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Jinxed Lakers may still have a chance

Do you remember the preseason hysteria about the Los Angeles Lakers?

Four future Hall-of-Famers. Maybe the best team ever. Threat to win 70 games. Shoo-in to win NBA championship.

An 18-3 start fanned the flames. Since then, there have been injuries, constant controversy and 16 losses in 30 games, even with post-All-Star-break nail-biting victories over the Trail Blazers and Golden State.

The voyeur in us all has been fascinated with the look at the league's biggest soap opera starting last summer, just before the free-agent signing of superstars Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Kobe Bryant's arrest on a sexual assault charge has become the O.J. Simpson case of this decade, creating an immediate obstacle for the Lakers coming into training camp.

The Lakers arrived at camp in Hawaii without Bryant, as teammate-arch rival Shaquille O'Neal needled, 'The whole team is here.'

The like/hate relationship has continued to simmer through the season as Bryant, who can opt out of his contract at season's ended, hinted that he's gone because of O'Neal. Of course, last week, Bryant denied as much to the Los Angeles Times, saying, 'I would be lying if I said the challenge of playing on a team (without Shaq) -doesn't interest me; everybody who knows me knows how much I love a challenge. But that -doesn't mean I am leaving.'

The great start was followed by injuries to O'Neal, Bryant and Malone, the last suffering a knee injury that required surgery in late December and that will probably keep the Mailman out until the final month of the regular season.

Suddenly, coach Phil Jackson was relying on the likes of Slava Medvendenko, Kareem Rush, Horace Grant and Devean George for major production. And the losses kept on coming.

'It's like quicksand,' Jackson lamented before the All-Star break. 'We are always sinking one level deeper.'

And whining a bit.

'The Haitian voodoo witchcraft priest who is putting pins in the doll somewhere down in the Dominican Republic can release that image and let the Laker doll go. We have had our share of misfortune to last us a season,' he said.

Jackson is in the final year of his contract, and when negotiations for an extension were tabled last week until after the season, Bryant was asked for a reaction. 'I don't care,' he said, in a seeming slap at his coach.

Later, Bryant clarified to the Times: 'I just meant it wasn't a big issue to us. ÉI don't like Phil as a person, but I love him as a coach. Would I go to lunch with him? No, but I like playing for him.'

That prompted Malone and O'Neal to cover their coach's back.

Malone: 'As a coach, I have respect for him. As a person, I have respect, without a doubt. I want him back next year.'

O'Neal: 'I am not turning my back on Phil. He is the guy who took me to the next level. He is the guy who is going to continue to take me to the next level. Nobody else can do that for me. I don't care if we lose 115 games in a row, Phil's my guy, period. If Phil is gone, I am gone.'

If Jackson isn't back, O'Neal would ask to be traded?

'I am not saying that,' O'Neal backtracked. 'I am saying I want Phil around. If my worth is important to this organization, Shaquille O'Neal wants Phil around.'

A lot of player

O'Neal, scheduled to make $27.7 million next season and $30.6 million 2005-06, can opt out after next season. Negotiations for an extension have begun. O'Neal's people want to start at $26 million; the Lakers are suggesting $20 million. It's a lot of money, but he's a lot of player. In Wednesday's 100-99 win at Golden State, he contributed 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots. He also had seven turnovers and made 1 of 9 foul shots.

Malone, indestructible through his 19-year NBA career, is on the mend. He has begun gym workouts, though he hasn't been given clearance to go beyond that yet.

'They don't want me to run on it yet, but I feel I can,' he says. 'I know my body. Another week or so, for sure. The important thing right now is to be smart. If I have another setback, I am pretty much down for the season.'

Malone hopes to be able to play in about the final 15 to 20 regular-season games to get himself into shape, both physically and mentally, for the postseason. The Lakers are battling for one of the top four spots in the West and homecourt advantage in the first round. If the Big Four can come together at the right time, good things probably will happen.

'We still have a good chance,' Jackson said. 'I still feel we are the odds-on favorite to be the team of destiny.'

Malone is a bit more cautious.

'We are where we are at right now,' he said. 'Other teams realize what we are capable of doing when we get everybody back. We'll see. We'll be looking forward to it.'

Notes

O'Neal, after diving out of bounds for a loose ball in the Portland game: 'That's what I'm underpaid to do.' É Mike Dunleavy has four important young players to build around in his first year coaching the Clippers Ñ forwards Elton Brand (24) and Corey Maggette (24), guard Quentin Richardson (23) and rookie center Chris Kaman (21). 'I like our pieces,' Dunleavy says. 'Our front line is under contract for a minimum of five years.' Dunleavy tries to ignore the stigma long attached to the Clipper franchise. 'I don't even think about that,' he says. 'It's like every time we play a game someplace, we haven't won there in 10 years or whatever. Somebody is always saying something. Fine, we will live with that, and we will change it. When I was in Portland, we hadn't won in Utah in 16 years or something. I said, 'That's somebody else; that wasn't us.' Our mindset is, we can do this. In the four years I was with the Blazers, we beat them twice in the playoffs, once with homecourt, once without. Same thing here. New deal. We are going to be fine.' É New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank, seemingly headed to the Hall of Fame after winning his first 10 games while in charge at New Jersey, on the formality of his surname: 'I don't like Larry. Never liked it. I had a -real good friend named Larry. Liked him; didn't like the name.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .