Center Michael Olowokandi was fined $50,000 by the Clippers on Friday after criticizing his lack of a contract for next season and calling his uncertain future a distraction. Now, it seems Olowokandi may be the distraction.
General Manager Elgin Baylor said the fine was warranted for Olowokandi's "recent counterproductive and selfish public comments, which we consider to be detrimental to our team's best interests."
Baylor, who was scouting collegiate players at a tournament in Portsmouth, Va., declined further comment.
Olowokandi's comments came as the Clippers were all but eliminated from the Western Conference playoff race. Among other things, Olowokandi said after Wednesday's loss to the Utah Jazz:
"We didn't play well together. Whenever you have a group of guys that are very uncertain of their futures on the team, that will always happen. Whenever you have that situation, you will never have a basketball team. Not this year, not next year, not 10 years from now. We had a situation tonight where everyone was just going on their own. It wasn't good."
Olowokandi said that after the Clippers fell behind the Jazz, 22-9, he didn't want to play anymore. He said he was frustrated by teammates' freelancing style of play. He missed 13 of 15 shots during the game and had seven points.
It wasn't the first time Olowokandi spoke out about his contract situation. In recent weeks, he made similar comments to two national magazines. He was more cautious during a recent interview with The Times, but said the last time he spoke with his agent, Bill Duffy, "[Duffy] said, not in so many words, that I'm pretty much out of here after the season."
Olowokandi went on to say, "Right now, I'm focusing on the playoff race. I'd hate to be distracted by talk [of a new contract]. It's for the team and my agent to talk about" during the summer.
Then came Thursday's 25-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, a nationally televised game. After Olowokandi missed a free throw, guard Quentin Richardson approached him to offer encouragement before the second one. But Olowokandi shoved him away.
Earlier that day, he skipped the team's mandatory breakfast and Coach Alvin Gentry benched him to start the game against the Mavericks. Olowokandi, who said he missed the meal because he wished to sleep late, scored a team-leading 19 points in 34 minutes.
During a March 26 game against the Sacramento Kings, which also was on national TV, Olowokandi became so angry about a referee's ruling against him that he kicked the ball the length of the court, drawing a technical foul.
Late in the Clippers' loss March 15 to the Lakers, Olowokandi and Shaquille O'Neal almost came to blows after a confrontation along the free-throw lane. Each player received his second technical foul of the game and was ejected. Later, Olowokandi suggested it was time for O'Neal "to grow up."
There have been off-court troubles, too. Olowokandi was arrested Dec. 1 after a scuffle with a former girlfriend at his Manhattan Beach home. The Los Angeles County District Attorney later declined to file charges against him.
Despite his recent on-court displays of anger, or perhaps because of them, Olowokandi has showed vast improvement. In March, he averaged 16.8 points and 10.7 rebounds--the best month in four NBA seasons for the former No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
Baylor said last week that he hoped to retain Olowokandi's services for next season and beyond because the 7-foot center is "vital to the future of this franchise."
Olowokandi's contract talks are likely to be viewed as an indication of just how serious the franchise is about building a competitive club after years of losing.