that self-appointed team leader. But O'Neal is apparently not as comfortable defending his coach in public as he is in private.

He's too young, some say. It is that youth that Van Exel can affect, leading players down dark alleys, turning them against authority, old milk in a new refrigerator.

The Lakers will struggle at point guard. Bryant and Derek Fisher will be tested. It does not matter.

"We have people who kill each other in wars, then find a way to resolve it peacefully," West said. "We have to try to do that here. . . . We can't go into the summer like this."

West should indeed hold peace talks between Del Harris and Nick Van Exel. But he should put as much effort into it as Elden Campbell puts into playing power forward.

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