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LAKER PREVIEW : Riley's Obsession Is a Repeat Performance

November 06, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

Bill Russell was player-coach of the Boston Celtics and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a college senior the last time a team repeated as National Basketball Assn. champion.

Now Russell is in his third coaching job and Abdul-Jabbar is only 4 1/2 years away from collecting his NBA pension.

In 1969, a 10-year-old kid in Lansing, Mich., still went by Earvin, not Magic. Almost no one not from there had ever heard of French Lick, Ind., and Michael Jordan was about to start first grade in North Carolina.

Nixon was President, the New York Mets were Amazin', and kids still aspired to be hippies at Woodstock, not yuppies on Wall Street.

There was no such thing as OPEC. No Moral Majority, no Pee Wee Herman, no tofutti. There was a Captain Kangaroo but no Dr. J.

Pat Riley had yet to slick his hair back for the first time.

For 18 years, history marched on, but no NBA champion was able to keep in step two years running.

Breaking up is hard to do, but in the NBA, repeating is even harder.

Remember 1985? That spring, the Lakers finally vanquished the Boston Celtics for the first time. That winter, the Lakers started the season 24-3 and were being called the greatest team of all time.

By the following spring, they weren't even the best team in the conference, losing four straight games to Houston after winning the opener of the Western finals.

Laker flashback No. 2: In 1983, Bob McAdoo breaks a toe, and in the last week of the regular season, James Worthy breaks a leg. Tough break, say the Philadelphia 76ers, who sweep the defending world champions in four straight.

Flashback No. 3: It is November 1980, and Magic Johnson tears the cartilage in his left knee. He misses the next 45 games, and when he returns, all is not well. There is friction between Magic and Norm Nixon, and finally, Magic throws up an eight-foot airball at the end of a first-round ouster by the Rockets.

Now fast-forward to June 1988, and a champagne-drenched Laker locker room, where Coach Pat Riley holds aloft a championship trophy and tells Pat O'Brien of CBS: "See? I told you so."

Riley, you see, has this idea that the Lakers are about to break with tradition.

Idea? How about an obsession. A day after the Lakers put away the Boston Celtics for their fourth title of the '80s, Riley guaranteed that they'd win their fifth this season. A month later, he couldn't wait to begin.

In Riley's mind, the Lakers should be as interested in history as Alistair Cooke.

"I think Kareem wants to leave footprints," he said. "And they all know what it will take to be remembered as one of the all-time best teams."

The case for repeating:

--Magic Johnson.

--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

--James Worthy.

--Michael Cooper.

--Byron Scott is coming off a season in which he had career bests in scoring, rebounding and assists, and set club records in free throw shooting and three-point percentage.

--Mychal Thompson will be here a full season. The Lakers were 43-8, counting playoffs, after obtaining Thompson, who is in the best shape of his life.

--A.C. Green, who led the Lakers in rebounding last season with an average of 7.8 a game, will only get better in his third season. Kurt Rambis is still the original kamikaze forward, but Green is just as willing to get down and dirty.

--The Laker bench is as strong as anybody's in the league. Start with Cooper and Thompson, of course, but don't forget Rambis, who played just 10 minutes a game but averaged more rebounds a minute than any other Laker. Wes Matthews has proven steadier as backup point guard than he was given credit for, and while Billy Thompson's injury is a setback, Milt Wagner and Jeff Lamp have the potential to give the Lakers some scoring off the bench. Even Mike Smrek has improved, to where Riley says he may get five minutes a game.

--Pat Riley.

"Pat Riley is the best coach in basketball right now," Chicago Coach Doug Collins said. "Sure, it's nice to have Worthy, Magic, Kareem, Cooper, A.C. Green, Scott and Mychal Thompson. But he puts it all together as well as anybody in the league. He works at it; he's dedicated, and I love him.

"He's been a great role model for me, a guy I pattern myself after a lot in the way I deal with my players."

--The graying of the Celtics. Bill Walton is a no-show for the second straight year. Kevin McHale has a screw in his foot and won't be playing for at least another month. Dennis Johnson is 33, Robert Parish is 34, and Danny Ainge will be the only Celtic starter under 30 by the time the playoffs begin.

Now, the down side:

--Last season, the Lakers' first eight players missed just 13 games of a possible 656 because of injuries. This season, there already are red flags popping up all over the place. Johnson's Achilles' tendinitis is a major worry. There's no telling when Billy Thompson will be back from his knee injury, and Worthy's knees are one big ache all season long. Even the indestructible Cooper--who takes a streak of 519 consecutive games into tonight's opener--was brought down by strep throat during training camp.

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