They’re No Spring Chickens
Happily for the Lakers, where there’s a will, there may be a way, even if they’re going to need a lot, because they have to go such a long way.
Not that they haven’t been here before.
It wasn’t them exactly, but their forebears, the Showtime Lakers, who had won four titles to the Boston Celtics’ three by the spring of 1988, meaning the decade was still up for grabs.
The Celtics were already sliding, but, as the Lakers were about to learn, they had seen better days themselves.
The Lakers were defending champions, not that that meant anything, because no team had repeated since the Celtics in 1969, so even if Coach Pat Riley had “guaranteed” they’d do it, the players took that for what it was worth, an early start to Riley’s mind games.
Or as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in training camp, “That’s easy for him to say. He doesn’t play.”
Riley, who had come in as a players’ coach who took their feelings into consideration, was now a bared-teeth taskmaster who didn’t care what they felt ... which came in handy now as one young West team after another began standing up to them, turning their playoffs into a nightmare.
Before they redeemed Riley’s promise, three of their four series that Endless Spring went a harrowing seven games. They played four elimination games, all of which they had to win or school was out, and set a record for postseason games, 24.
“Don’t remind me,” says Mychal Thompson, then the backup center, now a broadcaster for the Minnesota Timberwolves. “I’m still trying to recuperate.”
Fifteen years later, the modern Lakers have set themselves a challenge that seems no less daunting.
They’re trying to win a fourth consecutive title, which hasn’t been done since Boston won eight from 1959-66. They figure to be on the road throughout the Western draw. They’re coming off a six-game first round, in which they trailed the Timberwolves, 2-1, and were down 11 points in the third quarter of Game 4.
Of course, after that, as Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett noted, “They took it to another level and never looked back.”
Who has time to look back? The Lakers have only just begun.
Those Were the Days,
My Friend ...
In ’87, the team was really a proficient team.... But [in ’88] it always seemed like we were a little bit short. I’ve always said, that was Pat’s championship.... He willed that team to win those three seven-game series.
-- Laker executive Bill Bertka, then Riley’s assistant coach
It wasn’t that the Lakers thought the glory days would never end, but after sweeping through the ’87 playoffs with a 15-3 mark, they thought the end was a long way off.
Hence, Riley’s guarantee, putting his players on notice. He didn’t care if no one repeated or got upset when they didn’t. If the Lakers didn’t, he’d get upset enough to make up for it.
This wasn’t an old team -- Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott were all 27, A.C. Green was 24 -- except at one spot. Abdul-Jabbar had just turned 41 and if he always measured his effort, waiting to do his thing in spring, he was now in hibernation.
His nine-season string of double-figure scoring games ended at Milwaukee on Dec. 4. After that, he scored in single figures 12 more times.
They still went 62-20, five games ahead of everyone else and three ahead of their record the season before, with Scott averaging a career-high 22 points to go with Worthy’s 19.7 and Johnson’s 19.6.
Nor could they see the trouble coming in the playoffs. It just arrived on their doorstep one day, carrying a pitchfork and looking hungry.
They swept San Antonio, 3-0, and pounded the Jazz, 110-91, in the second-round opener, prompting Utah Coach Frank Layden to note that if they beat the Lakers, “I ought to be beatified.”
After Layden apologized and the firestorm in Utah died down, the Jazz upset the Lakers in Game 2, 101-97.
Of course, the Lakers thought they would just mosey over to Salt Lake City and show the Jazz who was who, but the home team won Game 3 too, 96-89.
The Jazz was young, with 26-year-old John Stockton and 23-year-old Karl Malone, but had a hulking front line, with Mailman, 7-4, 290-pound Mark Eaton and 6-11 reserve Thurl Bailey.
Eaton, the auto mechanic who’d barely played at UCLA, had become a non-jumping shot-blocking machine. He knocked down seven Laker shots by halftime of Game 2 and six more in Game 3. Abdul-Jabbar shot six for 30 in those two, looking like a child next to a grown-up.
Riley bemoaned Utah’s “blatant” zone, but after Game 3 he got up close and personal with his own, announcing his stars had better turn it up ... or else.
“I’ve always said, I’ve come in with these guys and I’ll go down with ‘em,” Riley said. “But I can’t let other guys on the team down with people who aren’t going to make an effort.”
The Lakers won Game 4, 113-100, but didn’t go ahead to stay until Eaton sat down with four fouls in the third quarter and the Jazz leading, 67-61, whereupon the Lakers went on a 23-9 run.
“I remember the halftime speech Pat made,” Bertka says. “He said, ‘You aren’t going to lose. You are not going to lose this game because of who you are.’ ... I’ll never forget that talk.”
After the game, Riley, hoping order had been restored, noted happily, “The obituaries written for our top three guys were a little premature.”
The top three glared at the reporters, who had only published the obituaries Riley dictated. The Daily News’ Doug Cress later complained to Riley that he was using the press as boogeymen.
Said Cress: “He said, ‘You have your weapons and I have mine. And you are mine, sometimes.’ ”
The Lakers eked out a 111-109 victory in Game 5 in Los Angeles but back in Salt Lake, the Jazz smote them again by 28 points, 108-80, tying the series, 3-3.
“I wish it was 50,” Riley said of the margin. “I don’t want them to feel good about anything. I wanted it total.”
Back in the Forum, Johnson took over Game 7, 23 points’, 16 assists’ and nine rebounds’ worth, and the Lakers won, 109-98. A relieved Riley, assuming this had been a Jazz-inspired aberration, said, “I don’t think we’re going to play a better basketball team in the playoffs. Somebody is going to have to come hard to beat that.”
