HIGH ANXIETY FACING A LONG STRETCH WITHOUT SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, THE LAKERS TRY TO KEEP THEIR CHINS UP

March 03, 1997

Shaquille O'Neal strolled down the corridor toward the Los
Angeles Lakers' locker room last Friday evening with only the
slightest limp, the cast on his left leg barely noticeable
beneath his baggy jeans. "How's it feeling, big fella?" an arena
attendant asked as O'Neal went by. Shaq answered by jogging a
few steps as lightly as a 300-pound man can, then breaking into
one of those huge smiles for which Pepsi and Reebok pay so
handsomely. Farther down the hall, Lakers coach Del Harris was
addressing reporters. O'Neal walked up, leaned into the group
and made a brief declaration. "Four weeks," he said. "I'll be
back in four weeks."

Unfortunately for L.A., O'Neal's physicians would beg to differ.
The hyperextended left knee injury he suffered on Feb. 12
against the Minnesota Timberwolves caused a torn capsule, a
fractured bone and a partial tear of the lateral collateral
ligament--damage that is expected to keep Shaq on the Lakers'
bench for at least another six to eight weeks. But after the
grim home stand that followed O'Neal's injury, during which Los
Angeles lost three of four games and struggled to beat the lowly
Vancouver Grizzlies for its only victory, the Lakers may be
tempted to hold O'Neal to his playful prognosis. Through Sunday,
L.A., which had the best record in the Western Conference when
Shaq went down, had fallen a half game behind the Seattle
SuperSonics and the Utah Jazz, with the Houston Rockets looming
ever larger in its rearview mirror. Without O'Neal and forward
Robert Horry, who's expected to be sidelined until late March
with a sprained left knee he sustained on Feb. 16, matters could
get worse for L.A. before they get better: After their 127-121
double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday, the
Lakers began a five-game road trip that included rugged tests
against the Rockets and the Atlanta Hawks. "I think we all knew
it would be a struggle," says 14th-year guard Byron Scott, "but
I don't think we thought that it would be this much of a
struggle."

The recent difficulties have caused some pessimism among the Los
Angeles faithful. Last week the marquee of a sports memorabilia
shop near the Forum read BURY MY SEASON AT WOUNDED KNEE. But the
Lakers are trying their best to whistle past that graveyard, to
convince themselves that the injuries are just a minor setback.
Guard Nick Van Exel, who earlier in the season was so sure L.A.
would win the Pacific Division that he promised to give each
Sonics player a gift worth less than $100 if L.A. didn't achieve
that goal, bristles at the suggestion that he'll soon have to
start shopping. "I said it, and I'm not going back on it," he
says. "This is a very confident team. We can beat anybody in the
league with or without Shaq. Maybe we can't dominate, but we can
win." The Lakers' belief in the power of positive thinking even
extends to the pregame notes distributed to the media, in which
they list O'Neal's injury as merely a hyperextended left knee.
"This team can go one of two ways," says assistant coach Kurt
Rambis. "It can feel sorry for itself, put its head down and
give in, or it can play with the confidence that it is still one
of the best teams in the league and be that much better when
Shaq does come back."

The most encouraging sign for Los Angeles has been the play of
6'11" Elden Campbell, who moved over from power forward to
replace O'Neal at center. The laconic Campbell is one of those
maddening players whose enthusiasm has never seemed to match his
considerable talent. He was even the target of a thinly veiled
slam by O'Neal earlier this season when Shaq thought Campbell
wasn't playing up to the seven-year, $49 million contract he
signed last summer. "Some guys get the money and think the job
is done," O'Neal said. Shortly after Shaq injured himself,
Campbell was asked whether he was ready to take over at center.
"Does it matter?" he replied, apparently implying that ready or
not, he was the center. It wasn't exactly the kind of response
that inspired his teammates' confidence, but his play has taken
care of that. Campbell averaged 26.5 points and 11.8 rebounds
during the four games of the home stand, including a career-high
40-point performance against Knicks center Patrick Ewing on
Sunday.

But the loss of O'Neal creates a void on defense that the Lakers
simply can't fill. That was evident against New York when Ewing
took over the game down the stretch and finished with 34 points
and 25 rebounds. And L.A. feels Shaq's absence in more subtle
ways as well. "It's hard to get the steals and turnovers we
normally get, because you know if you gamble and lose, Shaq's
not back there to take care of your mistakes," says guard Eddie
Jones.

