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Thompson Gives Lakers Some Insurance : Instead of Waiting in Wings, He’ll Be Center Stage When Kareem Quits

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Times Staff Writer

The day is not far removed when Pat Riley will gather the Lakers around him--with the prominent exception of one 7-foot 2-inch begoggled specimen--and say, “All right, now let’s see if you guys can play.”

Riley can already hear the response on that day, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is lying on some beach in Kauai rather than reporting to Laker training camp as in the previous 14 years.

“They’ll say to me, ‘All right, now let’s see if you can coach,’ ” Riley said Monday with a laugh as the Lakers arrived in Texas, where they will try tonight to close out the San Antonio Spurs in three straight games in their Western Conference first-round playoff match.

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The Lakers won the first two games of the best-of-five series in Los Angeles by an average of 15 points, and are 14-0 in first-round games since the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams in 1984. Sound easy? Well, check back in the spring of 1990, which figures to be the first time since 1976 that the Lakers will go into the playoffs without Abdul-Jabbar, who intends to retire after collecting $3 million in paychecks next season.

Life after Skyhook would be a whole lot simpler, of course, if:

a) General Manager Jerry West had realized his fantasy of signing David Robinson, the Navy ensign who decided San Antonio must be OK if Sea World opened a theme park there.

b) Assistant coach Bill Bertka could take the Lakers’ Canadian center, 7-footer Mike Smrek, into his laboratory and transform him into a player as good as another Canadian center, Wayne Gretzky.

c) Magic Johnson would volunteer to play center, as he did as a rookie in the deciding game of the 1980 playoffs.

None of the above, however, is likely to happen--although it’s not hard to imagine Magic thinking it over. So, what does that leave the Lakers with, other than a stale doughnut (notice the hole in the middle) in Chick Hearn’s refrigerator?

The first two games of this playoff series may have offered a clue, if the message hadn’t already registered in the 14 months since Mychal Thompson first washed ashore from the Bahamas via San Antonio, after an 8-year stopover in Portland, Ore.

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The Lakers got Thompson to play second banana to Abdul-Jabbar, but for a couple of years, anyway, they may have to make him a headliner. He’s funny enough to play Caesars Palace, so why not the Forum?

But besides giving the Lakers a seemingly inexhaustible supply of one-liners, Thompson should enable them to toe the line until West can either draft or trade for an up-and-coming center. By then, of course, West’s next nightmare will be just beginning--thinking about life without Magic. But that’s another story.

Thompson’s play against the Spurs, his teammates for four months last season, has established him once again as a key factor in the Lakers’ bid to repeat as National Basketball Assn. champions. He had 29 points and 16 rebounds in Game 2 Sunday night, after a 10-point, 14-rebound, 5-blocked shot performance in Game 1.

Riley uses the 6-10 swingman at both forward and center, but says Thompson would be perfectly acceptable as a starting center in the post-Kareem era.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt, that when Kareem walks away, Mychal is someone who could fill the gap and keep us competitive,” Riley said.

Notice Riley didn’t say, win a championship. Portland didn’t win a championship with Thompson, and the Spurs quickly decided he wasn’t going to take them anywhere except perhaps on a Caribbean cruise.

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“But I think with Mychal Thompson we could win 50-plus games,” Riley said. “We’d play a different style. We’d have to be quicker. But overall, we wouldn’t be embarrassed at all. He’s a top-flight center. . . . I don’t know if we could beat Boston or teams with mammoth centers, but it would be interesting.”

What makes Thompson no more than a short-term solution, however, is his age: He’ll be 34 next January.

“But right now I’m 33 playing in a 32-year-old man’s body,” Thompson said. “I missed a whole season (1979-80) when I broke my leg.”

Thompson is in great shape. He’s something of a weight-lifting freak.

“He likes to hang around Gold’s Gym,” said Laker trainer Gary Vitti, who at times has questioned whether Thompson has gotten carried away with the body-building routine.

“He takes a lot of pride in everything he does. Ask him, and he’ll tell you he’s the best at everything.

“We were in a restaurant in Phoenix once, and he told the waitress that he was 250 pounds of brown twisted steel. He got the twisted part right.”

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Vitti said that as well-conditioned as Thompson is, he couldn’t imagine him playing until 40, as Abdul-Jabbar has done. Thompson is more of a power player, which becomes tougher as one gets older, and Abdul-Jabbar relied on finesse.

“But the guy, who’s in the middle where all that banging takes place, doesn’t get hurt,” Vitti said. “He must get bumps and bruises, but he doesn’t complain. In the two seasons he’s been here, I think he’s come into the training room maybe three times for treatment.”

Thompson says he has no desire to stick around until he’s 40.

“I plan to play three more years, then answer the call of my people,” said Thompson, who frequently talks of becoming prime minister of the Bahamas once he’s through with basketball.

Laker teammate Byron Scott, for one, can foresee the day when Thompson starts at center.

“That old guy?” Scott said with a laugh. “He’s given up trying to box with me (they stage mock sparring sessions in the Laker dressing room). Now he’s just staying in training for body beautiful.

“Seriously, he’s a very experienced guy--and a real smart player. He has a better outside game. He can shoot the outside jumper, and he’s a good defensive center, too. And he gets out on the break, too, when he wants to.

“I think he can do the job.”

For now, Thompson says San Antonio got the better of the deal in which it received Frank Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson, a No. 1 draft choice--Greg Anderson--and money.

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“A lot of cash,” Thompson said. “Only Magic and Bird are worth that kind of money, not me.

“I’ll be out of the league a long time, and those guys will still be going strong.”

In the interim, however, Thompson has helped the Lakers win one title, and is in line for another. And as an insurance policy, he’s left the Lakers in pretty good hands.

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