Thursday, March 25, 2010

The year Ralph Sampson ruined my summer

The worst day for any Laker fan - going all the way back to the time when Bud Grant averaged 2 points a game with them years before he became known as a guy with an abnormal love of cold weather - had to have been when Magic retired on November 7, 1991. It was the end of an era on the court, and many people figured it was the first act in the final phase of Magic's life, one that would surely end with his death a few years later. That didn't happen, but that day - and his famous press conference - remains the most difficult day in Lakers history.

But on the court, it's tough to figure out the most frustrating game, the most gut-wrenching defeat. The entire decade of the 1960s had numerous candidates, starting with Frank Selvy's missed shot in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals. In 1969, the aging Celtics knocked off the favored Lakers in Game 7 at The Forum. Call it the Balloon Game, which proved to be as big a hit as Balloon Boy. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons hanging in the rafters, ready to drop once the Lakers won and vanquished their rivals. Instead, Wilt got banged up, Don Nelson caught a lucky break on an ugly jumper and Jerry West inched one step closer to madness. There's the Willis Reed game in 1970. There are Games 4 and 7 in the 1984 Finals, a series the Lakers often dominated, only to lose - again - to the Celtics.

Game Five of the 1986 Western Conference Finals wasn't quite as devastating as any of those games, but it was hell on an 11-year-old. The defending champion Lakers had won the Western Conference four straight seasons. They cruised to victory in the first game, but Houston - led by Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon - rolled to victories the next three. Game 5 was in The Forum. It was LA's last stand:

There are numerous great moments in this clip. First, there appear to be living, breathing fans sitting in The Forum. At various times many of them even stand up to cheer, an uncommon sight, even during the most dominant victories. Kareem plays like a young Lew Alcindor. A dunk over Sampson on the first play. An offensive rebound and dunk over Sampson and Hakeem. A fastbreak dunk. A fadeaway in the lane.

People criticized Kareem after this series for being dominated on the boards by the Twin Towers. But he was still extremely effective, the most reliable threat. And, of course, he was 39 years old! Yet he was still the focus of the Lakers offense; it'd be another year before Magic asserted himself more with his scoring. How good was Kareem that season? Earlier in the year, he scored 46 points against Houston. That came a month after he lit up the Rockets for 43 points. For comparison, Shaq just turned 38. Next year, can you see him averaging 23 points for the season - like Kareem did at 39 - and going for 46 and 43 in back-to-back games against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol?

Magic himself has a classic series starting at the 1:20 mark. First a perfect pass to a cutting Cooper. Then a steal and a coast-to-coast drive.

But slowly Houston chips away on a 14-point deficit, helped by the fact the Lakers had four players on the court teamed up with a uniformed corpse - Maurice Lucas. Ol' Luke was a hell of a player for the 1977 title-winning Blazers, but at this point he was Kwame Brown with better hands. And at the 4-minute mark, Hakeem begins to toy with the Lakers, unleashing the spin moves and fadeaways that would humiliate David Robinson nine years later.

At 4:55, Dick Stockton utters a most unfortunate phrase when describing Hakeem's brilliance. "Here's a guy who's aroused," says Stockton, though the visual evidence thankfully doesn't confirm the observation.

With just a few minutes left in the game - and just past the 7:20 mark on the video - Hakeem fights Mitch Kupchak. The benches empty after the scuffle. Today this fight would lead to a dozen suspensions and a hundred columns about how the NBA is out of control and run by thugs. Back then it was a normal occurrence, even if this fight took place at an abnormal time: with the game on the line. The refs tossed both players. The Lakers lost a backup power forward with bad hair playing on one leg who retired at the end of the year. The Rockets lost the most dominant center in the league. A brilliant move by Kupchak. Yet the Lakers still couldn't put Houston away, as Sampson took over.

