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Shaq Expects to Have a Ball

O'Neal says he'll get in shape over the summer, but he wants Kupchak and Jackson to work a little harder too.

June 07, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Three weeks later, Shaquille O'Neal was neither cheerful nor somber.

Rather, in the wake of Laker defeat, where blame and regret have been piled at his aching feet, O'Neal, on a gray morning in El Segundo, was defiant.

In his first extensive interview since the Lakers' championship run died at three, O'Neal, dressed in end-to-end blue, stood in a parking lot and said, "I don't need a personal trainer. I need the

That being said, O'Neal fully intends to hire a trainer, work most of the summer on conditioning, and show up at training camp in late September in decent physical shape. On Monday, he told General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson of those plans, and they assume -- or hope -- O'Neal's heart is in it.

Just Thursday, an acquaintance of O'Neal's approached and told him he looked good.

"Nah, man," he said. "I ain't done nothing yet."

These are oddly spent days for an organization that has played into late June for three consecutive years. In the moments after the Game 6 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, a young woman employed by the team wondered, "What are we supposed to do now?" and now they're all finding out.

A few players wander in and out of the practice facility, some -- Mark Madsen among them -- to work out. Others are treated for lingering injuries. Kobe Bryant is expected to have surgery on his injured right shoulder soon, and Rick Fox is recovering, but it is O'Neal, perhaps, whose summer is the most critical, his and Kupchak's.

The club hopes O'Neal will rededicate himself, that he will become an MVP again, that he will become ferocious again. O'Neal hopes the club does its part, and that is why he puts ball before trainer.

"I'm very excited," he said. "I'm excited because there's a lot of doubters out there, a lot of people who think they know me."

It was Jackson who suggested another MVP award.

"And I told him he has to put me in a position to do that," O'Neal said. "He can't let me run up and down the court for 15 minutes and not touch the ball. If he puts me in a position where I can [be an MVP], I'll do that. You know me, I just like to follow rules."

He laughed, but lowered his head, as if to say, "Seriously." Of the blame, and there was plenty to go around after a 50-victory season during which the bottom fell out of just about everything for the Lakers, O'Neal said, "I'm going to carry all of it. I accept that. Being the general of this team, that's how it goes."

He averaged 27.5 points and 11.1 rebounds in 67 games. He sat out 12 games in October and November, recovering from foot surgery, three more in February when his knee swelled. The knee hurt him through the playoffs, right to the end, to the 28-point pasting with which the Spurs sent them all home.

O'Neal never was quite right, and therefore the Lakers weren't, either. His surgery was done too close to the beginning of the season, putting a strain on a roster that had fallen into some disrepair. By the time the Lakers reached for something dynamic, it wasn't there, gone in a rush of injuries and circumstance and forgotten defense and missed jump shots.

When it was all done, O'Neal didn't think enough of the exit meetings to attend, though he said Thursday, "I had to work."

Besides, he said, "Man, the season was over. I'm not into meetings. Just tell me what you need me to do and I'll get it done.... Now we just gotta come back. The good thing about this, [we have] next year. Also, the good thing about it, the next day, nobody's going to care. Just like us. So, whoever wins it this year, it'll be like, 'You going to get another one next year?' So, they're going to win, we're going to clap for a day. But, then it's time to think about next year."

Now he wants help, and on that matter he agrees with Laker management. Kupchak is pushing around the players and the numbers that might bring a front-line power forward or guard to a starting lineup already thick with O'Neal and Bryant, and depth to a bench that thinned by the day.

Asked about free agents Juwan Howard and Gary Payton in particular, O'Neal said, "I would like to get them both. Hopefully we can. I'm hoping for a power forward and Payton. This year, we didn't really have any discipline on the team."

According to O'Neal, veterans -- free agents-to-be P.J. Brown, Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen also have been on the minds of Laker executives -- would bring the Lakers stability and discipline, along with a fresh enthusiasm for winning.

"They want it," he said. "Have I talked to any [free agents about it]? Yeah. But you know what it comes down to. If they want to be here, it comes down to the business part of it."

O'Neal will leave town in the next week or two, head for Orlando and a summer that might ultimately help define his career. He is 31. He has won three championships. Three years remain on his contract, and in October he could sign a three-year extension, the terms of which will be negotiated through the off-season.

Now, perhaps, starts the important part.

"Am I sad? I'm a little sad. We messed up," he said. "When you break the rules of humbleness, you have to be humbled. So, right now, we're humbled and we have to start all over."

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