Even as their team won championships, Lakers fans came to tire of the circumstances. There was the game's overwhelmingly dominant center and the game's resplendent, high-flying, ultra-talented wing player, both seemingly caught in a constant snit over who should have the ball. And the newspapers were having a field day reporting their clashes.
We're talking about George Mikan, the pro game's first great center, and Jim Pollard, the original jumping jack, playmaking guard/forward. A half century before Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant chased their curious chemistry as Lakers teammates, Mikan and Pollard spent their careers with the old Minneapolis Lakers alternating between fighting over the ball and winning championships. They won six of them, in fact, including five NBA titles and one in the old National League. And they debated their chemistry every step of the way.
The bad news for O'Neal and Bryant is that four decades after Mikan and Pollard won their last title, they were still jawing over the issue in interviews for history books. It seems that these hoops conflicts run forever, or until the last sports talk radio show signs off.
As Tex Winter, the longtime observer of the game, explained, "That's basketball."
That's also the Lakers, the ultimate team in the history of the game. As the cover of this book declares, this is their story, told in their own words. Not surprisingly, it's a bit complicated.
There's a team plane crash in a snowstorm, at least two near financial failures, more than a few bewildering real estate transactions, a high-profile rape case, a low-profile indecent exposure case, an unsolved murder, the firings of several winning coaches, and enough sexual hijinks to qualify as a soap opera, all of it occasioned in and around the team's 29 championship battles. As with any Hollywood epic, there's a star-driven cast. The manic Jerry West. The ebullient yet insatiable Magic Johnson. The brooding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The dandy Chick Hearn. The splendid Elgin Baylor. The arrogant Jack Kent Cooke. The cunning Jerry Buss. The preening Pat Riley. The lonely Wilt Chamberlain. The childlike Shaq. The ambitious Kobe. The manipulative Phil Jackson. The leering Jack Nicholson. They and a phalanx of splendid role players over the decades all populate the mythical panorama that is the Los Angeles Lakers.
Just which of these is the leading man?
That depends on whom you ask.
Bill Walton, Hall of Famer, former UCLA star: "It's all Chick Hearn. I started playing basketball when I was eight years old in 1960, and we didn't have a television. I bought a $9.95 transistor radio and listened to Chick Hearn on the radio. Chick Hearn taught me how to play basketball, how to think about basketball. He taught me how to love basketball. I lived for Chick Hearn on the radio every day. Jerry and Elgin and all the guys. Rudy LaRusso. The endless list of characters. But it was always Chick. The love affair with basketball in Los Angeles and the Lakers is all about Chick Hearn. He is the guy who convinced so many millions of people that this is the greatest thing in the world. Once we came and saw what he saw we could never leave. While Chick broadcast 3,300 games, or whatever the number is, I'm sure I listened to at least 2,500 of those games. I planned my life around Chick Hearn. I would sit there as a young boy and just be amazed. I would listen to this game, and I could see it all. I would laugh out loud at the things Chick would say. At the end, in his last year I was listening to a game. I still was laughing out loud."
Others say it's got to be the long-tortured Jerry West, who came to the team in 1960 as a rookie out of West Virginia, starred for 14 years through a blur of unfulfilling championship battles, then stayed on as coach, consultant, and general manager for years. It could well be West's story, except that he doesn't want it to be.
Mark Heisler, Los Angeles Times columnist: "The Lakers mystique is Jerry West. He's the one constant. He's the one guy who's been there from the beginning."
Jerry West: "I don't remember anything about my career. I choose not to. I really don't live in the past. I really don't care about the past."
Perhaps the largest of many ironies in West's life is that he is "the logo." His graceful, slashing silhouette is the centerpiece of the NBA's red, white, and blue logo, which means that, as much as he'd like to forget it, he and everyone else associated with the NBA is reminded of his playing career at virtually every turn. Quite simply, the NBA logo is plastered everywhere. And he's revered accordingly.
Mark Heisler: "They had a young PR guy who was just there for a year or so. And West was introducing himself. He said, 'I'm the logo.' And he was kidding. The thing is about West, in one way, he's tremendously humble and doesn't think he's done anything. There also another side of West where he knows he's Jerry Fuckin' West."
Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated senior writer: "I told him, 'Growing up, you were the guy I sort of modeled myself after, like every white kid in America who had half a jump shot.' West, just totally without ego, looks at me and says, 'Yeah, a lot of guys have told me that.'"
J. A. Adande, Los Angeles Times columnist: "Before I moved back to L.A, I was working at the Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. And I'd call him for stories I was working on. I'd get off the phone, and I'd think, 'I was talking to Jerry West.'"
For others, the leading man is clearly Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who wept the first time he donned a Lakers uniform in 1979. In many ways, the Lakers franchise would be defined once and for all by Johnson's prodigious emotional gift, a vast store of unbridled enthusiasm that washed over L.A. like a great tide during the '80s and drowned what was long thought to be the city's unconquerable cynicism. Johnson's tenure would soon come to be labeled the Showtime era. It didn't come until the team was already 30 years old, yet it proved to be the watershed for the franchise. His emotional energy, his performances, would connect the past and the future of the club, fusing the image of the Lakers across the decades. In so doing, he also managed to change the game itself.
Jim Hill, longtime L.A. sportscaster and Johnson confidant: "You could tell it was coming. You could see from the no-look passes, and you could see from Magic's enthusiasm. You could see when the Lakers would score and the opposition would call a time-out and the people were going crazy and Magic's hugging Jamaal Wilkes or somebody else. I remember the first time Jamaal did something and he called time-out. People were going crazy. Magic starts hugging and yelling at Jamaal and patting him on the back and giving high fives every place. Jamaal looked at him like he was crazy. Up to that point, if you were a professional, you were cool, calm, and collected. And you didn't show your emotions on the floor. And here was this 19-year-old kid running and laughing, just like he was on the playground."
Herb Williams, 17-year NBA veteran and former Lakers opponent: "Magic's thing was to get everybody else involved. And with him having the ball all the time, he would always be in rhythm. So his thing was always to pass the ball, looking for the open guy. And if he had to put a little flair behind it to get the crowd excited, he could do that also."
As the Showtime era progressed, it became clear that Los Angeles itself was donning a new image.
Jim Hill: "It was incredible. Going to watch the Lakers play became like going to watch a heavyweight fight 82 times a year. People dressed up. People were excited. People didn't know what was going to happen. Magic knew that when he went to the arena, he was going not only to win the game but to perform so that when people went to work the next day, they would say, 'Did you see what Earvin did last night?' He would always say that was what he wanted to do. He wanted make people talk about what he had done."
J. A. Adande: "He could walk into a restaurant and Warren Beatty or any other of the big Hollywood names would be in the restaurant, but all the eyes would turn to Magic. He had that magnetism that L.A. responds to. He also reveled in it. He loved being the center of attention. The reason he was so successful in L.A., L.A. is all about a show, and he provided the show."
Jerry West: "He played the game with a joy but still had this enormous sense of competitive drive with him, an absolutely incredible leader even at that early stage of his life. He was just one of these unique players that made people better. You could just see it. No one had to tell you about it. No one had to write about it. You didn't have to wonder about it. He was a damn thoroughbred. When he was born, somebody did sprinkle a little extra dust on him."
J. A. Adande: "Magic had a way of making everybody feel they were a part of it. When I was a kid, I used to go to the games, and I met Magic at his basketball camp. I went to his summer camp four years in a row, so he got to know me through that. I'd show up at the games, and he'd break out of the layup line and come over and say hi to me. I was in fourth, fifth, sixth grade. And I felt like the most important guy at the Forum. Magic came over to talk to me in the middle of the layup line and everybody saw it. Then I proceeded to go back up to my seat in the upper colonnade section, but all the way back up I knew that everyone had seen that happen. He recognized what he did. He knew that coming over, that was gonna make my day."
