Which came first, the smack talk or the smack?
When the Lakers and Utah Jazz crossed paths at their respective game-day shootaround Friday afternoon in the Forum, witnesses say they heard two sounds ring out.
The first was Jazz center Greg Ostertag getting hit. The second was Ostertag hitting the floor, the apparent victim of a slap upside the head from injured Laker center Shaquille O’Neal.
No one was saying who started it Friday night, but the bad feelings that existed between O’Neal and Ostertag during the Western Conference semifinals last season were apparently still fresh nearly six months later as, according to witnesses, the two exchanged verbal barbs before O’Neal hit Ostertag in the head with an open hand.
The next slap could come from officials in the NBA office, who had already spoken to O’Neal about his part in the incident by early Friday evening. There is little or no precedent for a disciplinary action as a result of an incident that occured in shooting drills hours before a game, but fines and/or suspensions may be forthcoming for both players.
O’Neal is out with a abdominal stain and is scheduled to be reevaluated by Laker medical personnel Monday. It is uncertain whether he will get medical clearance to play in Tuesday night’s game at Sacramento.
O’Neal declined to comment about the matter shortly before the Lakers’ 104-87 victory in Friday night’s regular-season opener against the Jazz, but spoke to a few television reporters before leaving the Forum not long after the incident occurred. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” he said. “Both teams are excited about the season starting.”
Laker publicist John Black was in attendance at the shootaround, but said his back was turned when tempers flared. “I didn’t hear (what started) it, but apparently the gist of it was things they said about each other during and after last spring’s playoff series.”
Black said O’Neal apologized to Laker vice president Jerry West and general manager Mitch Kupchak for his role in the exchange. Laker coach Del Harris said O’Neal also apologized to him.
“We don’t like it when there’s anything of a questionable nature that may bring a bad light on our team or one of our players,” Harris said. “But until all the facts are in, we’re not going to comment on it.”
Harris said it has been his observation that O’Neal was frustrated in the playoff series against the Jazz because his left knee, injured in February, was still bothering him, limiting his mobility.
“It was tough on Shaquille playing at 80 to 85 percent, then having people criticize him when he had a bad game,” Harris said.