Read an Excerpt
100 Things Lakers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Steve Springer
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Steve Springer
All rights reserved.
The name came from The Horn, a Santa Monica nightclub.
Starting back in the early 1960s, it would begin its nightly shows, staged in an intimate setting in a room holding about 150 patrons, by dimming the lights. A singer stationed at one of the tables would stand up and sing, "It's Showtime." A second singer would join him and then a third.
It was the kickoff of a full night of entertainment for the wealthy, hip crowd that filled the encircling booths.
One regular in the audience was a young playboy, a rising star in the real-estate market who never forgot the lessons he learned in those enjoyable nights at The Horn about attracting customers, inspiring loyalty among them, and generating energy and involvement.
Jerry Buss applied those lessons when he bought the Lakers nearly two decades later.
Buss didn't invent the synergy between athletes and Hollywood. That went back as far as big-time professional sports in the city.
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were investors in the Los Angeles Rams football team.
Another pro football club, the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference, was named for actor Don Ameche, one of the team's owners.
When the Dodgers came west, Walter O'Malley wasn't looking for investors. But he was in search of star attractions. So he made sure the box seats were filled with recognizable faces, from Cary Grant to Danny Kaye. When Tommy Lasorda was manager, Frank Sinatra was a frequent visitor to his office.
Hollywood Stars Night — a chance for celebrities to put on a Dodgers uniform and live out their baseball fantasies in a pregame exhibition — was one of the team's most popular events.
Doris Day was the most recognizable Lakers fan in the early days at the Sports Arena, the Jack Nicholson of her time.
Owner Bob Short was thrilled to have her, recognizing that she added credibility and class to his operation.
Only Jack Kent Cooke — among L.A. owners — had the nerve to turn his back on Hollywood.
He took Day off the comp list and then trashed the list altogether.
"We didn't need it," Cooke said. "We were selling seats."
Nicholson, however, hung in there. He didn't want comps. He was happy to pay his own way and thus avoid any obligation to the team.
But when Buss took control, the Hollywood snub was over. He understood that filling the courtside seats with famous faces would draw in the general public to fill the other seats.
Being in the entertainment capital of the world, Buss knew the value of celebrities and realized before any of his fellow owners that a natural bond existed between entertainment and sports.
What movie star hadn't imagined themselves in a real-life role as a star athlete? And what athlete wouldn't love a screen career when their playing days are over?
Bringing in the stars, however, was only the beginning of Buss' master plan.
Thinking of the cheerleaders he watched at USC football games, he created his own rooting squad, calling them the Laker Girls.
Incorporating his love of music, Buss brought in a live band.
From The Horn, he took the name to describe his unique approach to basketball: Showtime.
But he knew that the entertainment could not be limited to the sideline. It had to be evident on the court as well.
No plodding players for Buss. No half-court offense. No sleep-inducing style.
He wanted a flash-and-dash team, a fast-breaking, high-energy squad that could not only win, but do so in a crowd-pleasing manner.
Wanting it is one thing, getting it quite another.
Buss would need a maestro to orchestrate his grand scheme, a ringmaster who also possessed the talent to be the consummate player.
Where could he find such a multitalented athlete? He got lucky in that regard.
The Lakers went into the 1979 draft with the No. 1 pick in hand.
And sitting there at the top of the list was Earvin Johnson, the 6'8" sophomore from Michigan State coming off an NCAA championship game victory over Larry Bird–led Indiana State.
Magic was just what the doctor — Dr. Buss — ordered.
Take Magic Johnson if he's available in the draft? Was there ever a better example of a no-brainer?
In retrospect, no, of course not.
But at the time, there were those in the Lakers organization who had their doubts.
Nobody will fess up to being in that group now. Jerry West, then a Lakers consultant, was supposed to have expressed his support for Sidney Moncrief, though he won't say so now.
Remember, the Lakers already had a good point guard in Norm Nixon, considered one of the league's rising stars.
Remember, the 6'3" Moncrief from the University of Arkansas was the prototypical shooting guard.
Remember, nobody had ever seen a 6'8" player like Johnson at point guard. Yes, he had done some wonderful things in college, but this was the pros, and he didn't have a great outside shot nor impressive jumping ability.
So yes, some — admittedly not the visionaries — questioned the choice.
Although the draft would not be held until after Buss had officially bought the Lakers from Cooke, the latter was still in charge when the team won a coin flip to decide who had the No. 1 choice.
So Cooke made the decision.
"There was some thought among my counselors that Sidney Moncrief might have been the better choice," Cooke said. "Never any question in my mind. I said to my counselors, 'I don't give a damn what you say. It's going to be Magic Johnson.'"
Cooke got no argument from Jerry Buss.CHAPTER 2
After Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced each other in the 1979 NCAA Tournament championship game — Johnson playing for Michigan State and Bird for Indiana State — fans waited with agonizing anticipation for what they hoped would be sequel after sequel at the pro level.
