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Blast From The Past

Wilt Is Latest to Take Shots at Lakers, With West and Shaq as the Prime Targets

April 28, 1999|BILL PLASCHKE

Just when you thought the pile atop the Lakers' crumpled body could grow no higher, add about seven feet.

The constellation of criticism surrounding basketball's infuriating underachievers now includes the Big Dipper.

"I don't cheer for any team," Wilt Chamberlain said this week by phone from his Los Angeles-area home. "But if I had to cheer for a team, it would be the Utah Jazz."

Chamberlain, a former Laker some claim is the greatest player in basketball history, did not initially call to evaluate his former team. At age 62, he is too busy with worldwide businesses and charity work to seek interviews.

He called to respond to a quote in this column last week in which Jerry West, Laker vice president, compared current team jealousies to the seemingly legendary problems between Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

Chamberlain said he wanted to set the record straight, that he and Baylor were friends whose "street talk" in the locker room was often misinterpreted as hostility.

But after that, he also set the Lakers straight.

* He said their biggest problem is Shaquille O'Neal's inability or refusal to play defense.

* He said Kobe Bryant has unfairly been cast as a "whipping boy," when more of the blame should go to Shaq.

* He said their recent struggles have also been due to the "terrible" trade of Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell for Glen Rice.

* He said West needs to be a more visible leader.

* He said the entire organization needs to change its focus, from flashiness to fundamentals, from scoring to defense.

"I go to a health club here in town, and people there know more about basketball than about anybody on the team, and every day they talk about the Laker problems," Chamberlain said. "They are very obvious problems."

Starting, he said, with Shaq.

"If Shaq has been chosen as the team leader--and has he been?--then he needs to do it more by example," Chamberlain said. "He needs to get down the court and play defense, instead of cherry picking by the basket for all those dunks.

"Too often the other team is on offense, and Shaq is not even at half court. Everybody talks about his points when we should be looking closer at his rebounds and blocked shots and defense."

Chamberlain, who says he watches at least five games a night on television when he is in town, pointed to a play in a recent loss to the Seattle SuperSonics.

"The Sonics passed the ball down the court for a dunk, and where was Shaq?" he said. "Shaq had not even crossed the half-court line, and that was the game. When you rest, you rest on offense, not defense."

Chamberlain, who has feuded with Shaq before, said he did not think the center can lead the team to a title until he makes more of a defensive commitment.

"Shaq is a championship player if he plays a certain way, but he's not playing that way right now," he said. "This is not a personal knock on Shaq. It's just about something he needs to improve."

What is personal, Chamberlain said, is the Lakers' apparent dislike of inconsistent Kobe Bryant.

"Kobe is taking the brunt for every problem they have, he has become their whipping boy, and that's wrong," he said. "A lot of his mistakes are just the exuberance of youth.

"If he makes a sensational play and they win, he's great. But if they lose, then he's a hot dog. That's not fair."

Chamberlain referred to Bryant's game-tying tip-in of a missed free throw in the final moments of an eventual win at Golden State.

"Lemme ask you, was that showboating?" Chamberlain said. "At this point, they should take the bad with the good and stop making their youngest player their fall guy."

Another unfairly maligned player, according to Chamberlain, was Eddie Jones.

"He was my favorite player on the team," he said. "That was a terrible trade."

Chamberlain said the Lakers overlooked Jones' effect on--there's that word again--defense. He said they also overestimated Glen Rice.

"Rice was hurt this year, right?" he said, referring to elbow surgery that caused him to start the season late and slowly. "So that made him an I-don't-know guy. And it turns out, he's an I-don't-know guy who can only shoot the ball."

Sources have been saying owner Jerry Buss ordered West to make that trade to dump salaries against the wishes of West, who didn't want to further distract the team in the wake of Dennis Rodman.

But Chamberlain said West needs to take more public responsibility for that trade's--and this season's--failures.

"When something big comes up, such as problems with Rodman, the man disappears," Chamberlain said of West.

Chamberlain said West never understood the relationship between Chamberlain and Baylor.

"Elgin and I have always been friends, and will always continue to be friends" Chamberlain said. "We got on each other's case all the time, but that was our culture, our way."

While Chamberlain is no longer directly involved in basketball, he was once part of a group that tried to buy the Toronto franchise.

He said he would not be averse to becoming part of another group to buy the Lakers from Buss, who may be thinking of selling after undergoing a long winter of unfamiliar scrutiny and criticism.

"I love this game. I owe my life to this game. It upsets me to see some of the things that happen in it," he said. "I would always be interested in anything that could help something I love."

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

* AIRING IT OUT: The Lakers hold a couple of meetings, players-only and with Rambis, to try to turn their unraveling season around before it's too late. Page 6

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