By Arnie Leshin
No more circuses performing in this country, a big loss for those young and old. But at least the Los Angeles Lakers have brought back show time, not the one that entertained on the basketball court, but replaced by confusion installed in the front office, and among the players.
It’s a shame that Magic Johnson became involved in this. I know him from way back in 1981, when he looked over my shoulder while I was writing my World Series story at Dodger Stadium with the New York Yankees in town.
To me, he was always smiling, always as nice off the court as he was on the court. When I heard the news on August 7th of `1991 that he had contacted the HIV virus and was no longer going to orchestrate his magic for the purple and gold, I felt like I lost a friend and the basketball fans one of the best to ever play the game.
But he was successful in defeating HIV. He also returned to play another season of Lakers ball, was named to the All-Star team and was the popular choice as the game’s Most Valuable Player. He had also spent his money well, investing in a mall in LA and in movie theaters. Wherever he would appear, he would not hesitate to shake hands, high-five, sign autographs and flash that ready-make smile that lit up the place.
And with all his businesses doing unbelievably well, he never left the Lakers. For 18 years he had been vice president of the storied franchise, and received standing ovations whenever he appeared at Lakers home games, some even on the road.
He then bought an ownership share of the Dodgers, and they won a World Series that he could link to his state basketball title at Everett High School in Michigan, to the NCAA championship he won as a sophomore at Michigan State, to the five NBA titles he won with the Lakers, and to the Olympic gold he won with the USA team.
Now I don’t know Bob Pelinka, the general manager of the Lakers. But Johnson knew him in the way you didn’t trust him, saying that Pelinka was betraying him, literally stabbing him in the back, making incorrect statements, and letting others know it.
So on April 9 of this year, Johnson held an unexpected press conference and announced he was resigning from his position as the franchise’s president of basketball operations. He spoke very little of Pelinka, but it didn’t take long to learn that the GM was most responsible for him resigning.
Pelinka denied all that Johnson accused him of, team owner Jeanie Buss, whose father Dr. Jerry Buss died in 2013 after a long stay as team owner, had nothing to say about the incident, and then announced she was eliminating Johnson’s chain of command position.
As if the franchise hasn’t been having enough problems. It missed the post-season for the last five years, fired head coach Luke Walton, and just hired Frank Vogel as its sixth head coach since Phil Jackson resigned after the 2010-11 season. And included a new assistant coach in Jason Kidd, who was terrific as a player but up-and-down as a coach with the Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.
No matter, Vogel was happy with the choice, so was Pelinka. LeBron James, who signed on with the club prior to last season, had nothing to say regarding this, and didn’t attend the media meeting with Vogel,
James has other reasons to be unhappy in this situation. He’s used to winning, with NBA championships with the Miami Heat and with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s one of the elite players in modern times, and would like to overhaul the Lakers roster, get him some scoring and rebounding help, and bring in some big names.
The team has been hit by injuries the last two years, and LeBron was on the disabled list many times, some for long stretches. You’ve got actor Jack Nicholson, who began the parade of high-priced courtside seats around the league, not having a good time as a long-time Lakers supporter.
There’s no more Chuck Hearn, the long-time Lakers commentator on the radio and television, who passed away in 2013. There’s no more Jerry West in the front office after the former Lakers great signed onto the same role with the rival Los Angeles Clippers.
There have been other departures for a franchise that has retired 10 former player numbers in West, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Bayor, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Jamal Wilkes, Kobe Bryant, and of course Magic Johnson.
When Magic ran “show time” as a 6-foot-9 point guard and displaying other versatility, he took the floor with Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, .A.C. Green, Sam Perkins, Norm Nixon, Byron Scott, and Kurt Rambis.
In 13 years, Johnson paved the way for five titles, and finally turning back the all-star Boston Celtics. He had other teammates, but “show time” was number one, the one they came to see, and there were more purple and gold jerseys worn than any others in the country.
Back in those days, players wanted to wear the Lakers uniforms. Some were well-known names like Bob McAdoo, Cazzie Russell, Karl Malone, Connie Hawkins, Don Nelson, Johnny Neuman, Gary Payton, Glenn Rice, Dennis Rodman, andMetta World Peace.
Before that, there was Frank Selvy, Jim McMillan, Maurice Lucas, Pat Riley, Walt Hazzard, Rudy LaRusso, Darrel Imhoff, and Stan Love, whose nephew, Mike Love, is the long-time lead singer of the Beach Boys, and Imhoff was the starting center for the New York Knicks when Chamberlain tossed in 100 points for Philadelphia in Hershey, Pa.
Selvy, at Auburn, was the leading scorer in the nation, Hawkins, one of the greats who was accused of illegal recruiting and being close to the gambling crowd, sued the NBA and won his case after playing five years in the ABA. Nelson was a star center for Boston, and Russell starred with the Knicks in the championship years of 1968 and 1971.
As for Magic Johnson, he had the best NBA rookie season of anyone when he capped it in the 1980 May 16th sixth game in Philadelphia. With Abdul-Jabbar with a sprained ankle cuddled up on a couch in his LA home and watching on TV, Johnson assured him that he would bring home the championship trophy.
That he did, he put on quite a show, Jumping center on the opening tap, he controlled the tap and quickly passed the ball to a teammate for a 2-0 lead. From there, he scored 42 points, brought down 15 rebounds, handed out seven assists, stole the ball five times, and blocked four shots.
His words to Abdul-Jabbar in the post-game interview came with a magical smile and informed the big guy there’s no seventh game, and added that we’re flying home with the trophy.
Quite a franchise. Respected by the league, loved by their fans, and with super lineups, those days are not forgotten, and despite their present woes, and disappointments, it’s obvious they are piecing together the key ingredients to work their way back to the glory days.
The Lakers began in Minneapolis and won two NBA titles there before heading to Hollywood. They were good, real good. In the middle was Hall of Famer George Mikan, the first president of the new ABA. At the forwards were Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen. In the backcourt were Frank (Pep) Saul, Meyer (Whitey) Skoog, and Slater (Dugie) Martin.
That was where it all started. Now it’s time to bring it all back.