"Family Matters" is on the tube as the first few Lakers trickle into the locker room, tipoff about two hours away. Elden Campbell, their starting power forward, is at his cubicle, one of the closest to the TV, for only a moment before he walks a few feet to the VCR and slides in a tape of the last game against the Phoenix Suns, the opponent this night, and focuses on the screen.
On the surface, it's a major surprise that Campbell was the one to take the initiative, not to mention using those words together: Elden Campbell and focus. Four coaches in his nearly five seasons as a pro, all with the hometown team, have the ground-down teeth to prove it.
Then again, Campbell has a way of fooling people, playing impressively for a stretch when least expected and, when the Lakers allow themselves to believe, clicking back into sleepwalk mode. That explains how he was a force in the near-upset of the Suns in the first round of the 1993 playoffs, against Charles Barkley no less, then returned the next fall in great shape but averaged only one rebound a game more than small forward George Lynch, despite getting five more minutes an outing.
But he does study the game tapes, which belies his image as an apathetic player. And Bill Bertka, the assistant coach who tutors the big men, recites a list of positives, starting with Campbell's desire to improve and only then moving to great athletic skill.
So what do we have here, a player who is lazy, inconsistent--and burning to break through?
He began this season with career averages of 7.9 points and 4.8 rebounds and shooting 45.7%, then had Magic Johnson, a former teammate and coach, anoint him during training camp as "the key to our season."
The implication was clear. If veteran newcomer Cedric Ceballos and rookie Eddie Jones were as good as the Lakers hoped, then, along with Nick Van Exel and Vlade Divac, they would be set at all five starting spots.
There was also the matchup factor. Campbell, at 6 feet 11 and with great leaping ability, agility and speed, is extremely difficult to stop. He can go above and around the muscle-laden power forwards--witness the drop step from the low post that regularly gives Barkley fits--or simply elevate above any similarly mobile counterparts with the turn-around jumper.
"He has some gifts that are unique for a man his size," Bertka said. "He has explosive quickness. That was one of the first comments Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) made about Elden when we went to Hawaii (during) Elden's first year in the league. Kareem was in camp with us (as a consultant) and Kareem said, 'This guy has a real gift of quickness.' It's a hard thing for a lot of people to recognize, but he'll make a move--we call it shakin' and bakin'--and just freeze his man."
Johnson's comments, after a summer during which the Lakers shopped for a dependable power forward, officially flushed Campbell out of his usual roost in the background. The results have been mixed, as if there is any other way for him. The 12.9 points a game amount to a nice contribution and the 1.98 blocked shots an even nicer one as the Lakers have risen to No. 1 in the league in that category. But the 6.0 rebounds are only about two more than backup Sam Bowie is getting in 12 fewer minutes a game.
"With the team we have, I don't think it's just one person who's the key," Campbell said. "We've won games with everybody this year. But I understand (Magic's) point. You have to have something to anchor your offense around and your defense around, and I'm the player that he's talking about, even if it's just a few points in the low post or playing some good low-post defense on somebody. I agree with it. It just feels good to be that much more involved.
"I think it's a responsibility. I wouldn't call it pressure. That's what I'm here to do anyway--play basketball and contribute. If that's what they need from me, I feel that's a challenge for me. I don't want to be just an average role player, somebody who's in there to decoy and do the little thing. Nothing wrong with doing the little things, but I like to be involved where I can contribute in a major way."
He is quick with the corroborating evidence. That '93 Phoenix series has been his career high-water mark. After averaging only 7.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.27 blocked shots in 19.6 minutes of the regular season, he nearly doubled the output in every department with 14 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.40 blocks when the time jumped to 35.6 minutes.
"Whenever I played big minutes, there's been more consistency," he said.
But of course, there is a reason Campbell doesn't always get the big minutes.
He was benched in favor of Lynch at the start of the season, couldn't manage a rebound in 12 minutes on opening night, fouled out after 12 minutes without a rebound the next and then did not even get into the third game.
He went through January, 14 games, without getting more than nine rebounds, and hitting that number only once.
He had 20 total rebounds in one four-game span while averaging 37 minutes.
He played more than 30 minutes only once in an eight-game stretch.
"Let's just say he's the X factor," Coach Del Harris said. "I think it puts a little bit too much on him when you say he's the key. It's just that in terms of consistency, the other players have shown themselves to be consistent players, not that they don't have off games or super games. But Elden just makes it so much easier for everyone else when he's functioning at a high rate, because obviously you can't concentrate on everybody.
"It's been proven when he's really good, we're very effective. . . . When Elden's rebounding, then it's a formidable rebounding bunch. Now, Elden doesn't always rebound. But when he rebounds, it's just hard for the other (teams)."
So the puzzle persists. Does he produce everything people have the right to expect from a No. 27 pick, or is it right to expect more because he has shown the ability to deliver?
Or, there is this option: Everyone should just strap in for the long E-ticket ride.
"I'm not the perfect player," the key to the Laker season says. "I'm getting better and trying to learn more every day. But (criticism) doesn't bother me. If it's bad or constructive criticism, I can deal with it. Somebody's always going to say something, always. No matter how well you're doing."