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LAKERS ARE LATEST PURSUERS OF MCGRADY

Despite Raptor GM Glen Grunwald's contention that Tracy McGrady isn't going anywhere, sources say the Lakers are the latest team who feel confident they have the capacity to acquire the free agent-in-waiting.

In fact, I'm told, L.A.'s front office and McGrady's agent Arn Tellem, were vastly disappointed this past Tuesday when a number of plausibly vague three-way deals fell through for one squeamish reason or another, often the case when three teams are implicated.

Though I've been unable to piece together all the particulars, this much is known:

Once the 76ers excused themselves from the bidding for McGrady (Tellem apprised them his client, if obtained, would not re-sign), Jerry West quickly got himself into negotiations. Fascinated by the 20-year-old's athleticism, attitude and altitude from the moment of his professional conception, the Laker president envisions him as Earvin with upsurge, or a Kobe clone.

The difficulty, of course, is to satisfy the Raptors by making them whole. Or, at least, fake their fans and media into believing the team is being made whole.

Which is why the Lakers almost certainly need to include another team in the equation. Glen Rice or Robert Horry do not appeal to the Raptors, nor is the deal remotely doable one-for-one, because of the salaries involved.

On the other hand, they might (pure speculation on my part) have some interest in Derek Fisher or Canadian Rick Fox in an expanded trade, with the hope of dumping Michael Stewart's $26 million contract.

If the Raptors must relinquish McGrady (despite denials by everyone concerned -- in addition to Toronto's media being in denial -- there's no denying this is a Damon Stoudamire/Stephon Marbury reenactment), the idea is to package an undesirable while they're still in a para-position of power.

Anyway you look at it, as evidenced by the lack of activity in the transactions column, the Lakers have yet to present the Raptors with talent (either their own or someone else's) that turns them on enough to move McGrady.

The Knicks, tempting neither the Lakers or Raptors, are pitching Kurt Thomas and Chris Childs or Charlie Ward in an effort to secure Rice. The Heat know what it will take to reclaim Rice directly from L.A., but, so far, are unwilling to surrender P.J. Brown. As a tag team partner in the triangle, it's unsure whether Tim Hardaway would be acceptable to Toronto even if he were healthy and not about to become a free agent.

The team with the most maneuverability and leverage is the rampaging Clippers, winners in three of their last five, including two straight minus coach Chris Ford (bad back). Not only do they boast ample cap room (making them the designated brokers for the league's base year salaries), but Maurice Taylor as well.

Not only is Taylor a coveted target of Toronto, but his agent, David Falk, works for the same company as Tellem.

Tellem also is a good friend and close neighbor of West.

What's important to understand is, the only way the Lakers can get McGrady now, or in the next millennium is in a trade. Why? Because they're capped out and ostensibly disqualified from recruiting popular free agents as long as Shaq and Kobe remain on Dr. Buss' payroll.

Therefore, should the Clips be disinclined to cooperate, McGrady is guaranteed to wind up in Orlando or Chicago when August rolls around. Clearly, the Lakers need the help of their step-children.

Kobe corner

Little known fact about well-known people department: Why does Kobe Bryant wear No. 8? No, not because his idol was Yogi Berra. Because when he lived in Italy for eight years while his father (Jelly Bean) played there, Mike D'Antoni was bigger than any other American import, exempting, perhaps, Bob McAdoo.

While on the subject of Kobe, how can our country's Olympic selection committee not be considering adding his joyous radiance to the team?

Nine slots are filled (unless injury or illness prevents Tim Hardaway or Tom Gugliotta from playing), three openings remain. Grant Hill is a lock to be plugged into one of them when the final vote is taken, January 4.

Though Shaq has been quoted extensively saying he'll pass on Sydney, neither he nor his representative Leonard Armato has notified the committee of that decision. The spot belongs to Shaq should he change his mind within the next 10 days. Should he maintain his public position, Alonzo Mourning deserves the invitation. However, Antonio McDyess has earned some serious deliberation.

Rim shots

This just in: NBC fined Patrick Ewing $10,000 for not waiting to make his season debut last night against the Pacers. . . . Just wondering, was Jayson Williams' $2.1M gift to St. John's a donation or repayment? . . . Scottie Pippen says he won't send Charles Barkley a get well card, even at gun point.

Not that Pippen didn't volunteer he merited some of the blame for the Rockets poor showing last season when he visited Houston for the first time last week. Then he proceeded to upstage Barkley by announcing he was quitting the Blazers after this season to run for governor of Alabama. . . . The most impressive aspect of the Hornets' recent 8-game winning streak is they accomplished it with a healthy Derrick Coleman. . . . Anthony Mason says he can just relax and play basketball now that George Shinn has been found not guilty. . . . Lamar Odom has lost more games as a Clipper than he did transcripts while in high school.

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