A die-hard Laker fan who lives and dies with the Lakers , I’m no Johnny -come – lately. I have been rooting for the Lakers, during good times and bad, ever since my college days at West Virginia University more than forty years ago. At the time the Lakers were perennial also-rans ,good enough to reach the finals but not good enough to beat the Celtics. They had great teams featuring future Hall-of-Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor but, at the center position, the game Rudy LaRusso was no match for tbe Celtics Bill Russell. No matter how heroically West and Baylor performed, the Celtics would somehow squeak through. I remember being in a bar one year watching a Celtics – Lakers playoff game. Jerry West having been a stand-out at West Virginia during his college days , the bar crowd was solidly for the Lakers. Every time the Lakers got the ball, the bar patrons would pound their beer mugs on the bar and chant” Give it to Jerry!Give it to Jerry !”Every Laker bucket was applauded with raucous cheers, every Celtic basket met with a groan. With time running out , the Celtics Sam Jones threw up a desperation shot. It hit the rim , bounced straight up and fell through the hoop without touching net. Immediately, the bar patrons fell silent, sunk in sudden gloom,their beers forgotten.
With my penchant for the underdog, that is when I became a Laker fan…and a Celtic hater. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the Celtic players individually ( the canny K.C Jones, the tireless John Havlicek who routinely sweated away 5 lbs . during a game, and Tom Sanders,and Don Nelson) but I couldn’t stand to see them beat MY Lakers year after year after year. And I hated, absolutely hated, the crass behavior of Red Auerbach, the Celtic coach-GM , who had the habit of lighting a victory cigar in the closing moments of a Celtic triumph.
Even when Wilt Chamberlain joined the Lakers, the Celtics somehow found a way to win. When Bill Russell finally retired, the Lakers finally managed to win one. It was in 1972 and I remember that Laker team very well. Early in the season a rookie from Columbia,Jim McMillan ,replaced the aging Elgin Baylor in the line-up and the Lakers went on a 33 game winning streak which I believe is still a record.That team with Jerry West and Gail Goodrich at guard, Jim McMillan and Happy Hairston at forward and Wilt Chamberlain was a beautiful machine ; every player knew his role and played it to perfection. West penetrated and dished off the ball as well as scored and played tremendous defense, Goodrich was the shooter, McMillan moved well without the ball and scored when needed,Hairston was a demon rebounder and Chamberlain was Chamberlain.. an intimidating defensive presence who neutralized the other team’s center and denied them easy baskets in the paint. Such a team should have been a dynasty but the 1972 victory was their sole triumph. The Celtics were no longer a threat but twice, the Lakers stumbled in the finals losing to the New York Knicks with Clyde Frazier, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Bill Bradley, Dave Debusschere, Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas. And , oh yes, the current Laker coach Phil Jackson was an important reserve on that team . Most depressing was the time a severly injured Willis Reed made a game , gutsy appearance in a pivotal game and cowed the Laker team into submission. The stuff of legend but , to a Laker fan, the pits.
With West and Chamberlain retiring, there was not much for a Laker fan to cheer about in the mid seventies. Even a blockbuster trade for Lew Alcindor ( later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) did not bring a championship. It was only in 1979 when the Lakers traded Jim Chones to Cleveland and took Earvin “Magic ” Johnson with the first over-all pick that things changed . Boy , did they ever ! Magic was such a joy to watch, his effervescent love of the game drawing us all in and making the game pure fun. I remember that after his first pro game ended in a Laker win, a jubilant Magic leaped into the arms of a surprised Abdul -Jabbar.Wonder what the Captain said to him. Perhaps that there another 81 games to go in the season ?!! (LOL ) The season finale was also memorable. Leading 3-2 , the Lakers flew back to Philly to play the 76ers. Abdul Jabbar was home in LA resting a severly injured knee and most observers didn’t give the Lakers any shot at all. In perhaps the finest performance of his career , the rookie Magic Johnson , who was 6-9 but normally played guard, took over at center and scored 42 points, pulled down 15 rebounds and handed out 7 assists. Ably supported by Keith ” Silk “Wilkes with 37 points, the Lakers won going away with Magic copping all linds of year-end honors. Those were the days !!
Had it not been for the hated Celtics, the Lakers might have strung together 6 or 7 titles in a row. What we got instead was a series of epic battles between Magic’s Lakers and the Celtics of Larry Bird. Basketball at it’s finest. In addition to Larry Bird, the Celtics had Jo-Jo White, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and a revolving supporting cast of fading but still potent players like Bill Walton.Once again, I liked the individual Celtic players but I detested Red Auerbach and his gamesmanship. During the Celtics-Lakers finals, odd things seemed to happen, always to the detriment of the Lakers.The dressing room plumbing would fail; there would be a disruptive leather lunged heckler behind the Laker bench; one year, the AC failed , the sweltering heat a handicap for the Laker’s 40 year old center ,Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The Celtics and Lakers were to split 6 titles during the eighties , a run that finally ended with the emegence of the Detroit Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. In a way, the Celtics were unlucky . Had it not been for the death of Len Bias, a multitalented rookie out of Maryland, who died of a drug OD almost as soon as he was tapped by the Celtics in the draft, the Celtics might have been even more dominant.
For Laker fans, the trauma of seeing both Magic Johnson and Byron Scott go down with hamstring injuries during the champioship finals with the Detroit Pistons was completely forgotten when Magic contracted the HIV virus and announced his retirement. That shock lasted for most of the nineties until Jerry West, now the Laker GM , engineered the series of trades that brought Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to the Lakers.
( To be Continued )