Harris last week used a showbiz analogy to summarize the Lakers'
situation. "It's like Shaq is the leading man and Elden is the
understudy," he said. "When the leading man can't perform, the
understudy steps in and the show goes on." But Los Angeles has
had to reshuffle almost its entire cast, and all the performers
have had to learn new lines. When the Lakers took the floor on
Feb. 19 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Van Exel was the only
member of the starting lineup who had been a starter at the same
position a week earlier: Campbell had replaced O'Neal at center,
rookie Travis Knight was in Campbell's power forward spot, Jones
had moved from shooting guard to small forward to replace Horry,
and teenage rookie Kobe Bryant had become the starter in Jones's
old slot. The Cavaliers took advantage of the Lakers' confusion
that night to pull away in the fourth quarter for a 103-84
victory. "Tonight was a night when it hurt," Van Exel said
afterward, referring to the changes caused by the injuries.
"Players were arguing with coaches. Coaches were arguing with
players. It's not good for us in the situation we're in. We have
to stick together."

The outlook improved a bit last Thursday when Los Angeles
acquired one of the better marksmen in the NBA, George McCloud,
who can play shooting guard and small forward. McCloud came in a
trade with the New Jersey Nets (who had gotten him from the
Dallas Mavericks three days earlier) for little-used center Joe
Kleine, as well as a first-round draft pick this year and a
conditional second-round choice in '98. The 6'8" McCloud will
help the Lakers' depth, and Harris is already envisioning the
possibility of surrounding O'Neal with four dangerous
three-point shooters--Horry, Jones, McCloud and Van Exel--when
everyone is healthy.

McCloud's presence should further ensure that Bryant's tenure as
a starter was a brief one. As impressed as they have been by the
rookie's performance this season, the Lakers don't want to enter
the latter stages of the season leaning too heavily on someone
whose biggest concern at NBA playoff time a year ago was finding
the right tux for the senior prom. Bryant, who went directly
from Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., to Los Angeles and is
still only 18 1/2 years old, accepted the acquisition of McCloud
with maturity and good cheer, the same way he has dealt with
just about everything else in his eventful rookie season. His
playing time has fluctuated widely, with last week a case in
point. He started for the third time this season and played 23
minutes against the Cavaliers, scoring 10 points, and then came
off the bench for only five minutes two nights later and scored
just two in the 99-91 defeat of the Grizzlies. But overall his
season can only be considered a rousing success. Through Sunday
he was averaging 6.6 points in 14.2 minutes, and during All-Star
Weekend he won the Slam Dunk contest and nearly won the MVP
award at the Rookie Game. "The fact that he can come out here
and contribute at all in this league is an amazing thing," says
Rambis. "His maturity is remarkable."

So is his talent. Bryant is so versatile that Harris used him as
Van Exel's backup at point guard for several weeks, yet Rambis
points to the area underneath the basket and says, "He's going
to make a lot of hay right there," referring to Bryant's post-up
ability. Bryant's teammates are just as impressed. After one
particularly spectacular move during a scrimmage earlier this
season, Campbell said, "Damn, you should have come out after
11th grade."

Bryant seems to be equal parts tough-minded professional and
wide-eyed adolescent. Last week, as he relaxed in the office of
his agent, Arn Tellem, he talked in one breath about how he
shrugs off foes' attempts to intimidate him and spoke in the
next of his worry that "if my mother knew I was about to have a
cheese-steak sandwich, she'd be all over me for not eating right."

Teammates say one of Bryant's best qualities is his willingness
to ask questions. "I ask Eddie about how to get through those
baseline screens on defense," he says. Then he smiles. "And I
ask Byron how to hold a guy's shirt and get away with it. No,
just kidding."

The Lakers can use all the levity they can get these days, but
they know they will have to have more than good cheer going for
them. When Van Exel excused himself from an interview before the
Vancouver game to go to chapel, no one had to remind him to pray
for a certain center's speedy recovery.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Teenager Bryant often reaches the heights--when he plays, which continues to be fitfully. [Kobe Bryant dunking basketball] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH As the enigmatic Campbell (41) attained unexpected levels filling in for Shaq, Knight ably jumped in at power forward. [Elden Campbell blocking shot by Chris Childs; Travis Knight in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)