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Mychal Thompson is an old-school Laker and a present-day wit

After a career that supplied him with NBA championship rings and fond reminiscences, he's a radio presence whose offbeat humor reverberates over the airwaves.

December 23, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • Lakers analyst Mychal Thompson is set to call the game between the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night at Staples Center.
Lakers analyst Mychal Thompson is set to call the game between the Lakers… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Mychal Thompson may not need the map that he says shows where his two Lakers championship rings are buried in the Bahamas, if such a map really exists.

This is a man who remembered, without prompting, the correct time and date of his first game with his beloved team: Sunday afternoon, Feb. 15, 1987, at the Forum against the hated Boston Celtics. Thompson helped the Lakers to a three-point victory, telling reporters afterward that they were dancing on the beaches of his native Bahamas in celebration.

OK, so not everything the easy, breezy Thompson says can be quickly verified like a box score. He once led people to believe he was a cousin of superstar David Thompson and later duped radio listeners — and several media outlets — into believing that he controlled the finances of his son Klay, the shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors.

"You think back when you were 23, 24 years of age," the elder Thompson said in his defense recently while sitting in the L.A. Live studios of ESPN 710, where he co-hosts a late-morning show with Mark Willard. "Could your dad tell you what to do with your money? No. You're a grown man. So I don't understand how people thought I was serious about that."

When it comes to his NBA memories, Thompson sheds the white lies for the purple and gold gospel.

He was there for Magic Johnson's final championship as well as Michael Jordan's first. He has called games involving Lakers greats Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol during his 11 seasons as the team's radio analyst. He has flown both commercial and charter flights with the Lakers traveling party, going back to the days when longtime trainer Gary Vitti also handed out boarding passes.

"We were like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones rolled into one," Thompson said of the "Showtime" Lakers of Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. "Wherever we went, fans would want to follow us."

Some things, it seems, never change.

Thompson ranks Johnson as his favorite Laker — "a perfect basketball player," he said — followed by Bryant and then Abdul-Jabbar, who did manage to top another list: the toughest player Thompson ever guarded. Thompson, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound power forward and center, spent 71/2 of his 12 NBA seasons with teams other than the Lakers.

Thompson always had wanted to be a Laker, long before the Portland Trail Blazers made him the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft and even before he changed the spelling of his first name in high school so he would stand out. He loved the Lakers of Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston and Gail Goodrich who won a league-record 33 games in a row and the NBA title in 1972.

So when he learned of his trade from the San Antonio Spurs to the Lakers to become Abdul-Jabbar's backup in the middle of the 1986-87 season, Thompson felt as if he was moving to his intended destination.

"I felt like I had finally hit the pinnacle," he said. "This was it. I was in the NBA before, but now I felt like I was validated as a player and obviously I was going to be a lot more recognized as a player now."

Life as a Laker wasn't always glamorous, though the players didn't realize it then. They flew the same commercial airlines as vacationing families and weary businessmen, often mingling in the boarding area and on the plane.

"Fans would come up to Magic and Kareem and ask for autographs," Thompson said. "We would get a lot of stares at all these 6-foot-9 guys walking through the airport."

Traveling as a superstar still had its privileges, of course. Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar were among the players who were seated in first class, the others given two seats each in coach to stretch out as best they could.

A similar arrangement exists today on the Lakers' charter flights, Thompson said, with Bryant and Gasol lounging in oversized chairs toward the front of the plane and other players further back, most everyone listening to their own music.

Thompson watches players walk into arenas today with their oversized headphones and wonders if they even bother talking to each other anymore as they did back in his day.

Casual conversations aren't the only thing Thompson misses. He also laments the loss of offenses that ran through Hall of Fame centers such as Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone.

"That was the focal point on offense," Thompson said. "And then from the center, you cut, you set weak-side screens, there was always motion going on of some constructive kind."

And now?

"It's all just one on one and shoot threes," he said. "Everybody sets the high screen to initiate the offense. Offensive creativity is out the window."

Having to defend against some of the best players in the NBA led Thompson to a tactical move of his own early in his career. The onetime partyer stopped going out with his friends during the season in 1983, trading in the martinis for hotel pillow mints.

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