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Stage Set for Next Showtime : Lakers: West must mold a new team after the departure of Worthy, the final link to their championship seasons.

November 12, 1994|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the player introductions at the Laker home opener Friday night at the Forum, they turned down the lights. The party was over a long time ago.

Beams from spotlights swept the stands, then the players were introduced. As pregame routines go, the old one was better.

For a long time, Laker home openers went like this: The players showed up and they got their championship rings.

It was a perfect world. Hang time had nothing to do with jumping, but meant the Lakers were ready to put up another championship banner.

"Home openers, man, they were so, so special," said Magic Johnson. "For us, most of the time it was special because we would get a ring.

"Not only that, it was the kickoff night for another championship season."

Another Laker championship season may be longer than just a kickoff away. More like an entire punt, pass and kick contest.

Whatever you believe, the Lakers are sure they're getting closer to instead of farther away from another ring ceremony.

So when James Worthy announced he was quitting this week, General Manager Jerry West didn't allow himself to feel too melancholy.

After all, it wasn't as though the process was new to him. He had been through it with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson.

"It's reality," West said.

Nobody plays forever, said West, who went on to point out its corollary: "Nobody stays on top forever."

This is evident when you look at the Lakers.

West couldn't curb some wishful thinking Thursday, shortly before he walked into a news conference to announce Worthy's retirement.

"I glanced around and saw Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy standing outside and I wished real hard those guys were 22 again," West said.

As it is, no actors remain from the original production of Showtime. Worthy was the last, and his exit was duly noted by his teammates, including Cedric Ceballos, who was lamenting his departure on the court before the game.

"I didn't even get to play one official game with him," Ceballos said.

Until the next Showtime, or whatever they might call it, whenever it might occur, there is no question what the Laker experience is being called right now.

Its common name is rebuilding, but Del Harris said the Lakers won't simply rebuild. It's too common.

"Don't even talk about rebuilding," he said. "They want to make rebuilding an event rather than a process.

"People in Indiana or Milwaukee were more willing to watch something grow a bit than in a large market like here. That's just the way it is."

And so it goes in Lakerland. It used to be a wonderful place, where you could get a great player like Jamaal Wilkes, then replace him with a great player like James Worthy.

Norm Nixon became Byron Scott. Bob McAdoo became Maurice Lucas became Mychal Thompson.

It was as symmetrical as a basketball. Of course, the whole thing is deflated now. But listen to what Johnson told the players in training camp.

"I said, 'You know, hang in there because you're going to want to be here when this thing turns around,' " Johnson said.

"There's nothing like playing on a team when you're hummin', there's nothing like playing basketball in L.A., when everybody wants a ticket and the feeling is unbelievable."

Jeffrey Osborne sang the national anthem for the home opener again. He did that for years, and the Lakers would go on to win 60 games and get to the NBA finals and win five championships.

This is nice, but it's ancient history. The players who helped make that possible aren't wearing their jerseys anymore. Those shirts are hanging at the Forum. Worthy's uniform number soon will join Johnson's and Abdul-Jabbar's on the north wall.

These Lakers are not coming back. West said it's probably best not to think too much about it.

"The reality is that players play 10 years and they're gone," he said. "The great ones, maybe 12, but that's it. This is not a game for the mature, elderly players.

"When we were winning championships, people would always ask me what the biggest challenge we had ahead, like it would be winning that year.

"I said it then, I said it 20 times, all the time: 'What happens when all these guys leave?' "

We're seeing it right now.

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