Sep 28, 2023, 06:26AM

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Charmed History

A fan’s primer on what you do and don’t know about the team.

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Everyone knows Kobe, LeBron, Magic, Shaq, Kareem and Wilt. How about Earl Tatum? Or Mark Landsberger? Or Zelmo Beaty? Since they moved to Los Angeles in 1960, 481 players have donned Lakers uniforms (during the regular season). They’ve had 28 head coaches (in LA), won 17 NBA Championships (12 in Los Angeles, five in Minneapolis) and Lakers’ players have won eight MVP Awards.

But Lakers lore isn’t all about championships. There were down times too. Before Wilt Chamberlain there was Darrall Imhoff. Before Anthony Davis there was Andrew Bogut. Lakers history is a roller coaster ride with strange curves and thrilling crescendos. True fans recognize that every player has contributed to the team’s greatness. If not for Elmore Smith, the team wouldn’t have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If not for Vlade Divac, they wouldn’t have Kobe Bryant. And if not for Kwame Brown, there’s no Pau Gasol.

Where did the Lakers originally play? Most people know the Lakers came from Minneapolis where stars included George Mikan, Elgin Baylor and Vern Mikkelsen. Few realize the Lakers began in 1947 as the Detroit Gems. The Gems played one season in the National Basketball League (predecessor to the NBA). After a disastrous record of four wins and 40 losses, the team was sold to Ben Berger (a movie theater mogul) and Morris Chalfen (founder of Holiday on Ice). The new owners moved the team to Minneapolis and renamed them the Lakers since Minnesota was the “land of 10,000 lakes.”

The Detroit Gems’ awful record gave them first pick in the 1946 draft. They chose George Mikan, who became the Lakers’ first superstar. Mikan won an MVP and led the team to five championships. After he retired in 1955, the Lakers were terrible again and fans stop attending games. Two years later, Minnesota politician Bob Short bought the team. Inspired by the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles, Short moved the team to LA in 1960. In 1965, he sold the team to Canadian media magnate Jack Kent Cooke.

What were the Lakers uniform colors in Minnesota? The LA Lakers are known for purple and gold uniforms (gold at home, purple on the road). Kobe said, “It’s an honor to put on the golden armor every day.” These colors were first donned in 1967 when Cooke wanted “to add a regal touch to the uniforms.”

In Minneapolis Lakers days, they wore powder blue and white uniforms. Initially, the front of the uniform read “MPLS” (for Minneapolis). In 1950, the front was changed to “Lakers.” When they moved west, it was changed to “Los Angeles” then changed back to “Lakers” in 1967. In 2013, the Lakers unveiled alternate black uniforms called “Hollywood Night” jerseys.

What three Lakers players inspired basketball rule changes? George Mikan was so dominant at DePaul University, he inspired the so-called “Mikan Rule” prohibiting goaltending. This meant shots could no longer be blocked after reaching their apex or touching the backboard. Goaltended shots were ruled made baskets. When Mikan went pro, the NBA increased the paint (foul lane) from six to 12 feet.

At the University of Kansas, Wilt Chamberlain shot free throws by jumping from behind the line and dunking the ball. The NCAA banned this practice in 1956, stating “players cannot cross the plane of the free throw line.” They also banned the strategy of lobbing inbound baseline passes over the backboard where Wilt’s height and jumping ability gave him an unfair advantage. When Wilt went pro, the NBA further increased the paint from 12 to 16 feet.

At UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (aka Lew Alcindor) caused the NCAA to ban dunking in 1967. The new rule stated a player could not shoot “above and straight over the cylinder.” NCAA officials believed slam dunks “were not a skilled shot.” The rule change inspired Kareem to develop his sky hook, the most lethal shot in NBA history.

What ex-Celtics helped the Lakers win championships? One criteria for being a true Lakers fan is to hate the Boston Celtics. From 1959–69, Boston beat the Lakers seven times in the finals. Not until 1985 did the Lakers vanquish the Celtics in the finals. The teams have met in the finals 12 times (Celtics lead 9–3). Both teams have won 17 NBA championships.

