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A tiny problem, relatively speaking, is causing mammoth Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal a lot of pain these days.

O'Neal, who had surgery Aug. 29 to alleviate the ache in his small left toe, said Friday he's not sure he'll be ready to play when the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers begin the season Oct. 30 against Portland.

"I just got cleared to do bikes last week, I haven't been doing anything since the surgery," O'Neal said Friday before the Lakers flew to Hawaii for the beginning of training camp. "I get another checkup in 30 days.

"It's kind of hurting pretty bad, the pinky-winky toe."

Elsewhere in the NBA, the New York Knicks would like forward Larry Johnson to make a graceful exit and have offered him a buyout for the remaining three years of his contract.

Johnson, a two-time All-Star who has spent five seasons in New York, has a chronic back condition that has hampered him for several years and kept him out of last season's playoffs. A co-captain, he averaged a career-low 9.9 points in 2000-01.

Johnson is due to make $28.8 million over the next three seasons. A source close to Johnson told the Associated Press that the Knicks have offered about $14 million -- roughly half of what Johnson is owed, but not in a lump sum.

Vernon Downs has new owners

Vernon Downs, an ailing harness track between Syracuse and Utica with daily attendance of about 1,000 fans, is being bought by two prominent horse owners for $9 million.

The sale already has been approved by the track's board of directors but must be endorsed by shareholders and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, track president Justice Cheney said Friday.

If the deal is approved, two of the new owners will be Eric Cherry of Delray Beach, Fla., and Sanford Goldfarb of Old Westbury. They are prominent Standardbred owners who are among the sport's leading stakes winners.

"Two of the purchasers are not just wealthy people -- they are horse people," Cheney said. "They are not just in the business to make money. They are doing this because they love the sport."

Ex-coach thinking about Congress

Dale Brown, the Minot, North Dakota, native who coached basketball at LSU for 25 years, is considering moving back to North Dakota to run for the U.S. House, political activists said.

Dan Traynor, the state party chairman, and party director Jason Stverak said they both took calls from the former coach Thursday.

Brown was curious about the party's process for choosing candidates for Congress, Traynor and Stverak said. Both men said Friday they had not known beforehand about Brown's interest. There are no declared Republican candidates to run against incumbent Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy for North Dakota's lone U.S. House seat next year.

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