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Inside The NBA

Shaquille O'Neal's nocturnal practice sessions have elevated his

Pardon the big fella if he's amused by the throng of admirers
who insist they have been in his corner all along. Shaquille
O'Neal knows better. "I'm good at remembering who was with me,"
he says, "and who wasn't."

You want to hop on the Shaq bandwagon, which gathered serious
steam last week after victories over three title contenders--the
Trail Blazers, Pacers and Heat--ran the Lakers' winning streak
to 15 and their league-best record to 49-11? First, set aside
any notion you might have that Los Angeles is succeeding because
Shaq has suddenly decided to get serious about basketball. Fact
is, O'Neal has made a concerted effort to add something to his
game each year, like that deadly little jump hook he's burying
this season, but his improvement has always been overshadowed by
the team's failures in the playoffs.

"It takes an awful lot of hard work to refine things the way he
has," says Lakers executive vice president Jerry West.
"Shaquille keeps strange hours. He goes to the gym from 9:30 to
11 at night. If he weren't so private about it, maybe people
would see him differently."

The citizens of Manhattan Beach have done their share of double
takes upon seeing Shaq arrive at the Mira Costa High gymnasium
for his nocturnal workouts. It's one of many places that O'Neal
shoots free throws--over and over and over again. (He would also
love to work a night shift at the Lakers' new practice facility
in El Segundo, but the players have not yet been given keys.)
Early this season coach Phil Jackson benched Shaq for the final
seconds of tight games because of his pathetic foul shooting,
which dipped to 32% in mid-November. It wasn't the kind of stat
that looks good on an MVP resume next to 27.6 points, 14.2
rebounds and 3.37 blocks per game (his averages at week's end),
and O'Neal took umbrage at the crunch-time benching. Jackson's
reply: "Prove you can hit them."

On L.A.'s six-game trip to the East in late February, Shaq
nailed 38 of his 59 free throws (64.4%). Against the Blazers he
was 9 of 13 (69.2%). His improvement at the line is only one of
the many ways in which Shaq is flourishing under Jackson--even
though he averaged a not-so-shabby 26.3 points and 10.7 rebounds
last year. "I think I was a pretty good player before he got
here," says O'Neal. "But Phil has plugged in missing pieces, and
the biggest one was respect. We needed it [from the rest of the
league]; he has it."

Last season was marked by tension between Shaq and the other
franchise Laker, Kobe Bryant. Each felt L.A. was his team, and
the two struggled to play nice. Jackson's triangle offense has
forced O'Neal and Bryant to create touches for everyone. The
adjustment was easy, says Shaq, who bristles at the notion that
in the past he was unwilling to spread the wealth. "I became a
team player when I was 15," he says. "Everybody treated me like
I was God, so I thought I was God. Then one day the entire
[student body at] Robert G. Cole High School [in San Antonio]
froze me out. I'd sit down with the fellas at lunch, and they'd
pick up their trays and leave. I said to my friend Joe, 'What's
up?' He said, 'You think you can do it all on your own, go
ahead.' After that, I was all about team.

"There's no problem between Kobe and me this season, because
Phil doesn't allow it. I don't have to say anything [to Kobe]
because Phil says it. When I said it, it got misconstrued all
the time as Kobe and me not getting along."

No one is saying the big fella is perfect. "We don't want him to
be satisfied," says Lakers assistant Tex Winter. "Once in a
while he can fall into, Why knock myself out? I'm already as
good as it gets." That kind of observation would have made
headlines a year ago: COACH SAYS SHAQ TOO COMPLACENT! Not now.
O'Neal is earning his MVP stripes and the belated respect of
skeptical fans and media. "He's made it," West says. "Know how I
can tell? Nobody ever talks about how much money he makes

Pitino's Meltdown in Boston

When Raptors star Vince Carter dropped a game-winning
three-point bomb at Boston on March 1, it marked the Celtics'
fourth straight home loss and their second straight crushing
defeat. (They had blown a 20-point lead against the Mavericks
two days earlier.) It also highlighted this harsh fact: The team
that coach and president Rick Pitino guaranteed would make the
playoffs before the season seems sure to miss them for the fifth
consecutive year.

