Shaquille O'Neal strolled down the corridor toward the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room last Friday evening with only the slightest limp, the cast on his left leg barely noticeable beneath his baggy jeans. "How's it feeling, big fella?" an arena attendant asked as O'Neal went by. Shaq answered by jogging a few steps as lightly as a 300-pound man can, then breaking into one of those huge smiles for which Pepsi and Reebok pay so handsomely. Farther down the hall. Lakers coach Del Harris was addressing reporters. O'Neal walked up, leaned into the group and made a brief declaration. "Four weeks," he said. "I'll be back in four weeks."
Unfortunately for L.A., O'Neal's physicians would beg to differ. The hyperextended left knee injury he suffered on Feb. 12 against the Minnesota Timberwolves caused a torn capsule, a fractured bone and a partial tear of the lateral collateral ligament—damage that is expected to keep Shaq on the Lakers' bench for at least another six to eight weeks. But after the grim home stand that followed O'Neal's injury, during which Los Angeles lost three of four games and struggled to beat the lowly Vancouver Grizzlies for its only victory, the Lakers may be tempted to hold O'Neal to his playful prognosis. Through Sunday, L.A., which had the best record in the Western Conference when Shaq went down, had fallen a half game behind the Seattle SuperSonics and the Utah Jazz, with the Houston Rockets looming ever larger in its rearview mirror. Without O'Neal and forward Robert Horry, who's expected to be sidelined until late March with a sprained left knee he sustained on Feb. 16, matters could get worse for L.A. before they get better: After their 127-121 double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday, the Lakers began a five-game road trip that included rugged tests against the Rockets and the Atlanta Hawks. "I think we all knew it would be a struggle," says 14th-year guard Byron Scott, "but I don't think we thought that it would be this much of a struggle."
The recent difficulties have caused some pessimism among the Los Angeles faithful. Last week the marquee of a sports memorabilia shop near the Forum read BURY MY SEASON AT WOUNDED KNEE. But the Lakers are trying their best to whistle past that graveyard, to convince themselves that the injuries are just a minor setback. Guard Nick Van Exel, who earlier in the season was so sure L.A. would win the Pacific Division that he promised to give each Sonics player a gift worth less than $100 if L.A. didn't achieve that goal, bristles at the suggestion that he'll soon have to start shopping. "I said it, and I'm not going back on it," he says. "This is a very confident team. We can beat anybody in the league with or without Shaq. Maybe we can't dominate, but we can win." The Lakers' belief in the power of positive thinking even extends to the pregame notes distributed to the media, in which they list O'Neal's injury as merely a hyperextended left knee. "This team can go one of two ways," says assistant coach Kurt Rambis. "It can feel sorry for itself, put its head down and give in, or it can play with the confidence that it is still one of the best teams in the league and be that much better when Shaq does come back."
The most encouraging sign for Los Angeles has been the play of 6'11" Elden Campbell, who moved over from power forward to replace O'Neal at center. The laconic Campbell is one of those maddening players whose enthusiasm has never seemed to match his considerable talent. He was even the target of a thinly veiled slam by O'Neal earlier this season when Shaq thought Campbell wasn't playing up to the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed last summer. "Some guys get the money and think the job is done," O'Neal said. Shortly after Shaq injured himself, Campbell was asked whether he was ready to take over at center. "Does it matter?" he replied, apparently implying that ready or not, he was the center. It wasn't exactly the kind of response that inspired his teammates' confidence, but his play has taken care of that. Campbell averaged 26.5 points and 11.8 rebounds during the four games of the home stand, including a career-high 40-point performance against Knicks center Patrick Ewing on Sunday.
But the loss of O'Neal creates a void on defense that the Lakers simply can't fill. That was evident against New York when Ewing took over the game down the stretch and finished with 34 points and 25 rebounds. And L.A. feels Shaq's absence in more subtle ways as well. "It's hard to get the steals and turnovers we normally get, because you know if you gamble and lose, Shaq's not back there to take care of your mistakes," says guard Eddie Jones.
Harris last week used a showbiz analogy to summarize the Lakers' situation. "It's like Shaq is the leading man and Elden is the understudy," he said. "When the leading man can't perform, the understudy steps in and the show goes on." But Los Angeles has had to reshuffle almost its entire cast, and all the performers have had to learn new lines. When the Lakers took the floor on Feb. 19 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Van Exel was the only member of the starting lineup who had been a starter at the same position a week earlier: Campbell had replaced O'Neal at center, rookie Travis Knight was in Campbell's power forward spot, Jones had moved from shooting guard to small forward to replace Horry, and teenage rookie Kobe Bryant had become the starter in Jones's old slot. The Cavaliers took advantage of the Lakers' confusion that night to pull away in the fourth quarter for a 103-84 victory. "Tonight was a night when it hurt," Van Exel said afterward, referring to the changes caused by the injuries. "Players were arguing with coaches. Coaches were arguing with players. It's not good for us in the situation we're in. We have to stick together."
The outlook improved a bit last Thursday when Los Angeles acquired one of the better marksmen in the NBA, George McCloud, who can play shooting guard and small forward. McCloud came in a trade with the New Jersey Nets (who had gotten him from the Dallas Mavericks three days earlier) for little-used center Joe Kleine, as well as a first-round draft pick this year and a conditional second-round choice in '98. The 6'8" McCloud will help the Lakers' depth, and Harris is already envisioning the possibility of surrounding O'Neal with four dangerous three-point shooters—Horry, Jones, McCloud and Van Exel—when everyone is healthy.
McCloud's presence should further ensure that Bryant's tenure as a starter was a brief one. As impressed as they have been by the rookie's performance this season, the Lakers don't want to enter the latter stages of the season leaning too heavily on someone whose biggest concern at NBA playoff time a year ago was finding the right tux for the senior prom. Bryant, who went directly from Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., to Los Angeles and is still only 18� years old, accepted the acquisition of McCloud with maturity and good cheer, the same way he has dealt with just about everything else in his eventful rookie season. His playing time has fluctuated widely, with last week a case in point. He started for the third time this season and played 23 minutes against the Cavaliers, scoring 10 points, and then came off the bench for only five minutes two nights later and scored just two in the 99-91 defeat of the Grizzlies. But overall his season can only be considered a rousing success. Through Sunday he was averaging 6.6 points in 14.2 minutes, and during All-Star Weekend he won the Slam Dunk contest and nearly won the MVP award at the Rookie Game. "The fact that he can come out here and contribute at all in this league is an amazing thing," says Rambis. "His maturity is remarkable."
So is his talent. Bryant is so versatile that Harris used him as Van Exel's backup at point guard for several weeks, yet Rambis points to the area underneath the basket and says, "He's going to make a lot of hay right there," referring to Bryant's post-up ability. Bryant's teammates are just as impressed. After one particularly spectacular move during a scrimmage earlier this season, Campbell said, "Damn, you should have come out after 11th grade."
Bryant seems to be equal parts tough-minded professional and wide-eyed adolescent. Last week, as he relaxed in the office of his agent, Arn Tellem, he talked in one breath about how he shrugs off foes' attempts to intimidate him and spoke in the next of his worry that "if my mother knew I was about to have a cheese-steak sandwich, she'd be all over me for not eating right."