Say this about the Los Angeles Lakers: When the going got tough, they didn't go to St. Louis. They didn't request divisional realignment, didn't seek a municipal bailout, didn't ask for federal aid or disaster relief. Alone among L.A.'s many floundering franchises, the Lakers endured their calamity quietly. Attendance plunged as Showtime, the NBA's version of Masterpiece Theatre, became burlesque—the stars were going to Clipper games! And still, team officials wouldn't file so much as an insurance claim.
Their stoicism was almost spooky. While the rest of Los Angeles was racked by riot, rocked by earthquake, razed by fire and ravaged by flood—considered nothing more than God's quarterly reports in these parts—the Lakers suffered their own cataclysm: mediocre basketball. They got old and sick, and last season, for the first time since Jack Nicholson began ogling the Laker Girls from the Forum's Rogues' Row, they missed the playoffs. Yet the Lakers didn't once threaten to join the Rams in exodus and, say, move back to Minneapolis.
What did the Lakers know that nobody else did? That new coach Del Harris, 57, a white-haired veteran of four seasons with the Houston Rockets and four-plus with the Milwaukee Bucks and the author of four coaching textbooks, would suddenly emerge from a career of professorial basketball and reinvent Showtime? That 6'6" rookie guard Eddie Jones, out of Temple, the NBA's 10th draft choice overall, would outplay other lottery picks with contracts $50 million richer than his six-year, $13.5 million deal? That Cedric Ceballos, a career backup with the Phoenix Suns, would make the Laker faithful forget recently retired James Worthy? That point guard Nick Van Exel would help them forget Magic Johnson? That through Sunday they would be 21-11, on a 54-victory pace and in third place in the rugged Pacific Division?
For the record, no, hardly anybody, including the Lakers, thought a team that won only 33 games last season would recover just like that. The franchise, really, had been destroyed by Johnson's departure in 1991, when he learned that he was HIV positive (add plague to Los Angeles's Biblical-style catastrophes), and then double-destroyed the year after by his aborted comeback, and then a little further destroyed when he coached L.A. for 16 games at the end of last season. Desperate Laker officials had hoped they could get a good free agent—a Horace Grant, a Danny Manning—in the off-season. But when their only upgrade was Ceballos, they privately despaired and dug in for a .500 year.
So what happened? Laker vice president of basketball operations Jerry West sits behind his desk, almost apologetic, trying to explain his team's quick start. "We're lucky," he says. "Just lucky." Of course, West has made a high art out of self-effacement, and the rest of the league knows to infer the wink in almost anything he says.
Let's take a look at some of that Laker luck, starting with their most recent piece of good fortune: Ceballos, someone who's supposedly too small (6'7") to play forward. He was an anonymous kind of player, overlooked and underrated even last season when, with Charles Barkley and Danny Ainge and Kevin Johnson benched at various times with injuries, he had 43 starts and averaged more than 19 points overall. No team besides Los Angeles thought him worth a first-round pick in trade. "The rest in the league were too stupid," says Phoenix coach Paul Westphal, who, because of a forward glut, was forced to ship Ceballos out. "I took the best deal we could get."
The Lakers were hungry for offense; for two seasons their top scorer had the league's lowest average among team leaders (in 1993-94 center Vlade Divac paced L.A. with a mere 14.2 points a game). They thought Ceballos would be worth about 20 points a game. So far, they've gotten a bonus. Through Sunday, Ceballos was leading the Lakers—and was 10th in the NBA—with a 22.3-point average. But more surprising, the too-small small forward was 14th in the league in offensive rebounding, with 3.1 per game. "Everybody in the league thought, All he can do is score," says West, in a tone as close to triumphant as he ever gets.
But Ceballos has been more important to the Lakers than mere numbers might suggest. Unknown to the civilian world, L.A. had been going through a crisis in leadership for the last two seasons. Worthy, though venerated, was nonetheless a faded star who no longer commanded respect in the locker room. And face it, Magic didn't help matters when, seeing his precious Showtime being vandalized by indifference, he lashed out at the players. "A lot of people were living in the past," is all West says.
