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They Didn’t Need Wakeup Call This Time

On the morning of this game that meant so much, the Lakers against the Salt Lakers, imaginary creatures refused to leave James Worthy be. Butterflies and tigers. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. “Turn over at 4 o’clock, and I’m up. Turn over at 6 o’clock, and I’m up. The butterflies were so bad, I couldn’t eat my breakfast,” Worthy said. “That’s how big this game was. I was in the tiger’s mouth, but I just couldn’t let him close it.”

On the morning of this game that meant so much, Michael Cooper gave up trying to continue sleeping, got up around 7:30 and tried to keep busy. “I played with my kids. In fact, I killed one of them,” Cooper said. “Hey, that’s a joke, now. My wife’ll kill me for saying that. Tough morning, man. Tough morning.”

On the morning of this game that meant so much, Earvin Johnson arrived at the arena at 9:15 for a 12:30 afternoon game. He was antsy. He was anxious. This was his time, his place, his team, his game. “I knew we weren’t going to lose,” Magic said. “I never talk like this before a game in terms of the press, but I wasn’t going to let us lose this game. I couldn’t. Because that falls on me. If we’d lost this series, it would have been my responsibility. My fault. Mine. I just couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let us go out like this.”

On the morning of this game that meant so much, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar insisted it was a morning like any other, strictly business as usual. When you are 41 years old and own scoring records and championship rings, you do try to remain businesslike. You carry goggles and wristbands in a briefcase, punch the time clock and play basketball. And yet, Abdul-Jabbar had not quite forgotten Game 6 of this series, when Utah turned an anticipated war with these National Basketball Assn. champion Lakers into little more than a light workout, 48 minutes of Jazzercise. “Game 6 was a good example of how not to play basketball,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We never thought we were invincible, but we never expect anybody to treat us like that.

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Nervous, restless, resolute, vengeful--these were the Lakers. Some were light and some were tight. They came to Saturday’s game knowing that a poor effort--maybe even a poor pass, or a poor shot, badly timed--could be responsible for the end of everything. The ball would be over. It would be the 1990s before they could get another chance to repeat as National Basketball Assn. champions. Pat Riley’s 200-games-or-2-titles warranty would thus expire. Furthermore, what a blow to be eliminated by these guys, the Utah Jazz, the Not Ready for Prime Ticket Players.

Only thing is, these Lakers came away with a lot of respect for these Jazz. (This Jazz. That Jazz. Whatever.) Maybe when they take the court, they don’t look like much. They don’t look like potential NBA champions. They look more like Brigham Young. But this was one fine basketball team, Utah was, and this was one wild basketball series, this Western Conference semifinal playoff captured Saturday by the Lakers, 109-98.

“Toughest playoff series I’ve ever played in--including Boston,” Worthy said, an ultimate compliment if ever there was one.

For the first day or two, it was more of a comedy-variety special than a series. It was Utah Coach Frank Layden’s opportunity to take his hambone humor out of the sticks and into the main room. The only Palace he had played before this was the Salt one. Now, he had a Forum, and used it to his advantage. He told jokes. He laughed off defeat. It was improv night in Inglewood. Frankie goes to Hollywood.

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Lo and behold, though, the Jazz started taking it to the Lakers, even taking them apart once or twice. Magic Johnson was being out-prestidigitated by some runt out of Gonzaga, name of John Stockton. Stockton, Stockton . . . c’mon, he’s an announcer, not a player. And then, there was this Sasquatch in sneakers named Mark Eaton, who was eatin’ Abdul-Jabbar’s lunch. And then, there was this Karl Malone character, the goofiest mailman since Cliff Claven, who was picking up A.C. Green every night and returning him to sender.

Small wonder the Lakers were nervous. These Utah guys played rough. They started setting picks on you when you checked in at the scorer’s table. They bumped you and thumped you until you ended up slamming into either the basket stanchion or Harry Dean Stanton. “They’re the new bully on the block,” Laker General Manager Jerry West said after Saturday’s game, and this was no insult. This was flattery. This was regard.

Abdul-Jabbar said: “Utah more or less came of age during these playoffs. They wanted to win. They wanted it bad, every night. They went for it, and they almost got it.”

The Lakers were not on the ropes, exactly, but they were wobbly. Utah wasn’t afraid of them. Where others withered, the Jazz got sassy. They talked back. Malone guaranteed victories, and Bobby Hansen took the greatest Laker hero’s name in vain, calling him “Lord Magic.” Even when the home team was pulling away in Game 7, Cooper overheard Stockton coaxing Utah into a U-turn, yelling at his teammates: “C’mon! It’s never too late!”

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Cooper was impressed. “When you hear the point guard saying stuff like that, egging his team on, you’d better not stop taking his team seriously. Stockton was not about to let his teammates let up. If we’d started fooling around with bad shots, we’d have been dead ducks.”

Nobody, with the possible exception of network executives at CBS, was more glad to see Utah go than the Lakers were. This team worried them from the start, and threatened them until the finish. Dallas does not strike terror into the Lakers’ hearts quite so much, although no one disputes the Mavericks’ talent. At least, they don’t have anybody built along the lines of King Kong Eaton and Godzilla Malone.

“Damn, I’m glad to get that Eaton out of the way,” Cooper said. “James Donaldson is a smallish center compared to Mark Eaton.”

Hey, who isn’t?

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“Manute Bol,” Cooper said.

Oh, yeah, that is about the only bigger center, all right--except maybe the World Trade. Still, Donaldson is no squirt, and Dallas has plenty of good people to go with him: Roy Tarpley, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman. It’s just that Utah, well, Utah made the Lakers squirm. Utah was mean and tough. When the Jazz banged with you beneath the hoop, it looked like a gang rumble. It got nasty. If the Jazz and the Detroit Pistons had reached the finals, it would have looked like the Crips vs. the Bloods. The Lakers were unnerved by the Jazz and got bloodied by them and are glad to be rid of them.

“I don’t think any team can play us any harder than that,” Magic Johnson said, which probably is the truth. It might also be wishful thinking.


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