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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Lakers Don't Want Future to Go to Waist

For Once, They Couldn't Cash Reality Check

May 18, 2003|Mark Heisler

Live by the miracle, die by the miracle.

Two days after Robert Horry's shot spun out, but before Game 6 when they got the really bad news, Laker people were still shaking their heads. Paul Sunderland said he'd just seen more replays, including one slow-mo showing the ball seeming to hang in the basket, below the rim, before somehow jumping back out.

"It wasn't to be," Sunderland said.

Not that anyone in Lakerdom was too worried. The Lakers would swamp the Spurs in Game 6 and win Game 7 in San Antonio too, because everyone said no one could beat the Lakers four times.

This was meaningless, except as a statement of belief suggesting the depth of local overconfidence, but the way Laker players and fans insisted on it, you'd have thought it was on the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

After that, the Lakers would stroll past the Kings without Chris Webber, or those cute little Mavericks, before plowing under the usual beneath-contempt East entry for title No. 4.

Nevertheless, it was eerie ...

For three years, the ball didn't come back out. On the contrary, it followed Horry all over, no matter how far from the hoop he camped, hopping away from the other nine players until it found him so he could pick it up and drop another magic three-pointer.

Not that anyone here cared to think about it, but without their Age of Miracles, the three-year Laker run would have been a lot shorter, assuming they had a run at all.

No rally from 15 behind in the fourth quarter against Portland in Game 7 and there goes their 2000 title.

No reconciliation between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who had feuded publicly for months, at the end of the next season and there goes 2001.

No Horry three-pointer against the Kings in Game 4, capping a rally from 20 points down, and there goes the 2002 title, too, and your entire dynasty.

Their heroics were at once a virtue -- good teams find ways to win -- and a facade, obscuring the problems, which were soon forgotten in the wake of their latest triumph.

After all the calamities that befell them this season, they still thought they were bulletproof, right up until Thursday night, when the Spurs shot them so full of holes you could see daylight coming through them.

For dynasts with tears running down their faces watching their reign slip away, the standards are higher, not lower.

Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls had their own problems, but goofing off wasn't one. He could play Easy Rider with them and they'd still keep going.

Jackson always worries about the toll the extra month required to win a title takes, so after the Bulls set a record with 72 wins, he really eased off. So they only won 69 games, tying the old record they'd just eclipsed.

The next season, they didn't have Scottie Pippen until January and Dennis Rodman began acting up.

So they only won 62.

A cavalier air was one thing with the businesslike Bulls, something else with the Lakers. With the Lakers, the question wasn't why they lost but how they went three years before their antics caught up with them.

The Lakers are still O'Neal's team, reflecting his character. Like the little girl with the little curl, when they're good, they're very, very good.

Then there are the other times ...

Shaq, who once told teammates that when he won a title, he'd come back looking like the Hindenburg, turned out to be as good as his word, however whimsical. He was like a horse in a handicap race; every time he won, he'd show up 25 pounds heavier the next time out.

After their second title, he announced he would drop down to 300 pounds. Instead, he came back closer to 400 and spent the usual three months playing himself into shape.

After the Lakers won their third title, he deferred his toe surgery and wasn't his old self until March.

Now his plans for the summer are of keen interest. Not that people are skeptical, but Saturday, when Jackson said he plans to take Shaq to his own personal trainer so they can work out together, the press people laughed, thinking he was joking.

"Are you serious?" asked a reporter.

"Serious as rain," Jackson said.

No one could ask O'Neal, who blew off the exit interview (and press gathering), which Jackson said he expected and accepted, although he also called it "disrespectful."

But that's Shaq. The summers are his time. This one just started earlier.

Then there's personnel, or what was left of it.

Owner Jerry Buss is now a staunch advocate of fiscal restraint, as his team knocks down profits of $40-50 million annually. At midseason, he noted he had spent $58 million on this roster and what was cheap about that?

The Lakers were then No. 7 in the West so the answer was: If $58 million doesn't buy you enough, then it's too little.

(For those moved by Buss' plight, my favorite rabble-rousers, Joe McDonnell and Doug Krikorian of ESPN Radio, took up a collection to help him buy new players. At last word, they were up to $50.)

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