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Winter Joins Laker Exodus

Times Staff Writer

Assistant coach Tex Winter said he told General Manager Mitch Kupchak months ago that he wouldn’t be back with the Lakers, something of an annual event for Winter, 82 years old and 57 years into his basketball career.

This time he was certain, though, saying, “I could see the writing on the wall pretty early. There comes a time when a parting of the ways is the only thing that can happen.”

Winter watched the Chicago Bulls expire near the end of the last decade and so recognized all of the symptoms when the Lakers began to wobble too.

He arrived late Tuesday afternoon at his home in Newport, Ore., a block from the Pacific Ocean, content at what they’d all done together, saddened by what it looked like when they all walked away.

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Winter’s contract runs out today. So do Phil Jackson’s, Jim Cleamons’ and Frank Hamblen’s.

They won three NBA championships with a team that hadn’t won without them, then didn’t win twice, their final tour ending two weeks ago in the Finals. By then, owner Jerry Buss had chosen a course that did not include Jackson or, apparently, Shaquille O’Neal, and imagine how awkward this would be had the Lakers actually won the title.

Kurt Rambis, on Jackson’s staff the last three seasons, also is without a contract after today.

Buss told Jackson he wouldn’t be back. Kupchak is conducting the search for a replacement, so far having run Pat Riley and Rudy Tomjanovich past Buss and the two of them agreeing tentatively on Tomjanovich. Meanwhile, Cleamons, Hamblen and Rambis, Jackson’s assistants for one more day, await some word.

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Cleamons interviewed Tuesday in Dallas with Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger. Hamblen, a close friend of Tomjanovich’s, would appear to have the best chance at remaining as part of the new staff.

“It’s a disappointment we finished up the way we did,” Winter said, “and that the assistant coaches in particular were left hanging.”

In the next two months, the contracts for trainers and other medical personnel will end as well, meaning the instability does not lie solely with a roster that could lose Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Derek Fisher, among others.

Chip Schaefer, an athletic performance coordinator who has served Jackson and his players for 13 years, said, “I kind of experienced it already in Chicago. The only constant in my life is change.”

If he did not return, Schaefer said, he’d expect only “a handshake and a have-a-nice-day.

“My relationship with Phil has been so important. I haven’t had a bad moment with Phil Jackson in 13 years of working for him.”

Longtime trainer Gary Vitti is presumed safe, but otherwise changes are expected in many areas, and so an era of Los Angeles basketball apparently will be dramatically undone. Insiders still figure Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban will find a way to acquire O’Neal and still wonder if Bryant isn’t gone, no matter what the Lakers do.

One team official, having come upon a quote from someone close to O’Neal calling the Laker environment “poison,” groused, “He’s the hemlock,” meaning O’Neal.

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Many believe O’Neal’s relationship with Buss turned forever in a gym in Honolulu last fall, when O’Neal, unhappy about his contract negotiations, shouted, “Pay me!” during an exhibition game. His ire was directed toward Buss, who sat courtside.

If Buss weren’t already leaning toward handing the organization to the younger, harder-working Bryant, O’Neal had nudged him that way. Buss’ inclination grew through the season, even as Bryant ran back and forth to Eagle, Colo., for hearings related to his sexual-assault case.

“That’s setting quite a precedent, as far as I’m concerned,” Winter said, “I mean, with all the impulsiveness that kid has. But Jerry Buss is a better businessman than I am. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”

When it was done, Winter awoke from a nap and looked out at his beach. He’ll continue to consult -- “Hang a shingle,” he said -- but his full-time work days are over.

“It’s been a great time, these five years,” he said. “Even this year, I wasn’t necessarily disappointed. I mean, in a lot of ways, we weren’t prepared to win another championship. We just weren’t ready. We weren’t all on the same page. I thought we were very fortunate. I didn’t think we would beat Houston. Then I didn’t think we would beat San Antonio. And I didn’t think we would beat Minnesota. And to win all those series, I got my hopes up mighty high.”

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Still experiencing pain in his neck and shoulder, Rick Fox said he would have the joint examined Tuesday. The Lakers did not have results by Tuesday evening.... Horace Grant said again Tuesday he had retired and had no plans to undergo the hip surgery required to continue his career.... Kareem Rush had an MRI exam on his ailing right foot Monday, then left to conduct a basketball clinic in the Virgin Islands.... Many in the organization believe Brian Shaw has the knowledge and touch to become a head coach in the NBA. The Lakers have asked him to assist Bill Bertka with the Lakers’ summer league team in Long Beach. They open July 10 at the Pyramid at Long Beach State.


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