Lakers Remain Strong Despite Recent Losses


Since Magic Johnson arrived in 1979, the Los Angeles Lakers have never gone longer than one year without appearing in the National Basketball Assn. Finals.

They did not participate last season.

In the last 11 years, the Lakers have never gone longer than two years without winning a title.

They have not won a championship in two years.

Last year, the Lakers won 63 games but lost in the second round of the playoffs. Pat Riley, the coach of the decade in the 1980s, resigned and was replaced by Mike Dunleavy. Veteran Michael Cooper, an integral part of five championship teams, left to play in Italy. The Lakers made a major free-agent acquisition in forward-center Sam Perkins, and traded a future No. 1 pick for long-range shooter Terry Teagle. They refused to stand still.

"On the Lakers," Riley said, "it is not the difference between winning and losing or success and failure. It is the difference between winning and success."

The Lakers like it that way. It has become popular to overlook them, which they also like. They lost to the Phoenix Suns in the second playoff round last season. The Portland Trail Blazers represented the West in the NBA Finals. Each of those teams will be better. Others in the West will be tough.

But the Lakers are the Lakers, the dominant franchise of the '80s and perhaps the most dominant team in NBA history. There are reasons for their greatness, and although some of the biggest stars--Riley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--are gone, the foundation of the Lakers' success remains.

One is Lakers owner Jerry Buss. He claims that when he was 12 years old, someone asked what he wanted to be and he said, "A scholar." He didn't say "rich." He didn't say "a playboy."

Eleven years after he became a public figure in spectacular style by purchasing the Lakers, the Forum and the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings for $67.5 million, Buss is known more for his wealth and his habit of surrounding himself with beautiful women than for his intellect.

But it is a fascinating combination of Buss' background as an intellectual and his passion for the Southern California lifestyle that has created the backbone of the Lakers' greatness.

Buss was raised in poverty in a small sheeping and ranching community in Wyoming. He earned an academic scholarship at the University of Wyoming, where he completed his undergraduate degree work in 2 1/2 years. At 24, he earned a doctorate in chemistry at USC.

Buss worked in the aerospace industry and taught night school at USC, but his goal was economic independence. And so in 1959, a year after he and a partner had saved $83.33 a month each to accumulate $2,000, they purchased a 14-unit apartment in West Los Angeles. That was the beginning of a real estate empire that eventually enabled Buss to purchase the Lakers in 1979.

After Buss bought the Lakers, his goal was to build a team that was "Hollywood," which, he reasoned, would earn the loyalty of Southern California and would be properly hated by the rest of the jealous country. "The Los Angeles culture was introduced specifically into that team," Buss said. "That's where 'Showtime' came from."

Buss wanted each Laker game to be like a movie. He wanted stars to play the game and watch the game. He had Magic Johnson directing the team on the court and Jack Nicholson leading the cheers at courtside. He created the Laker Girls, who were as talented as they were sexy. Buss even had an Los Angeles-style wacko, Dancing Barry, jitterbugging up and down the aisles.

But Buss also knew that one of the things that made Hollywood great was money, and he was neither afraid to spend it nor reluctant to use it to generate publicity. In 1981, when the highest-paid NBA player was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at $870,000 a season, Buss signed Magic Johnson to a 25-year, $25 million contract.

Magic Johnson's successes have been well-documented--five titles, three Most Valuable Player trophies. No one has averaged more than his 11.2 assists per game. Johnson needs 956 assists to pass Oscar Robertson as the all-time assist leader.

But perhaps his most important effect on the franchise was that he revived the career of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been in the league 10 years when Johnson arrived. Abdul-Jabbar had been the MVP five times, but he had won only one title.

Johnson indicates now--a year after Abdul-Jabbar's retirement--that the accomplishment he is most proud of was the leadership he demonstrated at age 20. He now is irritated by suggestions that success for the Lakers came easy because they had Abdul-Jabbar.

"They (other Lakers) couldn't have dealt with Kareem and made it successful," Magic said. "It didn't work before, and it wouldn't have worked with anybody else because you had to give up your game. You read all these stories and it makes you laugh, but it makes you angry at the same time. People say, 'You had all these great stars and anybody could have done it.' No. Because you had to keep him happy and nobody understood that but me.

"I was a college dude. If I would have come out and tried to be the star, the situation would have erupted. But I gave up my game to keep him happy and to win. The more I showed him that I was honest and for real, (the more) he got caught into it."

Then there is Lakers icon Jerry West, the general manager.

"The real test," West said of the Lakers in the '90s, "will come when Earvin Johnson leaves. He will be here for at least three more years, so as long as he's here, we'll be pretty good."

West's history suggests that as long as is with the Lakers, they also will be good. West joined the Lakers as a rookie in 1960, the year they moved from Minneapolis, where they won five titles, to Los Angeles, where they have won six. Their 11 championships are second behind the Celtics' 16.

As a player, West was driven by a quest for perfection, which he often achieved. In fact, he was such a picture-perfect dribbler that the official NBA logo is a painting of West, dribbling left-handed.

That drive has pushed West to become the NBA's best general manager. As a player, he participated in nine NBA Finals, but was on only one championship team. Six times the Lakers met the Boston Celtics, and six times, Boston won. West always felt the Celtics did one extra thing to make them better. When he became a GM, West was always intent on doing that one extra thing.

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