Posted Oct 14 2010 9:38AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:08PM
The 1984-85 Lakers were your grandfather's team, your father's team, your team and can be your kid's team. They had appeal that stretched generations, yesterday's and today's and tomorrow's, and that's why they're my team, my favorite ever.
I fell in love with basketball while watching this team. They represented the height of the "Showtime" era, and were the jewel of the 1980s, still largely considered the league's Golden Age. These Lakers were cool, because of Magic Johnson's no-look passes and Pat Riley's slick suits. They were blue collar, because Michael Cooper rolled up his sleeves (and his socks) and went to work on D. And they were throwback, because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 38, his hairline racing toward the back of his neck, his sky hook by now more like a 20th floor hook, but still looking regal most nights.
They were fun to watch, never failing to entertain or thrill, forcing you to marvel at their fast break and variety of ways to score. Early on in the season, you knew instantly where this team was headed: yet another championship showdown with the Celtics, basketball at its finest.
Now, the '84-85 Lakers had competition for my nomination. A few other teams fascinated me, for different reasons. Let's talk the '90-91 Nuggets under Paul Westhead, who put up video game numbers on a nightly basis. Of course, they also surrendered faster than the French in WWII. That Nuggets' season was a catastrophe, causing whiplash for fans, who couldn't stop rubbernecking, and the players, on orders to shoot in 15 seconds or less. All records set against Enver (no D) that season need to be asterisked.
Scott Skiles and his 30 assists? The Suns and their 107 first-half points?
And extra special props to the '94-95 Nets, hands down the most hilarious sports team ever assembled. Yes, funnier than the Kevin Costner Durham Bulls, the Walter Matthau Bad News Bears, and Morris Thorpe and the Carver High boys from The White Shadow. I followed that team as a reporter in New York. The Nets supplied fresh tabloid material every day. They had Benoit Benjamin, Derrick Coleman, Rick Mahorn, Chris Morris, Dwayne Schintzius and Jayson Williams. The All-Slapstick Team.
Morris was fined for refusing to tie his shoelaces in practice. Coleman wrote a $41,000 check to coach Butch Beard in preseason to cover fines for refusing to wear a sportscoat to all 41 road games. Benjamin asked Williams what the tiny "C" stood for on the front of NBA jerseys, and Williams replied, "Caucasian." (Benjamin said, "oh, OK.")
And yes, that was the year Coleman (who almost came to blows with general manager Willis Reed after a game in Minnesota) uttered the infamous "whoop-dee-damn-do" line. Ownership actually weighed the idea of renaming the team "Swamp Dragons" in a clumsy effort to change the image. Pure comedy.
But in the end, I voted for pure basketball. The '84-85 Lakers were on a mission, having been sucker-punched in the gut the previous June by the Celtics in the most-watched NBA Finals to that point. Magic was Tragic in that series, especially after the Celtics put Dennis Johnson on him. So the entire regular season was nothing more than a six-month dress rehearsal for the playoffs and Finals. The Lakers were simply hoping Kareem would make it through without collapsing. Instead, he led the club in scoring (22.8), rebounding (7.9, decent for him) and blocks (2.1) After 16 seasons in the NBA, he was still his team's first option.
This was arguably the best Laker team of the Kareem era because of depth, and because they won the championship. Six players averaged double-figure scoring. Bob McAdoo, a former MVP and a gunner through much of his career, was transformed into a valuable and beloved sixth man. Riley's rotation went nine deep. Even Mitch Kupchak, the current GM, whose knee was spaghetti by then, got run.
On a personal note, the Lakers also had Larry Spriggs. We went to school together at Howard University, stayed in the same dorm. He took naps on the lobby sofa and snored a lot. Never thought "the Horse" would someday ride shotgun with Magic, and even start for a while at power forward. Small world.
Also, Riley gave me my first big one-on-one interview that year. I was fresh out of college and asked too many dumb questions. Riley invited me to his hotel suite (where five Armani suits, just back from the dry cleaners, hung in the closet) and patiently answered them all, never teasing me like Doug Moe did (with a smile, though).
The Lakers lost five of their first eight, then won seven straight and cruised from there. At one stretch, they won 16 of 18. They dropped only two games in the first three rounds of the playoffs and averaged 132 a game against the Nuggets in the conference finals.
And then they got waxed by 34 points in Game 1. The Memorial Day Massacre. Kareem grabbed three rebounds. He was more aggressive with the nosy little kid in Airplane. Psychologically, the Lakers looked whipped. Celtic mystique and all.
But the Celtics would win only once more, and only because DJ hit a jumper at the buzzer. That opening loss triggered something within the Lakers, made them play with more grit than glitz. And almost overnight, they traded centers, going from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Lew Alcindor. The Captain had 30 points, 17 (!) rebounds and eight assists in Game 2, a fountain of youth performance that completely changed the series and swung it in the Lakers' favor.
A week later, it was a wrap. The Lakers finally beat the Celtics in a championship series, something West and Baylor and Wilt never did. And they clinched on the parquet at the Garden, another first. Kareem was MVP in his last truly great moment; he would never play this inspired again. Overall, it was the perfect ending to a landmark season that introduced Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton and Charles Barkley as rookies and saw the Celtics win 63 games and do everything except win in June.
That Laker team would be the most exciting team in the league today. Even more than LeBron and the Heat. That's how rich the league was then, before expansion diluted the talent. And that's how memorable the Lakers were, with Kareem saving his best for last, and Magic showing an improved jumper, and the supporting cast falling in line and filling the gaps, and the ratings shooting through the roof.
The '84-85 Lakers, exquisitely made for me, for you and, today, for YouTube.
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