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Ceballos Is Back, but Not All the Way

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cedric Ceballos became a Laker again Tuesday night, though hardly a Laker in good standing.

He has been stripped of his rank as a team captain in a unanimous vote by players.

He got the silent treatment during the cross-country charter flight the day before.

He not only temporarily lost his job as the starting small forward as punishment for going AWOL for four days and two games, later saying it was due to family business, but was dropped all the way to third string for the game against the Orlando Magic, behind Magic Johnson and George Lynch.

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“I’m sure some guys are still thinking about it because he has not apologized to the team,” said Nick Van Exel, an outspoken critic of Ceballos’ behavior and now the Lakers’ lone captain. “Once he apologizes, it should be OK. Right now, it seems like some guys are still distant from him. He hasn’t said ‘I’m sorry,’ or he hasn’t even said ‘Hi.’ ”

At the same time, it was Van Exel who set the wheels of forgiveness in motion before tipoff at Orlando Arena, telling the team in the huddle just outside the locker room that this should be their new beginning. They responded with a rousing 113-91 victory, during which Ceballos contributed 15 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes in his first outing in a week.

“We’ve got to play as a team,” Van Exel said later. “We can’t have 11 guys mad at one guy.”

The Lakers apparently reached this decision after considerable thought. The monetary fines have stopped at almost $57,000, but players and coaches have their own way of extracting a pound of flesh, like making a guy pay with his reputation.

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So players voted to demote him Saturday, a fact that Ceballos was made aware of in the meeting the next day with Executive Vice President Jerry West and General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Then they gave him the cold shoulder during the four hours or so it took to fly here from Los Angeles for the start of this six-game trip, although he said he didn’t notice anything, thus proving either unable to sense the emotion of teammates or refusing to acknowledge it.

By Tuesday night, Coach Del Harris conceded for the first time that the decision to bring him off the bench was a continued form of punishment and not because Ceballos wasn’t up to speed on a few new plays in the offense.

“Beyond the fines, there is a thought for team balance where you don’t ignore what was done, and neither do you keep bringing it up past its time,” Harris said. “Trying to keep a team in a good chemistry balance is one of the most difficult things to do, and doing that [the benching] is a concession to the balance of chemistry.”

Ceballos stayed on the bench until only 3:55 remained in the first half, was booed when he entered and, Harris said, looked tentative with his first few shots, although he disagreed with the assessment. He missed a couple shots badly, getting open underneath like always, but looked much better when the Lakers broke the game open in the second half, ultimately earning his coach’s praise.

“There’s a lot of good basketball fans in Orlando,” Ceballos said. “After the first couple plays, they were like any other road crowd. At the end, a few of them were even cheering for me.”

Later, asked about being impeached as captain, he said: “I don’t have any reaction. It’s a team thing with me. I go with what the team wants.”


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