THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Key to Lakers' Rebuilding Effort? It's Classified

GIVE US FIVE YEARS, RETIRE AT 45 AND BUY MAUI

Wanted: Big-time coach to revive dynasty. Must baby-sit young players and weather a bad season or two while we sign some superstars. Total salary exceeds $20 million for the right man. Contact Dr. J. Buss, Forum, Inglewood, Calif.

Ask Jerry Buss if it isn't hard to find good help.

He reportedly offered the job that Magic Johnson gave back, plus a $21-million, five-year contract, to Kentucky's Rick Pitino. Pitino reportedly turned it down.

Then they went back to their offices to play charades.

The Lakers refused comment, suggesting it was media hype.

Pitino insisted he hadn't been offered anything. Then he asked: If he had been offered the money in the headlines, wouldn't he have had to check it out?

Of course, the Lakers aren't keen on acknowledging that people are turning them down.

For his part, Pitino is sensitive about going down as the new Larry Brown, even though he has moved around and does like being courted.

When Pitino recruited Roderick Rhodes two years ago, he promised he would stay at Kentucky until Rhodes left.

What is he supposed to tell the kid now: "I thought about stiffing you but decided not to?"

However, Buss gushed about Pitino all last winter. Then Pitino showed up in town for a "speaking engagement," just as reports circulated that he had been offered the job. This is a lot of coincidence for a lifetime, much less a weekend.

Unlike my colleague, Mike Downey, I think Pitino would have been great. Of course, Pitino has an ego as big as all outdoors, but I prefer that to a humbler man with more to be humble about.

Pitino has turned around every stumbling program he has taken over--Boston University, Providence, the New York Knicks, Kentucky. He'll make a fine NBA coach one day, but probably didn't intend to leave this year or to start at the bottom with a team like the Lakers, even if Buss' offer must have taken his breath away.

Buss might have trouble accepting a hard reality--that the Lakers as he knew them are finished--but he remains a great owner for one reason: When he says he wants the best, he means it and will pay for it.

While the guy across town cuts his offer to his newest franchise player, after having alienated his old franchise player the same way, Buss offers Pitino more than twice the salary of the game's highest-paid coach, Pat Riley.

With Johnson and Pitino out of the picture, Buss' wish list has run out, making that old Jerry West favorite, Roy Williams of Kansas, a prime contender.

Williams turned West down two years ago but is said to be intrigued by the NBA.

"I know he's interested in pro ball," a friend of Williams says. "He started two years ago to prepare himself for it."

Williams was in Phoenix when the NBA was holding a draft camp last week but said it was a coincidence, that he was vacationing with his son or something like that.

Coincidence is very big this time of year.

A WORD ON BEHALF OF THE BRAT PACK

No one has ever seen young players like today's, stars of the boffo NCAA tournament, entering a prosperous NBA, full of sneaker money and themselves.

It makes you shudder to think what the next century will offer.

How about: no uniform pants and shirts down to their ankles?

On the other hand, it wasn't right for Johnson to equate the '94 Lakers he joined as coach with the '79-80 Lakers he joined as a player.

The '94 guys don't have the attitude the '79-80 guys had? Guess what? There are a few other things these kids are missing.

The '79-80 Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon. The '94 team had Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell and Nick Van Exel.

Attitude is wonderful, but I'll go with the 7-2 guy who takes the occasional siesta but can drop a sky hook at crunch time.

Johnson blasted his young players several times. Once, OK. They pulled a no-show in Phoenix and he was just telling it like it was. Twice? OK. He was explaining one of his frustrations on the job.

After that, it was too much. The Laker youngsters aren't any worse than anyone else's. Management in basketball and other major league sports has always involved the art of handling head cases.

Divac has improved from the days when Johnson, the player, snarled, "C'mere!" at him on the floor, although Vlade does not yet have the fire of, say, Alonzo Mourning.

Doug Christie is a 45-r.p.m. record playing at 78, but a talent they'd better think twice about before trading.

Anthony Peeler is a mystery.

Van Exel is a prospect, if a stubborn one. George Lynch is a plus, even if he gives new dimension to the term small forward.

Campbell is a write-off. He actually is making progress, but at his pace, he won't be a good NBA starter until he's 40.

This club was never two years away, or two players away. It doesn't need to be revamped, overhauled or shaken up, it needs to be rebuilt.

Of course, this fundamental is still resisted at the Forum. After a season in which Sedale Threatt averaged 26 minutes a game to Christie's 23, the Lakers finished with only the 10th-worst record--and a 125-1 shot at the top pick.

Anyway, cut these kids some slack. They've got worse problems than attitude.

