Walking the Talk
When Pat Riley guaranteed his Lakers would repeat as NBA champs in 1988, he was controversial, calculated and, most of all, prophetic
Before they had finished popping the champagne corks or had time to dry the bubbly residue from their smiling faces, the 1987 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers were brought down to earth with one declarative sentence by their erudite coach.
“I guarantee you we will repeat as champions next year.”
Pat Riley said it, right there in the Forum dressing room that night of June 14, 1987, as his team was celebrating its six-game conquest of arch-enemy Boston in the Finals. No NBA team had repeated as champions in 18 years. Not the great Celtics teams of John Havlicek or Larry Bird; not the mesmerizing Knick teams of Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe or even the fabulous Sixers teams of Julius Erving and Moses Malone. But, in the euphoria of the moment, Riley made his promise.
Talk about putting a damper on a good party.
“We hated it when he said it the first time,” Magic Johnson recalled. “We felt like we couldn’t really enjoy what we’d just won.”
Months passed, a new season started, and Riley’s bold proclamation remained about as popular with the troops as a three-hour practice on an off day in the Big Apple.
“He’d sent us the letter he always sent over the summer,” Johnson said, “and it was the same thing: The pressure’s on. He talked about how nobody has repeated since the Celtics in ’69 and this was our chance to separate ourselves from everybody, to become known as one of the all-time great teams. It was like, ‘Dang, what’s he doing to us? Why can’t he let us feel good about this before focusing in on next season?'”
Riley, a calculating man who rarely does anything without a purpose, wasn’t whistling in the dark. The guarantee was born of reflection, not emotion.
“I know a lot of people thought I was saying it in jest at the time,” he said. “What happened was, I looked back and read articles about the common denominator in why teams couldn’t win it again. What I found was that coaches, players, management, everyone connected to the organization would not take responsibility. They’d say, ‘We can do it if we’re healthy, if we’re unselfish,’ and so on. They were rationalizing, giving themselves a crutch to fail.
“I didn’t want to do that. So I knew exactly what I was going to say when they put the microphone in front of me in the dressing room that night. It was premeditated.”
Having dropped his bomb in the afterglow of victory, Riley repeated his words at the parade in downtown Los Angeles the following day, just in case anybody missed it.
The players rolled their eyes with expression that said, “Why is that crazy Riley doing this to us?”
The mood hadn’t changed much once the 1987-88 season opened. The Lakers privately hadn’t forgiven their coach for putting the onus on them with the most-publicized guarantee since Joe Namath at Super Bowl III.
In an effort to bring everyone together, the coach called a team meeting. But first, he needed an ally. Riley knew where to run. He sought out the floor general.
“All he needed was one of the guys to get on board with him,” Johnson said. “So Riles pulled me aside and said, ‘This is going to set you aside from (Larry) Bird. He hasn’t won two titles in a row.’ He knew me. He knew all I needed to hear was Larry, and I was gonna jump.”
Riley, the master psychologist, was working the no-respect angle for all it was worth.
“In ’88, nobody was even giving us consideration for being a great, great, great team, possibly the greatest of all time,” he said. “I told the guys, ‘Until you win back-to-back, they’re not going to do that. If the criteria for greatness is we have to win back-to-back, we have to take responsibility for the challenge.’
“I said, ‘We’re not going to back in. We’re not going to give ourselves excuses for failing.’ I wanted to put the pressure on them. A challenge is nothing more than raising the ante. I was challenging them not to shrink from the responsibility of being great, of being given consideration as the greatest team of all time.”
When Magic took up the theme and ran with it, it carried twice the impact.
“He told the guys, ‘We don’t want to be just another team. We want to be greater than great,'” Magic said. “When he explained it like that, I was like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense; we can get with this now.’ We got among ourselves and said, ‘OK, let’s go ahead and make a run at this thing.’ We had done everything else. We’d won four titles. But we hadn’t been part of history.”
And so, the quest began in earnest.