Mike Wise, longtime NBA writer: "All of a sudden Magic shows up, and Showtime happens. And it's real. You went into the Forum on a Friday night, and if you were a visiting team, you didn't come out of that building a winner. Everybody knew that's just how it was. It wasn't just about Magic. It wasn't just about Kareem. It was about Showtime. There was an aura around the team that was somewhat bigger than the franchise itself. It's why the stars came out, it's why the town started singing Randy Newman after every game: 'I Love L.A.' It's a corny song, but if you were in L.A. and you were visiting and that song was playing after the game, you were like, 'Yeah. This is a great town.' And then all of sudden you go through this time in Los Angeles when you got Rodney King and you got O.J. and you have this earthquake and the town is in this big funk [for] five, ten years. And you're like, 'Wow, L.A.'s lost it. It's gone.' And then all of a sudden Jerry West gets Shaq and Kobe. You hate to say that getting two guys to become part of a franchise can resurrect a city, but in a big way it was part of L.A.'s healing process. The Lakers then became part of something alive. You get a rental car at the airport, and the guy driving the Avis is like, 'Ah, the Lakers are playing tonight.' It's a communal thing. L.A. is like this big car culture where you don't know your neighbors and everybody is driving around. But the Lakers made it a town. A small town. In that way, it's a really connected history."
Central to it all is the setting, Hollywood itself, and the team's succession of playing venues – the L.A. Sports Arena, the Great Western Forum, Staples Center – the stages on which the drama has played out season after season, each building taking on the star-studded atmosphere that is a Lakers game.
Darryl Dawkins, a.k.a. Chocolate Thunder, former NBA player: "It's Showtime. When you come to a Lakers game, it's gonna be star-studded. You get a chance to play harder than you've ever played. It's all about a show. If you ain't got a show, then stay out. That's just the way it is."
Kevin Willis, longtime NBA player: "It was that Showtime thing. All the stars came out at night. And the opposing team wanted to be a part of that, wanted to be involved in trying to slow that fast break down and watching Magic do his thing out there. It presented a challenge every time you played the Lakers in the Forum. Guys just loved it. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. It was like being on a stage. The only difference was, the stars were sitting and watching the athletes. You just loved that two-plus hours out there, doing your thing in front of everybody. Showcasing in front of everybody."
John Salley, humorist and former Laker: "When you walk in Staples, you're enamored by the stars. Jack is one of 'em, but to see Gary Shandling and Dustin Hoffman. You see all these people who take these front row seats. There are the people who you watch on TV or on film, or who you listen to musically. You're like in awe of them. And then the Lakers come out, and you find out that the real stars in Los Angeles are the Lakers. Because all the Hollywood stars are standing and clapping and literally setting their schedules around the Lakers. These are people making literally $20 and $30 million setting their schedules around what the Lakers do. Magic's got a star in Hollywood, and they had no choice but to give it to him because he's the most famous star in all of Los Angeles. Period."
It's duly noted that the fans of Boston Celtics might want to raise a point of contention. The Lakers are the ultimate team? What about the Celtics' 16 NBA titles outclassing the 14 won by the Lakers?
That's certainly a consideration, but let's do some math. Over their long history, the Lakers have played in the league championship series a record 28 times. Over the Celtics' even longer history, they've reached the championship round 19 times, trailing the Lakers as a distant second.
Then there's the issue of winning percentages. The Lakers hold the NBA's all-time lead in winning a whopping 62.1 percent of their regular-season games.
And when it comes to the playoffs, the Lakers again hold a large lead, having won 60.4 percent of their postseason contests. In fact, they've won 71 percent of their playoff series, a league-leading 93 playoff series won.
The Celtics? Again a distant second with 66 playoff series won.
As for consistency, the Lakers have won at least one title or made an appearance in the league championship Finals in every decade of the NBA's existence. They won two titles in the '40s (including their National League title); three titles in the '50s while making four championship appearances; six championship appearances in the '60s; a title and three championship appearances in the '70s; five titles and eight championship appearances in the '80s; a championship appearance in 1991; and three titles and four championship appearances in the first five seasons of the 21st century.
Despite this edge in the numbers, the Lakers over the years have taken a back seat to the Celtics in the minds of many NBA fans. That's because it's about much more than mere numbers.