Even when he was still in Phoenix, Ceballos—who grew up only five miles from the Lakers' Forum, in Compton—was nearly as upset as West at this failure of spirit among his childhood heroes. "It looked to me like everybody wanted to be a Laker, but nobody wanted to pay the price," he says. "Nobody would commit to playing hard all the time."
He vowed to make that commitment and was so certain he could make a difference that he began bragging to friends and former teammates that the Lakers would win 50 games with him. "Got into a lot of fights and scuffles," he says. "Nobody believed me." So without making another peep he began playing hard and practicing hard, and he has become the team leader. "Suddenly players are doing the same things I'm doing," he says. "Say, wearing sweats in practice. People are getting on the same train."
The engineer, of course, is Harris, the Phil Donahue look-alike whose bland image has made its way into his nickname: Dull. He is known as a coach's coach but is actually a player's guy, adapting styles and plans to his athletes' abilities and demands. "I haven't imposed a system on the Lakers," he says. "Rather, I've gone with them on a journey to find it."
The system is not Showtime, by any means. Instead, it's a blend of half-court and full-court basketball that places a premium on defense—steals (through Sunday, Los Angeles ranked third in the league, with 13.4 per game) and blocked shots (second, 7.53). And then the Lakers run. "We call it the Lake Show," says Jones. The work on defense done, and it must be done for these Lakers to have a chance, Van Exel will team with Jones on an alley-oop. There is still fun to be had.
And fun must be had if L.A. hopes to become the glamour team it was in the 1980s, when the Lakers put an average of about 17,000 in the seats—4,000 more than of late. West and owner Jerry Buss know that in this Los Angeles it's not enough to win. "The game has to be played with flair," says West. Which is why he took a chance on Van Exel, a 6'1" guard out of the University of Cincinnati whose respect for authority became suspect, rightly or wrongly, when he missed appointments with a team in the days before the '93 NBA draft. Van Exel, who was expected to be a first-rounder, slipped into the second round, but he quickly turned his reputation around by averaging 13.6 points and 5.8 assists as a rookie. This season, at week's end, he was averaging 17.1 points and 8.2 assists, and showing some flair in the process. "Oh, he has flair," agrees West.
He's got flair up the wazoo. So much flair that...well, the Lakers hardly know what to do with him. On Jan. 9, at half-time of a 129-83 debacle against the Trail Blazers in Portland, Harris took on his reputation for dullness and overturned a table of drinks. Forget all the excuses that were provided later; what happened next was this: Van Exel refused to take the floor in the second half. He Pippened it.
Elsewhere this might have become a team malignancy, but the Lakers are too smart and too discreet to let that kind of sickness spread. Van Exel wouldn't comment, but it was publicly explained away as "a failure to communicate." However, afterward young Van Exel was subjected to much communication—"Man," he says wearily, "the phone never stopped ringing: the general manager, the vice president, everybody." In the next game, a 118-108 loss to Phoenix on Jan. 11 at the Forum, he scored 35 points while converting 7 of 11 three-pointers. "I wasn't worried," says Ceballos. "It's like you take a kid's toy from him: He cries, but the next day he's forgotten all about it. In that way, it's good to be young."
Of course, sometimes it's bad to be young. The Lakers are the best team in the league whose average loss is by almost 20 points. "When we're bad," says Ceballos, "we're very bad." What's more, they can be great and awful in the same game. After falling behind by 20 to Phoenix last week, Los Angeles evened the game with a 20-0 run before finally losing.
Even by their own admission, the Lakers are one player away from greatness. "A tough rebounder," says veteran point guard Sedale Threatt dreamily. "A Charles Oakley, a Dennis Rodman." But they could be a playoff team, and they most definitely are an exciting team. In Los Angeles, in these times of flood and fire, that's miracle enough.