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NBA FINALS: PERSPECTIVES

Don't Sweat Small Stuff

The feud with Bryant? Blending in Malone and Payton? Head games with Jackson? From O'Neal's point of view, the season called for a new philosophy:

June 06, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Shaquille O'Neal said in October this was his basketball team, stood in a parking lot and invited anyone who didn't think so to leave, and so it is still, if perhaps only for a few more weeks. There were times when no one else would have claimed ownership and for that, at least, he has been accountable.

His Lakers were built from five taut personalities, four players who will be in the Hall of Fame and a coach who is headed there as well.

When they played, their public braced for the worst and hoped for the best, and it often got both, sometimes before the ball was advanced past half court, for sure by December.

Right alongside, O'Neal had his bouts with brilliance and preoccupation. Those extremes amounted to his now-familiar regular-season game, his days of MVP-voter indignation gone in defenses and rules he's sure were mounted to stop him, in a body no longer built for November-to-June exertion and in a team with as many scoring alternatives as disturbances. He averaged 21.5 points, a career-low, despite leading the league in field-goal percentage (58.4%).

O'Neal had responsibilities to live with. He had asked Karl Malone and Gary Payton to ignore larger paychecks for the good of one last championship grab in Los Angeles and they complied.

When they arrived, they found Kobe Bryant weakened from his sexual assault case, Phil Jackson in the final year of his contract and O'Neal and Bryant at odds, leaving the newcomers to supply some early stability.

Only Payton played more than 67 games and only Malone worked at grinning through it all, leaving O'Neal somewhere in the middle, where he plays best.

But life with the Lakers evened out as the postseason approached, and now they are gathered at the entryway of the NBA Finals, where O'Neal this week insisted their first months together were not all as trying as they might have appeared.

He lay on a padded table, a tape recorder on his chest, a trainer rubbing the irksome stiffness from his right shoulder. He recounted his season, from the flight to Hawaii to the verge of a best-of-seven series against the Detroit Pistons, and what became evident was his developing kinship to Malone, his distance from Bryant, his sympathy for Payton, and his loyalty to Jackson. O'Neal played the season beside those relationships, or around them.

He became very close to Malone, who he believed was as fair and honest a man as he'd ever met.

Stung by a preseason flare-up in their feud, he let Bryant be.

He felt Payton's disappointment with the system, but their friendship did not grow as O'Neal expected it to.

And he maintained what he had with Jackson, in whom he'd found someone as outspoken as himself, which he sometimes found revolting.

In the end, he would laugh, as he did on the trainer's table, as he almost always does. It was often fun, he said. If nothing else, he came upon Malone, even if it was so late that Malone's career was nearly done.

"He's somebody I wish I had when I first came up," O'Neal said. "I came into this league butt naked. ... So I raised myself in the jungle. I'm the Tarzan of the NBA. I raised myself."

Just as he figured he had it all worked out, he ran into Malone, whose work ethic is one of the marvels of sport. O'Neal played only half a season with Malone, who tore a knee ligament in late December and did not return until mid-March.

Still, they became great friends, Malone the older brother figure, O'Neal never realizing he needed one until now.

"I thought he was a good guy. He's a great guy," O'Neal said. "We talk about everything."

O'Neal learned to hunt like Malone, only "not killing." Just looking, he said. He learned to love motorcycles like Malone, because, he said Malone told him, "You don't have no cellphone, you can wear a helmet if you want to, you can just cruise, you got all that chrome.

"That's kind of fun. Because of him I've got a big stress-reliever in my life."

Bryant and O'Neal coincided for an eighth season, again living the no-harm-no-foul existence that once brought three consecutive titles. They fought in the fall, grinded through winter and, again, found each other in spring, right where they left things two years ago, the time of their last championship run.

O'Neal is OK with that, with the way their games have gone and with what appears to be a changing of the emphasis in the organization, Bryant for him.

Their relationship, he said, is unchanged.

"I do my job," he said. "He does his job."

It is enough, he said.

He claimed not to have been hurt when Bryant went to ESPN's Jim Gray to rail against what he perceived to be O'Neal's shortcomings, among them his leadership skills, conditioning and lack of accountability. O'Neal said he hoped Bryant's rant had been off the record, that there had been a misunderstanding, something Bryant did not claim at any time.

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