Kicking into gear, the Showtimers put together the league’s best regular-season record (62-20), a full eight games better than Central Division champion Detroit. This would prove critical down the road, guaranteeing – there’s that word again – home-court advantage for L.A. throughout the playoffs.
Did they ever need it.
After sweeping San Antonio 3-0 in the opening round, the Lakers were pushed to seven games by Utah in the Western Conference Semifinals, taking Game 7 at the Forum, 109-98. In the West Finals, Dallas stretched L.A. to the limit, as well, before falling, 117-102, in Game 7 at the Forum.
Chuck Daly and Detroit, meanwhile, were knocking out Washington, 3-2, blasting Chicago, 4-1, and whipping the Lakers’ old rivals from Boston, 4-2, in the East Finals.
Now the stage was set: Showtime vs. Bad Boys. Flash vs. Crash.
“It was our high-scoring offense against a team that set the standard defensively,” Johnson said. “You had to be mentally tough to play against them, and we were. You had to hit them back, and we did. We weren’t that all-finesse team everybody talked about. We had the talent, we loved to run, but we also had a toughness we didn’t get much credit for.”
The toughness took physical and mental forms.
The Pistons rocked the Lakers in Game 1 at the Forum behind 34 points from Adrian Dantley, who hit 14 of 16 from the field. Isiah Thomas (19 points, 12 assists) was outshone statistically by his good buddy Magic (28 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds), but the Magic Man couldn’t bring the Lakers back and they fell hard, 105-93.
“It had been a struggle all through those playoffs,” Riley said. “Nothing came easy. I think our ’87 team might have been our best team. We had come to maturity and we were a great, great, great team. The next year, ’88, we still had that maturity, but we’d aged a year. That team wasn’t quite as great as the ’87 team.”
But it was good enough.
With James Worthy dominating Dantley and setting the tone with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, the Lakers rebounded to take Game 2, 108-96. Magic (23 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) and Byron Scott (24 points) riddled Detroit’s superb backcourt trio of Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson.
As the scene shifted to Michigan for three games, the Lakers had a renewed sense of purpose. Worthy outscored Dantley, 24-14, and A.C. Green (21 points, eight rebounds) also had a big effort. Thomas (28 points, nine assists) busted out at home, but it wasn’t enough to offset Magic and Scottt, each of whom had 18 points with Magic distributing 14 assists. The Lakers rolled, 99-86.
“Big Game James came into play in a big way,” Riley said. “We’d always gone to Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) in the post, but it got to the point where James became our primary post player. We went to him over and over, and he delivered.”
Abdul-Jabbar, showing the wear and tear at age 41 and frustrated by the pounding of the Bad Boys, had only 35 points and 10 rebounds through three games.
His big moment, however, was coming.
With Dantley springing back to life and decisively taking his individual battle with Worthy, 27-7, the Pistons slugged their way back in Game 4 with 111-86 knockout. Johnson, with 23 points, was just about the sum total of the Lakers’ attack. The scoring balance belonged to Detroit, which got 16 points off the bench from Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson, 14 from James Edwards and solid defense and rebounding from the young lions, Dennis Rodman and John Salley.
Dantley, the ex-Laker, again asserted himself in Game 5, with 25 points to outscore Worthy by 11 in a 104-94 Pistons triumph. It had become apparent that this was the critical matchup in the series, more so than Abdul-Jabbar vs. Bill Laimbeer or Magic, Scott and Michael Cooper vs. Thomas, Dumars and Johnson in the backcourt.
Johnson and Thomas, close friends for years, became embroiled in a Game 5 altercation after Magic, angered over Detroit’s aggressive style slammed Thomas to the floor on a drive through the lane. Thomas jumped up and pushed Johnson back before order was restored. But the blood clearly was boiling.
To make good on Riley’s guarantee, the Lakers had to come home and win twice. Detroit had a margin for error, but the Pistons were not at full strength. Rick Mahorn, baddest of the Bad Boys, had a back ailment that was severely limiting his ability to wreak havoc inside. That left it up to the kids, Salley and Rodman, to play crucial minutes down the stretch.
