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Gen. Pfund Needs a Few Good Men

January 23, 1994|JIM MURRAY

In May of 1940, the French general, Maxime Weygand, had just replaced Gen. Maurice Gamelin as the high commander and flew over the battlefields of retreating, routed Allied forces below and announced to the world, "They have handed me a disaster!"

I have often wondered if Randy Pfund didn't feel the same way when they handed him the leadership of the Los Angeles Lakers in the fall of 1992.

He was taking over the command of an elite group with a proud history. The L.A. Lakers, like the Allied armies, had a proud history of victory and conquest. Great men had appeared in their uniform.

In sport, you spoke of the Yankees, Notre Dame, Calumet, the Boston Celtics--and the L.A. Lakers. They had the greatest players of the ages and their shirts were hanging in the rafters--Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson.

Pfund had hardly rolled up his sleeves or dusted off a blackboard before he got hit with the first bad news--Magic Johnson, hounded out of the league by his disease, which causes AIDS, and players opposed to contact with him, changed his mind about coming back and hung up his sneakers again.

Coach Pfund looked out on the floor and saw, not the marquee players of the past, but guys named Smith or Jones, a Cooper who wasn't Michael and a team whose principal consistency was turnovers.

Then, they set out to help him. So, they got him--are you ready for this?--Benoit Benjamin! It was like throwing a drowning man a brick.

It wasn't so much a team as a tryout camp. It had no floor leadership. Magic took that with him. Sometimes the players played as if they hadn't been introduced to each other. Sometimes they played as if they didn't like each other. There was no direction, no inspiration.

James Worthy was no Magic, but that's no knock. Hardly anybody is. Magic could go up in the stands and find four ushers and turn them into a team. He might even have gotten Benjamin interested.

But this was no Magic act. This was no "Showtime." This was home movies.

The Lakers were orphaned. The coaches left. Pat Riley, Mike Dunleavy. So did players. Byron Scott, A.C. Green. Magic. The ship was sinking and the radio was broke.

And this mess was Randy Pfund's. Put the rabbit back in the hat. Get three doves out of a handkerchief. Do a Houdini, they told him.

The trouble is, with what he had to work with, there'd be a danger this magic act would actually saw the woman in half. This act didn't need mirrors, it needed miracles.

In other towns, you know the team is going bad when the press gets on it, the talk shows get nasty and the ticket sales fall off. In L.A., you know when Hollywood deserts you. Hollywood does not want anything to do with a flop. It might be catching.

So, they stayed away in droves. No Dyan Cannon shaking her blond locks at courtside. No agents crowding the owner's box. Jack Nicholson has taken up golf, that's how bad things are.

This is what they gave to Randy, and it's no Pfun. He is the most visible object for fan and media criticism. No one blames the players. Nobody knows who they are.

The other night, the Lakers got their 12th victory of the season (but, shucks! it's only late January!) as, calling on Lord knows what reserves of energy and memory, Worthy threw in 22, using some sturdy picks by Vlade Divac.

They beat a Phoenix team that was minus Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and, by the end of the game, Coach Paul Westphal (ejection) and Danny Ainge (ankle), 107-102. But the Lakers, who had lost four in a row, take their victories wherever they find them these days.

"Do you ever wish you could look out there and see Magic, and Abdul-Jabbar and Cooper running those plays?" Pfund was asked after the game. He laughed. "Only about once a week," he said, smiling.

"You know," he added, "I try to emphasize to the young guys what a great tradition they're stepping into when they put on those gold jerseys. I want them to realize they're successors to a history so rich in basketball lore. But at the same time, I don't want them to be intimidated by it. Even the Yankees had to go on after Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle.

"We have some good young players the public doesn't know about. Sedale Threatt had a monster night tonight (19 points, five assists, two steals). Worthy was 'Big Game James' (22 points, five assists). George Lynch is going to be an outstanding player (17 points, seven rebunds, six assists, four steals).

"What does this team need? A pillar. Someone we count on, someone we go to. If you don't have a pillar, you don't have cohesion. You have confusion. I don't say you have to have a Larry Bird or a Magic, but you need a reasonable facsimile. A Charles Barkley. It gives your team identification, it focuses it."

Is he saying it's a one-man game?

"No, even a (Michael) Jordan needs a strong supporting cast. But you have that in place, and then you find the man that brings it all together.

"You'll find," he added, "that today's players are slower to become superstars."

But didn't Magic Johnson do exactly that?

"Earvin was one who could do anything," Pfund says. "But some of these players we have, the George Lynches, the Nick Van Exels, are the stars of tomorrow. But it's going to take time. That's what you have to believe and work for. And teach.

"Sometimes, it's frustrating. A Vlade can be great one night--and the next night you wonder where he went. You work on overcoming that. You don't dwell on the negatives. That's not the Laker way, either. "

In other words, Gen. Pfund doesn't believe he has been handed a disaster. He believes he has been handed an opportunity.

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