Pitino chastised Boston fans in an emotional postgame press
conference, saying, "Larry Bird is not walking through that
door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and
Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you
expect them to, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is
young, exciting, hardworking and going to improve. People don't
realize that. And as soon as you realize that those three guys
aren't coming through that door, the better off this town will

He then uttered a statement that will no doubt have a permanent
spot in local sports lore: "The negativity in this town sucks."

Almost immediately, Pitino's motives were questioned. Were the
words spontaneous or calculated? Was it a momentary flash of
frustration or a sign of surrender? When asked what it all
meant, one Celtics official said, "Isn't it obvious? He's out of

Rumors swirled through the league late last week that Pitino had
notified his assistants to start looking for new jobs, that he
had put out feelers to two major college programs, that he would
confine his duties to the front office. The embattled coach
denied them all.

One thing is certain: He won't get fired. If he does, chairman
Paul Gaston has 10 days to pay off the remaining seven years of
his contract, which amounts to around $29 million. Team sources
say the owner and his so-called coaching savior are not on great
terms, but Gaston, who is, above all, financially prudent, won't
give Pitino an easy out. When he left the Knicks in a huff in
1989, Pitino tried to make the team's general manager, Al
Bianchi, the scapegoat, blaming him for the team's failures and
his own departure. If Pitino bolts Boston, which was 24-35 at
week's end and 79-112 in his three seasons with the team, he'll
have no one to blame but himself.

While those close to Pitino say he's not interested in returning
to the college ranks, the Celtics can only hope he jumps ship.
He lost his players months ago. Watch as he orders Antoine
Walker to set up in the post, only to have his forward step out
and jack up a three. Replay the words of Danny Fortson, before
his trade to the Raptors for Alvin Williams was rescinded, and
listen to him say "the ship was sinking pretty fast" in Boston.
Hear the Celtics privately complain about being browbeaten by a
coach who made mistake after mistake in assembling the team.

Pitino may be a superior tactician, but when it comes to
personnel matters, he acquires and discards players the way a
day trader does stock. The result: talent that doesn't mesh. If
forward Paul Pierce is the foundation of your rebuilding plans,
doesn't it make sense to put players around him who accent his
strengths? The offensive-minded Walker doesn't do that, nor does
point guard Kenny Anderson, who needs to handle the ball too
much. Rookie point guard Andre Miller would have been a great
fit, except that Pitino traded last year's No. 8 pick--the spot
in which Miller went to the Cavaliers--and Andrew DeClercq to
get Vitaly Potapenko, a 6'10" center who doesn't block shots,
rebound consistently or play defense with authority.

In his tirade Pitino lamented his team's lack of salary-cap
flexibility. Whose fault is that? Pitino's the one who signed
bit player Walter McCarty to a three-year, $8.4 million deal and
committed $33 million over six years to Potapenko. Pitino says
he won't be able to afford Fortson when Fortson becomes a free
agent this summer, but could that be because Pitino allotted
$25.2 million over the next six years to forward Tony Battie,
who, before the Nuggets unloaded him on Boston, was immortalized
by Denver G.M. Dan Issel as El Busto? Could it be because Pitino
traded for forward Eric Williams, sometimes a DNP-CD, who has
$3.9 million coming to him next season?

Pitino has been as exposed as an emperor with no clothes, no cap
room and no postseason prospects. Negativity? You brought it on
yourself, Rick.

