In the 1980s, when then Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley and team leader Magic Johnson were winning conference and NBA titles with regularity, Riley cautioned, "When Magic Johnson retires, it's time for us all to go home."
Riley, now coach of the New York Knicks, left Los Angeles two years before Johnson's retirement last month after testing HIV-positive. But it now appears that predictions of the Lakers' collapse were grossly exaggerated.
These days, Riley's successor, Mike Dunleavy, is not only operating without Johnson, but also minus his starting center, Vlade Divac (out six to eight weeks with a herniated disk). Backup Elden Campbell is restricted with a sore ankle.
Forward Sam Perkins has become the emergency center, with New Jersey Nets castoff Jack Haley (no, not the Tin Man) in relief. Sedale Threatt, a converted shooting guard, runs the Lakers offense. But they continue to win, losing only to the Boston Celtics in their past 11 games to lead the Pacific Division with an 11-4 record.
"The minute Magic announced his situation, we all came together as a team," said perennial All-Star forward James Worthy.
Said Dunleavy: "Obviously, I'm somewhat surprised by our record, but I'm not surprised by the way the team has responded. Our intensity has been greater than ever. The players understand each one of them has to do more for us to succeed."
Threatt, an eight-year journeyman, has been the most pleasant surprise. The Lakers, who obtained him from the Seattle SuperSonics in October for three second-round picks, envisioned Threatt playing a backup role to Johnson and shooting guard Byron Scott. But Threatt has proved a more than capable point guard, averaging 13.7 points and 7.6 assists.
"I knew I'd play a role, but not one that would be this important," he said. "You can't replace a guy like Magic, who won five titles. I've never won one. But we're winning by applying more defensive pressure and doing a better job of team rebounding."
Detroit Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone was impressed after recently scouting the Lakers. Said Malone: "They're like a team on a mission for Magic, or maybe to prove they can win without him. It will be interesting to see if they can sustain the emotion."
Net perspective: Beleaguered New Jersey Nets coach Bill Fitch keeps focused on his job despite persistent rumors that he will be fired in favor of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, former Atlanta Hawks boss Mike Fratello or ex-N.C. State coach Jim Valvano.
Fitch, with 21 years of NBA coaching experience, has lived through tough times before. "I don't know if there is anything you can do about the rumors except do your job, and control your anger," he said, with his Nets struggling at 3-12.
"But I pick up the paper and see that Pittsburgh Penguins coach Bob Johnson has died of cancer and that [Milwaukee Brewers manager] Phil Garner's house has burned to the ground. Those are the real tragedies in life."