The appeal was obvious, and it explains why — to this day — that 1979 game remains college basketball's highest-rated ever.
As NBA players, Magic and Bird were not only two of the most talented men to ever play the game, but their rivalry also matched Lakers versus Celtics, West versus East, Tinseltown versus Beantown, black versus white, and extrovert versus introvert.
Johnson had come to symbolize the glitter and glamour of L.A. while Bird seemed to represent the blue-collar work ethic of Boston.
It was, of course, an illusion. Johnson was no more a product of Hollywood than Bird was of the tough New England winters. Both men were Midwestern born and raised.
Imagine if the draft had been reversed. If Bird had gone to the Lakers, with his blond hair, fair complexion, and consummate passing skills, he would have been portrayed as a slick surfer in sneakers. If Johnson had gone to Boston, his die-hard attitude and bruising rebounding style would have been viewed as the epitome of hard-hitting East Coast basketball.
But image is a staple of sports, and so Magic and Bird were locked into their public personas.
All that was needed to instill new appeal and interest in a league, sadly deficient in both as the 1980s dawned, was for Magic and Bird to meet in the NBA Finals.
It took a while because the timing was off. The Lakers reached the Finals in 1980. But with Dr. J, Julius Erving, leading the way, Philadelphia had become a powerhouse in the East and knocked off Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals that season.
A year later it was the Celtics who prevailed and the Lakers who stumbled. With Johnson recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss a huge chunk of the season, L.A. was knocked out in the first round.
The Lakers got back to the Finals in each of the following two seasons, but again it was Philadelphia coming out of the East.
Then, in 1984, the dream matchup occurred. For the first time in 15 years, the Lakers and Celtics would battle for the NBA title.
It figured to be a fierce, competitive Finals and no one, regardless of loyalty, could later argue it had turned out to be anything less.
The series went seven games, each one a mini classic.
Game 1: The Migraine
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, prone to such headaches, was stricken by one on the eve of the first game.
He missed the team bus to the arena and the pregame meeting. But Abdul-Jabbar calmed Pat Riley's fears that he'd miss the game as well, telling his coach by phone, "I'll be there. Just give me a couple of hours to rest in a quiet place."
That cleared Abdul-Jabbar's head enough to allow him to take the court. And once he did, it was the Celtics who had the headache as Abdul-Jabbar got 32 points in 35 minutes along with eight rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and two steals to lead the Lakers to a 115–109 victory.
Game 2: The Lost Pass
It came with 18 seconds to play and the Lakers leading by two.
It was thrown by James Worthy under the Celtics' basket and intended for Byron Scott.
Instead, it was intercepted by Gerald Henderson, who softly laid the ball into the hoop to tie the game. When Magic Johnson was late passing the ball to Bob McAdoo in the closing seconds, the game went into overtime where Boston clinched a 124–121 victory.
Game 3: The Sissies
The Lakers in general and Johnson in particular took out their frustration about fumbling away Game 2 by blasting Boston 137–104 in Game 3. Johnson recorded a triple double with 14 points, 21 assists, and 11 rebounds.
When it was over, Bird referred to his teammates as "sissies."
The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner crowned Worthy the Finals MVP a bit prematurely.
Now, it was the Celtics' turn to be angry.
"You guys have already written us off," Boston's Dennis Johnson told the L.A. media. "Why even bother going on with the series?"
Game 4: The Clothesline
There was no such thing as a flagrant foul back then, but if there was, this would have been Exhibit A.
With the Lakers' Kurt Rambis on the end of a fast break, the Celtics' Kevin McHale, running at full speed, wrapped one arm around Rambis' neck and threw him to the hardwood.
The foul was so dramatic that is still a favorite film clip for highlight reels and arena big-screens more than a quarter century later.
Riley called McHale's takedown "thuggery."
But rather than becoming inspired by the play, the Lakers again collapsed at the end. They blew a five-point lead with less than a minute to play, Johnson had the ball knocked away near the finish of regulation time, and he and Worthy each missed two free throws in overtime. The Celtics won 129–125 to even the series.
Game 5: The Sauna
Warm temperatures and Boston are not usually linked. But they were in nearly every sentence describing this game, with the temperature at 97 degrees inside Boston Garden, an arena without air conditioning, on the night of a rare heat wave in the city.
The Lakers wilted — a bad thing when it didn't refer to Chamberlain — losing 121–103.
Game 6: The Allegation
After the Lakers forced a seventh game by winning 119–108 at the Forum, the ugliness on the court in previous games turned into ugly words and accusations.
"[Commissioner] David Stern told one of the fans, a man in an elevator, that the league needed a seventh game because the NBA needs the money," Bird said. "Well, he got his wish."
Was Bird saying the alleged statement by Stern, which was never proven, affected the outcome of the game?
"You never know," Bird said.
He also angered the Lakers by warning them to bring hard hats to Boston Garden for Game 7 because Celtics fans might pose a physical threat.
