ERA OF EXCELLENCE: L.A. LAKERS (1979-1991)
It was time for a show
Lakers had a star center and a star guard (sound familiar?), but Riley's gang featured much more.
Showtime captured the imagination of a city and five NBA championships in nine seasons. Coach Pat Riley, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the driving forces for those teams, celebrate another title. (Los Angeles Times)
Bill Dwyre, the sports editor, summoned me to his office one day and warned me about my cynicism, borne no doubt of covering too many Cub games for a Chicago newspaper. He told me to maintain a critical eye but also to make sure that I provided readers with a sense of how special that team was. I should, in short, remember to be awed.
It wasn't difficult. With Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it seemed at the time that the Lakers had the basketball equivalent of Ruth and Gehrig.
There was a question in the early '80s about whether it was Kareem's team or Magic's team, but it was clear not much longer into the decade that it was Magic's.
Abdul-Jabbar was "Cap" to his teammates, an acknowledgment of his role as the captain and, I assume, his stature in the game.
But Pat Riley told me once that the players thought Abdul-Jabbar, because of his appearance on the court--his height, the way he flapped his arms when he ran, his aviator goggles--and his standoffish demeanor off the court, was goofy. That was his word. Goofy.
His teammates used to enjoy games more when he wasn't in them, because of an injury or one of his frequent migraines. Riley called them "the Greyhounds" because, without having to wait for Abdul-Jabbar to set up the offense, they could run for 48 minutes.
Of course, they had to have known in their heart of hearts that they wouldn't win as many titles as they eventually did--five--without him. He had the greatest offensive weapon in the game's history, the unblockable sky hook, and used it to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer.
His rebounding was often criticized, not unfairly. Annual stories in the Herald-Examiner quoting Wilt Chamberlain on that subject infuriated Abdul-Jabbar so much that he stopped talking to the paper's beat writer, Rich Levin.
Abdul-Jabbar, though, was underappreciated defensively. His role in initiating the heralded Laker fastbreaks with blocked or altered shots was often obscured by the resultant coast-to-coast charge of the lighter brigade that almost invariably ended with a basket after a brilliant pass by Johnson.
What more can be said about Magic? He hardly ever failed to live up to his nickname. Almost nightly, he did something that I had never seen anyone, including him, do before.
Some teammates, Norm Nixon in particular, weren't as convinced as the fans were when Johnson arrived in 1979 that he was the miracle child. Ironically, he won over teammates in the same moment that he, at least temporarily, lost many fans.
That was on the night in 1981 in Salt Lake City that he demanded to be traded because he didn't believe either he or the Lakers could reach their potential with the half-court offense coach Paul Westhead was trying to teach them. Westhead was fired the next day and Johnson, as the inmate who supposedly was running the asylum, was booed, even in the Forum.
The fans eventually forgot, but Johnson's teammates didn't. Most of them didn't like Westhead's system, either, but they didn't say anything publicly for fear of the backlash. It was a different time, and they didn't know how it would be received if black players criticized a white coach.
So Johnson did it for them. One reason was that he could. Jerry Buss wasn't going to fire him. The other reason was that he knew it was his responsibility if he wanted to become the team leader, which, by virtue of his action, he did on that night in Utah.
His teammates would follow him anywhere, a faith rewarded most definitively a few years later when he led them down the fire escape after their Philadelphia hotel almost went up in smoke.
One question that comes up a lot these days is whether the Kobe- Shaq Lakers could beat the Kareem-Magic Lakers. It's possible if it were a two-on-two game and they were the only ones playing.
But the Showtime Lakers had incredible depth and would have won a series between them, in five or six games I believe, because of that. The 1982-83 Lakers had Michael Cooper, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo on the bench. Think about that.
Abdul-Jabbar couldn't have stopped Shaquille O'Neal and vice versa. Cooper, the defender Larry Bird respected more than any other, would have done better than any of today's defenders on Kobe Bryant, particularly when you consider Bryant would have been drained from guarding Johnson. Who else would you have do it? The 6-foot-1 while standing on a phone book Derek Fisher?