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Scott Ostler

Play of the Lakers Causes Some Chilly Days at the Forum

December 09, 1987|Scott Ostler

In pro basketball, as in pro wrestling, it's sometimes hard to separate illusion from reality.

Like, what's with the Lakers? They're getting pinned to the mat by Cleveland and Portland. Is this Shakespearean staggering, reeling and bleeding for real? Will they suddenly and miraculously spring to life, body-slamming the Celtics Friday night in Boston?

Seeking answers to these and other questions, I visited Los Angeles' most knowledgeable fan of the two sports where the athletes wear short pants, beat one another and employ illegal holds while officials look the other way.

Jerry West is better known for his basketball expertise. He is the general manager of the Lakers. But he is also a big fan of pro wrestling.

OK, it's Jerry's son, Ryan, who is the wrestling fan, and he drags Dad to the big L.A. matches. However, Jerry himself is getting interested in the sport.

"I think it's a lot of fun, and the crowds are amazing," West says. "I have an appreciation for any athlete, and I think you have to include these people as being athletes. They throw each other around pretty good, and some of those guys wrestle 300 nights a year."

Any personal favorites?

Naw. Not really. Well . . .

"It's amazing the response Hulk Hogan gets from the crowd," West says. "He's like Michael Jordan. And George (the Animal) Steel, he's great."

Swell, Jerry, but what about Hulk Cooper and Kareem (the Animal) Abdul-Jabbar? What about Jerry Zeke From Cabin Creek West's Los Angeles Lakers?

In these days of dizzying disappointment dispensed by all the local pro teams, will the Lakers, too, let Los Angeles down? Will they even win more games than the Clippers?

West admits the situation is a little grim right now.

The Lakers, who opened the season 8-0, were losers of five of their next seven before beating New Jersey Tuesday night. They have been getting blown out.

"They look like they're still on vacation," West says. "When we don't score 100 points, you have to say to yourself, 'There's no way this team can't score 100 points, I don't care who they're playing.' "

Forget the injuries. James Worthy has been out, Magic Johnson has been slowed. But all teams get hurt.

"We're very talented," West says. "But at this time we're not playing with the same intensity, and when you don't, you don't have concentration. The Lakers take games away from people late. Right now, they're taking games away from us late."

If nothing else, the mini-slump has wiped out the boredom of the win-win-win syndrome last season's Lakers frequently slipped into.

Says West: "Suddenly, we have, I don't know if it's controversy, but suddenly there's a lot more talk, 'What's happening to the Lakers? Have they aged?' We have a real young starting lineup, with the exception of Kareem, and they're experienced. It's really hard to put a finger on it, but our effort and defensive play and concentration has not been good.

"You run (start fast breaks) from defensive plays, and I thought last year we were maybe the best defensive team in basketball."

To West, it's simple. The better, tighter defense you play, the longer, lower-percentage shots the other team takes. The longer the rebounds, the better the fast-break opportunities. In recent consecutive losses, the Lakers had a total of three layups.

"People are getting closer shots against us, and that's the reason we're not running, and we're not running with the same enthusiasm we had," West says. "Instead of attacking the basket, we're kind of a finesse, jump-shooting team right now."

The rest of the league seems to be enjoying the Laker fall, however temporary it may turn out to be.

"We all need humility in our lives," West says. "There's absolutely no reason we won't play hard before the season is over. I know we will."

Basically, West is optimistic. Magic is starting off slowly because injuries wiped out his training camp. Kareem always starts slowly. So what if he's 40? "I think he'll be fine," West says.

The picture isn't as grim as painted by someone at West's health club, who asked him Monday, "Are the Lakers going to win another game this year?"

West didn't ask if the wise guy meant calendar year or NBA year.

He is sure his club will come around.

Me? I'm not so sure.

If Magic's legs are gone, kiss the Lakers goodby.

And if Kareem keeps playing most games as if he's 40, forget it. It's not the one night he had seven points that you worry about, it's the several others where he struggled to hit doubles. On defense, all those opponents' close-in shots aren't Kareem's fault, but at 7-2, he's got to do some intimidating in there, swat away some garbage.

As West says: "We rate our players after every game, and we have some players that are down a significant amount. Significant."

It almost makes a guy long for the wrestling arena, where there are fewer, uh, surprises.

"There's almost a warmth to (wrestling)," West says, "that the good guys almost always win."

And these are chilly days around the Forum.

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