Discerning Lakers fans owe a debt of gratitude to the Celtics. The Lakers won their first NBA title in Los Angeles under coach Bill Sharman and assistant coach K.C. Jones. Sharman and Jones were both ex-Celtics stars. During the showtime era, the Lakers acquired Bob McAdoo who’d played with the Celtics in 1979. McAdoo averaged 20 points a game in Boston but the team finished 29–53. Their lousy record gave the Celtics the draft pick resulting in Larry Bird. McAdoo got revenge, helping the Lakers beat Boston in the 1985 Finals.

Rick Fox was another ex-Celtic who became an important Lakers role player. Fox played with Boston for six years in the 1990s, but suffered from trying to fill Larry Bird’s shoes. When Boston let Fox go, he said, “I was furious. This was really late in the game, and teams didn’t have any money left for free agents. So instead of making $33 million, I was pretty much available for $1 million.” The Lakers signed Fox who became a key part of their three-peat championship run in the Shaq/Kobe years.

Two players won championships with the Lakers and the Celtics: Clyde Lovellette and Rajon Rondo. Boston fans called Rondo a traitor for helping LeBron and company win in 2020.

An ex-Laker helped the Celtics win as well. Don Nelson was a Laker in 1964–65. He didn’t get along with Coach Fred Schaus and was released. He signed with Boston and helped them beat the Lakers four times in the 1960s. The emotional dagger was 1969 when Nelson’s miracle shot bounced high off the back rim and fell tragically through the net in Game 7. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had placed 5000 balloons in the Forum rafters for a celebration that never came.

When did Jack Nicholson start attending Lakers games? Jack Nicholson is a basketball fanatic. He was a gym rat as a kid and played point guard on his high school team in Asbury Park, New Jersey. In 1970, Nicholson made his directorial debut with the film Drive, He Said about a college basketball player trying to avoid the Vietnam War draft. In his Oscar winning role as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there’s a scene where he teaches basketball to asylum patients. He tells the character Chief that basketball is an old Indian game called “put the ball in the hole.”

Nicholson began attending Lakers games in 1970 at the Fabulous Forum. His seats were about 20 rows up near mid-court. He began sitting courtside during the Lakers ’72 season. Back then, front row seats were $90 each. Today, they’re more than $4000. During the late-1970s, Nicholson began sitting next to music producer Lou Adler. Their celebrity presence became a staple in the Showtime era.

Nicholson had it written into his movie contracts that he didn’t have to film on nights when the Lakers played home games. He sat near the visitors bench and loved to trash-talk referees and opposing coaches. Nicholson paid for his own seats though the team provided security. During the early LeBron Lakers years, Nicholson attended games with his son Ray. He rarely attends games these days, giving tickets to family and friends.

When Elgin Baylor retired in 1972, who replaced him in the starting lineup? The 1971–72 season began on an ominous note. The Lakers were 6–3 but Elgin Baylor was playing on a bad knee. Coach Bill Sharman told him, “Elgin, I feel terrible, but I know you have a bad leg… so I thought I’d bring you in as a substitute.” Baylor replied, “I don’t want to be a substitute and I’m still injured so it’s best that I retire.” Just like that Baylor, an 11-time all-star who started with the Minneapolis Lakers, walked into the sunset.

That night the Lakers beat the Washington Bullets 110–106. This was the first of 33 consecutive victories, the greatest win streak in sports history. Baylor’s replacement at small forward was Jim McMillian. He was chunky and given the nickname “butterball.” But he was a great shooter and averaged 18.8 points per game. He saved the Lakers in the playoffs, scoring 42 points in a Game 2 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks. He was ultimately traded to the Buffalo Braves for center Elmore Smith who was later traded to Milwaukee for Kareem.

What Lakers hall of famer was traded to acquire the draft pick resulting in Magic Johnson? The ‘72 Lakers were led by stars Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. But the team’s leading scorer was 6' 1" shooting guard Gail Goodrich (nicknamed Stumpy). He was a fan favorite but was cut by the team in 1976. The New Orleans Jazz signed Goodrich as a free agent. As compensation, the Jazz ceded their first-round pick in the 1979 NBA draft to Los Angeles. The Jazz finished with the worst record in 1978–79 and that draft pick was used by the Lakers to select Magic Johnson.

