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From the Desk of Shaquille O'Neal

The Laker Mailman

O'Neal Invites Teammates to Work Out as a Group During the Lockout

October 29, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is, Shaquille O'Neal suggests, an exhortation to fit the expectations.

In a gesture that signals his desire to assume a greater part of the Laker leadership mantle, O'Neal has continued to urge his Laker teammates to stay in shape, work out together, if possible, and ride out the lingering lockout as a team.

"I want this to be my year," said O'Neal, who was due a $15-million lump-sum payment Oct. 1 that will not be paid until the lockout is over. "[The lockout has] alienated the fans somewhat. But once the Forum opens back up, the fans will be back on my side. This is my year to take over."

With an eye toward a potential title run, the Laker center sent personal letters to each of his teammates a few weeks ago, telling them that, if they were willing, he would rent the Lakers' usual practice gym at Southwestern College for team workouts during the lockout.

Because the players are spread across the country and have differing contract situations, the response wasn't dramatic--Derek Fisher, Eddie Jones and Rick Fox apparently were the only players to immediately agree.

For now, apparently only Fisher and Jones, who work out at the UCLA men's gym, have played together regularly, occasionally joined by draft pick Tyronn Lue and by O'Neal when he's in town. O'Neal also has worked out in Houston with forward Robert Horry.

But O'Neal said he knows his teammates understand the importance of getting a jump on the season, whenever it starts.

"I sent the letters out and I told them where I was going to be working out," O'Neal said. "I told them we should get there, get our energy up, get some plays going.

"I sent them because I just wanted to make sure the guys were playing, and I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page."

Fisher, in particular, has warmed to the task of keeping the Laker players at least verbally together through the dog days of fall.

"There's really no way we can expect to win a championship if we just come back together sometime in December on the fly and try to start winning games," said Fisher, who assumes the ballhandling duties after two years of mostly backing up Nick Van Exel.

"We have to start building some continuity and start to build our foundation now."

There's still a chance, Fisher said, for some informal workouts at UCLA or possibly in Houston with several Lakers, to maintain some sense of team chemistry.

Said Jones: "Shaq's trying to get the team together and have some type of workout as a team. That's good leadership.

"I thought other teams would do it, but I didn't think we would do it, because I didn't think we would have the guys who'd actually be around. Because we've got free agents, guys are not going to go out and try to participate in something knowing they're not going to get compensated."

Fisher said that, as the team's point guard, he understands he automatically inherits a leadership role--one he is glad to share with O'Neal, who is also about to start his third season as a Laker.

"We both were a little disappointed that there wasn't more of an urgency in our teammates' response [to the letters]," Fisher said. "But some people may not have received that letter--it's hard when guys are from different cities to get in touch with everyone.

"I'll continue to make an effort to get in touch with people. You know, Shaquille's a little tired of trying to do it himself. But from now on, I'll be taking charge of that department, as far as getting in touch with as many guys as I can and try to get it together."

Said O'Neal of Fisher: "He's going to be the starting point guard--I've been telling him where I want the ball, how I want the ball, when to get me the ball. Me and him, we're going to be the center-point guard punch that we need."

Is O'Neal developing into the superstar-leader the Lakers need to make the final jump into a serious title chase?

"He always has [been a leader]," Fisher said. "I think it just gets really hard for him at times. . . . He's really still a young guy. He's 26 years old, and it's hard for him every night, going out and scoring 30, getting all the rebounds, blocking all the shots. Then having to do everything else, as far as getting guys motivated and things like that.

"I think right now, he's looking for kind of a partner in crime. Which I feel very comfortable working alongside him. I think it's a natural transition for me.

"I tried to take the back seat in my first two years, but now, because of the circumstances that have unfolded, I'm in a position where it's my responsibility to myself and to the team to be more of a leader. I don't think I'll have any problems stepping up."

Most of the Laker players made it to last week's union meeting in Las Vegas, Fisher said, and they discussed ways to make sure the Laker season, if there is one, is not started halfheartedly.

Fisher said he has talked with Sean Rooks, Elden Campbell, Tony Battie, Lue, Corie Blount and Kobe Bryant's father.

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