The end of the Lakers as we have known them arrived Wednesday morning when they gathered at the Forum.
Playoff shares were determined, off-season plans related and, perhaps, the disappointment of the four consecutive losses to the Detroit Pistons in the National Basketball Assn. championship series rationalized. Then, before parting, goodbys were said--some for the summer, some for good.
Change is unavoidable, now that the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era has ended. Abdul-Jabbar's retired jersey eventually will be hoisted to the Forum ceiling alongside those of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
The Lakers knew this day eventually would come. But those expecting the Lakers to swing a major trade or free-agent signing of a premier center probably will be disappointed.
"It's going to be fun, a new challenge, to see if we can win without Kareem," Magic Johnson said. "The driving force for me now is the '90s. It's a whole new time with a new center. I'm hungry. I haven't eaten for a while, and I'm going to go for (another title) again."
Coach Pat Riley, assessing the past and contemplating the future, said the Lakers still could be the team of the early '90s without radical changes. Riley already has created a theme for next season, "the Question Mark," referring to what might have happened had Johnson and Byron Scott not been sidelined because of hamstring injuries during the playoffs.
"I think we're going to be a leading contender next year," Riley said. "I don't think we've got to mess with our four (starters). We've got four corners filled, and now we have to put somebody in the middle.
"The Question Mark will gnaw at me all summer, and it will be lingering next year."
Who will that somebody in the middle be? Quality centers are in short supply and they usually come at the expense of several premier players at other positions. And West, the club's general manager, said the Lakers are a championship caliber team as is.
"We'll look around a little bit and see what might be our best options," West said. "We may not be a lot different than we are today.
"We aren't going to be bankrupt at all next year. We think we have a real fine team right now."
The Lakers will have half of Abdul-Jabbar's 1988-89 salary--$1.5 million--available to acquire a replacement. It does not have to be a center--and it might not be--but the Lakers must use the money before this season or lose it under salary-cap restrictions.
Other questions also lingered: --What of power forward A.C. Green, the club's leading rebounder, who will become a restricted free agent?
Green could receive an offer sheet from another team, which the Lakers most likely would match, or sign for another season with the Lakers at a significant salary increase and become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
Green, also the Lakers' fourth-leading scorer and arguably their most durable player, certainly will receive a major raise from the $269,000 he earned this season.
Figuring to make in excess of $1 million a season, Green also might be the Laker most likely to be swapped if the club does the unexpected and makes a blockbuster trade for a center. "Just because you have (big) names, that doesn't mean you can't explore and see what those names might bring," said West, declining to talk specifically about players or the club's needs. "But, again, we plan to do something we hope will help our team and we like the players we have now."
Wednesday, Green was noncommittal.
"I'm not going to get into it yet," he said. "I want to rest some."
Said Riley: "Everybody probably wants A. C. Other teams are probably thinking that the Lakers might have a problem signing him and want to trade. But I think we've got to keep him."
--The league will hold its expansion draft today, and David Rivers, the third-string point guard, figures to be selected by either the Orlando Magic or Minnesota Timberwolves.
Teams can protect only eight players and can lose only one. But since the Lakers have only eight players under contract--Johnson, Scott, James Worthy, Green, Thompson, Orlando Woolridge, Michael Cooper and Rivers--they must offer one of them.
With Rivers perhaps headed elsewhere, the Lakers say they will need to select a quick guard with their first-round pick--the 24th overall--in the college draft June 27.
"A guard is our priority," Riley said. "One who is multi-dimensional."
--Perhaps two of the Lakers' three unrestricted free-agent fringe players will go elsewhere. Tony Campbell, the ninth man in an eight-man rotation, said he would prefer to play somewhere else rather than spend another season on the bench. Jeff Lamp has considered a return to pro ball in Italy, but Mark McNamara probably will be re-signed because the Lakers' need for a third-string center appears even greater now.
The center question figures to linger all summer, or at least until the Lakers' use the $1.5 million to sign someone.