The Los Angeles Lakers couldn't lose for losing. They had been without Earvin Johnson since Nov. 7, when he announced that he was HIV-positive. They were without forwards James Worthy and Sam Perkins, who were injured. Moreover, for most of the season the Lakers had lacked vitality. They weren't much better than a .500 team, and they had been overtaken by the crosstown Clippers. As if to further underscore their free-fall from grace, the Lakers had lost five of their last seven games. Just lost them. Yet they remained in the playoff picture, needing only to beat the Clippers on Sunday, the final day of the regular season, to qualify for a postseason berth. They couldn't lose.
The Laker faithful filed into The Forum with their customary confidence. The Houston Rockets, who needed only to win Sunday to earn the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, had just self-destructed at home against the Phoenix Suns. So, almost unbelievably, the Lakers, who had been to the playoffs 15 years in a row, still had a chance. If this season was so different, why was it that nobody could put them out of the playoffs? They couldn't lose for losing.
It was almost comical the way the final scenario played out. The Clippers, who had already clinched a postseason spot for the first time in 16 years, played fiercely on Sunday. The few among their fans who had gained admission to The Forum were operating under some false assumptions. "Pass the torch!" one of them yelled when the Clippers led 62-53 in the third period. There didn't seem to be any question as to which team was better. But we all know how it goes, how it always has gone. The foundation of success is painfully slow to crumble, and anyway, which team would you bet on in overtime?
Following Magic's retirement, the rest of the world began recalculating the Lakers' possibilities. Owner Jerry Buss recalled that the Boston Celtics had won 42 games in 1988-89, when Larry Bird suffered season-ending injuries to both of his heels after only six games. Even though Bird had a better supporting cast than Magic would have had this year in Los Angeles, Buss began thinking about a similar season for the Lakers.
This was a generous notion, but it also reflected a terrible downswing in the Lakers' fortunes. After a trade brought point guard Sedale Threatt to L.A. from the Seattle SuperSonics, the preseason Lakers seemed much improved on the team that had reached the NBA Finals last year before falling to the Chicago Bulls. The Threatt deal appeared to be another of general manager Jerry West's white-collar crimes (three No. 2 draft picks for a shooter-defender to spell Magic). "The players knew this team could beat Chicago," says Laker coach Mike Dunleavy. That was in October. By the first week of November, Buss was hoping for a .500 season.
Neither Dunleavy nor his players gave up on the season when Johnson retired, but it was obvious that the Lakers were going to struggle. Guard Byron Scott summed up the crucial difference between having and not having Magic: "It wasn't ever going to be as much fun."
It was, as forward A.C. Green says, "crazy-weird" instead. After Johnson's announcement and an ensuing lopsided loss to Phoenix, the Lakers reeled off nine straight victories. Then on Dec. 4 reality hit again when center Vlade Divac left the lineup with a back injury that would sideline him for 46 games. Nevertheless, two weeks later the Lakers stunned the Bulls 102-89 at Chicago Stadium. But by the time December was over, Los Angeles had suffered its first losing month since March 1979—in the pre-Magic era. Thus was established a season-long rhythm of violent mood swings. West blasted the players. "Maybe some guys have been around here too long," he said.
The calamitous chronology continued in the same manic-depressive way. In March, Worthy, the Lakers' leading scorer and, with Magic gone, their best player, left a game against Houston with a season-ending injury to his left knee. But shortly after they lost Worthy, the Lakers put together a successful road trip during which they won in New York, Atlanta and Washington. Then they returned home and lost to the Portland Trail Blazers. Every time euphoria gave way to despair, despair would immediately yield to hope. Then, soon, the Lakers would start losing again.
The thinness of their roster could not be disguised over the length of a season. The final blow came on March 18, when Perkins went down for the season with a left-shoulder injury. Four starters, including Magic, from the 1990-91 Lakers would miss a total of 175 games in '91-92. "It finally occurred to me," says Scott, "that we weren't an elite team anymore."
With Scott, Green and Divac, who returned to action on Feb. 26, the Lakers could still present a lineup that could beat any other team on a given night. But the bunch that Scott remembered could beat any other team any night. Even so, these Lakers appeared to be good enough to make the playoffs. You have to go back to the 1975-76 season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's first in L.A., to find a Laker team that couldn't do it.
The Clippers, meanwhile, had been set on course by Larry Brown, who took over as their coach on Feb. 5, and they became the talk of the town. When somebody did inquire about the Lakers, it was to consider their chances in the draft lottery. The lottery! Ping-Pong balls with team names on them! Down there with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic and the Sacramento Kings!
As the regular season drew to a close, the players expressed a kind of shock at their new circumstances. "Eight years," said Scott, one of the senior Lakers, "six championship series and three rings." No longtime Laker had known anything except success.
However, as the final week began, there appeared to be an inevitability to the Lakers' doom. West seemed somewhat resigned as his team headed down the stretch—perhaps it was the possibility of having a high draft choice, a luxury West had never had in his nine previous years as the Lakers' general manager. "You know," he said last week, almost excitedly, "the NBA lottery gives you a much better chance than the real lottery—only 65 to 1! The other day I read about an old lady who won $10 million. And she'd only bought one ticket."
