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The Lakers’ Leading Man Always Knows His Lines

Times Staff Writer

He is a player -- ask anyone in Hollywood -- but the old point guard hasn’t so much as hit a free throw in well over 30 years with the Lakers.

Jack Nicholson still rides the bench, always on the visitors’ end, in one of Staples Center’s $1,900-a-game courtside seats where he’s a few feet from the opposing team’s coach. He sits hunched, his feet planted wide, wearing his trademark shades and black jacket. He does things that never show up in the box score.

He chides, he talks trash, he charms and distracts.

When the action heats up -- when a dubious foul call costs Gary Payton a basket or puts Shaquille O’Neal on the sidelines -- Nicholson comes off the bench with his best moves: the brandished fists, the crazed-looking Randle P. McMurphy yells, the two-hands-at-the-throat choke sign. He directed the full repertoire at referees last week when the Lakers eliminated the Minnesota Timberwolves to advance to the National Basketball Assn. Finals, and he is back in action against the Detroit Pistons.

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With the Pistons leading the Lakers, one game to none, Nicholson is sure to be in his accustomed spot for tonight’s Game 2, just as he nearly always is when the Lakers play at home, whether in the playoffs or regular season.

The 67-year-old actor may not be the official face of the Lakers’ franchise, but he is among the most enduring. He was there when Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain led the team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He suffered the doldrums of the mid-1970s. He and his friend Lou Adler, the renowned music producer, who still sits alongside him, cheered the team’s return to glory in the 1980s behind Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

When the Lakers broke through and finally beat their old rivals, the Boston Celtics, for the NBA title, in 1985, Nicholson was there at Boston Garden. Celtic fans stamped his likeness on T-shirts bearing the slogan “Hit the Road, Jack” -- images captured, along with numerous other Nicholson moments, in a newly released DVD history of the Lakers put out by the NBA and Warner Home Video.

What the DVDs don’t show is Nicholson’s purported mooning of the Boston crowd, a moment that may forever be a part of Laker playoff lore.

“I would have paid the price of admission to see that one,” said veteran television commentator Stu Lantz, who had not yet joined the Lakers. “When we’re out of town, especially during the playoffs, somebody will inevitably come dressed up as Jack. Not only is he well-recognized, but they try to imitate him, as well.

“He’s almost becoming the voice of the fans to some degree,” Lantz said. “The fans are starting to look at Jack for some of their responses [to what happens on the floor].”

For good or bad, that is one of the intangibles that Nicholson brings to the game. Fans incited by Nicholson’s antics have been known to throw debris onto the court. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said he was unaware of any complaints filed with the league because of Nicholson’s behavior, but the actor’s outbursts have long made good sports-page copy.

Years ago, when Dick Motta was the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Motta accused Nicholson of “goosing” him -- a charge perhaps made in jest. Nicholson said he was only telling Motta to sit down.

Nicholson used to say the same to Flip Saunders, the sideline-pacing coach of the Timberwolves. They carried on a running dialogue throughout the Lakers’ six-game victory over Minnesota. In the clincher, when Derek Fisher was called for a foul with the Lakers holding to a slim lead, Nicholson stood and jawed at the officials until Saunders intervened and motioned Nicholson to have a seat.

Moments later, Nicholson was up again, launching a tirade as the whole crowd stood and booed the referees.

“Half the time he calls me Flip, the other half of the time he calls me Skip,” Saunders said of Nicholson before their Game 6 encounter. “But he’s a great fan. He’s trying to get the Lakers pumped up. You love to see people show the passion he does for the game.”

Nicholson is anything but an annoyance or a distraction, Saunders said, smiling, but he conceded he has been influenced by Nicholson’s heckling.

“My first year ... he was on me because I never sit down. [He’d say,] ‘Get out of the way, I paid for these seats,’ and everything else,” Saunders said. “I’ve tried to be a little more aware of where I’m at, maybe move up the floor, to not be in his way as much.”

Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, said of Saunders, “He may not realize he’s being worked by Jack. Jack’s working him, that’s for sure.”

Nicholson does whatever he can to gain an edge for the Lakers.

“What people don’t understand about Jack is, Jack played point guard in high school” near Asbury Park, N.J., Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview. “It was the only thing he liked and lived for -- basketball. He probably got all his aggressions out, when he could, on the court. He loves the game. ... He’s just a gym rat. He played the game 12 months a year.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he met and befriended Nicholson in 1975, the year the Lakers acquired the superstar center, and the same year Nicholson won his first Academy Award, for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film happened to showcase Nicholson on the court, teaching basketball to a bunch of asylum inpatients. (“You ever play this game, Chief? Come on, I’ll show you. An old Indian game -- it’s called, ‘Put the ball in the hole.’ ”)

Nicholson rarely grants interviews about his love of the Lakers, a hobby he considers part of his private life. More than a year ago, he agreed to a question-and-answer with sportscaster Jim Gray, which ran in The Times, in which he extolled the unscripted nature of the sport.

