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Life at the Top Looks Good for Lakers . . .

. . . but Below Surface Rice Issue Is Simmering

December 20, 1999|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORONTO — Though he has remained publicly neutral about his status with the Lakers and has earned praise for his focused mind-set as trade rumors percolate, Glen Rice has given his teammates and Laker executives little doubt:

If he is not traded this season, the 32-year-old forward has no intention of returning to the Lakers once his contract expires in June, according to several team and league sources.

While his feelings are hardly a surprise, Rice's determination to move on complicates the Lakers' personnel decisions as they weigh their current NBA-best record against the offers coming in and the likelihood of receiving better deals at the Feb. 24 trading deadline or after the season in a sign-and-trade scenario.

"I hear rumblings. . . . I don't know, but I hear rumblings about his agent [David Falk] being proactive around the league trying to do things," said Laker Coach Phil Jackson, who said he hadn't discussed the situation with Rice until a recent trip to Vancouver.

"We discussed it, I said it doesn't really bother me at all. I'm looking at it for the long term, and if it doesn't turn out that way, if he's not here in the playoffs because the financial matters are beyond the level of [what the Lakers will pay him], that's the way basketball is.

"We've had a good relationship and he's done a good job and we're winning and that's what's important."

Jackson also maintained neutrality on Rice's status with the team, and whether Jackson would campaign to either keep him or trade him.

"I want him here until he's not, and I'm not pushing the button one way or the other," Jackson said. "I think that he's a very, very valuable player for us."

Rice, when asked directly, denied that he has declared to the Lakers and his teammates that he will not return.

"That situation, what I've been doing this far is: 'Hey, whatever happens, happens.' I haven't reached a decision on that," Rice said. "I really haven't been thinking about that. I haven't told them that, haven't told anyone that."

But several teammates said that he privately makes no secret of wanting to leave, and, in the interview, Rice also pointedly avoided saying he wanted to remain a Laker for the long term.

"I'm fitting [in], we're winning, we're having a good time," Rice said. "I'm just going out there and doing what I can do for the team."

Does he expect to be traded this season?

"You know what, you hear a lot of guys saying, 'OK, I don't think about it,' " Rice said. "It's impossible for me not to think about it. I know it's being talked about. If it happens, it happens."

Meanwhile, the Laker front office, which once hoped to keep Rice by signing him to a long contract, now has generally accepted that he must be traded at some point, several sources indicated.

"I'm not going to comment on discussions that we've had with our players regarding their contractual situations," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said when asked specifically about Rice's relationship with the team.

"I will say that we feel that he's playing great. He's been a consummate professional. I don't think we have anything bad to say about him--he's been great."

Kupchak said he would not comment on reported trade discussions involving Rice.

Because they can probably work out a sign-and-trade deal after the season--although they do risk losing him for nothing if he signs as a free agent with an under-the-cap team--the Lakers are in no rush to peddle Rice, unless some team offers a key power player (perhaps Miami's P.J. Brown) or a young, athletic wing swingman.

Another complication is the loud-and-clear feeling of Shaquille O'Neal, Rice's close friend. The Laker center believes that Rice is the pure shooter he needs to keep teams from double- and triple-teaming him in the playoffs, and feels partly responsible for bringing Rice to the Lakers (and trading Eddie Jones to do it).

Acquired last March in a controversial trade with the Charlotte Hornets, Rice struggled to fit into the Laker offense last season, then was furious when the Lakers exercised a $7-million option for 1999-2000 instead of letting him become a free agent.

The Lakers have no intention of giving Rice anywhere near the $14-million-a-season maximum deal that he and Falk have suggested he is worth.

In the past, Rice has said that he would prefer to play closer to his home near Miami.

"I'm trying to say, 'You come every day to work, you do your work, this is your job, and these are the limitations that we have in this game,' " Jackson said. "We don't know what tomorrow's going to bring anyway, so why make a fuss about it?'

"I've been real pleased about the way he's faced it. There's nothing he can do to control it."

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