A NEW VISION IN L.A.
How certain was Lakers coach Del Harris that his relationship
with volatile fourth-year point guard Nick Van Exel had
deteriorated beyond repair? Last Thursday afternoon Harris
vented his frustrations in an interview with SI, no longer
keeping behind closed doors the problems that have been
festering between them for much of the three years Harris has
coached Los Angeles.
"Something has to change," Harris said. "I'm not the one who put
this in the spotlight, but since it's out there, I've had
enough. It's an ongoing struggle for me to get Nick to play the
up-tempo game. That's the way the owner [Jerry Buss] and
[executive vice president] Jerry West and I want to play, but
when it doesn't happen, I'm the one who takes the heat, and I'm
tired of it. I've been eating s--- for three years. No more. I
won't take any more hits for a kid who won't even walk over in
the middle of a basketball game to receive instructions."
Harris was referring to an incident at the Forum on May 10, in
the early moments of Game 4 of the Lakers' Western Conference
semifinal series against the Jazz, which Utah led two games to
one. Harris called Van Exel to the sideline to give him
information to relay to forward-center Elden Campbell. Van Exel,
according to Harris, waved him off and kept playing. Furious,
Harris yanked Van Exel from the floor just 1:57 into the game,
and the two became embroiled in a shouting match. L.A. lost that
game 110-95, and two nights later the Jazz eliminated the Lakers
with a 98-93 overtime victory at the Delta Center.
The argument was the climax of a tension-filled season for
Harris and Van Exel. "Nick's problem is he has a deep-seated
mistrust of authority," said Harris. "He's a high-maintenance
kid. Jerry [West] has to meet with him once a month just so he
can keep him straightened out."
Several hours later Harris called SI and said he had sat down
with Van Exel and West and was now hopeful that he and Van Exel
could coexist. In their meeting, said Harris, Van Exel promised
to push the ball upcourt, think passing first and scoring
second, and briskly appear at courtside whenever his coach
summoned him. "Maybe I'm naive," Harris said, "but what I've
heard from Nick just now has changed my mind. What he said came
from the heart. I think he's come to understand that a coach has
a role, and for us to be successful, he has to respect that."
Harris's courtside confrontation with Van Exel refueled reports
that Chuck Daly was waiting in the wings to take Harris's job.
West said on Thursday that there's no truth to that rumor,
adding, "I'm not the owner, but as far as I'm concerned, Del is
our coach. Period."
According to team sources, West was disappointed that Harris
hadn't called a timeout to address Van Exel in the huddle,
instead of pulling him from the game and drawing attention to
their conflict. However, West is increasingly frustrated by Van
Exel's emotional outbursts. In Los Angeles's 1995 second-round
playoff series against the Spurs (which L.A. lost 4-2), Van Exel
infuriated Harris by refusing to join the Lakers' huddle during
timeouts. Late in the 1995-96 regular season Van Exel was
suspended for seven games after he shoved referee Ron Garretson.
West said Harris and Van Exel need to get past their
differences. "I'm not upset with anything about our basketball
team except that I want everyone to get on the same page," he
said. Although Harris and Van Exel may have achieved that last
Thursday--at least temporarily--Harris remains firm in his
belief that Van Exel must bend to the wishes of the franchise.
"I'm not an isolation-game advocate," Harris said. "I don't want
a standing offense, with Shaq [center Shaquille O'Neal] anchored
to the post. Nick likes to play the two-man game with Shaq,
which is fine, but not at the cost of a stagnating offense. I'd
also like to see Nick penetrate to distribute, instead of
penetrating to score."
The Lakers have explored trading Van Exel in the past and likely
will do so again. His toughness, talent and relatively low $1.9
million salary are attractive to other teams. But West will not
deal him unless the Lakers get equal value, which is a tall order.
Van Exel was unavailable for comment last week, but his agent,
James Bryant, said his client wants to remain with Los Angeles.
"Nick wants to win with such a passion that sometimes that
passion causes him to do things that get him into trouble,"
Is all that trouble worth it, particularly since Lakers rookie
guard Kobe Bryant, who has all the makings of a star, was for a
time being groomed at the point? (Bryant's scoring potential has
made L.A.'s front office rethink that plan, and he may wind up
as a 2 guard.)
In Game 5 against Utah, in which Van Exel had 26 points, the
final attempt to win in regulation was entrusted to Bryant, much
to Van Exel's consternation. Bryant shot an air ball--and then
heaved three more in overtime. Harris said his reasons for going
with Bryant were threefold: He worried that, if fouled, Van Exel
wouldn't get a call from the officials (his three-point shot at
the buzzer in Game 2 was blocked by Jazz forward Karl Malone,
who appeared to foul him on the play, but there was no whistle);
Van Exel was limping from an injury to the ball of his left
foot, suffered earlier in the game; and Bryant was begging for
the chance to hit the jumper. "Kobe looked at me in the huddle
and said, 'Coach, if you give me that ball, I'll drain it for
you,'" Harris said. "I believed him. I'd go to Kobe again if we
played the game over. He is the best one-on-one player we have.
The team knows it."
Harris said that in their meeting last Thursday even Van Exel
acknowledged that Bryant had been the proper choice. "You know,"
Harris said, "Nick's not a bad kid."
At least not in the off-season.
MULLIN'S BIRD OF PARADISE
Recently hired Pacers coach Larry Bird has his eye on Warriors
forward Chris Mullin, who has requested a trade and has been
told by Golden State owner Chris Cohan that his wish will be
granted sometime this summer. When Mullin asked out of the Bay
Area in February, the teams he would have agreed to join were
the Bulls, the Hawks, the Heat, the Knicks (who removed
themselves from the list when the Warriors demanded guard John
Starks as part of a package), the Lakers and the Magic. Although
the Pacers were interested, Mullin vetoed going to Indiana. But
Mullin likes and respects Bird--the two hit it off as Dream
Teamers in Barcelona in 1992--and he now thinks differently
about the Pacers.
In the past the Warriors' asking price for Mullin has included a
big man, and with Pacers center Erick Dampier coming on strong,
Indiana can afford to give up one of its frontcourt Davises
(Antonio or Dale). And everyone knows Indy needs a small forward.
AROUND THE RIM
Sources close to Bulls coach Phil Jackson say that while he was
flattered by the Magic's recent five-year, $30 million coaching
offer, he has trouble envisioning himself in Orlando--or, for
that matter, anyplace except Chicago. If at the 11th hour the
Bulls don't step up and pay him ($6 million to $7 million per
season would probably suffice), as they now seem unlikely to do,
he might take a year off and then resume coaching with another
team.... Nets G.M. John Nash, who is new 76ers coach Larry
Brown's first choice to be Philadelphia's G.M., originally had
been denied permission to speak with the Sixers. But sources say
the possibility of Nash's joining Brown has been revived.... As
expected, Pistons forward Otis Thorpe, who feuded with coach
Doug Collins much of the season, has asked for a trade, citing
Charlotte as his preferred destination. The Hornets are at the
salary-cap limit until July 1 (when they can renounce rights to
some of their free agents), which is also when Thorpe's salary
dips from $7 million to $5.6 million.... The Heat, recognizing
its blunder in raising many ticket prices for Games 5 and 7 of
the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks ($20
tickets jumped to $50, $30 tickets to $80 and $40 tickets to
$90), have offered credit toward merchandise or future tickets
to those who forked out good money for the ludicrous price hike.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH After their meeting with West, Harris and Van Exel may finally see eye to eye. [Del Harris and Nick Van Exel]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Mullin might jump at the chance to play for Bird. [Chris Mullin taking shot in game]