The Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers are synonymous with "Showtime," a blend of athletic brilliance and crowd-pleasing charisma which helped transform basketball from just another game to the most popular sport on the planet. Led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the greatest team player of all time, the 1980s Lakers formed both a basketball dynasty and a legendary rivalry with Larry Bird's Boston Celtics. This era, which Roland Lazenby refers to as "basketball's Age of Camelot" paved the way for the emergence of basketball's era of superstars, led by the inimitable Michael Jordan.
In their 50-plus year history, the Lakers have qualified for the playoffs more than any other franchise, a remarkable 92 percent of the time. In their first year, however, there was no inkling of their future success. The Los Angeles Lakers had their humble beginnings in the early years of professional basketball as the 1946 Detroit Gems in the National Basketball League (NBL). The Gems were a horrible team and their record, 4-40, remains the worst in modern professional basketball. It was precisely their losing record, however, that a group of Minneapolis investors wanted. They bought the team for $15,000, moved it to Minneapolis, Land of Lakes, changed the team's name, and with their losing record, received the top pick in the 1947 draft.
The Lakers' new general manager was a savvy 24-year-old sportswriter with a lot of savvy named Sid Hartman. In an era when basketball scouts were non-existent, Hartman knew everyone and everything that was happening around the country in the basketball world, and he set out to create an unbeatable team. Signing excellent players from other leagues, including Jim "Kangaroo Kid" Pollard and the six-foot-ten George Mikan, Hartman and his investors laid the foundations for basketball's first dynasty. In their first season, the Lakers were 43-17 and won the league championship.
In 1948, the Lakers and their three top competitors joined a new league, the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Two years later, the NBL and the BAA merged to form the National Basketball Association (NBA), where the Lakers success, led by Mikan, Pollard, and Vern Mikelson, continued through the early 1950s. But by 1956, the team was facing its first losing season and Hartman hatched the idea of finishing dead last in order to get top draft pick Bill Russell. The owners balked, Russell went to the Boston Celtics, and the team was eventually sold. And still the Lakers lost. By 1958, they had finished dead last, and were rewarded by top draft pick Elgin Baylor, the man who virtually invented hang time—the ability to jump and remain in the air while gliding to the hoop. Even with Baylor's one-man heroics, however, the Lakers lingered close to basketball's basement.
In 1959, team owners began discussing relocation to the warmer West Coast. A year later, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, where they played in the Sports Arena and, with the second pick in the draft, they acquired a skinny forward from West Virginia named Jerry West. After picking up splinters on the bench for most of his first season, West was finally given playing time and, combined with Elgin Baylor, who trailed only Wilt Chamberlain in scoring, the Lakers' fortunes began to improve. At the end of the season, they squeaked into the 1961 playoffs. When they managed to push the St. Louis Hawks to a fifth game in St. Louis, owner Bob Short called local sportscaster Chick Hearn to arrange a live broadcast for new-found Los Angeles fans; Hearn soon after became the voice of the Lakers.
Although the Hawks ultimately pulled out a two-point victory, Los Angeles had discovered the Lakers, and celebrities such as Doris Day, Danny Thomas, and Pat Boone began regularly attending games. Boosted by the most glamorous fans in the NBA, the Lakers of the 1960s became one of the most successful franchises, drawing record crowds and making the playoffs every year. Led by Baylor and West, the team won the Western Division Championship six out of nine years and made it to the finals where, every year, they ran into their nemesis, Bill Russell's Celtics, and every year, they lost.
Despite their status in the finals, however, the Lakers were winners. Jack Kent Cooke, a Canadian millionaire living in California who owned part of the Washington Redskins, realized this and saw an opportunity to turn the Lakers into a big-time, money-making franchise. He bought the team for $5 million in 1965 and set about transforming it. His first step was to build the Los Angeles Forum. His second was to acquire perennial league scoring leader, Wilt Chamberlain.
