Mr. Clutch, the executive:
Jerry West was tearing down before he knew for sure he could build back up. The first offer to Shaquille O’Neal was weeks away when the Lakers committed themselves to the gamble by agreeing to trade Vlade Divac to make salary-cap room. Several others would be let go, either dealt or renounced.
They needed O’Neal, but they also needed warm bodies, which wouldn’t have been a problem except that the available money was practically all earmarked for The One Player. The other pieces would have to come from elsewhere, and at the right price. Free agents, mostly at the minimum, and rookies. The old and the young, maybe even the younger.
The reconstruction era began on draft day with Derek Fisher, the only one with a nonstop itinerary. Then came Kobe Bryant and Travis Knight. One by pick, one by trade, one by free-agent signing.
The Lakers’ kiddie litter.
Now it’s a little more than six months later, the day of the third annual rookie all-star game. This one has become something of a Laker scrimmage, what with the talented trio on the Western Conference squad at Gund Arena.
“Just having three rookies on one team is weird,” Knight said. “But then to have three rookies here?”
Added Fisher, “You kind of walk around with your chest stuck out. You look at the list [of players] and see three L.A. Lakers.”
It’s that much more of an L.A. story because Lorenzen Wright, playing well even while out of position at center, represents the Clippers. But that no team had ever sent three players to the rookie game before today, and then to have the three come from a team so good, atop the conference standings, that they can’t start or put up huge numbers?
“I think it says a lot,” said Larry Drew, the Laker assistant who will also serve as Red Holzman’s right-hand man today against Red Auerbach and the East. “People are happy to have one guy make it. You’re jumping for joy if you get two guys in there. But to get three, that says a lot about an organization.”
The players will get the cheers today and West will get the congratulations for the acquisitions. But, as he also will be the first to point out, this is a big day for the entire franchise:
The scouts--Gene Tormohlen and Ronnie Lester in particular--who took commuter planes to watch countless college games. Or high school games.
West, the executive vice president, and General Manager Mitch Kupchak.
Coach Del Harris and assistants Bill Bertka, Kurt Rambis and Drew for developing the talent--three young players at once--without the benefit some teams have of being able to sacrifice games now for the long-term good.
“For all of us involved in this, it really makes us feel good,” West said.
Especially since there was no clear path to success.
Fisher, the point guard from Arkansas Little Rock, was the only call that was entirely the Lakers’ to make. Undaunted by a small-college resume, and having impressed at pre-draft all-star games with his defensive tenacity and strength at 6 feet 1, he came with the No. 24 pick. Sedale Threatt was about to be renounced, but the projected new backup to Nick Van Exel was in place.
The Bryant deal fell into place only after a great deal of worry, plenty by his side. It already had been decided that the Charlotte Hornets, loaded with shooting guards and small forwards but concerned because their best center was Coach Dave Cowens, would take the 18-year-old sensation at No. 13 and then send him to the Lakers for Divac.
But would Bryant still be available for the Hornets? His agent, Arn Tellem, had done as many mock drafts as West, running through the numerous possibilities while hoping for the same outcome.
The Lakers wanted Bryant, for obvious reasons, and Bryant wanted the Lakers, for the marketing possibilities in Los Angeles, for its reputation as a stable franchise that could ease the transition of someone going from high school to the pros, and for its history of taking care of its own in contracts. After all, the first deal would be all but determined by a rookie cap, but the second is where the players recoup.
With the Lakers in rave mode after Bryant’s workouts, Tellem went to work. Among the teams picking beyond No. 8, he let his client work out for only the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks, organizations they also liked. Everyone else was stonewalled--Indiana, Golden State, Sacramento, Portland, even Charlotte.
There were two concerns: the Clippers and Nets.
“With my luck, the Clippers would have come back to haunt me,” said Tellem, their former general counsel before he left to become an agent.
As it turned out, New Jersey was the real worry. The Clippers went with Wright at No. 7, but the Nets, picking next, had no such intention of going big. They gave Bryant a long look. Tellem saw it and made a suggestion.
“I just said they ultimately had to do what they wanted to do,” the agent recalled. “But that three years later, he was going to do what he wanted to do and would probably leave.”
The Nets took Kerry Kittles of Villanova, who has become a rookie all-star himself.
“When Kittles was picked at eight, I think we celebrated more than Kittles did,” Tellem said.
Because they knew that the teams that followed wanted frontcourt help. Because they knew that had cleared the path for Bryant to fall to the Hornets and that the Divac deal already had been worked out.
“I wouldn’t say that we were partners,” Tellem said of his pre-draft dealings with West, a friend. “That sort of makes it stronger than it is. But we both had a desire to make it work. And this is where Kobe wanted to be.”
That Knight, another of Tellem’s clients, would also wind up with the Lakers was a fluke, at least for the most part since he was drafted by Chicago at No. 29. But the Bulls renounced him about two weeks later for salary-cap reasons when he balked at going to Europe for seasoning.
The Bulls didn’t think he was ready. The Lakers did. Just not this ready.
Tellem called West first when Knight unexpectedly became a free agent, but eventually called most all the other teams too. The Trail Blazers and Knicks also showed real interest, but the Lakers were the most positive that the active 7-footer from Connecticut would get a real chance, even though O’Neal and Sean Rooks had just been signed. Knight had spent most of his high school years in San Diego so L.A. had a geographic appeal.
The Lakers could offer only $220,000, the chance to get dunked on by O’Neal in scrimmages and an encouraging word about the future. That was good enough. In return, they got someone who has developed, about a year ahead of anyone’s wildest hope, into the first big man off the bench, all the way into a rookie all-star.
As if anything else would have been tolerated. The Laker rookie class of 1996-97, after all, has its standards.
* TODAY’S ALL-STAR EVENTS: Rookie game, slam-dunk contest, three-point shootout at Cleveland. 4 p.m., TNT.