Everything Is Bubbly in the Forum


The bottle of champagne came from a fan, sent as a sign of encouragement earlier in the day. There it sat on the desk of General Manager Mitch Kupchak, for hours as the Lakers waited long into Wednesday night for word that would determine its use--for celebration or drowning of sorrows.

Coach Del Harris was also there at the Forum. So were scout Ronnie Lester and his fiancee, John Black and Raymond Ridder from the public relations department and secretary Tania Jolly. Then Executive Vice President Jerry West joined them by speaker phone just before 11 p.m. with the news.

Shaquille O'Neal was a Laker. Party on.

"Something like that deserves a pop," Kupchak said.

Around the Shaq Shack, the building once known as the Forum, they would like to think it was only a taste test, a prelude to champagne showers of some June in the next few years. O'Neal has arrived and, they figure, so have the Lakers.

"We had a good team before. Now we're better," Harris said. "It puts us in a category where we are definitely legitimate contenders."

Said West: "The Los Angeles Lakers have acquired a 24-year-old superstar and one I feel will bring us to that level we have enjoyed in the past.

"There's no question this is a rebirth."

Vlade Divac was good, superior to most NBA centers, though you wouldn't know it by those who celebrated his departure as if some villain had been run out of town. But now the Lakers have their first dominating big man since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

An imposing figure does not a championship team make--remember, Luc Longley and Ervin Johnson were the starting centers in the NBA finals--but it also had not been lost in the West that the Lakers were eliminated the last two seasons by teams with superstars in the middle: David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals of 1995 and Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets this spring.

To Harris, that was not the main point.

"Not so much," he said. "Just the opportunity to get Shaq. That was it. Reason enough."

It cost the Lakers three players being traded to create salary-cap space--starter Divac and key reserves Anthony Peeler and George Lynch--and six others being renounced, including Sedale Threatt and Derek Strong. And it will cost them at least $120 million over seven years of the contract, and maybe more, because O'Neal can opt out after the third season and become a free agent again.

But to the Lakers on Thursday, it was all about what they had gained.

O'Neal is in the fold. Free agent Elden Campbell is expected to be re-signed by next week at the latest, and maybe as soon as today. The rookies now counted on to produce instead of being afforded the luxury to be brought along slowly, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, will also be signed in the near future.

That will leave the Lakers with nine players and no chance of bringing back any of the renounced players, including Magic Johnson, who was officially cleared off the books Tuesday so Sean Rooks could be signed. They will be far over the salary cap, so the final three roster spots, barring another trade, are destined for free agents willing to accept the league minimum of $247,500.

They'd like one to be a veteran point guard, the better to take some of the pressure off Bryant and Fisher. A shooting specialist would also be a welcome addition, especially since an original weakness has been compounded by the departure of Peeler and Threatt. And you can never have enough big bodies.

The current collection will be the core, though. Only one new starter, O'Neal, to go along with Campbell, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Cedric Ceballos, but definitely a new look.

Bryant could be getting a lot of playing time at three positions a few months after turning 18. Corie Blount, the backup power forward at the start of last season but fourth-string by the end, will get another chance. There could be new backups at four positions.

The addition of Rooks and O'Neal, along with the expected return of Campbell, gives the Lakers three players at center and power forward that Harris believes are better than the Divac-Campbell-Sam Bowie combination of two seasons ago.

The Lakers having altered the course of two franchises with this mega-transaction, there will between now and the start of the season be endless talk about their chances of a championship.

But, to be sure, they have set the standards themselves by this. Nothing less than champagne will do.


Effect of Shaq-onomics on Lakers

In making room for Shaquille O'Neal's seven-year, $120-million contract, the Lakers made wholesale roster changes in the offseason. A look at the current Laker roster and the one with which they finished the 1995-96 season on May 2:

1996-97 STARTERS:

Cedric Ceballos: Holdover. Position: F

Elden Campbell: Expected to re-sign with Lakers. Position: F

Shaquille O'Neal: Free agent formerly with Orlando. Position: C

Eddie Jones: Holdover. Position: G

Nick Van Exel: Holdover. Position: G


1995-96 STARTERS:

Cedric Ceballos: Holdover. Position: F

Elden Campbell: Holdover. Position: F

Vlade Divac: Traded to Charlotte. Position: C

Eddie Jones: Holdover. Position: G

Nick Van Exel: Holdover. Position: G


1996-97 RESERVES:

Corie Blount: Holdover. Position: F

Sean Rooks: Free agent formerly with Atlanta. Position: F-C

Kobe Bryant: Obtained in trade for Vlade Divac. Position: G

Derek Fisher: First-round draft pick. Position: G


1995-96 RESERVES:

Magic Johnson: Retired. Position: F

Pig Miller: Renounced. Position: F-C

Anthony Peeler: Traded to Vancouver. Position: G

Sedale Threatt: Renounced. Position: G

George Lynch: Traded to Vancouver. Position: F

Corie Blount: Holdover. Position: F

Derek Strong: Renounced. Position: F

Frankie King*: Renounced. Position: G

*--Not on playoff roster.

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