Steve Aschburner
Monday June 15th, 2009

If the Los Angeles Lakers didn't already exist, Hollywood would have had to create them.

Wait a second, Hollywood already did.

Keeping up with the Joneses of the NBA (as in Sam and K.C. and the rest of the Boston Celtics) always has been the Lakers' first order of business. But keeping up with the Nicholsons (as in Jack), the Spielbergs (as in Steven), and the Washingtons (as in Denzel) in the star-obsessed, show biz capital where they entertain the entertainers has been almost as important. Important and integral to their success, sustained across decades at a level to which only the Celtics can relate and in some ways defer.

The trophy tally tightened again Sunday night with the Lakers' 99-86 Game 5 victory at Orlando; it gave them 15 as a franchise to the Celtics' 17. The Lakers won their first championship 60 years ago, some 1,520 miles away in their starter home of Minneapolis and eight years before Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and the rest got busy hoarding rings in Boston. They have won six titles to the Celtics' one over the past 23 postseasons, a period during which Boston missed the playoffs nine times to Los Angeles' two. In terms of trips to the Finals, the Lakers have gone 30 times, the Celtics a distant second at 20.

That might seem like math trickery to create a gap between the teams, one that favors the Lakers (the Celtics, after all, have a 17-3 series record in the championship round to their rivals' 15-15). No such fun-with-numbers is needed, though, to widen the moat between those two NBA heavyweights and everyone else. The Lakers have played 685 playoff games in their history, 147 more than Boston and nearly 70 percent more than third-place Philadelphia (403). Their 413-272 record in postseason games makes them No. 1 in winning percentage, the only team topping .600 (Boston is at .578). The Lakers also are tops in series won or lost, going 100-41 all-time to the Celtics' 71-30.

And they've done it while feeling considerable pressure for much of their history not just to win, but to dazzle. To bring both the style and the substance, when most markets would happily settle for the latter. In a league where the salary cap levels the spending field -- the 2008-09 Lakers ranked eighth in payroll -- and luck is equally elusive for all teams, the current NBA champs and their history have been driven by star power.

As much as it might rankle traditionalists, the NBA long has been about stars, and no other franchise has set the star bar higher than the Lakers. Not the Celtics through all their championships, not the New York Knicks for all their conceit, not the 76ers, the Bulls, the Pistons, the Spurs or any other contender-slash-pretender.

"Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars" was disc jockey Casey Kasem's catchphrase. But it could have been Chick Hearn's, describing the blueprint of Lakers success.

"Even before the Lakers moved westward, the NBA was a players' league, a star-driven operation," venerable assistant coach Tex Winter wrote in the foreword to The Show, sportswriter Roland Lazenby's '06 biography of the franchise. "The individual player in the NBA has always held a value above team play. That's because the early NBA owners found they could survive if they sold fans on the idea of stars."

We're talking early-early, back when the Lakers' nickname made sense and the league's first famous giant -- one of several Hall of Fame big men to have anchored the franchise -- roamed the pre-paint hardwood lanes.

"In our time, George [Mikan] was Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rolled into one" teammate Vern Mikkelsen told the Minneapolis Star Tribune upon Mikan's death in '05. "Everywhere we played, he was who people wanted to see. In fact, he was more acclaimed on both coasts than he was [in Minnesota]. Here, people are more laid-back and they respected his privacy."

Mikan, the 6-foot-10 bespectacled, hook-shooting marvel from DePaul, was the NBA's first marquee name, literally; when the Lakers traveled to New York for games in the 1950s, it was common for "Geo Mikan vs. Knicks" to go up on the sign outside Madison Square Garden. The big guy routinely flew to cities a day ahead of his teammates to give interviews and otherwise beat the promotional drum.

"People talk about all the endorsements players do today, but George was doing that sort of thing even then," Mikkelsen said. "He used to be on the back cover of Life and Look magazines, in one case, selling beer. I still remember George got some heat for that, and his answer was: 'For this kind of money, I'll swim in it.'"

