YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Lakers' Leading Man Always Knows His Lines

June 08, 2004|David Ferrell | Times Staff Writer

He is a player -- ask anyone in Hollywood -- but the old point guard hasn't so much as hit a free throw in well over 30 years with the Lakers.

Jack Nicholson still rides the bench, always on the visitors' end, in one of Staples Center's $1,900-a-game courtside seats where he's a few feet from the opposing team's coach. He sits hunched, his feet planted wide, wearing his trademark shades and black jacket. He does things that never show up in the box score.

He chides, he talks trash, he charms and distracts.

When the action heats up -- when a dubious foul call costs Gary Payton a basket or puts Shaquille O'Neal on the sidelines -- Nicholson comes off the bench with his best moves: the brandished fists, the crazed-looking Randle P. McMurphy yells, the two-hands-at-the-throat choke sign. He directed the full repertoire at referees last week when the Lakers eliminated the Minnesota Timberwolves to advance to the National Basketball Assn. Finals, and he is back in action against the Detroit Pistons.

With the Pistons leading the Lakers, one game to none, Nicholson is sure to be in his accustomed spot for tonight's Game 2, just as he nearly always is when the Lakers play at home, whether in the playoffs or regular season.

The 67-year-old actor may not be the official face of the Lakers' franchise, but he is among the most enduring. He was there when Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain led the team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He suffered the doldrums of the mid-1970s. He and his friend Lou Adler, the renowned music producer, who still sits alongside him, cheered the team's return to glory in the 1980s behind Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

When the Lakers broke through and finally beat their old rivals, the Boston Celtics, for the NBA title, in 1985, Nicholson was there at Boston Garden. Celtic fans stamped his likeness on T-shirts bearing the slogan "Hit the Road, Jack" -- images captured, along with numerous other Nicholson moments, in a newly released DVD history of the Lakers put out by the NBA and Warner Home Video.

What the DVDs don't show is Nicholson's purported mooning of the Boston crowd, a moment that may forever be a part of Laker playoff lore.

"I would have paid the price of admission to see that one," said veteran television commentator Stu Lantz, who had not yet joined the Lakers. "When we're out of town, especially during the playoffs, somebody will inevitably come dressed up as Jack. Not only is he well-recognized, but they try to imitate him, as well.

"He's almost becoming the voice of the fans to some degree," Lantz said. "The fans are starting to look at Jack for some of their responses [to what happens on the floor]."

For good or bad, that is one of the intangibles that Nicholson brings to the game. Fans incited by Nicholson's antics have been known to throw debris onto the court. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said he was unaware of any complaints filed with the league because of Nicholson's behavior, but the actor's outbursts have long made good sports-page copy.

Years ago, when Dick Motta was the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Motta accused Nicholson of "goosing" him -- a charge perhaps made in jest. Nicholson said he was only telling Motta to sit down.

Nicholson used to say the same to Flip Saunders, the sideline-pacing coach of the Timberwolves. They carried on a running dialogue throughout the Lakers' six-game victory over Minnesota. In the clincher, when Derek Fisher was called for a foul with the Lakers holding to a slim lead, Nicholson stood and jawed at the officials until Saunders intervened and motioned Nicholson to have a seat.

Moments later, Nicholson was up again, launching a tirade as the whole crowd stood and booed the referees.

"Half the time he calls me Flip, the other half of the time he calls me Skip," Saunders said of Nicholson before their Game 6 encounter. "But he's a great fan. He's trying to get the Lakers pumped up. You love to see people show the passion he does for the game."

Nicholson is anything but an annoyance or a distraction, Saunders said, smiling, but he conceded he has been influenced by Nicholson's heckling.

"My first year ... he was on me because I never sit down. [He'd say,] 'Get out of the way, I paid for these seats,' and everything else," Saunders said. "I've tried to be a little more aware of where I'm at, maybe move up the floor, to not be in his way as much."

Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, said of Saunders, "He may not realize he's being worked by Jack. Jack's working him, that's for sure."

Nicholson does whatever he can to gain an edge for the Lakers.

"What people don't understand about Jack is, Jack played point guard in high school" near Asbury Park, N.J., Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview. "It was the only thing he liked and lived for -- basketball. He probably got all his aggressions out, when he could, on the court. He loves the game. ... He's just a gym rat. He played the game 12 months a year."

Los Angeles Times Articles