In 1968, Baylor, West, and Chamberlain led the team to the playoffs. But despite the obvious combined talent of the three players, the team still never seemed to win the big one. In the division championships, they were stopped by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks. When they made it past the Bucks, they ran smack into the New York Knicks, who had taken over the mantle of Eastern champions after Bill Russell retired from the Celtics. The Knicks, led by Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier, handed the Lakers some of their most frustrating losses in Madison Square Garden.
By the early 1970s, the Lakers' stars were in their thirties, with not much time left to play. But Cooke was determined to win and so he put together a strong lineup that included Happy Hairston and Gail Goodrich, and hired a new coach, Bill Sharman. Mid-season in 1972, the team won 33 straight and they looked invincible. At the end of the season, the Lakers once again faced Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks in the division finals and won in five. Then they faced the Knicks and, with Wilt Chamberlain playing brilliant ball, the Los Angeles Lakers won their first World Championship.
The next season, the team made it to the finals to defend their title, but the aging players did not have the magic and they lost. Chamberlain retired, and for a while the team floundered as they looked for a new center. They found the best—league MVP (Most Valuable Player) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In his first few seasons as a Laker, despite daily heroics, Abdul-Jabbar had no real supporting players, and the team went on a downward slide, missing the playoffs two years in a row in the mid-1970s. Then came "Showtime."
As Roland Lazenby has written in The Lakers, "Showtime was a hoops fairy tale, pro basketball's Age of Camelot, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the boy wonders who pulled the proverbial sword from the stone. Until they came along, the game had struggled to find an identity among America professional sports…. But Bird and Johnson changed all that."
In 1979, Jerry Buss bought the Lakers from Cooke and a new era was underway. Having finished last, the Lakers had the first pick in the draft and with it they chose a college sophomore from Michigan who had led his team to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Championship. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a six-foot-nine point guard with a magical smile and the magical ability to turn any team to gold, immediately brought joy and hope to the franchise. Buoyed by Johnson, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, and the high-flying Michael Cooper, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally had a team.
In 1980, the Lakers made it to the championships against Dr. J (Julius Erving) and the Philadelphia 76ers and, led by Kareem, they were finally in a position to win, until Kareem twisted his ankle in Game Five and was unable to play Game Six. But up stepped Magic. The dazzling point guard took over the game and, in the process, he not only proved himself a star, but the team brought home a World Championship.
The Lakers of the 1980s were a dynasty that shaped themselves around Magic and Kareem. With players such as Byron Scott, A.C. Green, and the incredible James Worthy, famous fans led by Jack Nicholson courtside in his shades, Jerry West as General Manager, and their dapper new coach, Pat Riley, the Lakers made it to the playoffs every year. But it was not until 1984 that they met Larry Bird's Celtics in the finals. The Celtics won that year and one of professional sports' greatest rivalries was formed, as the Lakers won in 1985 and 1987. In 1988, the Lakers became the first team to repeat as champions since the Celtics in the 1960s, beating the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. It seemed like Showtime would go on forever.
But by 1989, after 20 years in the NBA, Kareem was ready to retire. The Lakers lost to the Pistons that year, the same year they lost Kareem. Some see the big man's retirement as the end of Showtime, others cite Pat Riley's departure the following year, but most Lakers' fans feel that Showtime came to an end when Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive. Although Magic would leave the game but then come back to win MVP in the 1992 All-Star Game, his number would be eventually be retired and the Lakers dynasty finally come to an end. And despite the signing of superstar Shaquille O'Neal in the mid-1990s and the presence of a young but undeniably talented team who continue to make it to the playoffs, the magic of Showtime left with Magic.
The undeniable glamour of the Los Angeles Lakers, however, remains. A perpetual contender, an organization with history, a hometown crowd riddled with movie stars, the Lakers are one of professional sports' most successful and most charismatic teams. The aura of Showtime will always linger as the magical coming together of a group of extraordinarily gifted individuals who turned a middle-of-the-road professional sport into an electrifying pop culture fixture.
Hollander, Zander, and Alex Sachare, editors. The Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia. New York, Villard, 1989.
Johnson, Earvin, and Rich Levine. My Life. New York, Random House, 1992.
Lazenby, Roland. The Lakers: A Basketball Journey. Indianapolis, Masters Press, 1993.