Those Lakers teams won five titles in six years (Mikan won two previously in the NBL for a total of seven in eight years). By the time attendance waned -- the club was hard-up for a proper arena in the Twin Cities -- and owner Bob Short turned his attention to southern California, the Lakers already had their next star in place (Elgin Baylor, their top pick in '58) and another on the way (Jerry West, drafted in '60).

The star treatment didn't happen overnight. The Sports Arena, where the Lakers initially played, wasn't a glamour venue, and the competition was fierce. "We didn't have many celebrities in the stands," West told "We had very few fans and rarely celebrities. At the time, the two most important sports teams were the Dodgers and Rams. We were on the back of the sports page, and weren't even on the radar at that time."

But a strong showing in their first L.A. postseason, beating Detroit in the first round before pushing St. Louis to six games, perked up interest. So did Baylor's creativity, West's manic drive, Hot Rod Hundley's clowning and Hearn's 50,000-watt siren call at night. Doris Day called for tickets, as did Pat Boone, Peter Falk and other film and TV types. Jack Kent Cooke bought the team, built the Forum and upped the glitter ante -- in their longtime quest to find a center to counter Boston's Bill Russell (the Lakers blinked on drafting Willis Reed in '64, opting for local star Walt Hazzard of UCLA) -- by acquiring larger-than-life Wilt Chamberlain. Show biz matched, with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Andy Williams, Nicholson and others clamoring for seats.

"The connection with Hollywood and its supply of celebrities only served to amp up the equation," Winter wrote in The Show. "Then Jerry Buss bought the team in '79 and brought with him his ideas about Showtime and fast-break basketball, powered by more stars than ever. To me, that remains the most remarkable facet of the entire Lakers phenomenon. Despite all the Hollywood influences, the egos and the drama, the franchise has always managed to get and keep great stars."

The departures of Baylor, West and Chamberlain in the '70s left the Lakers in a star vacuum, starting the only two-year blip from the playoffs ('75 and '76) in their history, so Cooke pounced when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanded a trade from Milwaukee. The former UCLA star and three-time NBA MVP had six seasons in, an improbable 15 more to go, though his private ways and aloof personality didn't suit the paparazzi style. The Lakers had sent a lot of young talent to the Bucks for Abdul-Jabbar, too, and Cooke never even bid for flashbulb natural Julius Erving when the Nets entered the NBA in '76.

He did, however, lure West -- the Logo -- back as coach, later to become general manager. Buss purchased the franchise and then came the masterstroke: In coin flip with Chicago for the No. 1 pick in '79 (the Lakers held New Orleans' slot from a trade for aging Gail Goodrich), Chicago Bulls GM Rod Thorn called heads.

It came up tails.

"Magic [Johnson] meant so much to game," former Laker Michael Cooper told Lazenby. "The key with Magic, and what makes a star turn into a superstar, a star is gonna shine by himself. A superstar is gonna make other people shine. That's what Larry Bird and Magic always did. They made the league what it is today."

Wrote Winter: "The Lakers became about winning, about Showtime basketball, about the fast break, about entertainment ... But with their approach always came the persistent and troubling question: Where will we find the next star?"

Johnson's skills as a 6-9 point guard tapped into the other Lakers' talents, and his smile pried even Abdul-Jabbar out of his shell. Both were contagious, Johnson joined (then took over for) West as a franchise fixture even after his sudden retirement due to HIV, and everything since -- nine trips to the Finals in 12 years, five titles in the '80s, Pat Riley, James Worthy, Kobe and Shaq as Buss' and West's answer to the superstar-less mid-'90s, the hiring of Phil Jackson (despite West's dislike of the coach's Machiavellian ways), three more rings to start this millennium, that Lakers-Celtics throwback last spring, the tiebreaker vs. Red Auerbach Sunday night, and of course, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Rihanna -- follows that thread.

It's a thread spun from gold, woven into designer duds, sold at the boutiques along Rodeo Drive, available again only at the finest consignment stores, driven by winning, but shuttled to Staples Center on game nights these days in Priuses.

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