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NBA PLAYOFFS | THE NBA

Diet of Squabble Unsettles Lakers

May 18, 1997|MARK HEISLER

Something's rotten in Inglewood. Once upon a time, the Lakers used to actually play in the playoffs, not turn them into "Family Feud."

Once, they were in it to win it. Now, they show up to blow up.

Unlike last year, when they were a temporary coalition built around Magic Johnson's fantasies, they're a real contender, which makes this debacle an invaluable learning experience, showing them what they are,

immature and volatile, and how they measure up to the big guys, not even close.

OK, kiddies, can you spell l-a-u-g-h-i-n-g-s-t-o-c-k?

"I always look at things psychologically because if you don't have brains, you don't have a clue," Houston's Charles Barkley said last week. "Or you have the Lakers."

The Laker season can be summed up in a few words--too much attitude, not enough basketball.

Too much complaining about referees, conspiracies, disrespect, Coach talking too much, Coach not showing confidence in us, the press dogging us, blowing things out of proportion and accentuating the negative.

Losing when you're not good enough is inevitable, but that isn't the problem. They fell apart--again--because they were squabbling children in a grown-up world and that's not acceptable.

It's not acceptable for Nick Van Exel to wage a running battle of wills with Coach Del Harris.

It's not acceptable for Shaquille O'Neal to inject race into the furor over Jack Nies' non-call in Game 2 ("If I'm a cop and I don't like white people and I arrest a white person, I'm going to be a little rougher on that person.") The way I saw it, a white referee let a black Jazz player get away with fouling a black Laker. Guess what. It wasn't the first game-deciding bad call in NBA history.

Besides, who was it who had missed a wide-open five-footer just before that?

Yes, the Lakers' very own "Man of Steel."

It's not acceptable for Harris to clam up, leading the team in a sullen no-comment. They talk when they win, they can talk when they lose. If they don't have that much poise, they don't belong here. At times, Harris seems to be learning more from his young players than they are from him.

At the moment, the franchise is trembling before the displeasure of Jerry Buss and Jerry West, waiting to see who gets the bill for this one.

And the answer is . . . no one?

West just announced that Harris was safe. However, sources say the Lakers recently showed an interest in Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson. The outgoing Bulls' coach was so intrigued, he told intimates the Lakers were his first choice.

Van Exel expected to be traded, but that isn't happening either, so here we go again.

Endearing despite everything, Van Exel has actually grown a lot but still requires an incident every six months to remind him when he has gone too far. At this rate, by the time he matures, Shaq will be 80.

One of Van Exel's better qualities is his honesty. After four years of trouble with every authority figure imaginable, he just declared that he and the coach are incompatible. Then he had the obligatory meeting in West's office with Harris and issued the obligatory apology.

Personally, I believe Nick's first statement on the subject, when he was speaking from the heart, not from necessity. If he hasn't been able to drum up any respect for Harris after all they've been through together, where is it going to come from now?

Once, the Lakers didn't put up with this stuff. In the '80s, if anyone got out of line, Pat Riley pinched his head off and West put the body on waivers.

In the '90s, they ran out of players and had to make the usual compromises to restock the roster. But that time is over. The roster is restocked.

Now, qualities such as maturity, poise and unselfishness will determine their destiny. If anyone is confused about his place in the hierarchy, he has to go, unless management enjoys the spectacle of players who think they're in charge, and the spectacle they've presented the last two springs.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT . . .

A few thoughts on some other local favorites:

Elden Campbell--So what if his scoring and rebounding averages keep climbing?

The former is of little consequence, since they have a better low-post scorer; the latter is still too low.

The whole package is still too prone to naps. As for intangibles such as fire and hustle, forget it. It's hard to win titles with guys who no-show in the playoffs. Give me a smaller, less talented A.C. Green-type tiger any day.

Eddie Jones--Almost as good as his hype.

There's nothing wrong with his game, only his lack of confidence in it. When O'Neal was hurt, it wasn't Jones who took over, but Campbell. In the playoffs, Jones was barely there. Needs to grow into his stature.

Kobe Bryant--The key to Laker greatness. Confidence is no problem. Two airballs against the Jazz in the closing minutes? No problem. He drives the lane the next two times he gets the ball, for an assist and a hoop.

Of course, then he fires up two more airballs. Young is still young and they don't come any younger.

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