The Lakers, the only good pro team left in Los Angeles, returned to active duty Friday night. They set out to keep the cheerful, though somewhat presumptuous, promise made on their behalf by Coach Pat Riley last June, when at a civic party celebrating the world championship, he practically offered a two-year-or-200-game warranty on old Doc Buss's Magic elixir, saying: "Next year we'll win it again!"
Well, next year is here. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, bald as a basketball, stepped forth to the microphone before the season opener and thanked the Fabulous Forum crowd for being, well, fabulous. He further said that it was hard to believe nearly six months had passed since the Lakers took the marbles.
It might have been hard to believe because, the fact of the matter is, less than five months have passed since the Lakers took the marbles. Still, we can sympathize with Kareem. When you turn 40, time tends to become your enemy. No opponent treats you as cruelly as a calendar does.
The Seattle SuperSonics sent out a couple of their big, equally bald brutes to bug the old man Friday, hoping to catch him acting his age. There was Xavier (X Man) McDaniel, the Sonic boomer, and there was Olden (Goldie) Polynice, who just joined the club this season after a year in Italy. When these three skinheads went up for a rebound, it looked like a pack of escaped balloons.
But to beat the Lakers, Seattle needs more than a couple of guys who share a hairdresser with Slick Watts. The Sonics lost, 113-109, because Abdul-Jabbar's supporting cast is still the best around, and because the Lakers lose a home game about as often as Kareem drives a Yugo.
Anybody expecting the Lakers to have some sort of desire drop-off or hunger problem after winning last year's championship is going to be out of luck, barring some sort of calamitous injury. The golden boys are all back, looking clever as ever; A.C. Green looks even better than before, and Jeff Lamp is going to be a nice little addition to the furniture. So, relax. All is well.
In fact, the Lakers are so talented, so deep, so complete, that even their discards are worth picking up. When Adrian Branch couldn't be sure of making the last cut, the Lakers were nice enough to send him to New Jersey, where all Branch managed to do in Friday night's opener was net 20 Net points. As for ex-Laker musclemen Petur Gudmundsson and Frank Brickowski, they combined for 24 points at the center position in San Antonio's opener. Some Lakerness must have rubbed off on these guys.
This leads us to believe that when and if last year's top draft choice, Billy Thompson, comes back from the land of the injured, whomever the Lakers cut to make room for him should be snapped up by some other team posthaste. And when those NBA expansion teams make their roster raid next season, you can bet they'll make a beeline toward Los Angeles.
If the Laker season lasts as long as the last one did, the team has 99 games to go. With good health and good hustle, there is no reason to believe this team cannot take 70 games during the regular season, which is rare, and repeat as NBA champion, which is rarer.
Abdul-Jabbar is still around, doing what he does best, feeling young at heart. "Winning another championship is certainly something to motivate me," he said the other day. "It's something to motivate everybody."
Earvin Johnson, who often drops hints about retiring once he feels his game is slipping, is likely to call it quits before Kareem does. That is the funniest prospect of all in the Laker camp, that Cap might outlast Magic.
"He knows he can still dominate out there," Johnson says of his big buddy, who has just begun his 19th season. "And as long as he can dominate, he's going to stick around."
Hard to believe, but the Magic Man from Michi Gan began his ninth season Friday. That's no typo. His ninth season. Seems like only yesterday when he was asking Jack Kent Cooke to get rid of that smelly fish he served for lunch and order him a nice, juicy burger. Seems like only yesterday when Magic was jumping into Kareem's arms after the Lakers were winning the season opener.
Magic took a nasty spill in the first half of the Seattle game but got right up. He came into the game with a touch of tendinitis that had kept him out of the last couple of exhibitions. The way E.J. goes at it, so hard all the time, it really would be magic if he can last in this game anywhere near as long as Abdul-Jabbar has.
Oh, well. We'll take whatever we can get.
One down. Send in the next victim.