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Lakers Win Gratitude, but Not a 4th Title

May 16, 2003|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

There won't be a fourth championship in a row for the Lakers, at least not this time.

The San Antonio Spurs ended the three-time defending champions' run, sending a capacity crowd at Staples Center home disappointed Thursday with a 110-82 victory in Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals.

The loss sent Kobe Bryant and other Lakers away near tears, the team's star guard summing up the feelings of players and fans when he said, "I hate this feeling. I don't ever want to feel it again."

Most of the fans seemed forgiving, though. With the Lakers down by 25 points with 2 minutes 26 seconds left the crowd rose for an ovation, their sadness tempered by a desire to show their appreciation for three consecutive championships, one of the most successful streaks in pro basketball history.

"We've had a great run," said Phil Jackson, who lost the last game of the season for the first time in his four seasons as Laker coach. "We're happy we tried our best. It wasn't good enough."

The Lakers' most famous fan agreed.

"It's heartbreaking, for sure," actor Jack Nicholson, a longtime courtside regular at Laker games, told ABC immediately after the game. "[But] the best team wins a seven-game series.

"Hats off to the Lakers. They're a great champion and that's why everyone's here for them standing."

Alvaro Sanchez of Laguna Niguel, in attendance with three young sons, called it "a very, very sad day. We came with all the hope, even knowing they had problems early in the season.

"[The Lakers] went out with class. They need to make some adjustments and come back with more confidence."

Only the Boston Celtics surpass the Lakers' streak of three consecutive league titles, winning eight championships in a row from 1959 to 1966.

The Lakers' failure to win the championship in 2003 could be just a blip on the radar screen, assuming Jackson returns as coach -- he has a year remaining on his contract -- and owner Jerry Buss provides General Manager Mitch Kupchak the resources to upgrade the roster around stars Shaquille O' Neal and Bryant.

"They've got to retool it for next year," said ESPN Radio NBA analyst Jack Ramsay, who won a title with Portland in 1977.

"As long as you have Kobe and Shaq, you're at least a contending team ... so I think it's just a matter of filling in around them, and Buss may have to spend some money."

Ramsay believes Jackson's return is essential if the Lakers are to regain their championship form next season. Jackson, who has won nine NBA championships as a coach, was diagnosed with a clogged artery that required angioplasty Saturday, forcing him to miss Game 4.

"They didn't win before they got him," Ramsay said. "And they had Kobe and Shaq."

Jackson had said he would take time this summer before making a decision about his coaching future, but Thursday night he sounded as if that decision had been made.

"I anticipate being back and coaching this team," he said. "We have a knowledge of winning. The fans have every reason to be optimistic that we'll come back with a revitalized team."

Jackson has won nine NBA titles as a coach, the first six with the Chicago Bulls. Unlike the Bulls, the last team to win three consecutive NBA titles, the Lakers' championship streak did not succumb to implosion, but rather erosion -- a gradual, persistent dwindling of the team's physical and emotional resources that left it largely tapped out by May.

Attrition began almost as soon as the confetti settled on the Lakers' third championship parade last June.

O'Neal needed surgery on his right big toe but didn't want an operation and painful rehabilitation to interfere with his celebratory summer, so he delayed the surgery until September, weeks before training camp.

The Lakers' aging supporting cast needed an overhaul, but owner Buss didn't want to surpass the NBA's salary cap and incur the league's luxury tax, so he instructed his front office to stand pat except for the drafting and signing of a few rookies.

Chick Hearn, the club's legendary play-by-play announcer, died in August, casting a depressive funk over the franchise as the Lakers assembled for training camp in October.

No Shaq, no Chick, no new help to offset the roster upgrades by Western Conference rivals Sacramento, Dallas and San Antonio -- the Lakers were essentially playing from behind before the season started.

O'Neal missed the Lakers' first 12 games and was heavy and sluggish when he returned in late November. On Christmas, the Lakers were 11-19, causing angst, if not widespread panic, among fans and media.

A strong second half by Bryant finally shook the Lakers from their lethargy, the team winning 39 of its last 52 regular-season games. That was good enough to make the playoffs, but not for home-court advantage.

The Lakers had to win games on the road against Minnesota in the first round and San Antonio in the second if they were to return to the conference finals.

They accomplished that in Minnesota, winning the series' last three games after falling behind, two games to one.

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