It’s the heartwarming story of the man who has spent much of the last month as the first-string power forward in name only, became the starting center when the local hero went down, then rose to greatness.
Elden Campbell stepped into the big shoes of the injured Shaquille O’Neal for the second night in a row Wednesday and responded with a game like few others in his 6 1/2-year career. He had a career-high 34 points, he had 14 rebounds to miss a season high by one, and the Lakers had their revenge on the Chicago Bulls, taking control from the start and earning a 106-90 victory before 17,505 at the Forum.
“I thought Shaq was wearing No. 41,” Nick Van Exel said.
Actually, Shaq was wearing a black suit as he sat on the bench nursing the sprained knee ligament that has sidelined him the last two games and will keep him out of the All-Star game and maybe beyond. So that was, indeed, Campbell, recently losing big minutes to Travis Knight, in his usual uniform, if not his usual mode.
“I knew I was going to have to be the man tonight,” he said after the Lakers ended the Bulls’ eight-game winning streak. “I knew they were going to be going to me from start to finish.”
It’s just that there weren’t many others.
“The psychological thing fell through,” said Chicago Coach Phil Jackson, who stayed away from the same pressure defense that gave the Lakers so much trouble in the first game because the Bulls were tired. “With Shaq on the bench, we weren’t ready for Campbell. He played like Shaq, and Shaq played like Campbell.”
Added Michael Jordan: “He surprised a lot of people. He came out and was very aggressive tonight.”
Campbell wasn’t the only one. Van Exel, playing 46 minutes, had 24 points and 13 assists against only one turnover. His backcourt mate, Eddie Jones, had 18 points and six rebounds, but he also played a major role in Jordan making only 10 of 24 shots en route to a team-high 27 points and 20 of 56 in the two games against the Lakers.
The loss of O’Neal might have been a major problem for some--"Scalpers who thought they would hold on till 5 o’clock this afternoon are probably looking for another way to make a living,” Harris said before the game--but the Lakers carried on as if nothing bad had happened. Like the injury to the player No. 1 on the team in scoring, rebounding and shooting, or the 22-point drubbing at the hands of the Clippers the night before.
The response to both came in the form of a seven-point lead with the game only about 5 1/2 minutes old and a six-point advantage at the end of the first quarter, a start made complete with Jordan beating Jones off the dribble on the perimeter and leaping toward the basket, only to bounce a slam dunk off the rim. Of course, Jordan followed that by making a jumper and then, after one Bull possession, consecutive three-point shots from the right side.
Jordan had 13 of his points by the end of the first quarter, but the Lakers had a 33-27 lead. They extended that to 10 points early in the second quarter and led, 62-51, at halftime.
It was as if what O’Neal had said earlier in the night was coming true: “Nobody expects us to win tonight anyway. The pressure’s not on us.”
Not that the Lakers were necessarily putting the pressure on the Bulls.
“If they don’t win, they’re only, what, nine games ahead in the East,” Harris said. “I would suspect they’re not feeling a lot of pressure.”
Perhaps, but Campbell went into halftime with 14 points, higher than his season per-game average, and seven rebounds, but he wasn’t close to cooling off. Sixteen more points came in the third quarter on seven-of-nine shooting. And Luc Longley, one of the Bulls’ big men trying to keep Campbell in check, thought his biggest Southern California wipeout this season would be against a sand bar off the South Bay.
The Laker lead, meanwhile, rarely dipped below double figures in the third quarter, reaching 14 points early, briefly dipping as low as six with 8:16 to play, and then going back up. They led, 89-74, heading into the fourth.
Only one thing was more astounding than the sight of the Lakers controlling the best team in the league without O’Neal, not to mention another member of the rotation, Byron Scott. The sound of Campbell being serenaded with “El-den! El-den!” by the same crowd that a home game earlier had been screaming for him to get the hook in favor of Travis Knight.
Of course, the Lakers had been here before this season, steamrollering into the fourth quarter against the Bulls. That was Dec. 17 at the United Center, seven weeks earlier, a memory that has stayed as close to some players as a tattoo, the disaster down the stretch of missed free throws, missed field goals and problems handling defensive pressure that ended in an overtime win for Chicago.
But there would be none of that this time. The Bulls closed within 96-82, so Harris called a 20-second timeout. The Lakers went back to Campbell, who hit a jumper in the lane to regain the momentum, turning back whatever threat may have been about to materialize. No Son if Nightmare.
It was a new night, a new city and a new game. And, most significantly, a new Campbell.
* SHAQLESS: The Laker center will miss the All-Star game but is expected to return to action Feb. 12. C4
* GAME REPORT: A quarter-by-quarter look at the Laker upset. C4
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A Season of Expectations
The Lakers acquired nine new players before the season, including Shaquille O’Neal and his $120-million contract. In turn, with big acquisitions come big expectations. Throughout the season, The Times will monitor O’Neal’s numbers along with how the team compares to some of the best Laker teams in history.
GAME 48 OF 82
* Record 35-13
* Standing 1st place
1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS
Year Gm. 48 Overall 1987-88 39-9 62-20 1986-87 36-12 65-17 1984-85 32-16 62-20 1979-80 33-15 60-22 1971-72 41-7 69-13
Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships
THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD
* Wednesday’s Game:
Did not play--injured
1996-97 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Ast Blk Pts 39.3 .560 .468 13.0 3.2 3.1 26.2
1995-96 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Ast Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.9 2.1 26.6
* Wednesday’s Salary: $130,658.53
* Season Totals: $6,271,609.44
* FACTOID: In Game 48 of the 1971-72 season, Dick Van Arsdale scored 32 points and the Phoenix Suns defeated the Lakers, 116-102, handing the Lakers their second consecutive loss and fourth in six games since their record 33-game winning streak ended.