Now It’s a Thin Purple and Gold Line


Question: What’s the difference between the Lakers and the Detroit Pistons?

Answer: I give up, what?

Actually, there isn’t much now, except Jerry Stackhouse lives in a colder climate than Kobe Bryant . . . and has a better supporting cast.

Ask Phil Jackson what he could do with a board eater like Ben Wallace, a complementary forward as skilled as Joe Smith, a sharpshooter like Chucky Atkins and such subs as the hyperactive Jerome Williams and the hard-nosed Michael Curry.

The truth about the defending champions--Really? At this point it’s hard to remember--is they’re really thin and awfully creaky. Jackson even volunteered it last week, as Shaquille O’Neal sat out and the buzzards hovered in the skies over Lakerdom.


Not that it was hard to see as their role players tossed the ball back and forth among themselves and you wondered how they would ever get a shot off.

The amazing thing is, they were just as thin last season . . . when they won 67 games, finished eight games ahead of the pack and won a title.

This was once the deepest roster in the NBA, but that was before the Lakers exiled Nick Van Exel, and Jerry West miscalculated with Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell and Glen Rice, and Jackson arrived to continue the browning process.

Jackson loves veterans, especially ones who ran the triangle for him in Chicago, so first they went down the list of available former Bulls: Michael Jordan (really), Scottie Pippen (Portland got him instead) and Dennis Rodman (West threatened to jump off a 405 overpass first) before signing Ron Harper, who was 34 and retired.

Harper got a two-year deal. In a surprise, he started almost from the day he arrived and returned for a second season, even if they had to platoon him, nurse him through the season and give him a pre-playoff vacation.

How about this? Before Shaq went out, Harper had been the Lakers’ most consistent player this season.


He’s shooting 47.2%, compared to last season’s 39.9%. Teammates say when he leaves the floor, everything goes haywire. But just as you know you’ve got problems when Isaiah Rider is your voice of reason, you’ve got problems when Harper, 37, is one of your better performers.

In Jackson’s first camp, veterans streamed in, including Brian Shaw, who’d been effectively out of the game for a season, and John Salley, who’d been retired for two.

And talent leaked out. Over the summer they cut Ruben Patterson, who was 24 and a tiger on defense. But he was borderline out-of-control or over the border and didn’t look like a good candidate to pick up the triangle soon, or ever.

Now he’s starting in Seattle and coming fast, having averaged 16.6 points in January.

Now they have Rider . . . who’s borderline out-of-control or over the border, doesn’t look like a good candidate to pick up the triangle soon, or ever, and also no-shows a lot, literally and figuratively.

Three weeks into last season, when they were 8-4 with Bryant out and the schedule turning tough, I wrote a column noting how old they had suddenly become.

They then went on a 56-8 run that carried into April, so I stopped bringing it up.

They had O’Neal and Bryant, the game’s best 1-2 punch. No one else is close, which is fortunate for the Lakers because they’re not close to being as deep as Philadelphia, Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento.


Of course, this meant more when Shaq and Kobe were getting along.

For a change, the Lakers now have tangible worries, namely survival. If the playoffs started today, they’d be opening the first round on the road . . . at San Antonio.

So this little vision of their mortality might be just the reality check their great philosopher/coach ordered.

Already, Shaq says when he returns, he’ll let “bygones be bygones.”

He didn’t say whose bygones he meant, but because he spent January staring daggers at Kobe, Laker fans can always hope.

If Bryant wondered how it would feel to carry his own team, he’s finding out. It’s heavy. Now he talks about how much they miss “the big fella.”

So there may still be a chance to tape Humpty Dumpty back together, although, as they did last season, they’ll have to slow the game down so their old roster can keep up.

Then Mitch Kupchak, rookie general manager, can start the rebuilding process over the summer.


Halfway through their first defense, the champs have to be retooled, spiritually as well as materially. Aside from that, it has been a blast.


They don’t make farewell tours like they used to: Remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, making their last swings, with ceremonies at each stop? This was supposed to be Hakeem Olajuwon’s goodbye, but instead of accepting his $16.5 million and playing it out, he now wants to keep playing--in Miami. Before a game against the Heat, he mused: “I’d like to at least finish my career where I’d at least be able to play for someone like Coach [Pat] Riley. He knows how to use big men. He understands the game of big men at that level.” . . . The next day, realizing this didn’t reflect well on the coach with whom he had won two titles, Olajuwon called Rudy Tomjanovich, who was doing his radio show, and apologized on the air. . . . Bottom line: Hakeem wants to be waived. The Rockets don’t want to. Of course, as he showed them during their 101-84 loss to the Clippers, when he went 0 for 5 from the field, they may not have much choice.

Good night, Vancouver: The Grizzlies, who are dumping salary and trying to dump Vancouver too, began their long-awaited fire sale by sending power forward Othella Harrington to the New York Knicks for Erick Strickland. The Grizzlies now have six guards--amid reports President Dick Versace is serious about moving Mike Bibby. . . . Meanwhile, the gabby Versace looks like he’s thinking of dumping Coach Sidney Lowe, whom he just hired. “If I had Lenny Wilkens in here or Chuck Daly in here, maybe their experience would win a couple more games, but I don’t know if it’s going to dramatically affect anything,” mused Mr. Loyalty. “I think Sid’s doing a good job.” Replied Lowe, suspecting a note of criticism: “On one hand, he was supporting me because he was saying even if Hall of Fame coaches were coaching, we’d have a couple of more wins, maybe. On the other hand, I guess you can say, why was there even a reference to that?” I guess you can. Nice knowing you, Sid. . . . Harrington is a good low-post threat who averaged 10.9 points for the Grizzlies. He has come a long way since he was a rookie in Houston and Charles Barkley told him: “You’re the only center from Georgetown who can’t play.”

Houston’s Maurice Taylor, before the Rockets, then 11-2 against the East, hosted the Heat: “If we were in the East, we’d be the No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Really.” . . . You guessed it: Miami 103, Houston 85. . . . How much better would the Clippers be if they still had Lorenzen Wright, who’s in Atlanta, and Derek Anderson, who’s playing for a $2.25-million exception in San Antonio? “It’s not going to change until you keep guys for a long period of time so they can mature and learn to play the right way,” Anderson said. “You could have Phil Jackson coaching and it wouldn’t matter. The guys are so young and they don’t stay together long enough. You have to go through a period where everybody grows up.” . . . I know you’ve heard it before, but someone around here refuses to believe it.

M.L. Carr, kept around as Boston Celtic vice president of corporate something-or-other after being canned as general manager/coach, was fired after telling a suburban paper Rick Pitino “was packaged very well. And everybody bought into it, including the media. You guys bought into him, hook, line and sinker. You were high as a kite on him. He sold you a bill of goods.” . . . OK, but at least we still have jobs. . . . The Spurs, traditionally a second-half team, are starting to roll almost exactly at the halfway mark, although starters Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson are out. “We’re beat up, but Tim [Duncan] and Dave [Robinson] aren’t,” Steve Kerr said. . . . Riley on the Laker struggles: “I’m sure Phil will go into his tepee and figure something out.”