The Lakers and Nick Van Exel’s bank account arrive at the All-Star break with a 2 1/2-game lead in the Pacific Division over the Seattle SuperSonics, suddenly forced to choose between a division title or a shopping spree as their motivation.
Van Exel’s boast that the Lakers would win the division title and decision to back it up by pledging $100 to each SuperSonic should he be proved wrong has been greeted with a combination of disgust (“Foolish follows the young sometimes,” Terry Cummings told Seattle writers) or amusement (Hersey Hawkins said he wanted something to frame so he can always look at it and think of Van Exel). But, mostly, the reaction has been somewhere in between.
In an upset, fellow point guard Gary Payton declined to return a volley Friday as All-Star participants began to gather in Cleveland for this weekend’s festivities.
“It’s just something Van Exel said,” said Payton, a Western Conference starter. “If they want to do that, then do it. Whatever. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just pick my little hundred-dollar present up. I’ll be fine.
“I don’t need that [for motivation]. That’s just something to fire up some stuff. Just something to fire it up so that it makes it good for you guys [the media]. Hey, whatever. He wanted us to respond, that’s why he said it. Nobody responded, so it’s all over with now.
“We don’t worry about it. If it happens, it happens. But if he wins, that’s great. I’m happy for him. Still got to get out and go to the finals and win something. Winning that [the division title] is great, but you still got to accomplish something.”
But just in case it does happen. . . .
“I just want it in bonds,” said Sam Perkins, the former Laker who will be in the three-point shootout contest today.
Kobe Bryant arrives with plenty of hype, but very little recent practice for the dunk contest today in his attempt to keep the title in Los Angeles after Clipper Brent Barry won last season.
He does have experience, though. At a high school tournament when he was just a kid, 17, Bryant lined three teammates down the lane, got a running start, jumped over them and dunked.
He could try the same thing today with players around Gund Arena--say, Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shawn Kemp. Or he could hear the words of Jerry West, Del Harris et al. in his mind: Nothing more dangerous than layups.
“I’m sure that’s what they’re thinking,” Bryant said, smiling.