The fallout from Jerry West's likely decision to resign from the Lakers this summer might not be swift, but it could be very strong, all the way to prompting Shaquille O'Neal to contemplate his own departure when he has the option of terminating his contract and becoming a free agent a year later.
This is far from a likely scenario, but it is a possible one considering their very strong relationship and that the presence of West was, in the words of agent Leonard Armato, the "primary motivating factor" in O'Neal signing with the Lakers in July 1996. Now, those who know him best indicate it "could become an issue" as O'Neal decides whether to opt out of his seven-year deal in the summer of 1999.
O'Neal did not want to discuss the situation Saturday after the Lakers practiced in preparation for today's regular-season finale against the Utah Jazz that could determine the Pacific Division champion, saying only, "My focus is on this game and then the playoffs."
But he clearly has discussed it with friends. One person close to the all-star center said, "If Jerry West is not going to be here, it'd make Shaq very unhappy." Others with knowledge of the situation confirm similar emotions.
The caveat is that O'Neal loves living in Los Angeles, has only spoken of finishing his career with the Lakers and certainly can be reassured during all of 1998-99 that the organization will continue in the same direction even without West, so it's possible he won't opt out. Even greater, it's difficult to imagine him signing elsewhere if he does become a free agent, instead using the process to restructure his deal depending on the escalation of salaries.
At the same time, conversations with intimates leave no doubt West's comments that he is leaning toward a departure, even when it comes with the disclaimer that he has not made a final decision, is very much on O'Neal's mind.
"Here's the best way to put it in perspective," Armato said. "Jerry, Shaq and I couldn't be much closer in terms of respect, in terms of trust, in terms of loyalty.
"But right now, all the emphasis and all the energies are going to bringing the Lakers a championship, and Shaq has been doing everything he can for that. We can deal with the other stuff later."
Kobe Bryant is in a similar position and taking a similar stance. The other untouchable piece of the Laker foundation--who could become West's last, and one of his greatest, coups--can get a new contract this summer and becomes a free agent in July 1999 at the latest. He and agent Arn Tellem also have a close relationship with West; the Tellem and West families are friendly all the way down to the kids playing together.
"I don't know," Bryant said when asked if West leaving would have a bearing on his future with the team. "I don't think this is the appropriate time to discuss it now."
West agrees. "I don't want to talk about that yet," he said of both contract situations.
Meanwhile, Coach Del Harris said without hesitation Saturday he expects his boss and longtime friend to be back next season, a minority opinion if there ever was one.
"I don't think he's going to be retiring," Harris said. "He might change his role.
"But we don't need these distractions right now. Our focus should be on basketball."