One by one they marched to the center of the Staples Center floor Tuesday, a parade of Lakers champions, gathered for the most unusual of championship ring ceremonies.
These weren't the Lakers wearing the new diamonds.
These were the Lakers who cut them.
Jerry West, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes . . .
In the finest of this town's greatest sports traditions, an opening night intended to honor last season's Lakers' NBA champions first recognized the nine previous ones.
Before celebrating what they won, the Lakers' organization celebrated why they win.
James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson . . .
Nine former players, one for each title, not just photos on a wall, but live, large, as only the Lakers can do it.
On their backs this organization was built, and at their feet the fans now roared.
A.C. Green, Rick Fox, Robert Horry . . .
Outside, the winds had turned their glitzy corner of downtown into a howling dust bowl.
Outside, the Michael Jackson movie premiere had packed their neighborhood streets with fans who care more about moonwalks than skywalks.
But inside it was a night seemingly like any other night in the Lakers' 50 years in Los Angeles.
Inside, amazingly, wonderfully, little had changed.
New season, same Lakers, thank goodness.
There was the NBA's most famous player, its most famous cheerleaders, its most visible celebrities.
There were corny promotions on the scoreboard, funky old music on the sound system, and that brass band in the rafters playing the theme from "Rocky."
For the 27th consecutive opener, Jeffrey Osborne sang the national anthem.
For the 27th consecutive season, public address icon Lawrence Tanter announced him.
A couple of the current players are new, the championship ring is bigger -- think dinner plate -- but the Lakers' experience seemingly never changes, the world's most trendy fan base once again happily stuck in time.
"As we look forward, we're always about the past," said Tim Harris, the Lakers' vice president in charge of such things. "We wanted tonight to be a reminder of what this franchise is. We are not just the 2009 championship team. We are everything that came before that."
This is why the Lakers work. This is why the Lakers win.
"Our current players can look up and see our past, understand what we are about, see where they could be going," said Harris. "We think that's important."
This is the vision of owner Jerry Buss, who stayed virtually hidden in his luxury suite Tuesday because it is not about him.
This is the execution of Harris, who ignores the hype that engulfs professional sports and listens to fans who crave something far more simple.
"I think people want something they can count on," he said. "You come to a Laker opener, you count on Lawrence Tanter and the Laker band and Laker girls . . . and winning."
Oh yeah, the game.
The Lakers were playing the Clippers, but it didn't matter who they were playing, the Lakers' fans didn't even care enough to boo the enemy.
They beat the Clippers, 99-92, but on this night, even that wasn't so important.
This was about the importance of beginning a journey by retracing your steps, about creating memories by honoring your history.
Nobody in town does that as well as the Lakers, even when they do it a bit gaudily, as in wearing warm-up jackets with 15 stars on the back, one for each championship including the five won by the Minneapolis Lakers.
The fashion sense was off, but the thought was good, as it was all night in a place where even the ushers -- welcome back to courtside, Henry Garcia -- never seem to change.
In leading the "3-2-1" countdown to the unveiling of last season's championship banner, Derek Fisher addressed the crowd.
But Magic Johnson also spoke, imploring the folks to stare up into Buss' box and thank him.
In picking up his 10th ring, Phil Jackson beamed.
But nobody seemed happier than Tex Winter, the aging former assistant coach who missed the end of last season after suffering a stroke. He showed up just for this ceremony, and was honored with a ring between the third and fourth quarters, escorted by Laker girls, given a standing ovation by the fans.
Even the newest Lakers nut seemed affected by the sense of reverence that washed over the place.
Ron Artest may have cut some stuff into his hair -- the Lakers logo, among other things -- but he was actually reserved before the game when the Lakers unbelievably allowed him to address the fans.
"L.A., big city of dreams, what's cracking?" Artest said. "We've got a long journey ahead of us. . . . I'll holler back at y'all soon."
The bad boy made only three of 10 shots, and had four turnovers, but he shut down Al Thornton and, like all of the Lakers, he played hard.
On an opening night when their season's goal was so clearly stated by a franchise identity so clearly defined, how could they not play hard?
Only one thing was missing.
"I just wish Chick was here," Harris said quietly. "I always wish Chick was here."