Just minutes after his Los Angeles Lakers had defeated the Boston Celtics in six games to win the NBA championship in June, coach Pat Riley, a student of motivation, decided to set the psychological groundwork for the 1987-88 season. As he stood in the delirium of the Laker locker room, dodging jets of champagne, exchanging hugs with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, warding off every celebrity-sniffer in Tinsel Town, Riley lay in wait for someone to mention the R word.
"Can you repeat?" Riley was finally and inevitably asked.
"I guarantee it," he said, staring down his questioners.
Pat, you said "guarantee"?
April 17, 1988
"That's right," said Riley.
Later Magic would wonder if "Pat had drunk too much champagne," but, no, Riley kept on saying guarantee, right through the summer, until the Lakers gathered at Loyola Marymount College in October for a media day, before heading to Palm Springs for training camp and on into the season. Riley had decided that the inability of any NBA team to repeat as champion in the almost two decades since the Celtics last won back-to-back titles, in 1968 and '69, was partly a failure of will. So on that day in June, while everyone else in the L.A. organization was savoring the end of one championship season, Riley began, in his words, to "attack" a second, confronting the R word at every mention. Ten months later, as the Lakers prepare for the playoffs, what can we say about Riley's strategy? Only this: It may be working.
With a 56-18 record through last weekend, Los Angeles is once again the team to beat. (Boston, which was 54-21, had the second-best record.) Magic returned Friday after having missed 10 of Los Angeles's previous 12 games since he was first injured on March 10 with a strained right groin. He scored 16 points and had nine assists in a 126-107 win over the Clippers Friday, but in a 119-109 loss to Portland Saturday, he had nine points and 12 assists and said he felt rusty.
Throughout the season L.A. has had remarkable success in what Riley calls checkpoint games. The Lakers came from 15 points behind to beat the Hawks, one of the NBA's stronger teams, in Atlanta on Feb. 19. On March 6, they snapped an 11-game Maverick winning streak in Dallas. So much for their leading rivals in the West. They've beaten the Central Division-leading Detroit Pistons on the road and at home. They're 4-0 against the potentially dangerous Houston Rockets. Need we mention the most obvious? Magic's banked buzzer-beater did in the Celtics 115-114 on Dec. 11 at Boston Garden, and a career-high 38 points from Byron Scott (see box, page 57) paced a 115-106 defeat of the Celtics at the Forum on Valentine's Day. In each of the last two seasons, the team that prevailed in both regular-season Laker-Celtic games won the championship.
Before Johnson was injured, Los Angeles was on a 38-4 roll that began with its first game against Boston, a surge that put its record at a history-challenging 49-10. (Strangely, the 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers—another Western Conference team that was attempting to win a second straight title—were an almost identical 50-10 when their leader, Bill Walton, went down with a foot injury. Walton didn't play the rest of the regular season and appeared only in the first two games of the conference semis, in which the Blazers were eliminated.) The Lakers might have kept on tearing up the league, even without Magic, had not a sprained left ankle sidelined Michael Cooper for 20 games. He returned on April 5, and his play has been erratic. "With Coop and me both out, that's like missing six guys because we play so many positions," says Johnson immodestly but not inaccurately.
As glad as the Lakers are to have Johnson back, they can't help but wonder what might have been. "We felt invincible before Magic got hurt," says Scott, who leads L.A. in scoring. "It's a feeling we could have carried right through the playoffs. There was nothing that could beat us."
Riley agrees. "From that game in Boston to Earvin's injury, we were as dominating as any team for a long time," he says. "I'm convinced that with him we would have gone for 70 wins. [The 1971-72 Lakers hold the league record for most victories in a season with 69.] That's why the injuries were so disappointing. They've given opponents the sense that they can beat us. We've lost that aura of invincibility we had built up."
But with Magic and Cooper again in the lineup and everyone else near 100%, can L.A. be defeated? Is this the year the no-repeat curse will be broken? Or will these Lakers be another casualty along the long road that, for the last two decades, has led from championship to disappointment? Here's a look at the factors that will determine how Los Angeles will fare in its test against recent NBA history.
THE SCOTT FACTOR
A different shooting guard will accompany the Lakers in the postseason this year, one who is not likely to crash and burn in Boston Garden as he has done in other years. With a 51.9 shooting percentage to go with his 21.7-point scoring average, Scott has been the best of the NBA guards who shoot jumpers off picks, a group that includes Dale Ellis of the Seattle SuperSonics, Jeff Malone of the Washington Bullets, Rolando Blackman of Dallas and Randy Wittman of Atlanta. Scott's jump shooting opens up the middle for James Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar, not to mention Johnson when he decides to post up.
Scott is equally valuable on the fast break. "Touch the sidelines!" Riley always tells his wingmen when they practice the break, and the Lakers run the widest fast break in the league—"Sometimes I even go out of bounds for a few steps," says Scott—to keep the middle open and maximize Magic's creativity.