“It was classic, as far as I’m concerned,” Dumars said. “You had a proud champion holding on, and a young team coming at them. What I remember about the series was how every play seemed so important. There was just so much going on. I was on Magic all series, and he was just wearing me out with that big body of his. I don’t think people realize how strong he was inside.”
Mahorn also has some painful memories of the series.
“What I remember most, really, is laying on my stomach on the floor by the bench,” he said. My back was out. I gave it my best shot, but I just couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. That’s the way the ball bounces, I guess.”
It bounced the Lakers’ way in Game 6 at the Forum, in spite of one of the most memorable individual performances in Finals history by Thomas.
Dragging a sprained ankle down the court, Isiah rang up 25 points in the third quarter alone on his way to an amazing 43. Thomas’ heroics had the Pistons ahead by one with 14 seconds left when a whistle sounded. It still hasn’t stopped ringing in the ears of the Pistons who were there that night. The Lakers were going to their old warrior, Abdul-Jabbar, and as he made his inside move, a foul was called on Laimbeer. As is often the case when a close call is made, the Pistons argued that the foul was a phantom call.
“Look at the tape,” Mahorn said. “Maybe the air got him. None of us did.”
Abdul-Jabbar went to the foul line, a 74-percent career free-throw marksman at playoff time, and drained the two biggest freebies of his life. When Dumars missed on the move from the lane on a broken play, the Lakers had held on, 103-102, spoiling a night that almost had belonged to Thomas.
Worthy once again was Big Game James with 28, doubling Dantley’s output, and Magic (22 points, 19 assists) was Magic. The Lakers won it at the foul line, going 35-of-43, compared to Detroit’s 22-of-27.
In Game 7, Detroit jumped out quickly and led at the half, 52-47. The Lakers were going to Worthy, and he was responding. In the third quarter, they busted it open, outscoring Detroit by 15 with a 36-point eruption. In one of the all-time Showtime explosions, the Lakers hit their first 10 shots of that fateful third quarter.
“It was going down to the last minute,” Riley said. “The way the whole playoffs had gone, we knew that.”
The Pistons had one last push in them, and they forced the Lakers to perspire all the way to the finish before succumbing, 108-105. The series ended with Magic flinging the ball the length of the court as time expired.
Worthy had enjoyed the game of his life, producing his first career triple-double: 36 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists. Dantley had been held to 16 points, with Dumars’ leading the Pistons. Big Game James was rewarded with the Finals MVP award, his first.
“James had always been a little deferential to Kareem, deferential to Magic,” Riley said. “I remember how committed he was in that series, especially in Game 7. He was big, alive, doing it all. I think that game definitely took him over the top as a great, great player.”
The Lakers were the last true fast-break team to win the title. The Pistons, who would go on to seize the next two NBA crowns, became the new model with a grinding, defensive style.
“Detroit came in and changed and whole culture of the game,” Riley said. “We were a wide-open, running, athletic, fast-breaking team. They were defense first, rebound, slow it down, keep the clock to your advantage, win in the 80s and 90s. That’s the direction the game went.”
The guarantee, the season and the marathon playoffs were a grind for the Lakers. It had been the longest season ever by an NBA champion – 115 games. In the regular season and playoffs, the Lakers had won 77, which led to another guarantee by Riley in the afterglow of the repeat.
“I guarantee you one thing,” he said as the champagne flowed, “we will enjoy this all summer.”
Before he could make any promises of a three-peat, Abdul-Jabbar, the venerable “Captain,” stuffed a towel in the coach’s mouth.
The Lakers had joined the all-time elite. The Pistons would win back-to-back, and the Bulls would eventually win three straight titles. But the Lakers were the ones to break the long spell without back-to-back champs. They made good on Riley’s guarantee and, thus, became one of the great, great teams of all time.
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