Outrage in Vancouver

The Save Stu Jackson campaign has begun in earnest in Vancouver.
Grizzlies team officials, coaches and players are taking a
proactive stance against incoming owner Michael Heisley, who
they believe plans to fire Jackson as president and general
manager when he officially gains control of the team later this
month. Star forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim said last month that if
Jackson is sent packing, he might want to follow. Fans and
community leaders sent dozens of letters to the team's
headquarters supporting Jackson, whose authority has been
undermined ever since Heisley's adviser, former NBA coach Dick
Versace, began sending scouts to games at which Jackson's staff
was already present. "It's been difficult," says Jackson, "but
I'm not sure I need saving."

Says Heisley, who has endured an avalanche of negative publicity
about his advisers, who include former agent George Andrews and
attorney Thomas Penn, "I don't own the team yet, so quite
frankly, any discussion about Stu Jackson or anyone else is
inappropriate. I'm not about to tell [the Grizzlies] how to
handle their personnel."

But according to league sources, Heisley's advisers did play a
role in nixing a three-way deal before the trading deadline
involving unhappy forward Othella Harrington. Heisley says he
isn't paying former Texas A&M coach Tony Barone or former NBA
player Mitchell Anderson, who have been scouting college games
on Versace's orders. "They are Dick's friends," Heisley says.
Asked why it was necessary to duplicate scouts at college games,
Heisley answered, "I'd like to know what's going on with the
college players, and there's only a limited time to see them.
Obviously, Vancouver isn't going to make a lot of moves, because
of the constraints of the salary cap, so [our lottery] pick
becomes very important."

Jackson has run the Grizzlies since their inception and in five
years has yet to guide them to more than 19 wins in a season.
But his strong ties with the corporate community in Vancouver
and his support among fans and players haven't gone unnoticed by
Heisley. Abdur-Rahim's comments were particularly troubling to
him. "I'm sensitive to what Shareef is saying," says Heisley, a
Chicago-based industrialist whose net worth has been estimated
at $1.5 billion. "Not just because he's a great basketball
player, but because he seems like a fine young man.

"Still, I have to be driven by the best interests of the
Grizzlies. I'm not saying I will make a change; I'm not saying I
won't make a change. But I'm aware [running the franchise] will
be a test of my mettle."

Line of the Week

Sixers guard Allen Iverson, March 2 versus Washington: 43
minutes, 2-of-18 FG, 1-of-3 FT, 5 points, 4 assists, 2
turnovers. Iverson, who is nursing a partially torn right
rotator cuff, broke his 64-game streak of double-figure scoring,
but Philadelphia still won, 87-84.

For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH O'Neal may be best known for his dunks, but he toils hard to add a move to his arsenal every year.

COLOR PHOTO: COLOR PHOTO: JON HAYT/NBA PHOTOS Pitino's rant won't earn much sympathy for him, Walker (8) and the beleaguered Celtics.

Around The Rim

Sophomore center Joel Przybilla, who quit the team at Minnesota
last month after being suspended for poor academic performance,
has signed with agent Bill Duffy and will be eligible for the
June 28 draft. Though Przybilla is still raw offensively, one
Eastern Conference G.M. believes he could go among the top five
picks because of his defense. Says a Western Conference team
official, "He's not really ready yet, but he'll tease you
because he's 7'1", he's athletic, and he can block shots."
Sounds like the perfect gamble for a team that winds up with
multiple first-round picks....

Turns out Hakeem Olajuwon's asthmatic condition should not
hamper his game. In fact, doctors discovered that the Dream's
lung capacity is greater than it was four years ago....

The latest tactic that opponents are using to rattle the Sonics:
double-teaming Vin Baker in the post, then picking off his
attempt to swing it to the open man....

Orlando, which will make a run at both Tim Duncan and Grant
Hill, would be happy to "settle" for Hornets guard Eddie Jones.
Charlotte coach Paul Silas on how critical it is to lock up
Jones: "I told our owners, if you don't re-sign him, you might
as well shut this whole thing down." ...

Minnesota vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale
on Timberwolves forward Joe Smith, who has struggled to stay
healthy all season: "He has trouble keeping his weight up. I
told him he should do what I do: Eat eight pizzas a night."