"The only way a team can get significantly better is if its young players get better," says Riley. "Our top three [Johnson, Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar] have all dropped in performance. But Byron has really come on. He's been head and shoulders above everyone else [this season]. He's outright won 10 games for us."
THE MAGIC FACTOR
Hmm, so the top three have all dropped in performance. Worthy's scoring average (19.8) is about the same as last season's (19.4), but his rebounding has declined a bit (5.1 a game vs. 5.7 in 1986-87). Abdul-Jabbar's slippage has been more dramatic: He's averaging three fewer points a game than last season's 17.7, and once his streak of 787 consecutive games in which he scored in double figures was broken on Dec. 4, he scored in single digits with some regularity—12 times in 61 games through Saturday. Riley has been trying to get Abdul-Jabbar more involved in the offense, and to that end, the pivotman has been instructed not to take the ball out of bounds after opponents' baskets. "Sometimes in our films Kareem's not even in the frame [at the offensive end]," said Riley. "We want him turning and getting upcourt right away."
The play of Johnson, last season's MVP, has been one of the most debated subjects around the NBA. Some observers cite his statistics, which are down only slightly, and conclude that he has been subpar. Others point to the improved play of Scott—who gives much of the credit to Magic—and the Lakers' foundering during the time Johnson was sidelined and conclude that Magic's even more valuable this season than last.
In implicitly criticizing Johnson, Riley may be engaging in mind games to push Magic to another superior playoff performance—Riley often does that kind of thing—but, to whatever end, he seems determined to make the point that Johnson could be doing more. Sitting in his office in the Forum one day not long ago, Riley glanced at a computer printout that listed a "plus-minus rating" (a statistical analysis made by the Lakers' staff that covers everything from points scored to fouls committed) for every player in the NBA. The Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan was on top with a .770 rating, Boston's Larry Bird was second at .700 and Johnson was in third place at .680.
"Last year Earvin was about .765, and I thought he'd play at that level this year, too," said Riley. "Last season he was a driven player. He was driven to win the MVP award and finally get his due. Because he's not a selfish player, it was hard for him, but he did it. He did it by constantly pushing himself to shoot, to penetrate, to take over a game. This year, for whatever reason, he hasn't done it. Maybe he's taken it upon himself to develop Byron. Maybe there's another reason. But I'd like to see him get that .765 every night."
Johnson has heard it before, of course. He sighs and flashes a weary smile when the subject of the Laker expectations is broached. "I think it's just going back to the same way it was before, to taking me for granted," he says. " 'Magic? He's supposed to get a triple double. He's supposed to have all those assists. He's supposed to be leading the best team in basketball.' Does it bother me? Yes, a little. It hurts my chances for recognition as an individual, no doubt about it."
Magic doesn't deny that he has turned up his offense in the past, specifically to get in playoff gear. He had two triple doubles in a row and missed a third by one assist in his three outings preceding the March 10 game in Chicago in which he injured his groin. Even if Jordan or Bird beats him out for the MVP—and the best guess is that one of them will—a healthy Johnson could be the difference for Los Angeles. "In the playoffs you need a wild-card player, the guy who does everything for you," says Laker general manager Jerry West. "Ours is Magic. We're not who we are without him."
THE PHYSICALITY FACTOR
The Lakers are sick of their image as a bunch of wimps, a team with the talent to win a toe dance but without the intestinal fortitude to win a gang war. These days, however, L.A. power forward A.C. Green seems to pop up as often as Detroit's Rick Mahorn as the instigator of pushing and shoving matches. Riley has been outspoken in his belief that some opponents have resorted to dirty tactics against the Lakers, and he has been equally vocal about the fact that they aren't going to put up with it anymore.
Cooper, who was fined $5,000 for his role in a Jan. 22 brawl with the New York Knicks, is extraordinarily combative for a reed-thin, 176-pounder. Mychal Thompson, who spells Green and Abdul-Jabbar, is still peace-loving at heart, but he doesn't back down from anyone. Neither does his weightlifting buddy, reserve center Mike Smrek, whose heavily muscled 7-foot, 263-pound frame can sometimes be as painful to an opponent as Abdul-Jabbar's skyhooks. Kurt Rambis, the best-known guest disc jockey on KLSX, L.A.'s classic rock station, has never backed down, either. Indeed, in his diminished role—he's riding the pine more these days—not backing down may be all he has left.
"In the long run, I think this is going to win the championship again for us," Cooper said after the donnybrook with the Knicks. "The message has to be out that this stuff about 'beat the Lakers up and you beat the Lakers' has no meaning. It's bull and we won't stand for it."
And the message may be out. After Los Angeles's win over Boston in February, Bird, formerly a subscriber to the Lakers-are-wimps school of thought, had this to say: "They're playing like we used to play. They bang at both ends of the floor and keep bringing in guys to keep it up. Things used to be the other way around."