Finally it comes down to the last 30 seconds. After Robert Reid hit a game-tying 3-pointer in the corner, the Lakers had the ball for the final possession. At worst, it should have gone into OT. But instead of having Kareem or Magic or Worthy or Cooper shoot, the Lakers went to Byron Scott, an outstanding shooter but a guy not known for clutch plays. The young guard bricked a wide open 20-footer, setting the stage for one of the most famous shots in NBA history. With a second left, Sampson caught the inbound pass and fired in the same motion. (Lakers should have had a man guarding the inbound passer.) It's the type of shot that only a 7-foot-4 player could take and make. It bounces on the rim before falling through the net, followed by Michael Cooper falling to the court. The Rockets dance off the court and on the Lakers' grave.

Dick Stockton called it a miraculous shot. He didn't have to add that it likely aroused countless Rocket fans.

A dominant Boston team defeated Houston in six games for the NBA title. Many Celtic fans are still bitter that they didn't get to play the Lakers in 1986, since Boston would have been favored. The argument goes that somehow the Lakers knew they'd lose to Boston so maybe they didn't quite give it their all against Houston. And, they logically concluded, since the Celtics would have won, that means Bird would have two victories over Magic in the Finals, the same way Magic has two over Bird. It's the type of thinking that happens to brains exposed to too much alcohol or cigar smoke. Not to mention, if they're handing out hypothetical victories, then Magic should get one in 1982 - when the Lakers beat the Sixers in six games - since they would have also beaten the Celtics, and in 1988, when the Lakers scratched past Detroit in seven but would have surely beat Boston in fewer games. I know, it doesn't make any sense. But that's the Celtic mindset.

I didn't see the ending live. For one of the few times as a young Lakers fan, I went to bed early, too nervous to watch what might be the last game of the season. My dad told me the next day at breakfast what had happened. I detected a bit too much glee in his description of the shot. I moped through school that day. My teacher asked if it was because of the Lakers. What else would it be, the B+ on the social studies test?

Many people thought that game wasn't just the end of the season, but would be the last stand for Showtime. The Twin Towers were the future, the thinking went. The days of running up and down the court were over. In the off-season, the Lakers talked with Dallas about a trade that would have sent Worthy to the Mavs for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley. It turned out to be one of the best trades the Lakers never made. Instead of going big, the Lakers rededicated themselves to running, while also handing the offense completely over to Magic. The result? Back-to-back titles the next two years, and a third trip to the finals in 1989. Houston, meanwhile, crumbled due to injuries and drug suspensions. It'd be eight years before the Rockets returned to the Finals. The common denominator, of course, was Hakeem, who was still the most dominant center in the league. But even in '94 and '95, Kareem probably could have gone for 25 against the Dream.

Injuries derailed Sampson and this shot against the Lakers was the highlight of his career. Sampson never won a title and never even made it back to the Finals. Still, if you're going to be primarily remembered for one shot, it might as well be one of the most famous shots in NBA history. Someday I'll get over it.


Jerry said...

You didn't watch the end of the game? I am shocked!! That was about the time your dad was going thru his Celtic phase wasn't it? Makes me wonder if we maybe shouldn't run a DNA test to see if he is actually related to us by NOT cheering for the Lakers!!

Shawn Fury said...

He was in Celtics phase, yes. Bird phase, McHale phase, or, something-to-debate-his-son-in phase. I think he secretly still liked them, but it was more fun cheering for the Celtics and against the Lakers because I liked them. Otherwise, Jerry and Elgin and the others from the 60s would be spinning, knowing he'd gone green.

The Finals in '86, in Game 6 when Boston clinched we were in Kansas City visiting.

Dad said...

That is enough with the DNA talk. Wasn't Jim Petersen a integral part of the Rockets that year?

Shawn Fury said...

We're definitely related; we have the exact same terrible handwriting, though mine might be slightly more terrible. Petersen was a good body off the bench, although I don't think I'd call him a Triple Tower. He did have a lot more hair.

Jerry said...

And stone hands...