Let’s Make a Big Deal

Times Staff Writer

On the third day of summer, the Lakers still did not have a head basketball coach, but they did have a center.

Rudy Tomjanovich isn’t in yet, but he met Tuesday in Los Angeles with owner Jerry Buss and, at team headquarters, according to one official, “That’s the only person anybody’s talking about.”

And Shaquille O’Neal isn’t out yet, but if you’re interested in a $7.5-million mansion with a few Superman logos on it, there’s one for sale off Mulholland Drive.


In what is beginning to look like a typical workday for him, General Manager Mitch Kupchak fielded calls from at least a dozen teams regarding O’Neal, rumors abounded of Pat Riley sightings, Gary Payton announced he was staying, Kobe Bryant flew back from another day of pretrial hearings in Colorado, and the expansion draft claimed 21-year-old Jamal Sampson.

Oh, and spotted beside Phil Jackson’s telephone at Laker headquarters in El Segundo, a message to call O’Neal.

Into that walked Tomjanovich, who met for about two hours with Buss and Kupchak and left, apparently without an offer, though Laker insiders believe it will get to that soon. Kupchak has said he would discuss the position with others, but he has not yet contacted a high-profile candidate other than Tomjanovich and Riley.

Today, Kupchak will continue along those lines, taking offers for O’Neal, who has demanded a trade, seeking the identity of his next coach and preparing for Thursday’s draft. At about the same time, Buss will board a flight that will take him to Italy and away from the reconstruction project.

After a weekend spent hazy on the subject, Kupchak is convinced that O’Neal does, indeed, wish to leave the Lakers. Word spread quickly through the league and by midday Tuesday general managers were piling players on top of players to match O’Neal’s $27.7-million salary.

The Clippers tried to entice the Lakers with a package of three players, including Elton Brand, and their first-round draft pick, according to sources, but talks ended quickly. O’Neal is eager to leave the Lakers, but he won’t play for the Clippers or any of the NBA’s second tier.

“We want to be in an environment where we can win,” said Mike Parris, O’Neal’s business manager. “We want a team that is committed to winning.”

The Dallas Mavericks, however, could start an offer with Dirk Nowitzki, the Portland Trail Blazers with Zach Randolph, the Memphis Grizzlies with Pau Gasol, the Indiana Pacers with Jermaine O’Neal. Jerry West recently told reporters in Memphis that the young, gifted Gasol was untouchable unless O’Neal or Bryant became available and, lo and behold, at least one of them has.

O’Neal is believed to be willing to approve of about eight franchises. And while he cannot block a trade to an undesirable franchise, he could refuse a contract extension.

Kupchak did talk to the Clippers on Tuesday. And he did talk to the Mavericks. And he did talk to Tomjanovich.

It looks more and more like Bryant’s team, meaning no Jackson and no O’Neal, assuming these things were important to him and assuming he stays. That might be of some comfort to Kupchak and it certainly is to Buss, except Bryant is due to become a free agent in a week and apparently will go on trial in September, and in that setting Kupchak has a coach to name and a superstar center to unload and a team to reconfigure.

It also looks as though Buss is in a position to save a lot of money, part of the plan. Tomjanovich probably would come for about $6 million a season, his salary when he stepped down as coach of the Houston Rockets more than a year ago. Jackson was said to be shooting for at least $10 million and as much as $12.5 million a season when, in February, Buss ended negotiations under the pretext of them becoming a distraction.

Riley flirted with the Lakers over the weekend and reportedly was spotted dining with Buss. But Riley wanted too much to leave the Miami Heat, where he is president and about to come into perhaps 20% ownership of the franchise. A Laker official said Riley initiated the discussions, another said it was the Lakers who made first contact, but both agreed Riley probably was not the man for the job.

“That’s over,” a team official said. “That’s not happening.”

Barring a drastic change of heart by O’Neal, Buss also has seen the last of negotiations to extend O’Neal’s contract by two or three years. While a trade would bring salaries amounting to about the $27.7 million O’Neal is due next season, it also would save Buss from paying O’Neal more than $30 million a year as O’Neal plays into his mid-30s. So, privately, the Lakers are less than distraught over O’Neal’s desire to leave.

The Lakers believe that few teams will trade for O’Neal without an extension already in place, which could complicate the process. But in that case, there’s always Dallas owner Mark Cuban and a few other free-spenders. O’Neal has two years left on his contract but can opt out after next season.