The Lakers Are Basketball

Even before Thursday night’s 25-point whipping of the Orlando Magic in Los Angeles, the Lakers were heavy favorites in this season’s NBA finals – as big a favorite, in fact, as they were underdogs last year to the Boston Celtics (roughly 2 to 2 ½ to one in Las Vegas).

In terms of how it affects the Lakers dynasty, though, it matters little whether they win this year, just as it mattered little last season.  The Lakers, like Hemingway’s definition of a great novelist, compete only with the dead.  They aren’t merely the most successful team in NBA history, they’re the most successful team in American professional sports history, and when they play for the NBA championship it just somehow seems natural.

Laker dissers, like Yankee haters, are quick to write off the success of the team to the wealth of their hometowns. The anti-Laker argument goes something like this:  they have no professional sports competition.

The Lakers have the town to themselves, some argue. There’s no professional sports competition—the Dodgers, despite their excellent start this season, haven’t won a World Series in two decades and Los Angeles doesn’t even have an NFL franchise. How could a team with all that glamour and money, they ask rhetorically, not be a winner?

The argument presupposes that having movie stars sitting courtside guarantees a playoff spot, and that a huge revenue base guarantees a winner. Why then, can’t the LA Clippers cash in on this potential bonanza?  The Clippers, who have been battling the Lakers for home-crowd support since their first season in Los Angeles (1984-85), make a fascinating contrast with the Lakers: the Clippers have been the worst in the NBA, and maybe in all of professional sports, over the time span the Lakers have been the best.  In their 25 seasons in the City of Angels, the Clippers, with the same resources as the Lakers, have a winning percentage of just .347 and have made the NBA playoffs only four times. The Lakers over that period have had the highest won-lost percentage in the league, over .650, and have been in the playoffs 23 times.

In truth, the Lakers could claim to be a great deal more than just the NBAs best franchise over the last quarter century: they’ve been the NBA’s flagship franchise during the league’s boom years. The NBA’s fortunes began to skyrocket when Magic Johnson came to Los Angeles from Michigan State in 1979—or, as some historians think, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to the Lakers from the Milwaukee Bucks in 1975.

In any event, the Lakers, paced by those two future Hall of Famers, redefined sports glamour in the television age with a celebrity fan list that includes Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio; and a knockout cheerleading squad — the only one in basketball whose name anyone knows. They also produced the only play-by-play announcer to have had an impact on the English language, the late Chick Hearn, who broadcast 3,338 consecutive Lakers games from 1965 through December 2001 and in the process contributed such phrases to the American lexicon as “Putting up a brick” (for a bad shot) and “Slam dunk!” (no definition needed).

Of course, the Lakers did not win because Jack and Leo rooted them on: The celebs came because they won. Since their first NBA championship in 1950, when they were the Minneapolis Lakers—in case you were wondering where the team’s name came from—they’ve been the winningest team in American professional sports by at least one measure, the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics not excepted.

Over the last 49 seasons since their move to LA, the Lakers have finished under .500 only seven times. Just to compare, the Yankees, the most famous winner in American sports, have gone under .500 10 times since 1961 and the Boston Celtics, though they won an amazing 11 championships in the 13 seasons from 1956-1969, have dipped below the mediocrity line 14 times since 1970.

Perhaps half of the professional basketball players best known to the American public over the past five decades have been Lakers. To skim just the cream from the top: Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and last year’s MVP, Kobe Bryant (and the man who should have been MVP this year if the voters had bothered to look at the opposition he played against compared to that of Lebron James).  The kinetic Pat Riley and Zen-like Phil Jackson, winners of a combined six titles with the Lakers, exemplify the two polar opposites of basketball coaching.

It’s no secret that ABC executives as well as NBA Commissioner Daniel stern would have much rather had a Kobe Bryant-Lakers vs. Lebron James-Cavaliers final. The Orlando Magic bring neither heat nor ratings to the party.  There’s no storied rivalry as there was last year with the Lakers and Celtics. Lakers-Cavs would have been the jackpot, but ABC and the NBA will have to settle for half a jackpot and consider themselves lucky to have the only team playing who casual sports fans all over the country can easily identify. Except for the glorious aberration of the Michael Jordan years in Chicago, no NBA team has even approached the Lakers’ appeal.

The simple truth is that regardless of the outcome of the series, as the Lakers go, so goes the NBA. The Lakers Are Basketball