Soumaila Samake, the 7-footer from Mali, in northwest Africa, smiled at Shaquille O'Neal's insistence that the 13th Laker, assuming there is one, would be Samake.
It was late Saturday night in Oklahoma City and Samake, having led the Lakers in rebounding for a second consecutive exhibition game, walked slowly through a concrete tunnel toward an idling bus.
Teammates passed and jabbed at his arm. Samake peered down at them and nodded. O'Neal's favorite has become theirs too, along with Jannero Pargo, the spindly guard from Arkansas.
The securing of roster spots in training camp often has little regular-season bearing for the Lakers, who have their eight or nine rotation players and then a handful of practice players, in all 12 on guaranteed contracts in an era when NBA owners are bracing for the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax.
The Lakers carried 15 players two years ago and 13 last season and are considering going with 12 this year, even with O'Neal unlikely to be available when the season opens in a little more than two weeks. Phil Jackson is asked about a 13th man, and he narrows his eyes and says, "We'll see." The players are of a more-the-merrier spirit. They believe Samake, 24, is the pure backup center they've lacked and Pargo is the point guard who can push the basketball.
Depending on what the league finances look like come next summer, Jerry Buss could be $10 million into the luxury-tax bracket (with a payroll of about $61 million), and he's certain to consider the ramifications of another salary or two on top of that, no matter how small.
And so in that economic environment, Samake looked upon his opportunity with a little curiosity. He may play well and there may be no job. He may play well and have Jackson decide the greater need is in the backcourt.
"I do not know what to tell you," he said in thick, measured English. "I just try my best."
Samake, who did not play college basketball, played last season in Sicily. He played 34 games for the New Jersey Nets two seasons ago. He is occasionally awkward but is heavy on potential, and Jackson acknowledged after Samake's 10-point, 13-rebound game in Little Rock that his talent was "intriguing."
"I've been so-so," Samake said. "I want to be much better."
As the frontcourt possibilities swirl about him, as O'Neal recovers from toe surgery and Mark Madsen takes treatment on his hamstring and Slava Medvedenko's development plods and Samaki Walker plays necessary minutes at center, Robert Horry floats through another camp.
"I'm not worried," Horry said. "We'll know more in a couple of weeks."
In his last guaranteed season -- the Lakers hold a $5.3-million option -- Horry might be forced to start at least until O'Neal returns, which usually is against Jackson's better judgment.
"You know me," Horry said, "I never have any desires. Whatever happens for me, happens for me."