Seeking a Look of a Champion

The Lakers opened defense of their first championship in 12 years with an opening-night victory at Portland, where Coach Phil Jackson noted, "There's still blood in the air--in this series," and then a ring-night loss to Utah, followed by signs that there was much to be resolved.

Jackson read a poem before the home opener.

Shaquille O'Neal, Jackson said, "carried this team on his back." He praised Ron Harper for his "leadership in triangle lore." He mentioned team architect Jerry West and finished with two lines, both of which drew cheers.

"If they stay on track, we might win back to back," he said. "With your support, I think, we might just repeat."

Jackson predicted his memories would include the growth of his first Laker team, its ability by the end of the season to include everybody, and its flat insistence to win.

Harper wasn't as sentimental.

"If I see anybody with tears in their eyes, I'm going to slap them in their head," he said. "You can be happy and not shed any tears. Soap operas, you can cry. Over a ring? You cry?"

An hour later, as Staples Center filled, a public address announcer bellowed.

"Ladies and gentleman, the defending world champions . . . ," and Staples Center, for a moment, wasn't a place for decorum or cool. They stood, applauded and made a dozen private moments very public ones.

The Lakers began 3-3, however, by which time the tussle between O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had begun. In mid-month, O'Neal had two sore thumbs, limped on a sprained left ankle, and was brooding over a change in the offensive tenor. Bryant, coming back after an off-season spent making 2,000 daily jumpers, wrested shots from the stodgy triangle offense.

Frightened off anti-inflammatory medication after the revelation of Alonzo Mourning's kidney ailment, O'Neal returned to the Indocin bottle to fight back the pain. Miffed at observations he was taking too many shots, Bryant ignored the media for part of a week, then returned with a smile.

"I'm fine," he said. "I get ticked off too sometimes. Big shocker, huh?"

Jackson made a decision Nov. 18 at Denver that lingered. With 17 seconds remaining, the Lakers down a point to the Nuggets and O'Neal unable to play, Jackson assigned the last play to go through J.R. Rider.

Afterward, 15 minutes after the Lakers had given back a 13-point fourth-quarter lead, after the Nuggets scored 17 consecutive fourth-quarter points, Jackson rested his back against a cinder block wall and admitted he probably should not have given Rider the basketball at the end.

"We just didn't play it right," Jackson said. "It might be my fault for trying to go to him too early in the year without sufficient knowledge of what's around him."

Said Rider: "He put me in a position to be a hero."

It wouldn't happen again. Rider lost the ball on the left wing, and the Lakers lost.

The month wasn't without its levity. Rider missed the team bus in San Antonio and arrived at the Alamodome with a note from the hotel general manager. O'Neal break-danced during a game against Golden State.

Also, there was the chocolate cake thing.

In the NBA locker room, there are occasional acts of kindness.

Then, it is a man's prerogative to be suspicious.

Mark Madsen, one of the nicest guys in the history of NBA locker rooms, suffered from back spasms. Laker trainer Gary Vitti, per his job description, cured the back spasms after a few days of treatment.

When Vitti arrived at his El Segundo office one morning, a beaming Madsen presented him with a chocolate cake he baked the night before.

Vitti, a veteran, eyed the cake warily.

"Mark," he said, "I'm from New York. Is there Ex-Lax in there?"

Madsen assured him there was nothing in there but cake mix and icing.

"I've been doing this for 20 years," Vitti said. "Not once has another man baked me a cake."

Vitti grinned. It was not his intention to make light of such a nice gesture. OK, maybe it was.

"He's wonderful," Vitti said of Madsen. "He really is."

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