There are no small roles, only small actors. Rick Fox, the
Lakers' swingman and a fledgling thespian, is obviously a
believer in that show business adage because he turned down
chances to be a leading man for several other teams and signed
instead with star-studded Los Angeles as a free agent in August.
Fox realizes he'll never get top billing with his new team, not
when center Shaquille O'Neal, guard Nick Van Exel, swingman
Eddie Jones and even 19-year-old swingman Kobe Bryant have more
marquee value. But after four straight losing seasons with the
woeful Celtics, Fox is more than willing to play a supporting
role on one of the handful of teams that have a realistic chance
of unseating the Bulls as NBA champions.

The Cavaliers, the Hawks, the Knicks and the 76ers were among
the teams that pursued Fox, who averaged 15.4 points and 5.2
rebounds with Boston last season. Cleveland reportedly offered
him a four-year, $20 million deal, and Fox says some of the
suitors guaranteed him a starting spot. He got no such
assurances from the Lakers, who also didn't have the salary-cap
space to come close to matching Fox's more lucrative offers, but
he agreed to a one-year, $1 million deal with them anyway.
Playing in Los Angeles will give him a better chance of
furthering his acting career--he has received good notices as
Jackson Vahue, a heroin-snorting NBA player serving time for
attempted rape and assault, in the HBO prison drama, Oz--but he
insists that his Hollywood aspirations weren't the main reason
he took a smaller part for considerably smaller money; his
frustrations in Boston were. "I just wanted the chance to play
for a championship," Fox says. "I couldn't stand the losing
anymore. I despised it."

To make it clear that winning was his first priority, Fox, who
wore number 44 at North Carolina and with the Celtics, chose
number 17 with the Lakers, symbolic of what eluded him in
Boston: the Celtics' 17th championship. Fox improves the Lakers'
chances of seizing an NBA title by adding more flexibility to
what was already one of the league's deepest teams. Coach Del
Harris has power with O'Neal and forward Elden Campbell, speed
with Bryant, Jones, Van Exel and forward Robert Horry. He has
perimeter shooting with Fox, Horry and Van Exel, and slashers in
Horry and Jones.

Having all that talent is also L.A.'s potential weakness. Harris
must give his top players enough minutes to keep their
concentration from wandering, as it appeared to at times last
season. "If by some little stretch of the imagination the Lakers
get some common sense over the summer," Rockets forward Charles
Barkley said last May, "they're going to be the team to beat."

Harris concedes that Los Angeles sometimes lacked maturity and
focus last season, but he thinks the Lakers are ready to improve
in those areas, mainly because they've made only one significant
addition, Fox. "This is the first time in the four years I've
been here that we will have such carryover in our nucleus,"
Harris says. "The first year we had Cedric [Ceballos], Eddie and
me as newcomers. The next year we had Magic [Johnson] return.
Last year we added Shaq. This time the heart of the team is
intact. We're a year older and a few mistakes wiser."

It remains to be seen whether L.A. has the wisdom to avoid the
kind of playoff meltdown it suffered last year in a second-round
loss to Utah, when the contentiousness between Harris and Van
Exel boiled over. Both sides say they are committed to getting
along better, and Van Exel even sought counseling over the
summer to help him with controlling his anger and dealing with
authority. If the Lakers can avoid that kind of conflict--and if
the troublesome left knee that Van Exel says could force his
premature retirement holds up--Fox could get his hands on the
championship trophy he wants so badly. It's not an Oscar, but
it's a start. --P. T.