[ NBA BASKETBALL ]
L.A. Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal fielded questions yesterday at the Stan Sheriff Center.
A healthy Shaq
hungry for another
As the Lakers hold their
first full-squad practice, the center
is ready to "learn" his new teammates
If centers around the NBA are dreading the prospect of banging in the paint with a stronger, leaner Shaquille O'Neal this season, consider the plight of Eric Chenowith.
As the free-agent center fights for a roster spot with the Lakers, Chenowith is gearing up for a training camp spent trying to hold his ground against O'Neal, who arrived here healthy and as imposing as ever at 7-foot-1, 340 pounds.
"It's the biggest challenge of my career so far," said Chenowith, a relatively slender 7-1, 270-pounder. "I gained 25 pounds in muscle just so I can guard him in practice. That's all I did, prepare to guard him in practice. That's been my job."
O'Neal and the rest of the Lakers went through the team's first full-squad workout yesterday at the Stan Sheriff Center, where the task of blending the talents of current stars like O'Neal with veteran newcomers such as Karl Malone and Gary Payton begins.
"The first day of practice was good, we have a lot of veteran leaders out there working hard and playing hard," O'Neal told the crowd of reporters circled around him after yesterday morning's practice. "We still have a lot to learn. We have to learn those guys and they have learn us and learn our offense. It's going to be an indescribable learning experience.
"I think it's going to be better for all parties; they came here for one reason and one reason only and that was to win."
After being hobbled by a foot injury that curtailed his training last summer, the perennial NBA all-star finally had a healthy offseason to prepare for the grind of his 11th year in the league.
O'Neal missed the first 12 games of last season recovering from foot surgery and said he was told to take it slow with his recovery. But when the Lakers got off to a sluggish start, O'Neal jumped back into the lineup and finished the season averaging 27.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. He was named to the All-NBA first team for the fourth consecutive season.
O'Neal, criticized for his conditioning at times last year, hired a personal trainer in the offseason to help trim down.
"I was able to get a lot of rest this summer and work out, so I'm cool," O'Neal said. "I'm always going to be cool."
O'Neal played it cool in his first meeting with the media in town for the Lakers' camp, which he compared to the frenzy of the NBA Finals.
Questions regarding teammate Kobe Bryant, who faces a sexual assault charge in Colorado and did not fly to Honolulu with the rest of the team on Thursday, were often answered with a "meow," drawing chuckles and confused stares from those in listening range.
"If you ask me, I'm going to say 'CAT,' " O'Neal explained. "CAT means 'Can't Answer That.' "
In addition to Bryant's situation and the veteran additions, the status of O'Neal's contract was another subplot entering training camp. Although he hasn't yet gotten the contract extension he hoped for, O'Neal is playing down a possible conflict with management.
"There's a lot of hard-working, underpaid people in this world, so you'll never hear me complain about what I'm getting paid or what I'm not getting paid," he said. "When it's all said and done Shaquille O'Neal will be fine, beautifully fine, Hawaiianly fine."
This year, O'Neal's eighth in Los Angeles, the Lakers enter the season without the NBA crown for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, after having their string of three straight championships snapped with a loss to eventual champion San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals.
But O'Neal isn't about to play the underdog role just yet.
"We're always the favorites and now we have to go out and prove it," he said.
Bag search to be enforced: Bags brought into the Stan Sheriff Center for next week's exhibition games between the Lakers and Golden State Warriors will be subject to search, the University of Hawaii announced yesterday.
The Lakers play the Warriors on Oct. 7 and 8. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 944-BOWS and online at www.etickethawaii.com.
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to join Lakers today
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was expected to arrive in Honolulu late last night and will join the team at training camp today at the University of Hawaii, Lakers spokesman John Black said.
Bryant, who is the focus of intense media attention after a charge of sexual assault was filed against him in the summer, did not travel with the rest of the team's veterans on Thursday and missed yesterday's workouts. Team officials said he skipped the flight because he was "under the weather."
But Bryant had apparently recovered enough to travel yesterday afternoon as Black confirmed that Bryant was expected to arrive here on a private plane in time for today's practices.
"That's our assumption, because he said he would not come until he felt better," Black said.
Black said Bryant will be available to the media following the morning workout at Gym II at the UH athletic department. But whether Bryant will actually practice remains uncertain as he continues to recover from offseason surgery on his shoulder and knee.
"I'm not sure of that because of the surgeries," Black said. "I'm not sure how much he will actually participate in practice."
Bryant, 25, is charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado woman June 30 in his suite at a mountain resort where she worked. Bryant has said the two had consensual sex. Free on $25,000 bond, Bryant is scheduled to appear Thursday in Eagle, Colo., for a preliminary hearing to determine whether he will stand trial. That's the day after the Lakers close camp with the second of two exhibition games with the Golden State Warriors.
The case has attracted intense media coverage since the charge was filed. The Lakers held a team meeting on Thursday in part to address Bryant's situation.
"We talked about Kobe not being here and what we can do to be supportive," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.