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O'Neal Doesn't See Any Problems Here

Lakers: Center expects Van Exel to return to 'very close-knit' team.

May 14, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Minutes before Del Harris suggested that the quickest way for a coach to defuse a one-player insurrection is to receive a superstar's public support, Shaquille O'Neal played it calm and cool--and straight down the middle.

Nick Van Exel had no further comment Tuesday, a day after saying that he could no longer coexist with Del Harris.

Harris talked and talked and talked about Van Exel on Tuesday, at one point referring to the strong backing Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and other elite veterans have shown their coaches in moments of controversy, while acknowledging that O'Neal, who completed only his fifth NBA season, might not yet feel comfortable in that role.

A day after Utah eliminated the Lakers, 4-1, and after the Lakers' season-ending team meeting at the Forum, O'Neal said there was no reason to inject himself as a peacemaker because there really was no crisis.

"I was in there, and I don't think it was really a problem like you guys thought it would be," O'Neal, 25, said.

"Maybe when [Harris] pulled him out in the first quarter [of Game 4] and they started going back and forth, it looked like a problem. But it wasn't really a problem.

"I think when people see those two arguing, they thought it was a problem. I never really saw it as it being a problem. I've been on teams where those things are no problem. I don't look at that to be the reason why we lost the series.

"This group is very, very close-knit."

Saying that the Lakers underachieved this season by not getting past Utah, O'Neal said he wasn't sure what was going to happen in the off-season.

But, when asked whether he agreed with Van Exel that the point guard has probably played his last game as a Laker, O'Neal shook his head.

"I doubt it. Nick will be all right," O'Neal said. "I'd love to see everybody back next year."

And, though it may not be workable under NBA salary-cap rules, O'Neal said he would be willing to adjust his contract if that would enable the Lakers to keep veterans Byron Scott, Jerome Kersey or Robert Horry.

In one clear example of O'Neal's embracing the role of team leader, he made a beeline to hug Kobe Bryant, the 18-year-old rookie who shot an airball on the potential game-winner in regulation then shot three airballs in overtime Monday.

"I said, 'You know what, you might have shot four airballs . . . see all these people in here laughing at you and showing the Karl Malone banner and all that, just remember that when we meet these guys next year--then just hit it,' " O'Neal said. "You've got to remember stuff like that.

"I wasn't upset that he shot those airballs. He was the only one with enough guts to shoot the ball."

Calling O'Neal his "older brother," Bryant recalled the moment with a smile Tuesday.

"If anybody's going to come over and give me words of wisdom, it's going to be him," Bryant said. "He told me a lot of nice things and words of encouragement that can keep me going.

"That shows that I've earned his respect for my competitiveness and my heart, trying to do something positive. I couldn't sleep if I didn't try to do something to win the game."

O'Neal, meanwhile, said he was buoyed by Laker Executive Vice President Jerry West's personal and team history lesson during Tuesday's meeting.

"I didn't know he'd been to the finals eight times before he won," O'Neal said. "So we're just going to have to keep on trying. I'm going to get one, one day."

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