COMMENTARY : Once Again, Lakers Are a Hot Ticket

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was as if someone threw a switch on a sound stage and the Forum came back to life with all the old props: stretch limos, celebrities, Madonna, even Jack Nicholson, back from his courtside appearances in Madison Square Garden to prove he's still a Laker fan.

"I picked the Lakers and the Knicks beginning of the year," Nicholson said. "Got the betting slips to prove it. We'd have made it, too, if Magic hadn't retired."

During the Lakers' 101-86 loss to the Phoenix Suns Thursday night, the air crackled with an electricity you could barely remember if you were obliged to be there in the regular season when they didn't need sawhorses and ushers outside the Forum Club to hold the star-gazers back.

Can you remember March?

No stars, gazers, excitement, anything. The Lakers had just traded away a starter, Sam Perkins, for a prospect named Doug Christie and Benoit Benjamin, who was remembered locally with the fondness generally reserved for oil spills.

They lost 15 of their final 21. Byron Scott, coming to the end of his Laker career, grew impatient with rookie Coach Randy Pfund and said something publicly. Owner Jerry Buss grew impatient with Pfund and word of that leaked out, too.

In Dallas for a game against the Mavericks the world would little note nor long remember, Scott got so upset at point guard Sedale Threatt for putting up a long jumper, he took one of his own without a look at anyone else the next time he touched the ball. Scott made it so obvious, he was asked about it later--and acknowledged it. Sedale, he said, thought "shoot first, shoot second."

Scott denied there was any problem but if there was, "he started it because he's got the ball all the time."

A.C. Green, coming up on free agency, hinted he didn't want to be part of a rebuilding project. A succession of leg injuries drove James Worthy to the bench, where the Lakers hoped they could get 25 minutes a game out of him.

That was the dark cloud the Lakers eased out of in Game 1, so the closer you were, the greater your surprise.

"They've done a wonderful job of fighting," Magic Johnson said. "They exceeded my expectations, for sure. I thought it'd be Phoenix, 3-1.

"But they've gone beyond. You can see the maturity of an Elden Campbell, Vlade (Divac). I've been waiting so long for them to do this. (Laughing) Now they wait 'til I retire and play like this."

Said General Manager Jerry West: "I felt all along we were a little bit better team than what we'd shown, based on the way we played against good teams. We never knew which team was going to show up. I thought our coaches have done a really good job."

Yes, Pfund is safe. Insiders say Buss had already cooled down before the playoffs started, so the rookie coach had only to be competitive to stay.

The Lakers were competitive, all right.

Before this series, no eighth-seeded team had ever won on a top-seeded team's court in the nine years of this format. The Lakers won twice. There are people who think the NBA has never seen bigger back-to-back upsets.

But as Phoenix executive Cotton Fitzsimmons noted, two victories may have been something but it takes three to make history. The Suns fought back. The Lakers are going back to Phoenix Sunday for Game 5 as heavy underdogs.

If that's all that counts, it isn't all that matters.

For another brief and shining moment, there was a Camelot. They were Lakers to the end and if they go out, it will be the way Lakers should, on their shields. When their talent ebbed, they dug in on character and fought another day. They woke up the echoes and L.A. boogied as in days of yore.

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