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LAKER REPORT

O'Neal Unexpectedly Returns From Injury

October 20, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Shaquille O'Neal decided to play Sunday night after all, notifying one of the Phils in his life that he was ready to resume training camp 11 days after he sat down because of a bruised left heel.

O'Neal missed three exhibition games, but kept camp lively with running tales of his contract extension, his seeming omission of Kobe Bryant in regard to where among his teammates his loyalties lie and his recent dismissal of Laker Coach Phil Jackson.

He started alongside Karl Malone and Gary Payton and now the lineup that is expected to have four Hall of Famers lacks only Bryant, who did not ride the bus through the Grapevine with his teammates and will not play until Thursday at the earliest.

O'Neal decided to play when Jamal Sampson was unable.

"We were one big man short, so I tried it and it felt pretty good," O'Neal said. "I didn't want Karl out there playing by himself all those minutes."

Less than an hour before Sunday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, some 20 minutes before he told Jackson he would play, O'Neal sat in a minor-league hockey locker room inside Centennial Garden with Payton, Malone and a handful of reporters. He refused to explain why he might be upset with Jackson. Instead, as Payton shrilly begged him to say nothing, O'Neal said, "I'm not going to clarify it. I'm enigmatic. That's why you guys like me."

He laughed, but Payton remained suspicious.

"Don't let those guys suck you in, Shaq," he shouted, a crooked grin cracking his angular face.

A few minutes before, when O'Neal had promised to return Thursday night for an exhibition game against the Clippers, he was asked if he shouldn't continue to rest.

"Uh-uh," Malone answered for him. "We want him back. We need him in there."

O'Neal shrugged. OK.

Yes, the new Lakers, and a few old ones, are nothing if not talkative, nothing if not loose. Jackson -- dismissed by O'Neal as an insignificant Phil on Friday night -- learned many enigmatic quotes ago that there is nothing to be gained by taking O'Neal literally. So, he said, he found there was no need to question O'Neal about his sentiment -- "I had two Phils in my life. I only got one now." -- and hoped to let the issue die.

"I've been with Shaquille for four years," he said. "We've grown used to the nature of the beast. We enjoy him when he's humorous and fun and laughable and clowning. And we put up with him when he's the other side.

"I'm really pleased with him, actually, to be honest. So far he's done a great job getting in shape, in the best possible shape, and physically I think he's coming into the season in good condition.

"After the workout this morning, he said he feels better. That's all we're hoping for."

O'Neal had 20 points and six rebounds in 21 minutes in the Lakers' 102-87 loss. Malone had seven points and one rebound in 27 minutes and Payton had eight points.

The Cavaliers led, 57-33, at halftime. Cleveland's LeBron James finished with 14 points on seven-of-17 shooting.

*

Jackson seems destined to enter the regular season as a lame-duck coach, six weeks after many in the organization believed he was on the verge of a two- or three-year contract extension.

He is in the last season of a five-year, $30-million deal that was not extended late last season because of Jackson's own concerns with his health, since remedied.

"We've got to go into it open-minded," Jackson said. "I think the club has to realistically look at what their situation is. Maybe they're doing that. I don't know. At the present time there's been no movement, at all. ... And I'm not nervous about it or upset about it."

While Jackson almost certainly could draw a more lucrative contract elsewhere, he claimed he had no interest.

"If I wasn't to coach the Lakers I can't even imagine continuing on coaching, personally," he said. "Right now, this is where I want to be and this is what I want to do."

Asked if opening night weren't a priority, he said, "I guess not.

*

Bryant worked out Sunday morning and had intended to accompany the team to Bakersfield. He changed his mind, leaving his three-person security team in Bakersfield with no one to secure. ... In a pregame announcement made over the public-address system, Malone welcomed the crowd, then concluded, "Just remember, buckle up for safety. That's the law in Louisiana." ... It was a bit of an odd pregame. Cavalier guard Darius Miles ran the length of the scorer's table and touched fists with Jackson and Jim Cleamons. ... Kareem Rush started in the backcourt with Payton. Derek Fisher came off the bench. ... Slava Medvedenko left the game in the first half because of a bruised left heel and did not return. ... Sampson did not play because of back spasms.

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