Who did Jerry West want to draft instead of Magic Johnson? In 1979, Jerry West was a scout for the Lakers. The team was still owned by Jack Kent Cooke and after winning a coin flip against the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers lucked into the number one college draft pick. West advised Cooke to choose Sidney Moncrief, a shooting guard from the University of Arkansas. They also briefly considered Bill Cartwright from the University of San Francisco, but they already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center.

The HBO series Winning Time credits incoming owner Jerry Buss for demanding the Lakers select Magic in the draft. In his book Showtime, Jeff Pearlman wrote that announcer Chick Hearn deserved credit for Magic becoming a Laker. During a pre-draft meeting with outgoing owner Jack Kent Cooke, Magic offended Cooke by refusing to eat sand dabs served at the Forum Club. Magic wanted a burger and fries instead. Cooke was outraged and wanted nothing to do with Magic. But Chick Hearn intervened. “The guy’s 19,” Chick said. “The only thing he knows is hamburger and pizza.” Magic got his burger and soon he became a Laker.

What announcing faux pas nearly cost Chick Hearn his job? Chick Hearn was the Lakers play-by-play announcer for 41 years. He invented basketball terms like “slam dunk,” “air ball” and “no harm, no foul.” He was so popular he’s the only non-player to have his Lakers jersey retired (he also has a statue outside the arena).

In his prime, no one could keep up with Chick’s ad-libs and colorful description of a game. But as he aged, he started to slip and make awkward gaffes. On February 4, 1997, 80-year old Chick was announcing a Lakers Clippers game. Clippers’ power forward Bo Outlaw, who’s black, dunked a ball then hung on the rim for several seconds. Hearn said, “He was up there so long he could have eaten a banana.”

Some fans complained that Hearn was racist. His announcing partner Stu Lantz, who’s also black, came to Hearn’s aid. “I think I’d know [if he was racist] after 10 years.” Lakers guard Byron Scott also defended Chick. “People who don’t know him might take offense, but that’s just Chick trying to be funny,” Scott said. “Bo did look funny hanging up there.”

The Lakers and the NBA didn’t punish Hearn. But the morning after the game, he called into a radio show and said, “If I hurt anyone’s feelings, I apologize from the bottom of my heart.” If Chick made the same comments today, he’d likely have been fired within hours after the game. He continued announcing until 2002 when he suffered a broken hip after falling at a gas station. He lived to see the Lakers win three straight championships and died that summer at age 85.

What Lakers player wanted to kill his head coach? In Game 3 of the Finals against the 76ers, Lakers forward Spencer Haywood got into a shouting match with teammates Brad Holland and Jim Chones. Coach Paul Westhead suspended Haywood for the rest of the series. Haywood was furious. According to Jeff Pearlman in his book Showtime, Haywood plotted revenge.

I left the Forum and drove off in my Rolls that night thinking one thought—that Westhead must die. I drove through the streets plotting the man’s murder. In the heat of anger and the daze of coke, I phoned an old friend of mine in Detroit, a guy named Gregory, a genuine certified gangster. I said, ‘C’mon out here, buddy. I got someone I want you to take care of.’ He said, ‘No problem, Wood. Love to do that for you.’ The next day Greg and his partner flew to L.A., ready to go to work. We sat down and figured it out. Westhead lived in Palos Verdes, and we got his street address. We would sabotage his car, mess with his brake lining.

Thankfully, his mother, who was dying at the time, persuaded him to abandon the plan. Haywood’s promising NBA career was derailed by cocaine addiction. Despite the suspension, the Lakers did award him a ring in 1980. Jerry Buss helped Haywood turn his life around, sending him to play basketball in Italy where he got his life in order. He kicked drugs, became a Christian and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

What is the “clothesline game?” In the 1984 NBA Finals, the Lakers led the Celtics 2–1 with Game 4 in Los Angeles. The Lakers had a five-point lead with less than a minute to play. Then Magic threw away a pass and missed two crucial free throws, Worthy made another bad pass and Kareem fouled out on a terrible call. The Lakers lost in overtime and essentially gave away the series. (I was so angry I threw a basketball into the neighbor’s yard shattering his window.)

