The Men who Led the Lakers
Mike Dunleavy (1990-92)
MIKE DUNLEAVY (1990-92)
When the Lakers went out to replace Pat Riley, they found in Mike Dunleavy a similarly passionate persona as Riley possessed when he was an NBA player himself.
“He was a player that I always admired because of his intensity,” said Bill Bertka on Dunleavy, a 14-year pro. “He was a very smart guy who knew the game, and was a play-calling coach. He wasn’t letting guys be a freelance team, he always kept a tight reign on the offense, and he was a very innovative offensive coach. He’d design his offense to exploit matchups and to exploit other teams' defensive weaknesses.”
The team that Dunleavy inherited from Riley was strong, still featuring Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Vlade Divac plus free agent signee Sam Perkins. L.A. rebounded from a 2-5 start with an 8-0 spurt, and put together a 16-game winning streak midseason en route to a 58-win season.
Bertka explained the early-season struggles as Dunleavy’s attempt to reign in the fast-breaking style that had characterized the Showtime Lakers into more of a set, half-court game, but credited Dunleavy with his willingness to essentially scrap that plan for the greater good, allowing more freedom to the players on the floor, particularly Magic.
Johnson dished his 9,888th career assist to surpass Oscar Robertson as the league’s all-time leader, averaging 12.5 per game to go with his 19.4 points and 7.0 rebounds. Worthy led the team in scoring with 21.4 point per game, while Divac led the team on the glass with 8.1 per contest.
In the postseason, L.A. cruised past Houston (3-0) and Golden State (4-1), battled top-seeded Portland to a 4-2 Western Finals series win for the rights to face Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
The Lakers won Game 1 in Chicago on a last-second three-pointer by Perkins, but it was Phil Jackson’s team going to a higher level, rallying to beat L.A. four straight times, ending Dunleavy’s first campaign in a tough fashion.
Alas, feeling good about their team heading into the 1991-92 season, the Lakers embarked on a successful tour of France during training camp. But when the team returned, Johnson began to feel highly fatigued, which he shared with head athletic trainer Gary Vitti.
“I knew that (Magic had) taken an extensive physical exam for his life insurance policy, because I had to fill out some of the paperwork,” Vitti recalled. “I knew they did a lot of tests, and one of them was an HIV screening. So I figured, that’s got to be it. He either has cancer or he has HIV. It took me a while, a whole day of thinking about it, but I couldn’t let it go.”
Vitti’s premonition proved to be true, and the Lakers, the NBA family and, really, everybody, received the terrible news a few days later during a Nov. 7, 1991 press conference: Magic Johnson was HIV positive.
Devastated as anyone else since HIV was thought to be a death sentence at the time, Dunleavy tried to rally his team nonetheless, and L.A. responded in kind with a nine-game winning streak in November. Early in the next month, however, Divac went down with a back injury and missed two months, leading to a 6-8 mark that December, the team’s first losing month since March of 1979, an amazing statistic in its own right. The Lakers managed to win 43 games and make the postseason for the 16th consecutive season, but lost both James Worthy and Sam Perkins to injuries, and were swept by Portland in the first round.
After the season, Dunleavy left the Lakers to become Milwaukee’s head coach and VP of basketball operations. He most recently served as head coach/general manager of the L.A. Clippers from 2003-10.