Summer of '96

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Great teams are built. Great teams crumble.

In a few farsighted, creative and often lucky organizations, great teams are then rebuilt.

The Lakers are one of those organizations.

For them, the process has always been centered around the biggest building block, the man in the middle, the Goliath in a sport of giants.

That's the way it was in Minneapolis half a century ago, when George Mikan, 6 feet 10 when that was big even for basketball, led the Lakers to five titles.

That's the way it was 30 years ago, when 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain was the center of the Lakers' first championship club in Los Angeles, a team that won a record 33 consecutive games.

And that's the way it was in the 1980s, when 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teamed with Magic Johnson to win five NBA titles for the Lakers.

By 1996, however, winning time had long since passed. The Lakers hadn't won a championship in eight seasons and hadn't even been in the NBA Finals in five. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ruled the league and those Laker championship banners on the walls of the Forum were relics of a bygone era.

But as the 1996 season ended, Laker General Manager Jerry West had his eye on the pieces that could put together another championship run. There was yet another big man lumbering on the horizon, a phenomenal high school kid in a rich Philadelphia suburb and a little-known and lightly regarded guard at Arkansas Little Rock.

West picked up his phone and started a long and costly process that would culminate in new banners and yet another dynasty.

The Lakers of the 21st Century, back-to-back title winners, were forged far from the cheers and applause they hear today, in the furious talks and tense negotiations of the summer of '96.

Shaquille O'Neal

At 7-1 and 330 pounds, with a soft touch around the hoop, an immovable body, clubs for arms and the mobility to move easily up the court, Shaquille O'Neal was every bit as menacing as Mikan, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar.

O'Neal had everything but a successful record. He hadn't won a championship at Louisiana State, nor had he done so in four seasons with the Orlando Magic. In three of those seasons, his team had been swept out of the playoffs.

But nobody doubted that, with the right people to help him with the heavy lifting, O'Neal could carry a team to the top.

Drafted by Orlando in 1992, he was a free agent at the end of the 1995-96 season. It was assumed O'Neal, involved in the music and movie business, and so enraptured with L.A. that he kept a car here permanently, would be interested in the Lakers.

But to this day, his agent, Leonard Armato, insists the Magic was O'Neal's first choice.

"Shaq wanted to stay in Orlando," he says, "and we were going to do whatever possible to ensure he stayed there."

No other team was allowed to even talk to O'Neal or Armato under league rules until July 11, 1996.

No earlier than 2 p.m., to be specific.

By 3 p.m., Armato was in West's Bel-Air home.

West already had the first piece of his puzzle, having traded his starting center, Vlade Divac, on June 26 in order to clear room under the salary cap and obtain Kobe Bryant. But that had left the Lakers a big hole in the middle.

"It was nervous time," says Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka. "We had traded our starting center to shoot for the moon."

That's an apt description, according to Armato.

"The stars must have been truly aligned," he says. "For Shaq to wind up in Los Angeles was purely fortuitous. It required a variety of circumstances to fall into place."

The first of those circumstances was the Magic's initial offer to O'Neal--four years at $54 million.

"We were slightly disappointed," says Armato in a heavy dose of understatement. "You would think that someone who said they wanted to make a major commitment would extend the contract as long as permissible under league rules."

That would be seven years.

"The [Orlando] media became so critical of the possible contract," Armato says. "The Orlando fans began to question whether Shaq was worth the amount of money needed to sign him. It was one thing after another. Shaq was disappointed. After that, we felt it was worth looking around. We felt, from a business standpoint, it made sense to examine the alternatives.

"That was the crack in the door. Jerry West kicked that door open and ran right in."

What he ran in with was a seven-year, $95.5-million offer.

Still, West had his doubts. He considered signing Dale Davis instead. West warned owner Jerry Buss that getting O'Neal could be a long and draining process, with no guarantee of success.

Buss told West to think big and keep his checkbook open.

On July 16, the Lakers traded Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to the Vancouver Grizzlies for future considerations, basically giving the players away to free up $3.63 million.

Finally, on July 18 at about 1 a.m. in an Atlanta hotel room in the midst of the Olympics, O'Neal, a member of the U.S. dream team, signed a dream deal with the Lakers, $120 million for seven years.

At the end, Orlando had come up with nearly the same money, but it was too late.