Game 4 was the “clothesline game” where Kevin McHale’s dirty take down foul on Kurt Rambis nearly broke Rambis’ neck. Throughout the first half of the series, the Lakers were the better team. Then Boston grew physical and got into the Lakers’ heads. For Lakers fans like me, the sight of Celtics’ owner Red Auerbach lighting a cigar and gloating at the end of Game 7 created a new generation of Celtic haters. The Lakers got revenge the following year beating the Celtics in the finals. Magic, Worthy and Kareem redeemed themselves and the so-called “Boston Curse” was put to bed.

What international tennis player was the Lakers lucky charm in the 1980s? On the morning of June 9, 1985, Swedish tennis player Mats Wilander defeated Ivan Lendl to win his second French Open. Later that day, the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 6 to win their first finals series against Boston. Wilander’s first French Open title was in 1982, two days before the Lakers beat the 76ers in the Finals. In 1988, Wilander won his third French Open while the Lakers were defeating the Pistons in the finals.

When Magic Johnson retired for health reasons in 1991, what player replaced him as starting point guard? All older Lakers fans know where they were on November 7, 1991. That was the day Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the NBA for testing HIV-positive. (I was selling sandwiches for Boudin Bread in San Francisco.)

Those were the early days of the AIDS crisis and everyone thought an HIV diagnosis meant Magic was a dead man. It’s now 32 years later and Magic is in good health (albeit a bit chunky). When Magic retired, the point guard duties fell to his backup Sedale Threatt. Threatt was a pleasant surprise. He led the Lakers in assists, steals and minutes in 1991 then led them in scoring in ’92. He holds one inauspicious record for the Lakers. He’s allegedly fathered 14 children, tied with Calvin Murphy of Houston Rockets fame for most in NBA history.

What Lakers player did Kobe Bryant sucker punch on the team bus? The 2002 Lakers loved to hold half-court shooting contests. Everyone pitched in $100 and the first person to make a half-court shot won the pot. One day, Kobe won the contest. He collected he pot, but teammate Samaki Walker didn’t have money on him and said he’d pay later. 48 hours later, Kobe confronted Samaki on the team bus asking, “Where’s my money at?” Samaki said he didn’t have it then donned his headphones. Kobe reacted by cold-cocking Samaki in the face.

“It was a sucker punch,” Samaki said. “Right to the face. Out of nowhere.”

Samaki tried to get at Kobe but teammates restrained him. The punch left a welt under Samaki’s eye. Kobe later apologized and the incident was put behind them. During the playoffs that year, Samaki played a small but key role. In Game 4 against Sacramento, he hit a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer, cutting the Lakers deficit to 14 points. Replays showed Samaki’s shot shouldn’t have counted since it came after the clock expired but there was no replay rule at the time. The Lakers won the game when Robert Horry hit a miracle three-pointer at the final buzzer. They beat the New Jersey Nets in the Finals that year and Samaki played an important role.

What “parting gift” did Lakers president Magic Johnson give to the Boston Celtics? The Lakers owned the number two pick in the 2017 draft. As Lakers president, Magic made the draft selection that would alter the team’s future. Being a point guard himself, he wanted an exciting playmaker to resurrect Showtime days. He chose Lonzo Ball out of UCLA.

The choice was a disaster. Ball is lousy shooter whose career has been marred with injuries. Even worse, the Boston Celtics used the number three pick to select Jayson Tatum. Tatum’s now a superstar. He worshiped the Lakers growing up and by all rights he should be playing beside LeBron for the Lakers. I love Magic, but he blew it.

The Lakers traded Lonzo Ball (with Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round draft picks) to New Orleans for Anthony Davis. So even a bad thing came up smelling like roses and the Lakers charmed history continues.


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