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They're No Spring Chickens

Lakers' tough path to repeat under Riley in 1988 might be a road map for current team's quest for four.

May 04, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

Happily for the Lakers, where there's a will, there may be a way, even if they're going to need a lot, because they have to go such a long way.

Not that they haven't been here before.

It wasn't them exactly, but their forebears, the Showtime Lakers, who had won four titles to the Boston Celtics' three by the spring of 1988, meaning the decade was still up for grabs.

The Celtics were already sliding, but, as the Lakers were about to learn, they had seen better days themselves.

The Lakers were defending champions, not that that meant anything, because no team had repeated since the Celtics in 1969, so even if Coach Pat Riley had "guaranteed" they'd do it, the players took that for what it was worth, an early start to Riley's mind games.

Or as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in training camp, "That's easy for him to say. He doesn't play."

Riley, who had come in as a players' coach who took their feelings into consideration, was now a bared-teeth taskmaster who didn't care what they felt ... which came in handy now as one young West team after another began standing up to them, turning their playoffs into a nightmare.

Before they redeemed Riley's promise, three of their four series that Endless Spring went a harrowing seven games. They played four elimination games, all of which they had to win or school was out, and set a record for postseason games, 24.

"Don't remind me," says Mychal Thompson, then the backup center, now a broadcaster for the Minnesota Timberwolves. "I'm still trying to recuperate."

Fifteen years later, the modern Lakers have set themselves a challenge that seems no less daunting.

They're trying to win a fourth consecutive title, which hasn't been done since Boston won eight from 1959-66. They figure to be on the road throughout the Western draw. They're coming off a six-game first round, in which they trailed the Timberwolves, 2-1, and were down 11 points in the third quarter of Game 4.

Of course, after that, as Minnesota's Kevin Garnett noted, "They took it to another level and never looked back."

Who has time to look back? The Lakers have only just begun.

Those Were the Days,

My Friend ...

In '87, the team was really a proficient team.... But [in '88] it always seemed like we were a little bit short. I've always said, that was Pat's championship.... He willed that team to win those three seven-game series.

-- Laker executive Bill Bertka, then Riley's assistant coach

It wasn't that the Lakers thought the glory days would never end, but after sweeping through the '87 playoffs with a 15-3 mark, they thought the end was a long way off.

Hence, Riley's guarantee, putting his players on notice. He didn't care if no one repeated or got upset when they didn't. If the Lakers didn't, he'd get upset enough to make up for it.

This wasn't an old team -- Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott were all 27, A.C. Green was 24 -- except at one spot. Abdul-Jabbar had just turned 41 and if he always measured his effort, waiting to do his thing in spring, he was now in hibernation.

His nine-season string of double-figure scoring games ended at Milwaukee on Dec. 4. After that, he scored in single figures 12 more times.

They still went 62-20, five games ahead of everyone else and three ahead of their record the season before, with Scott averaging a career-high 22 points to go with Worthy's 19.7 and Johnson's 19.6.

Nor could they see the trouble coming in the playoffs. It just arrived on their doorstep one day, carrying a pitchfork and looking hungry.

They swept San Antonio, 3-0, and pounded the Jazz, 110-91, in the second-round opener, prompting Utah Coach Frank Layden to note that if they beat the Lakers, "I ought to be beatified."

After Layden apologized and the firestorm in Utah died down, the Jazz upset the Lakers in Game 2, 101-97.

Of course, the Lakers thought they would just mosey over to Salt Lake City and show the Jazz who was who, but the home team won Game 3 too, 96-89.

The Jazz was young, with 26-year-old John Stockton and 23-year-old Karl Malone, but had a hulking front line, with Mailman, 7-4, 290-pound Mark Eaton and 6-11 reserve Thurl Bailey.

Eaton, the auto mechanic who'd barely played at UCLA, had become a non-jumping shot-blocking machine. He knocked down seven Laker shots by halftime of Game 2 and six more in Game 3. Abdul-Jabbar shot six for 30 in those two, looking like a child next to a grown-up.

Riley bemoaned Utah's "blatant" zone, but after Game 3 he got up close and personal with his own, announcing his stars had better turn it up ... or else.

"I've always said, I've come in with these guys and I'll go down with 'em," Riley said. "But I can't let other guys on the team down with people who aren't going to make an effort."

The Lakers won Game 4, 113-100, but didn't go ahead to stay until Eaton sat down with four fouls in the third quarter and the Jazz leading, 67-61, whereupon the Lakers went on a 23-9 run.

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