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Two Dynasties and One Simple Phone Call

A long-distance chat before the '79 NBA draft led to move that helped bring five titles to Lakers and six to Bulls.

June 25, 2003|Bill Sharman | Special to The Times

Thursday is draft day in the NBA and draft day usually makes for interesting stories. Here's one, though, that goes beyond interesting. It's about a seemingly simple phone call that changed the destiny of the NBA for two decades. It affected two NBA dynasties and 11 NBA championships -- five by the Lakers and six by the Chicago Bulls.

I had lots of important calls during my six-year tenure as the Lakers' general manager from 1976-82 but the one I will always remember the most was from Rod Thorn, then general manager of the Chicago Bulls, in 1979.

It triggered a remarkable chain of events that determined the teams Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan would play for.

Thorn, now the president of the New Jersey Nets, called a few weeks before the 1979 draft. At the time, the Bulls had the first pick in the Eastern Conference because they had finished last. The Lakers had the first pick in the Western Conference, a pick we got from the New Orleans Jazz as compensation for their signing Gail Goodrich the previous year.

In those days, a coin flip decided which conference got the first pick. And that year it was the Western Conference's turn to call heads or tails.

Rod called to ask the Lakers' permission for the Bulls to pick heads or tails. He said he was making the request because the Bulls had just finished a very disappointing 1978-79 season and he wanted to conduct a vote before the draft, letting fans decide if the team should call heads or tails. He figured that would stimulate fan interest and generate, some publicity.

My first thought was, I didn't want to do it. I had a very strong theory and superstition about always calling heads on any coin flip. Heads sounded more positive, whereas tails seemed like a much weaker negative.

However, Rod had been a good friend and was always helpful and cooperative. After thinking it over, and telling myself it's only a 50-50 chance no matter who calls it, I gave him permission to call the coin flip.

The fans in Chicago voted and decided the Bulls should call heads.

Finally, the big day arrived and the Bulls called heads. After a long pause, the commissioner announced that the coin came up tails.

Whew! What a relief!

Even so, we didn't realize that moment might have been the greatest in Laker history. With the first pick, we drafted Magic. The Bulls made UCLA's David Greenwood the second pick.

Now, what makes things even more interesting is this: If Chicago had won the coin toss, and picked Magic, the Bulls probably would not have finished in a position to draft Jordan third in 1984.

But there's more to this story. Two years later, we were fortunate enough to get James Worthy by sticking with my coin-flip superstition.

Midway through the 1979-80 season, I was able to negotiate a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, getting Butch Lee for Don Ford. Since the Cavaliers had a weak, regressing team that year, owner Jerry Buss suggested trying to swap future first-round draft picks as well.

So after calling them a number of times, I was finally able to complete the package deal, trading players and exchanging No. 1 draft picks for the 1981-82 season.

Then Cleveland finished last and we wound up with its first round pick in the Eastern Conference.

Now, here we go again. When Commissioner Larry O'Brien had us all on a conference call to determine who gets the first choice in the draft, he said, "I'll toss the coin up, and if it comes up heads, the L.A. Lakers win. If it comes up tails, the San Diego Clippers win."

When he announced it was heads, we were all very happy, thinking that meant we had the first pick in the coming draft.

Wrong!

O'Brien then said the Lakers had won only the privilege of calling the "real" coin flip, the one to see who gets the first choice in the draft.

I thought that maybe the odds might change against us, since we'd already had luck with heads. But I still felt very strongly that heads sounded more positive than tails.

So when asked to make the call, I called heads. Again, the commissioner said, "Heads it is."

So the next question, who should we take with our first pick? There were some great seniors coming out that year, such as Dominique Wilkins, Terry Cummings, Worthy and a few others.

However, Jerry West, who was doing most of our scouting that year, did his homework and, along with his extraordinary ability to judge players and talent, recommended Worthy.

As we all know, he turned out to be the perfect player to complement Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers' fast-break offense and the system that Pat Riley set up.

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