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New Coach Hopes for the Best

Even with uncertainty, Tomjanovich says he's 'ready to go to work' with the Lakers.

July 11, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Rudy Tomjanovich brushed past Shaquille O'Neal on his way into the Laker organization on Saturday, Tomjanovich signing on for five years almost as O'Neal was being traded to the Miami Heat, taking much of the job's charm with him.

Tomjanovich wore a blue suit and a pale orange tie on his first professional day away from the Houston Rockets. His wife, Sophie, sat before him, in the second row of a news conference held on the ground floor at Staples Center.

Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak sat to his right, and more often was asked to explain his changing roster than his coaching choice. As television crawls carried the news the Lakers had agreed in principle to trade O'Neal, as Kobe Bryant turned the Lakers and Clippers over and over in his mind, Tomjanovich smiled and called it one of the great days of his life, and he has had a few.

Asked why he'd been so eager for the job, at 55, cancer not a year flushed from his body, with changes coming and O'Neal leaving, Tomjanovich said, "Because I'm a coach. I want to coach. I'm hoping for the very best in personnel and all those things. If it isn't, I'll coach who we have and I'll coach 'em to the best of my ability."

Tomjanovich, who'd seen the Rockets come from nothing to win NBA titles in 1994 and 1995, has never seen anything like the rise and fall of the Lakers, particularly not all in one afternoon. So, he sat quietly at his own news conference for long periods as Kupchak avoided questions on O'Neal and claimed to have no knowledge of Bryant's next move.

As it happened, Heat officials would agree in principal to the trade that would send Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a draft pick for O'Neal, and Kupchak and his new coach would head for Long Beach to watch Sasha Vujacic and Brian Cook play.

Tomjanovich had started the day with a long walk on the beach, where he found a big rock and sat down.

"I said a prayer of thanks to God," Tomjanovich said, "for what he's done for me in my life.

"I beat cancer. I'm telling you, I'm so grateful to be here. It changed my life.... Believe me, I am humbled. I am humbled to be here."

Later, he grinned and shouted, "I'm ready to go to work. Who's got the ball?"

A pretty good guess, as he'll perhaps find out, is Bryant. Of Bryant's destination -- Bryant received officials from the Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, Clippers and Lakers last week -- Kupchak said, "I don't know. I really don't." Tomjanovich said that he still had not spoken to Bryant, five days after he'd been offered the job, three weeks after he became a candidate for it.

According to sources, Bryant continues to consider jumping to the Clippers, going so far as to ask them to play 10 or 12 games a year at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, which is closer to his Newport Beach home than Staples Center is, and which the Clippers apparently are considering.

It is unclear if Bryant approves of the Tomjanovich hire or the pending O'Neal trade. Bryant made two telephone calls to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and none to Tomjanovich. And his agent, Rob Pelinka, reportedly called Krzyzewski during the NBA Finals to measure his interest in leaving Duke for the Lakers. Phil Jackson had not yet been let go.

"I saw that," Kupchak said. "I have not talked to Rob about that. I have no knowledge of that at all. That was never, ever mentioned to me. At some point in time I guess I will ask Rob if that was true. But, no knowledge of that whatsoever."

Tomjanovich said he sent a videotape to Bryant that illustrated how he would employ Bryant, now that he'll be free of the triangle. Clyde Drexler, Steve Francis and Sam Cassell were featured.

"When I think about Kobe Bryant, I get very excited, and any coach would," Tomjanovich said. "This guy is phenomenal. He's versatile. He can do so many things. What he did this year, under the circumstances, to me is a tribute, not only to his physical toughness, but his mental toughness.... He has already done legendary things on the court. If he was finished today, people would still be talking about some of the things that that guy has done. I truly believe he has a chance to become the greatest player to ever play the game."

That's his pitch. Only, no one knows if Bryant is listening. If he returns, no one knows whom he'll bring with him, if Karl Malone isn't tired of the whole thing and might consider offers from San Antonio and Dallas, if Derek Fisher has better options.

"I wish I could say, particularly in this town, that there's a script for this," Kupchak said. "But, there's not a script. We're dealing with issues.

"By some stroke of fate, they all seemed to come together this year at this time. So, what we tried to maintain was some order going forward."

That brought them Tomjanovich, three new players and a few more minutes staring at the telephone.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," Tomjanovich said. "I'm looking forward to finding out."

*

The Lakers are pursuing free-agent Vlade Divac. It might be particularly important if their only alternative at center is Grant.... Malone could follow O'Neal to Miami.... Tomjanovich said he hoped to have Frank Hamblen, Larry Smith, Tim Grgurich and Mike Wells on his coaching staff.... The Lakers have extended a multiyear offer to Slava Medvedenko.... Jeanie Buss attended the news conference.... Kupchak said he spoke to owner Jerry Buss every day, sometimes twice. He also said he spoke to Malone in the last week and that the conversation went "really well."

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