The young Dallas Mavericks, who were also big and physical, with 7-foot, 290-pound James Donaldson, 6-11, 260-pound Roy Tarpley and 6-9, 250-pound Sam Perkins, won all three games on their home court and forced another Game 7.
In an indication of the Laker mood, after Game 4, Dallas’ Mark Aguirre came by the dressing room to see his friend, Magic, as he had been doing. This time, Riley told the Laker publicist, Josh Rosenfeld, to keep him out.
Said Riley before Game 7, recognizing inevitability when it kept beating him on the head, “Look, we’re not the same team we were a year ago, that’s obvious....
“If we get through this thing, they should send us all away. We’ll go, nodding into the sunset, drooling, looking for the men in the white suits.”
Back in the Forum for another Game 7, Johnson put up 24-9-11 and the Lakers finally eliminated the Mavericks with a 108-95 victory.
By then, they knew nothing would come easy and nothing did. Detroit beat them at the Forum in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 105-93, and after five games the Lakers trailed the Bad Boy Pistons, 3-2, with the next two games in Inglewood.
The Lakers were all strung out now. Johnson exchanged snarls and shoves with Isiah Thomas, another close friend, whom he kissed on the cheek before each game. Riley didn’t even want friends visiting afterward, so you could imagine what he thought of kissing.
Johnson and Thomas became adversaries, off the court as well as on. It would be years before they’d become friendly again, after Isiah led the other players in embracing Magic at his controversial post-retirement appearance in the ’92 All-Star game.
Back in the Forum, the Lakers almost expired in Game 6. The Pistons led in the last minute, 101-98, before Scott made a jump shot, Bill Laimbeer was called for a ticky-tack foul and Abdul-Jabbar made the free throws that won it, 103-102.
Adrenaline now sloshed through Lakerdom like rain water. Laker people muttered darkly when L.A. Raider executive Mike Ornstein volunteered the use of their training room to Thomas, who had severely sprained an ankle during a memorable 25-point third quarter, making two jump shots while hopping around on one leg.
Presumably, the Lakers wanted Isiah to stick his ankle into the ice bucket in his hotel room, instead. Ornstein later told of running into Riley’s wife, Chris, before Game 7 and wishing her well, only to be told in no uncertain terms to get away from her because he had “undermined my husband’s chances.”
Not even the dark side, though, could heal Thomas’ ankle. He limped through 28 minutes, missing eight of 12 shots, and the Lakers won.
Afterward, Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuffed a towel in Riley’s mouth, lest he guarantee anything else.
Riley reprised the gag at the parade, donning a gag himself, and later sent pictures of it to friends.
So they survived, after all.
But this was their last successful stand.
Abdul-Jabbar retired a year later, after the Lakers were swept by the Pistons in the Finals. Riley left a year after that, following a surprise second-round upset at the hands of the Phoenix Suns and another shake-down-the-thunder-from-the-skies meeting in which, his players complained, he had gone too far.
It wasn’t always fun while it lasted. It was memorable, though.
These Are the Days,
My Friend ...
Are you kidding me? With three of the greatest clutch players in the history of the game on one team, Worthy, Magic and Kareem? No way we were going to lose any of those seven-game series. We knew if it came down to a seventh game, with Pat Riley’s coaching and those three guys on the floor at crunch time, there was no better tandem or threesome in history.
-- Mychal Thompson
Aside from the city, the owner, the name of the team and the colors of their uniforms, there aren’t many similarities between the Showtime version and today’s Lakers.
Riley and Phil Jackson are opposites who only belatedly developed any mutual respect after years of rivalry coaching the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls.
Riley was an NBA version of Bobby Knight, minus the outrageous behavior, believing that if his players could survive all he could dish out, opponents would be small potatoes in comparison.
When Jackson was a lowly CBA coach, he once left a Knight clinic early, turned off by all the macho, and now promotes a school of “positive coaching.”
While Riley kept the pedal to the metal, Jackson seems to let the season go by like a bemused Buddha, refusing to panic or, indeed, react, even in circumstances as dire as this season’s, when his team started 11-19 and finished as the fifth-seeded qualifier.
Nevertheless, you can feel the strength of Jackson’s will, as he flashes that Cheshire cat grin that suggests he thinks he knows something you don’t.
Darned if he doesn’t always seem to too.
Nor are Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant like anyone before them. Both have formidable wills in their own right, or too much of a good thing.
O’Neal measures his effort, as Abdul-Jabbar did, or worse, because conditioning was never an issue for Kareem. Bryant’s will is such that he barely seems to notice Jackson is around sometimes.
The Showtime Lakers were driven to prove themselves every day. These Lakers snap into stride in the spring when, all of a sudden, Kobe becomes efficient and Shaq becomes serious.
Of course, it’s spring now, so no matter how difficult the task -- trying to get through the Spurs with enough left to go back on the road and beat the Sacramento Kings -- they have a chance.
“They did a three-peat and if you recall, they showed a little fatigue,” Bertka says of today’s Lakers.
“And to me, you have to be so dominant now ‘cause you’ve played yourself in position to do something that hasn’t been done in the last few years.
“God bless the Celtics and what they did, because they established a benchmark for teams to shoot at -- but there were only eight or nine teams at that time. There are 29 teams now. To do what this team has placed itself in position to do is something special and I think they recognize that.
“It’s just, now if they have the will to fight through all the other things to get it done.”
P.S. The Lakers’ postseason record was broken by the ’94 Knicks, who went 25 games, including seven-gamers in the last three rounds.
Riley coached them too, suggesting personality and will have a lot to do with this.
Ironically, in 1994 it was Riley’s team that led the NBA Finals, 3-2, before going on the road for the last two games and losing at Houston.
There’s a lesson there too. Sometimes the will prevails, but not always.