SUNRISE OVER NEW YORK: HOW IT WILL GO

For those impatient to know how the playoffs will turn out:

Seattle 3, Denver 0. Denver had two players with a total of 101 minutes of postseason experience. Coach Dan Issel said nobody expected anything of them and they proved it, trailing by 25 at halftime of Game 1.

Houston 3, Portland 1. Swan song for Rick Adelman?

Phoenix 3, Golden State 2. Don Nelson, who uninvented the center position, is trying the same for point guard, which he divides among four players, two of whom, Chris Webber and Billy Owens, are forwards. He'll almost uninvent the Suns, too.

Utah 3, San Antonio 2. Dennis Rodman's zeal doesn't mean as much in the playoffs, when everyone tries hard.

Atlanta 3, Miami 2. Hawk insiders say it's really Mookie Blaylock's team, which explains the Hawks' late slide. Correcting for three-pointers, Blaylock shot 47% in the first 77 games, 35% in the last five, went three for 16 in Atlanta's Game 1 loss.

New York 3, New Jersey 1. What, them tired? Riley just took the Knicks to Charleston, S.C., for his annual pre-playoffs boot camp.

Chicago 3, Cleveland 0. Mike Fratello finished a remarkable season without Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance and, as a reward, lost Hot Rod Williams.

Indiana 3, Orlando 1. Only the Houston Rockets shot more three-pointers than the Magic, but they don't fall as easily in the thick playoff air. Nick Anderson made the Magic's first two in the Game 1 loss, after which Orlando went one for 15.

In the second round:

Seattle 4, Utah 2. George Karl has three guards to hound John Stockton.

Phoenix 4, Houston 3. The Rocket bench is hurting. Mario Elie is coming off a broken bone in his right hand. Carl Herrera's knee is so sore, the Rockets put Earl Cureton on the playoff roster just in case.

New York 4, Chicago 2. Riley didn't invent the carrot and stick but might try to copyright it, as he did Byron Scott's "three-peat." Before this series, he takes the Knicks to Peoria for a riverboat gambling excursion.

Indiana 4, Atlanta 2. Danny Manning, averaging 16 points as a Hawk after 24 as a Clipper, takes the heat for the loss and signs elsewhere.

In the conference finals:

Phoenix 4, Seattle 3. It's still a superstar's game, and the Suns outrank the SuperSonics, 2-0.

New York 4, Indiana 2. Riley takes the Knicks to Bloomington to meet Bob Knight, so they can realize how good they've got it.

In the finals:

Phoenix 4, New York 3. Riley can't find a theme park and takes his players to watch Charles Barkley partying in Scottsdale. John Starks and Anthony Mason get too close and are arrested in a melee that starts when Barkley throws a nun's autograph book in the street. A friendly D.A. springs Barkley to bring home the title. Barkley retires and is elected governor of Alabama, running on a law-and-order platform.

FACES AND FIGURES

A plague on all their houses: A board of governors meeting, perhaps smelling a tank job by Detroit (13 losses to end the season), Minnesota (10 losses to end the season) and Milwaukee (1-9 in its last 10, a victory over the Pistons), broke their three-way tie at 20-62 by giving them all the same chance in the lottery. . . . The Clippers finished 1-9 for seventh worst, giving them a 23-1 chance for the first pick and about 8-1 for one of the top three. . . . The Lakers, 10th worst, are 125-1 for the top pick, about 40-1 for one of the top three.

In a surprise move, the Bulls left Horace Grant's heir apparent at power forward, No. 1 pick Corey Blount, and center Will Perdue, recently signed to a five-year contract, off the playoff roster. Perdue said he might attend the games but added, "If it's cutting into my golf time, or the White Sox or the Cubs game, I might have to decline." . . . Stars of last week's Phoenix pre-draft camp: Arizona's Khalid Reeves now figures to go around the bottom of the lottery. Nebraska's Eric Piatkowski, a 6-foot-6 guard, was MVP and moved into the low teens. The other all-tournament picks: Brian Grant, a 6-9 forward from Xavier of Ohio; Eric Mobley, a 6-11 center from Pittsburgh, and Dickie Simpkins, a 6-9 forward from Providence. All were dark horses who now figure to go in the first round.

Solidarity only goes so far: The Knicks' Charles Smith, Charles Oakley, Derek Harper and Herb Williams shaved their heads for the playoffs, but Ewing said he likes his flattop. Riley didn't even consider it. "I don't think they want me to do that," he said. "It would be such a shock, they wouldn't be able to play."

Charlotte's non-playoff finish means Seattle will get a lottery pick, probably No. 11, to complete that Kendall Gill-for-Eddie Johnson-and-Dana Barros steal, er, deal.

Larry Brown's wife, Shelly, on their triumphant first season in Indiana: "We never make the assumption when we buy a house that we'll be there forever. But I have unpacked some boxes that Larry hasn't unpacked in 20 years."

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