“Every year’s different,” he said. “It’s a great thing for someone like me to ... get out and be entertained by something that you don’t know what the end is going to be. There are always new stories every year. I love that.”

He also talked about golf -- he’s played with Michael Jordan and President Clinton -- and his frustrations with a Laker team that is often inconsistent during the regular season, despite having great talent.

“I used to be mad at this Laker team -- why they don’t come out of the box like Magic’s teams did, or whatever -- but that’s the way the game is played these days,” Nicholson said. “Pretty much, you have to be aware that they’re looking at the entire season ... keeping the goal in mind of winning the championship.”

When he’s out of town, Nicholson has Laker game tapes sent to him. Los Angeles-based writer Craig Modderno, who has written about Nicholson while covering entertainment and sports, said the months the actor spent in London shooting “Batman” were the only time he agreed to a lengthy shooting schedule that conflicted with the Lakers’ season.

Nicholson sat higher in the stands during his earlier years as a fan, but became a courtside fixture while the Lakers were still playing at the Forum.

“He always sat on the side closest to the opponents’ bench,” Modderno said. In fact, a story circulates that Nicholson was initially assigned two courtside seats on the Lakers’ side when Staples Center was about to open, according to Modderno. “Apparently, he on his own volition found out who had the comparable seats and asked to switch,” so he could be nearer the visitors.

“I don’t think he wants to be a distraction to the home team,” Modderno said. “He knows a lot of the players, and they’re friends of his. Besides, he can psych out the other team when he’s over there.”

Laker spokesman John Black said he was unaware of Nicholson’s originally assigned seat location. Staples Center is one of a relatively few arenas where fans are able to sit in courtside seats between the team benches and the scorer’s table. There are eight such seats on the visitors’ side, including Nicholson’s two and Adler’s pair, and eight more next to the Lakers’ bench. Altogether, including those lining the opposite side of the floor, Staples Center has 124 courtside seats that cost $1,900 apiece, per game, during the Lakers’ regular season.

During the playoffs, the price goes up. For this week’s Finals, the face value is $2,300 per ticket.

“We’ve had people offer us a half-million [dollars] for a pair of those seats,” Black said. “There’s none available.”

Nicholson does pay for his own, Black said.

Usually two or three red-jacketed Staples Center security guards sit or patrol behind Nicholson’s row, making sure he and others are not disturbed.

At halftime, Nicholson often makes a short walk past the end of the court and into the guarded tunnel beneath the stands, joining regulars such as Dyan Cannon and Denzel Washington in a VIP lounge known as “The Room.”

The wood-paneled bar becomes a vibrant hot spot of music and film industry glitterati for all of 15 minutes -- until the second half of the game starts.

Former Laker coach Mike Dunleavy, who now coaches the Clippers, remembers putting up with Nicholson’s banter since 1977, when Dunleavy was a rookie player with the Philadelphia 76ers. The barbs were always good-humored -- “little quips about plays, or refs” -- and continue to be, Dunleavy said.

“He might say, ‘Why are you picking on Shaq? What has he done to you?’ -- and I might respond, ‘Other than kick my butt most of the game?’ ” Dunleavy said.

If a call goes the Lakers’ way, Dunleavy might say, “You must be giving that ref your autograph after the game.”

Del Harris, a former Laker head coach who is now an assistant with the Mavericks, also has noticed that Nicholson likes “the tete-a-tete with the opposing coaches more than getting to know the Laker coach.”

When Harris began his tenure with the Lakers in 1994-95, he lost face time -- and never got to play golf with Nicholson, as they once had talked about.

“I don’t think I was as popular with him as I had been as the opponent,” Harris said. “I know we had a point of disagreement early over [Laker reserve] George Lynch. He saw him as our best player, and I saw him as a good role player only.

Oh, well. It is too bad that Jack did not sit in the courtside seats next to the Lakers, because he would have gotten an entirely different experience.”

Harris said fans near him got to know the Lakers’ plays, and Harris would occasionally allow one of the courtside fans to decide what play to send in late in a one-sided game. If the call worked, Harris and the fan would exchange “a subtle low-five” -- a celebratory moment Nicholson might have loved.

“I would have given Jack the chance,” he said.


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