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Lakers’ Coach Fired as Team’s Turmoil Continues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crazy world of the glamour team of the National Basketball Assn., the Los Angeles Lakers, continued to turn topsy-turvy Wednesday with the firing of Coach Del Harris.

The move, coming within hours of the ending of the Dennis Rodman signing circus, meant that, incredibly, the ever-tardy Rodman made it to his first Laker practice on schedule but Harris didn’t.

It was yet another stunning development0--the decision to take on the quirky, unpredictable Rodman had the team’s players and front office in a two-week turmoil of disagreement--that had still another person fighting back tears at the podium. Rodman’s Planet Hollywood news conference Tuesday eventually disintegrated into tears.

Harris, the Lakers’ coach who was just 12 games into this turbulent season, had a stay of four-plus years in which he was named coach of the year and posted rising win totals of 48-53-56-61. Those numbers, plus recent personal situations, made his firing both surprising and emotional.

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The scholarly looking, white-haired Harris, 61, is an ordained minister. Both his parents died during the off-season, and he talked Wednesday intending to dedicate this season to them.

“Sometimes,” Harris said, with tears in his eyes, “we have it in our mind, what is going to be the best way to honor our parents, our friends, our families or ourselves.

“I thought that it would be winning all these games and being the guy. But there was a deep thing that happened to me and I think that has visited me.

“Since all this [his parents’ deaths] happened, I’ve been a different person. I’ve had a void in my personal life in these last few months, and I need help every day because it’s a consistent day-to-day battle. So I don’t feel like a loser today. I feel like I’m winning in the bigger battle, the more important game of life.”

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Harris had been on thin ice since reports of owner Jerry Buss’ dissatisfaction surfaced a year ago. A winning streak got Harris off the hook last season, but when he came back in February, with only months on his contract and Buss refusing to give him the standard one-year extension, the clock started ticking again.

And with the departure of Michael Jordan and the breakup of the Chicago Bulls, the pressure has increased on the Lakers and their management to fill that league void--and do it now. NBC has opted to put the Lakers, with popular players such as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, on its national telecast 11 times this season, more than any other team. In addition, TNT and TBS will put them on an additional 10 times.

Nevertheless, the timing of Harris’ firing, with the roster in flux, with Rodman having just arrived, and with a reported five-player deal for Charlotte’s Glen Rice still pending, was a surprise.

“I heard it after I was on the floor,” said Rodman, his celebrated arrival suddenly reduced to an afterthought.

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“He [Harris] came down and said, ‘Sorry I couldn’t be here, but good luck to you.’ That’s when I heard it.”

The move was so sudden, the Lakers didn’t even announce Harris’ successor.

Jerry West, executive vice president, said the team will choose between assistant coaches Kurt Rambis and Larry Drew, who were interviewed Wednesday. Senior assistant Bill Bertka is expected to coach tonight’s game against the Clippers at the Pond in Anaheim.

The change came so fast that the team didn’t notify media outlets that an announcement was forthcoming. A large gathering of reporters and camera crews had come to the Forum on Wednesday, expecting nothing more than Rodman’s first practice and his first comments since signing a Laker contract Tuesday night.

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A team spokesman said General Manager Mitch Kupchak would hold a news conference. At the appointed hour, Kupchak arrived with West, who announced that Harris had been fired.

“The thing that makes it so tough,” said West, "[is that] Del Harris has been a friend of mine for years and someone who’s done just an absolute incredible job here.

“The nature of these jobs here, they’re fragile. Our jobs are fragile. To say we’re blaming Del Harris for our play now would not be the case. We simply need to move forward, to try to re-energize ourselves, to refocus on our goals. And our goal is to field the very best possible team we can have. And we have not witnessed that particularly here, lately.

“I just feel the last two games we played were something that has not been acceptable. . . . There just looked like there was a deterioration. I talked to Jerry Buss this morning. We had a long conversation. We just felt the time was now, even though it was an awkward period for us.”

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The Lakers started the season 6-3, but then lost consecutive games at Seattle; at Denver, where the Nuggets, who had won once, came from seven points behind in the last 2 minutes 10 seconds; and by 10 points at Vancouver, the first game they have ever lost to the four-year-old franchise.

“I have this saying,” said Harris, “that nothing in the NBA ever happens bad until you lose three games in a row. How many of you ever heard me say that? This is what I was talking about.”

Harris, one of just 20 NBA coaches to win 500 or more games, has coached in all or part of 14 seasons in the NBA. His overall regular season record is 556-457; with his 38-50 playoff mark, he is 594-507 overall. He got his first NBA head coaching job with the Houston Rockets in the 1979-80 season and took his 1980-81 team to the NBA finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics. He remained with the Rockets for four seasons, then coached the Milwaukee Bucks for four seasons and part of a fifth in 1991.

His first season with the Lakers was 1994-95, and his total regular season record with them was 224-116; with his 17-19 playoff mark, he was 241-135 overall. He was NBA coach of the year in 1995.

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Obviously shaken, Harris went out determinedly gracious.

“I appreciate the opportunity to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, that’s as high as you can get in what I do.

“You know,” he said, “if I owned the team, I might make the same decision, in all honesty.

“I might just say, ‘Well, we’re not going well, we just lost three games in a row, we’ve got Dennis Rodman coming in, and we’re making that change. I like the coach and I sure hate to do this, he’s a good guy and he’s done a great job for us. Nonetheless, I don’t want to make a change now and then say he and Dennis don’t get along, in two weeks make another change and set us back. I think it was a reasonable decision, and I don’t find fault with it.”

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You can hear an interview with Del Harris and comments by Times columnist Bill Plaschke and give your views of the Lakers’ shake-up on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/lakers

* NOT WHOLE PROBLEM: Of course Del Harris lost this team. Who wouldn’t have? Mark Heisler’s column. D1

* COMING UP NEXT . . . Phil Jackson should be coaching the Lakers by next season. J.A. Adande’s column. D1

* HE NEVER HAD A CHANCE: Del Harris was simply a pawn in the Jerry Buss-Jerry West struggle. Analysis. D1

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