Jerry Sichting, former Celtic: "The first year I came to Boston, the Celtics and Lakers played each other four times in the preseason. The second game was in the Forum. During that game, Maurice Lucas and Robert Parish got into it. Both benches emptied. I remember that when they began breaking it up, KC Jones was at the bottom of the pile and had Michael Cooper in a headlock. That's the first time I had ever seen an NBA coach in a fight with one of the players. But that was the Celtics and Lakers."
Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times columnist: "The Lakers/Celtics – that might have been the rivalry that built the NBA. Russell/Chamberlain, Bird/Magic. The Lakers are also defined by their foes. Certainly that Celtics rivalry was something that put them in everybody's consciousness."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "I have a unique perspective on that. I've been going to NBA games since 1960 when I was in the eighth grade. I've seen a few things. The Lakers were always the noble opposition when I started going to see the games. And that was it. They couldn't beat the Celtics. I was a Celtics fan in those days. But the Lakers were always interesting to watch because of Jerry and Elgin. They went from being the loyal opposition to being a dominant team during the Showtime period. They're back being a dominant team now. Their history with George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen and all those guys – that really gives them a cachet because before the Celtics started to dominate the Lakers were a dominant team."
Dr. Jack Ramsay, broadcaster and former NBA coach: "I don't think anybody can match the Celtics in terms of mystique. They won eight championships in a row. They won 11 out of 13. But if you go back to the original Lakers in Minnesota, they won five and one in the old National League. That was a great team. That was a team like the Celtics. Then when the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, they were good, but they couldn't win for a long time because they were always playing the Celtics."
The Lakers' failures against the Celtics became the standard for basketball futility, and the spell wasn't broken until 1985, when Pat Riley coached Los Angeles past the Celtics for the league championship.
Mark Heisler: "Pat Riley was the height of paranoia. When they were playing the Celtics in the '80s, one day he makes Gary Vitti dump the water because he's afraid that Red [Auerbach had] poisoned it. Riles gives the team a talk about what the Celtics really were – this ancient warlike race of subhumans. It was just incredibly demonizing. What it really is, it just goes to show how humiliated the Lakers felt by the Celtics over all those years. The Celtics were beating them every year, and the Lakers just felt terrible about it. It's hard to underestimate the damage done to the Lakers psyche by all those Celtics victories. The Celtics were incredibly good about rubbing it in. Everybody hated the Celtics. Every time you got into a series against the Celtics, nobody turned their noses up the way they did, with their mystique. They were so good and they won so much and they backed it up so much, it just really flipped people out."
Magic Johnson: "The good thing is, the Celtics did it their way, and we've done it our way. It's in a Hollywood style, showy, flashy, yet with a lot of substance. We wanted to run and put on a show. The Celtics and Larry did it their way to help shape and mold basketball. They did it their way, and it was different between the Lakers and the Celtics. That's why we're who we are and they're who they are."
Michael Cooper, former Laker: "What we established in the '80s – what we took over from Jerry West and Wilt in '72 – is that winning attitude. That's what L.A. is about. I'm pretty sure if you were to ask any Celtic, any former Celtic, that they would tell you it's about winning. You have to do that as a team. You can't come to a Lakers team thinking it's all about me. You can't think, 'I'm gonna score 30, and I'll be happy and get all the glitz.' No, it's about fitting into the system, understanding who the go-to people are and doing whatever you have to do to help win the championship. That's what people have to understand coming here."
As much as they were frustrated by the Celtics, the Lakers also established a dominance over other Western Conference teams that has become something of a status quo in its own way. Houston, Portland, San Antonio, Utah, Seattle, and Sacramento have all struggled to compete with the Lakers' superior lineups.
Steve "Snapper" Jones, Portland broadcaster and former NBA player: "As a Western Conference rival, every team in the West hates the Lakers. The Portland setbacks at the hands of the Lakers are almost legendary. Only Los Angeles has won, so it's a lopsided rivalry. But it is a rivalry, nonetheless."
The story, it seems, belongs to all of them, the Lakers, their stars, and role players and coaches and even their opponents. It's a long, gnarly tale. Sad. Funny. Twisted. Triumphant. Bittersweet. And full of the unexpected. Always the unexpected.
Roland Lazenby is a sportswriter and the author of numerous sports books, including Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey and Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant. His work has been featured in such publications as Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many others
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