West described the magnitude of the signing as second only to the birth of his children.

Armato found himself wandering the streets of Atlanta after O'Neal put his name on the contract.

'I didn't know what to do to celebrate," Armato says. "But I knew something special had happened, something historic."

Kobe Bryant

It would hardly be fair to say that Kobe Bryant of Lower Merion High was the Lakers' little secret.

As the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, as a kid who had worked out impressively with the Philadelphia 76ers before his senior season at Lower Merion, as the leader of a team that won the 1996 Pennsylvania state prep championship, as the star subsequently of a national prep tournament, Bryant was already in the spotlight.

West gave Bryant a workout in an Inglewood gym before the 1996 draft. Mitch Kupchak, then West's assistant and now his successor, vividly recalls walking into that gym with then-coach Del Harris.

"As we entered," Kupchak recalls, "we could see Jerry and a kid dribbling the ball at the other end, about 40 feet away. I could tell right then, from that distance, that the kid was special.

"Kobe was more impressive that day, as a high school senior, than Eddie Jones had been when we drafted him as a college senior."

West refuses to take any credit for finding a diamond in the rough.

"Oh, no," West says, "taking him was a no-brainer. He was easy. He was a unique kid. He was skilled. He handled the ball well and he handled himself unlike any high school kid you will see, with great poise."

A group of Laker officials took the 17-year-old Bryant out to lunch after that workout.

"I think we went for Subway sandwiches," Kupchak says. "I remember we talked mostly among ourselves, while Kobe talked to Jerry's son, Ryan, who was about his age. Kobe felt more comfortable talking about whatever 17-year-olds talk about."

A deal was worked out with the Charlotte Hornets, who were drafting 13th and looking for a big man: They would take Bryant for the Lakers and get Divac in return.

Derek Fisher

While going after O'Neal was obvious and taking Bryant a no-brainer, drafting Derek Fisher was an uncertain proposition at best.

Many of the mock drafts on the day Fisher was selected, including that of The Times, didn't even mention him in the first round.

The Lakers, picking 24th, knew the player they selected would need room to grow and develop. They had settled on two possibilities, Jerome Williams of Georgetown if they went for a forward, Fisher if they went for a guard.

The decision was made for them. Williams was taken 18th by the New York Knicks. So the Lakers picked the 6-1, 200-pound Fisher.

"One of the things I really believe in is character," West says. "Especially when you are at the bottom of the draft like we were that year, it can be so important to find a player with character. Then you have to have patience and hope that whoever you take can succeed with a better team."

Says Kupchak: "Our scouts were very high on Derek. This was a player they felt could be solid for a long time."

There was, however, one nagging doubt.

"The question about Derek was his ability to shoot the ball," West says. "But we felt we were going with a safe player, one who didn't make a lot of mistakes and one who learns from his coaches."

Not that Fisher didn't know where the basket was. He had averaged 14.6 points for his Sun Belt Conference school, was second all-time in points at Arkansas Little Rock with 1,393 and had won or sent into overtime three games in the final three seconds.

After he had erased any lingering doubts this season with a hot offensive hand that included a 13.4 scoring average in the playoffs, after he had connected on 35 three-pointers in 68 attempts in the postseason, including 10 of 19 in the Finals, Fisher told reporters in the champagne-soaked locker room, "This was just an amazing ride. I don't know what to say."

Shaq, Kobe, Derek.

In the summer of 1996, the Lakers hit a jackpot that the rest of the league may be paying for for years to come.

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ARRIVAL OF THE HEADLINERS

The Lakers had gone eight years without an NBA title when then-general manager Jerry West was tried to cure the team's problems in the summer of 1996. He first traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for draft pick Kobe Bryant, who was coveted by West even though he was coming straight out of high school. That move freed up the center position and, after some tense negotiations, West filled that void with Shaquille O'Neal, who left the Orlando Magic for a $120-million deal and the glare of Hollywood. The third piece of the puzzle was draft pick Derek Fisher, a guard from Arkansas Little Rock whose credentials needed a little explaining. Five years later, the Lakers have two titles, Bryant and O'Neal have learned to play together, and Fisher has found his shooting range from outside. West is no longer doing the wheeling and dealing, but the moves made in '96 are expected to pay dividends for years.

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