Game 7: Same Old Lakers Heartbreak
Once again, in their eighth try, they came tantalizingly, agonizingly close to beating Boston for the championship.
Once again it slipped away — not because of leprechauns, or curses, or dead spots in the green parquet floor — but because of the Lakers' ineptness.
The Celtics were leading by eight with just under two minutes to play, but the Lakers cut it to three with 1:15 to go.
Then once again, the magic disappeared. Johnson twice lost the ball in those final ticks of the clock, and the Lakers lost the game 111–102, and with it the series.
Afterward, Johnson spent more than 50 minutes in the shower, but it would take a lot more than that to wash away the sting of this defeat.
For those fans too young to have lived through Magic-Bird, there's still a chance to experience at least a reasonable facsimile of the greatest individual sports rivalry ever in a team sport.
Magic/Bird is now a play, and it opened on Broadway in April 2012.CHAPTER 3
The Shaq/Kobe Dynasty
As the calendar turned to July 1996 and the gates opened for the stampede of free agents, Shaquille O'Neal didn't budge. Orlando, he insisted, was still his "first option."
Lakers vice president Jerry West is a nervous wreck in the best of circumstances. In this case, sitting in his Forum office with a big hole in the middle — having traded his only quality center, Vlade Divac, to the Hornets for Kobe Bryant — the man who once earned a living making baskets had been reduced to a basket case.
The Lakers offered O'Neal $98 million over seven years. Orlando — able to go as high as it wanted because O'Neal was still its player — merely matched the offer. West shed more bodies, gained more cap space, and upped the potential deal to $121 million. The Magic countered at $115 million. That offer was actually better than the Lakers' because Florida doesn't have a state income tax.
West flew to Atlanta to get O'Neal's answer. While waiting for him in a hotel room, West joked that he would jump out the window if O'Neal said no.
That was a joke, right?
Not to worry. O'Neal said yes.
West had earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch" all over again.
He found less flattering words whispered about him in the wake of the signing such as "tampering." Some found it hard to believe West would have traded away Divac without being assured by the O'Neal camp that he was coming west.
West said the comments were "very, very distasteful," and took "a horrible toll" on him.
As for Buss, he had lived up to his reputation as a superb poker player, throwing away a good hand that included Divac only to pull a pair of kings: Shaq and Kobe.
The reaction by some other teams to the big money being tossed around in the summer of 1996 was less than euphoric.
"Anyone who thinks all of this is good for the NBA," Pistons coach Doug Collins said, "has to have a screw loose."
But anyone who thought the Lakers had an instant dynasty was simply wrong. The coronation took awhile. Four years to be exact. The Lakers made it as far as the second round in the 1997 playoffs — the first for O'Neal and Bryant in tandem — before being eliminated. They were swept out in the third round by Utah in 1998 and by San Antonio in the second round in 1999.
It was sometimes a rough learning curve for Bryant, who was still only 18 when he played his first game in Purple and Gold.
Not that he was easily discouraged. Or ever discouraged, for that matter.
Bryant ignored the criticism, smiled at the pressure, and continued to exude confidence — at least on the surface — despite some early struggles on the court.
The biggest criticism was that he refused to share the ball. "There are times he still likes to go one on five," teammate Nick Van Exel said.
O'Neal didn't have to say anything. He just stood in the middle and glared when Bryant refused to pass him the ball.
The most blatant example of Bryant's perceived selfishness came in the elimination game against the Jazz in the 1997 playoffs.
In the closing seconds of regulation play and then on three occasions in the overtime period, Bryant fired up shots from beyond the three-point arc.
All four were airballs.
In Year Four of Shaq/Kobe, it appeared the Lakers were going to fall short again, even though they were playing their first season under Phil Jackson. Facing Portland in the Western Conference finals, the Lakers found themselves down by 15, trailing 75–60 in the fourth quarter of Game 7 at the STAPLES Center.
And then, they shot the lights out, turning out the lights on the Trail Blazers' season.
The Lakers outscored Portland 15–0 in just over 10 minutes to tie the game and went on to win 89–84.
The most memorable image from that comeback, the biggest ever in a Game 7, was of O'Neal. After he dunked Bryant's lob pass to give the Lakers an 85–79 lead with 40 seconds left, he opened his eyes and his mouth as wide as if he'd just seen a ghost, raising the index finger on each hand high in the air as he lumbered down the court like a 325-pound child.
Portland, on the other hand, couldn't find the basket. After shooting 50 percent from the floor through the first three quarters, the Trail Blazers hit just 5-of-23 (22 percent) in the final period.
Said Bryant after the final buzzer: "This is what makes champions."
It sure made champions of the Lakers. Not only did they go on to beat Indiana in six games in the NBA Finals, but they also subsequently defeated the 76ers in five games the season after, and swept the Nets the season after that to complete a three-peat.
Excerpted from 100 Things Lakers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Steve Springer. Copyright © 2012 Steve Springer. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.