THE MENTAL FACTOR
Their show-time image notwithstanding, the Lakers are not really a bunch of fun guys. Worthy and Scott are predisposed toward dourness, and if they're dour, then Abdul-Jabbar is off the dourness scale. Green is a deeply religious man "whose idea of a one-liner," writes Gordon Edes of the Los Angeles Times, "is John 3:16." Even Magic, who's open, friendly and relatively accessible, has his limits, and don't ask him to exceed them. Throw in Riley, whose good looks, spiffy wardrobe and intelligence can't hide his obsession with winning, and what you have is one serious-minded team.
Yes, when the L.A. fast break is jelling, and the Laker Girls are yelling, and Jack Nicholson is flashing his The Witches of Eastwick smile, the word that comes to mind is "loose." But the Lakers aren't loose. Off-day practices are often long, hard and closed to the press. Game-day shoot-arounds are detailed and businesslike. The players, for the most part, give short and colorless interviews. No woofing, no one-liners, nothing for the enemy bulletin board.
Well, almost nothing. In his new book, Show Time: Inside the Lakers' Breakthrough Season,* Riley takes several shots at the Celtics and their management in particular. "You can always bet, no matter what you request...that they will do nothing," he writes.
Riley was particularly worried before Game 3 of last season's championship series on June 7 in Boston: "We were concerned about heat. We didn't want another locker room steambath, like we had in '85. The windows are high up. When you're playing an afternoon game, the sun pours in. The air becomes stifling. So we wanted to shade the windows. We also contacted an air-conditioning company and rented two portable units. All the details were covered in advance. Everything was supposed to be ready when we arrived for the game.... On Sunday, both air conditioners were stacked out in the hall. Our video monitor wasn't set up.... No one actually got an electrician on the job until we arrived and pitched a bitch.
"We were seeing a little bit of what some people call 'the Boston Mystique' in action. The Boston Mystique isn't leprechauns hiding in the floorboards. It's a willingness to use any tactic to upset an opponent.... The General Manager [meaning Red Auerbach] chasing officials all the way to the dressing room to try to intimidate them. To hell with dignity. To hell with fair play....
"The Boston Mystique encourages the lowest common denominator of fan behavior. It grows directly out of the low-rent attitudes of Boston management.... I respect the individual players. Bird will always be one of the legends of the sport. The rest of the starters all have their areas of excellence. Some of the bench people are considerably talented. And K.C. Jones is a class individual. But the organization and its traditions are out-of-date."
Those passages could cause a few sparks should the fourth L.A.-Boston final in five seasons materialize come June. Riley is well aware that most of his players have—though rarely voice—a similar attitude about the Celtics. As the Lakers see it, the Celtics are glorified by the media as being the gritty, underdog achievers, in contrast to the Lakers, who are portrayed as the talented spoiled brats from the Left Coast. If the Lakers win again this season, Riley believes that no one will be able to deny that they are "the team of the '80s." That is the kindling he is using to stoke L.A.'s competitive fires.
In the 10 months since his guarantee of a second consecutive title, Riley has refined his message. It comes out in bits and pieces all the time—in speeches, in interviews and, obviously, in frequent sermons to the squad. It goes like this: This year is about something different. It's about greatness, about leaving legacies, footprints, about being a team for all eras, a team for all time, maybe the greatest team of all time.
Directed is the word to describe these Lakers. "It sounds boring, but what sets this team apart is its work ethic," says Thompson, who was traded to L.A. in February 1987. "I've been here a year, and sometimes I still can't believe how much effort goes into things—the perfectionism, the repetition. It doesn't just come from Pat's intensity, either. Dr. Jack [Ramsay, Thompson's coach when he was with Portland] was intense, but the players did not have the same thirst for success that guys like Magic, Worthy and Kareem have. That's why we stand out."
It's impossible to say if the Lakers will falter in the attempt to fill those footprints. There are whispered hints—quick asides from players and front-office guys—that Riley may be pushing too hard, but certainly no insurrection is at hand. "Of all the psychological things that Pat's come up with, this is probably the best," says Magic, smiling. Outwardly at least, the Lakers have embraced the Riley message.
"Guaranteeing a championship was the best thing Pat ever did," says Scott. "It set the stage in our mind. Work harder, be better. That's the only way we could repeat. We came into camp with the idea we were going to win it again, and that's the idea we have now."
Thompson goes a step further: "You need goals and motivations as a player. Pat set up this year's, and we're going after it. Look, we already have a goal set for next season. We want to send Kareem out with a third straight title."
Thompson had better not get ahead of himself. If the Lakers stay free of injury, their chances of repeating are excellent, better than any team's in a long time. But in the snakepit of the NBA playoffs, even Riley would admit that there are no guarantees.
*Reprinted With permission of Warner Books from "Show Time: Inside the Lakers' Breakthrough Season " by Pat Riley. Copyright ¬¨¬®¬¨¬©1988 by Pat Riley