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NBA FINALS: WHAT'S NEXT FOR LAKERS | Mark Heisler /
ON THE NBA

Close Shaves, Not Smooth Ones

June 06, 2004|Mark Heisler

A funny thing happened on the way to that last roundup.

One month and one day ago, the San Antonio Spurs led the Lakers, 2-0, and Laker Coach Phil Jackson was issuing reminders of the doomsday awaiting when something happened that even optimists had given up hoping for:

The Lakers had an outbreak of harmony.

Of course, that's a Laker rite of spring here, making up and taking care of business, or it was before this nightmare season that looked as if it would end the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era.

None of them ever talked about it, but this is a new day, they hope.

"I [wanted] to come to a tough situation," said Laker den father Karl Malone last week. "I had to come to a tough situation.

"Now, I didn't understand, I didn't know all this was going to happen....

"When we were going through some pretty tough times, I used to sit in the locker room and I kidded the guys. I said, 'Damn, you guys won three championships with all this going on?'

"I would say that and they would laugh.... Rick [Fox] looked at me and said, 'Karl, if it was smooth around here, we wouldn't have won any of them.' "

Once again, there's a happy ending possible, perhaps even extending to the summer, when their free agents will include Bryant, Jackson, Malone, Gary Payton and Derek Fisher.

Insiders say Bryant now considers the Lakers a viable option, which might not sound like much but is a lot better than what he thought about them six months ago.

So, with the possibility that their dynasty will continue after a season in which Bryant faced a trial and called O'Neal a fat, malingering baby, could the Laker golden age, in which they all just get along, finally be at hand?

Maybe not in this lifetime.

Having forgiven, if not completely forgotten, O'Neal, who once seemed to be rooting for Bryant to leave, has begun taking a constructive line, suggesting he understands the situation, up to a point.

That point is the same one it would be for anyone else -- when O'Neal finds out he's the one who has to make the sacrifice.

He recently told the Washington Post that he felt "a sign of disrespect," because the Lakers "make promises and they don't stand for them," although he wasn't specific.

People close to O'Neal acknowledge that the program is changing in ways that aren't easy for him. If this is still his team as much as Bryant's, the pendulum is swinging from the oft-injured 32-year-old Shaq to the 25-year-old Bryant.

Thicker-skinned players than O'Neal would be upset at reports that owner Jerry Buss was willing to trade him, if that was what it took to keep Bryant.

No specific trade was ever proposed, and none might ever be, but Buss visited Bryant in his Newport Beach home at midseason to assure Kobe he was committed to keeping him.

The Lakers then yanked their extension offer to Jackson -- reportedly $10 million a season, with Jackson seeking $12.5 million -- off the table. They even called the press to announce it, risking turning Jackson into a lame duck to signal Bryant that if it came down to Bryant or Jackson, it would be Bryant.

Soon thereafter, Buss consented to go on with ESPN's Jim Gray during a game in Phoenix and, instead of the usual owner blather, dropped pointed hints all over.

Buss said he believed Bryant would "be a Laker for life," but hedged on O'Neal ("Well, Shaq's under contract for one more year, really two more years. At the end of the season we have to talk and see if he wants to stay here") and Jackson ("I can't read Phil's mind. There are times I feel he definitely wants to coach and there are times when it seems he doesn't want to coach").

Of course, after that came so much turmoil, everyone forgot about everything but the latest episode.

Gary Payton's agent said Payton was sorry he'd signed here. Teammates got upset at Bryant for shooting too much -- again -- or as Payton noted, diplomatically, "In Seattle, if he would have come to my team, I probably would have been dominating the ball too."

Finally came Bryant's one-shot first half at Sacramento, after which a Laker player told The Times' Tim Brown, "I don't know how we can forgive him," precipitating a showdown with teammates a team official described as Bryant "melting down."

No, seriously, after all this, they're still in title contention?

Before Game 2 in San Antonio, a Laker official, looking unusually upbeat, was asked why he was so happy.

"I can see the light," he said.

"Which way are you rooting?" he was asked.

"The light," the official said.

*

From Shaq and Kobe to Kobe and Shaq

The last time O'Neal got to the Finals, and the time before that, and the time before that, nothing could stand in his way. He averaged 39 points in 2000, 33 in 2001 and 36 in 2002, winning the Finals MVP award all three times.

This season, he's averaging 20 points in the playoffs, his career low. Bryant is averaging 25.

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