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O'Neal wants to join Jackson as ex-Laker

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004

LOS ANGELES The NBA trade market has one huge addition: Call him The Big Commodity.

''If any GM out there wants a hardworking big man who wants to win championships, call (Lakers general manager) Mitch Kupchak, because he will entertain offers,'' Shaquille O'Neal said.

The breakup of the Lakers has already begun, with Phil Jackson out and O'Neal looking to join him.

Now the Lakers are Kobe Bryant's team, if the free agent is not bluffing about wanting to be a ''Laker for life'' and doesn't end up in prison.

In the end, the team belongs to owner Jerry Buss, whose sentiments have been made clear in the past few days.

''The direction they're going in, if they're going to continue to go in the same direction, I don't want to be a part of this,'' O'Neal told the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News. ''This team, it ain't about me. It ain't about Phil. It's supposed to be about team.''

At age 32, O'Neal isn't the same player he was during the team's championship years. He can dominate as before, but only in stretches. The NBA Finals against Detroit were a perfect example; he was very good in Games 1 and 4 and far below that standard otherwise.

O'Neal is under contract for $27.6 million next year and $30.6 million the following season and can opt out after next year.

He wanted an extension beyond the 2005-2006 season, but it never happened.

During a preseason game in Hawaii last October, as he ran down the court, O'Neal yelled something at Buss about giving him the money.

No doubt that wasn't well-received by the owner.

''When I was brought here by Jerry West (in 1996), there was a team concept. ... It was something I wanted to be a part of,'' O'Neal said. ''Now no one cares. I told you I'm all about winning championships. Now the organization is different. It seems right now they're trying to pit one person against another.''

In his first public comments after the Lakers lost to the Pistons, Kupchak, no doubt speaking for Buss, said Thursday the team would never trade Bryant, and would do whatever it took to keep him.

When asked, Kupchak would not rule out the possibility of dealing O'Neal.

''That would not be a good day in this club's history,'' the GM said, leaving the door open for what would be the first trade of the big man's career.

The following day, Buss bid goodbye the most successful coach in NBA history.

Asked Saturday about whether Jackson desired to continue coaching the Lakers, his agent Todd Musburger said, ''It's pretty irrelevant. Phil was not asked to return. ... He never said he didn't want to come back.''

As expected, Bryant opted out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent and O'Neal took his course of action. The Lakers were about Phil and Shaq for the past five years, with Kobe third in the pecking order. That resulted in three championships and a fourth trip to the NBA Finals.

Whenever Jackson was asked about the Lakers' offense, he'd always say it started with O'Neal, the self-proclaimed MDE Most Dominant Ever.

No argument from 2000-2002.

Plenty of argument since.

O'Neal, who has been critical of Kupchak on several occasions, said the GM is using him as a scapegoat.

''But don't believe it,'' O'Neal said. ''Everyone knows I love LA.''

The Lakers can pay Bryant over $140 million over seven years far more than other teams can offer and Kupchak said the team will offer the maximum. Kupchak said Bryant's impending trial in Colorado on a sexual assault charge has no bearing. But it will if Bryant is convicted.

Bryant, who turns 26 this summer, has delivered mixed messages, saying he wanted to be a Laker for life, but also saying he wanted to check out free agency.

Jackson's five-year, $30 million contract expires at the end of June, and the Lakers broke off negotiations for an extension in February. Musburger said that sealed the coach's fate. During their meeting Friday, Buss offered Jackson another position in the organization. Those close to Jackson would be surprised if he stayed in any capacity.

Musburger said his hunch is the 58-year-old Jackson will coach again. Jackson's nine championships in 14 years as a head coach ties him with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history.

''I don't think he would step in to a new coaching slot for next season,'' Musburger said, ''but I guess you can never tell about those things.

''I think he deserves a break and he will take one. I think he's still very disappointed over what happened with Detroit. Phil has a very full life off the court. He'll be fine. My hunch is there will be a period of inactivity as far as head coaching is concerned."

''I wouldn't be at all surprised if there's a situation at some point that he's intrigued with and he steps back in.''

Maybe Jackson will step back in with O'Neal's new team. Stranger things have happened in Lakerland in the past few days.



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