The headline over a science story in The Times this week read, "In a Universe of Wonders, Remembering to Be Awed." That reminded me of a conversation I had when I covered the Showtime Lakers 20 years ago.
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?
Much has been made of the current Lakers' competitiveness, particularly during the Sacramento series, and you can't argue with their playoff tenacity. But they don't provide the same value to ticket buyers during the regular season as Showtime's Lakers did.
I never saw them take a night off. Because of the grinding travel schedule, and maybe because of extracurricular activities that came to light after Johnson's HIV diagnosis, they weren't always sharp in every game. But I never thought it was because of a lack of effort.
Those Lakers wanted to win every time out, even if the game wasn't basketball.
After The Times' Steve Springer, covering for the Orange County Register at the time, beat McAdoo in table tennis one night in Richfield, Ohio, McAdoo bought a Ping-Pong table for the game room in his apartment complex in West L.A. and practiced all summer for a rematch.
McAdoo was derided in Boston for not playing the Celtic way, but he was a determined Laker, never backing down from anything. He was so convinced that he was the best player on the team in every sport, from bowling to yachting, that Johnson once said, "Anything you do, Doo do better."
Phil Jackson got the better of Riley when they were rival coaches in the Eastern Conference. But Jackson's Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Riley's New York Knicks had Patrick Ewing and John Starks. I'd like to see Riley against Jackson in a fair fight.
To Riley's credit, even after he was promoted from assistant to head coach 12 games into the 1981-82 season, he defended Westhead. Riley appreciated Westhead's offense, believing the Lakers needed to learn it in case they found themselves mired in a half-court game, as they had the season before in losing a first-round playoff series against Houston.
Riley installed the offense before the playoffs in '82, but in bits and pieces instead of all at once so that the players hardly cared or even noticed.
Referring to the short time Riley had spent as a sidekick to Chick Hearn, Larry Brown said in '82 that coaches should be embarrassed because "a broadcaster" had won the title.
That was as unfair as any comment I've ever heard. I'm not sure when Riley ever slept. When he wasn't watching films after games, he was on the phone with his psychologist-wife, Chris, talking about his relationship with his players. They had a lot to talk about.
Nixon was the most tempestuous player and frequently challenged Riley. I asked Riley once why he put up with it.
"Because if I break him in the locker room, I might break him on the court," Riley said. "I don't want to do that."
Nixon is still dogged. I saw him a couple of years ago at the Kentucky Derby and, 17 years after the fact, he asked me why I'd written that the Lakers had done the right thing in trading him for Byron Scott in 1983.
Because Nixon's best position was point guard, where the Lakers had Johnson, and because his knees were almost shot. Scott was a young off-guard. But I conceded that the Lakers probably wouldn't have lost in the 1984 Finals against Boston if Nixon had been there with his experience and fire. Then again, maybe they wouldn't have won in '85 if not for Scott's outside shooting.
If the Rileys' phone bills were exorbitant, no doubt it was because they spent so much time discussing Cooper.
He didn't mind coming off the bench, as long as he knew he was going to get his minutes. Once, when he didn't during the first half of a game in Detroit, he told Springer and me that he wanted to talk to us immediately after the game.
But by the time we got to his locker, the trainer, Jack Curran, had already talked him off the ledge.
"I'm just ... hey, Jack, what's that word you used?" Cooper said, yelling across the room to Curran.
"Paranoid," Curran said.
"Yeah," Cooper said, "paranoid."
He remains the only Laker ever voted defensive player of the year. The only shooting guard or small forward he couldn't guard was Walter Davis.
After a playoff game once in Phoenix, Riley congratulated Cooper on the game he'd had against Davis.
"But Pat," I said, "you had Nixon on Davis most of the game."
"Yeah," Riley said, winking, "but Coop doesn't know that."
Levin used to carry a screw with him. When Cooper would start on one of his rants, Levin would dig into his pocket, pull out the screw and say, "Coop, here's your loose screw."
One thing that both L.A. Laker dynasties had going for them--besides Hearn--was that Jerry West built them. Now that he's gone to Memphis, you have to wonder if there will be a Mitch Kupchak dynasty.
If there isn't, it won't be because Kupchak is less committed to winning. I'll never forget the '85 Finals, when Kupchak, by then a slow and earthbound but gritty reserve power forward, was knocking Celtics all over the parquet floor.
"Mitch, what are you doing?" an exasperated Kevin McHale asked him at one point in a game in Boston.
Bird was disgusted by the question because the answer was so obvious to him.
"He's playing for the championship," Bird said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times