Sacramento's general manager, Jerry Reynolds, figured there was no sense questioning the Lakers' luck. "I know if they've got one ball out of 66, they'll get [LSU's coveted 7'1" center] Shaquille O'Neal," Reynolds had said recently. "I have no doubt."
It was becoming easy to look that far ahead. On April 15 the Lakers lost 110-107 to the Nuggets in Denver, and a day later the Kings, who had dropped 17 straight games to the Lakers, beat them 102-94 in Sacramento, handing the Lakers their seventh loss in their last 10 games. Only two games remained. After several decades of dominance, it finally felt safe to mock them. Said Sacramento forward Wayman Tisdale, "You know they're hurting right now, and you know their morale is down. But let's kick 'em anyway."
Then the manic-depressive cycle began to reverse itself again last Friday in Portland, where the Lakers spent an off day before facing the Blazers. Dunleavy, wearing a WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP cap, and his coaches gathered in a sports bar to watch a satellite feed of Houston's road game with the woeful Dallas Mavericks. After the loss to Sacramento the night before, Dunleavy had put Los Angeles's chances of making the playoffs at 5%. It would take miracles, he said, and if they didn't happen, it would simply mean "we weren't good enough."
The Houston-Dallas game was such a gimme for the Rockets that no Laker player bothered to watch it. Perhaps, as Scott had said earlier, to hope for help from other teams was "un-Laker-like." In any event, Scott and several of his teammates were in forward Chucky Brown's room playing John Madden's All-American Football when they got the news. Forward-center Jack Haley's wife, Stacy, had watched the game on TV back in L.A. and called. Houston had lost.
The coaches and team officials in the nearby bar were whooping it up, not a few of them grabbing their throats and feigning expiration atop the bar.
The next afternoon the Lakers rolled over the Trail Blazers 109-101, not the biggest deal in the world, considering that Portland, which had long before secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, rested injured starters Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey. Nonetheless, Los Angeles was clearly energized by the renewed playoff possibility. It played with so much emotion that the Blazers were provoked beyond what the circumstances would ordinarily have warranted. When Divac put a stranglehold on Portland guard Danny Ainge late in the game, Ainge called out to the L.A. bench, "I hope we see you whores back up here next week." The Lakers pretended to be shocked: Well, we've never heard such talk.
For the Lakers to return to Portland, the Rockets would have to lose at home on Sunday against the Suns, and the Lakers would have to beat the Clippers. Neither outcome was exactly automatic. The Clipper had ended a 27-game losing streak at The Forum on Nov. 5. And could the Rockets really lose a third game in a row? At home? With a playoff spot riding on it?
They could and did, by a score of 100-97. While the final moments of that game were shown on the huge scoreboard TV above The Forum court during the Lakers' pregame workout, many of the players stood looking up at the screen. Scott would have none of it, though. As the Rockets took the ball up the court one last time, perhaps to tie the score, he strolled back toward the locker room. He was alone in a hallway when Houston lost. To have been anywhere else would have been un-Laker-like.
Then the Clippers rolled into The Forum, affecting the comfort and confidence that used to belong to the Lakers. "Nice suit!" said Brown to one of his players, LeRon Ellis, when they met outside the Clipper locker room.
"I'm learning from you, Coach," Ellis replied.
"Nothing that strong in my closet," Brown told him.
The Clippers' nonchalance was foolhardy, however. The Lakers surely did beat the Clippers, though not the way they used to, of course. The new team in town stiffened for this encounter. "This was like a playoff game for us," said Clipper frontcourtman James Edwards. The intensity was impressive. Nobody, however, believed that the Clippers' nine-point lead late in the third quarter was anything near conclusive. At the end of regulation the game was tied at 100.
The overtime was even more draining than the rest of the evening. Finally, with 10 seconds left, Threatt headed down-court, bounced off Clipper guard Doc Rivers, posted up and, with 4.5 seconds left, sank a 15-foot jumper for the decisive points in the Lakers' 109-108 win. He finished with 24 points, and Scott had 27. "Almost fate." said Rivers after the game.
But the victory and the winning of a trip to the playoffs hardly ended speculation about the Lakers' future. Before Sunday's game West talked about the Lakers' most desperate needs. Just a healthy Worthy and Perkins wouldn't be enough, perhaps not even with a high draft choice. "We need a leader of some sort," said West. "We need help shootingwise. Frankly, we need to acquire a star, a marquee player." There was charisma to replace.
Who could even guess where all that would come from? The best solution, a tantalizing possibility, came before Sunday's game when Magic's agent, Lon Rosen, was circulating through the press room, saying that Magic had just decided to put off talks with Sacramento about running that franchise. He would wait until after he played in the Olympics. He wanted to see if he could return to the Lakers for next season.
But if Magic did come back, it wouldn't be forever, and the Lakers ultimately would again be plunged into this kind of high-strung mediocrity. Still, after the defeat of the Clippers, the Laker dressing room offered a scene that was almost eerie. The cameramen and the people with the hand-held mikes jockeyed for position, creating their customary chaos in front of players, some of whom were too young to understand the unique destiny of the franchise. Coaches stood in the middle of huge groups of reporters, trying to explain that destiny. Well off to one side and unmoved by the hurly-burly, equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas was writing something on the team message board. In all the years, how many times had he written this at season's end: PRACTICE—TOMORROW—LOYOLA—9:30 A.M.
He capped his pen and left.