Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lakers and legacies

I can remember watching Game 6 of the 1987 Finals. The Lakers clinched their fourth title of the decade with an afternoon (!) victory over the Celtics, a game highlighted by James Worthy's steal and dive along the sideline in the second half. I never forget Lakers cheers, or Celtic tears. I watched the end of the game at my grandpa's farm, two days after finishing up a basketball camp against Fulda youth.

The Lakers won and the Celtics lost and fans from both cheered or mourned. CBS broke out Steve Winwood and the final clips to end the telecast played to "Back in the High Life Again." People debated what the victory meant in the Larry vs. Magic debate and the Celtics vs. Lakers arguments that dominated the decade. But as far as I remember writers and analysts did not spend hours and hours arguing about whether this meant Magic was better than Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. And if people did debate it, no one got offended at the idea. No one wondered if the loss - which dropped him to 3-2 in the Finals - damaged Larry Bird's legacy. Can you imagine, he was barely .500 in the Finals?

Yet in the days leading up to Game 7 of the 2010 Finals - and in the days since - the word legacy has appeared in countless stories, and almost always in stories about Kobe Bryant. Before the game people contemplated what kind of damage a loss would do to his legacy. It'd be a third loss in the finals and he'd be 4-3. Four and three! Embarrassing, right? A shameful blight on his resume, a number that, one writer noted, would go in the first line of his NBA obituary. And two of those losses would be against the Celtics. In the same story these people would mention how that would prove Kobe could never be better than Magic. After all Magic went...5-4 in the Finals. And lost a Game 7 to the Celtics. And choked in that particular series.

Then they actually played the game and the Lakers won. But Kobe struggled, shooting an Iverson-like 6-for-24. Sure, he won the MVP but people wrote that the game could damage his...legacy. After all, Michael Jordan would never perform like that in a Game 7. And Michael Jordan never even needed a Game 7, he always won in five or six games. But if he had - if he had gone to 7 - rest assured, he would have scored 47 points on 18-24 shooting.

It's all a little maddening. No matter what Kobe Bryant does on the basketball court, people want to write about a North Carolina native who hasn't played an NBA game in seven years and hasn't won a title in 12. No, I don't think Kobe's as good as Jordan. But I think it's okay to say that there are some things that Kobe has done that Jordan didn't (for instance, no one in the NBA had ever averaged 40 points in a month since Elgin and Wilt did it in the absurd scoring days of the 1960s. No one - not even Jordan - did it until Kobe, that is. And he's done it three times, in February 2003, January 2006 and March 2007). And there's a chance, a chance, that he might win more titles than Jordan.

It's okay to say those things. It doesn't hurt Michael Jordan's legacy. Or his feelings. The first commandment - the one about not having any other gods in front of the big guy - was not, in actuality, about Michael Jordan. It's not blasphemous to mention other players in the same sentence as Jordan. Even one of Michael Jordan's kids tweeted that Kobe should not be compared to his father, a modern day version of My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad, or at least sell more shoes and underwear.

There are other odd arguments when it comes to those who sometimes try to diminish Bryant's accomplishments. One of the oldest is he had Shaq for the first three titles, which means, apparently, that they don't really count. Or maybe they count for, say, half a title. And, sure, he's now won two titles in a row but he needed Pau Gasol to do it. Why couldn't he win a title with Kwame Brown, huh?

Again, in the 1980s - and today - did anyone hold it against Magic that he played with Kareem and Worthy, a pair of Hall of Famers, one of whom might be the best center in the game's history? Did anyone hold it against Bird that his last two titles came when he had three Hall of Fame teammates? Who are the three other Hall of Famers in the Lakers lineup now? Put Gasol in, though he'd be a stretch now. Can you find two more? Powell? Vujacic? Bryant's the leader of a great team. He's now repeated as a champion three times, something Bird, Duncan and so many others never even did once.

How can that hurt a legacy?

All of that legacy talk actually centers around a larger trend that seems to be even more prevalent in today's media world. The complete inability to simply enjoy a moment. People often seem unable to savor a game or a performance without comparing it to a hundred others they've seen.

Game 7 was not a classic in terms of beauty. The offenses were offensive, the defenses dominant. But it was memorable, intense and historic, just like any game 7 and especially one between the Lakers and Celtics. I enjoyed the result, even if the actual game took at least two years off my life. Down below I'll try and put it in some historical perspective. And I'll do the same thing in 10 years. But whenever I break out the tape of that game, I hope I can always enjoy the game for what it was, the same way I enjoy Game 4 of the 1987 Finals or Game 7 in 1988 or Game 4 against Indiana in 2000.

People are often so caught up in comparing the present to the past that they don't enjoy what they're watching right now. I'm as obsessed with NBA history as anyone - as this blog and my tape collection proves - but I always try and appreciate the game as it's played now. The only people more annoying than those who ridicule past players, teams and styles of play are those who are stuck in the past and refuse to acknowledge the greatness of today's players and teams. It's fun to talk about legacies, unless you let the legacies of former players overwhelm the guys who are still writing theirs.

Oh, here's Kobe scoring 40 points in 19 minutes. Against Michael Jordan.


And now let's talk about history. And legacies. Ahem.

The Lakers have now won 11 titles in LA. I can remember 10 of them, starting with Magic's legendary performance in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. Which one was the most satisfying? One man's rankings. And these are most satisfying, not necessarily which Lakers team I think was the best or the most dominant. Satisfying. Starting with...

1. 1985. I think most Lakers fans place this one at the top. The Lakers finally beat the Celtics after eight straight losses to Boston. A year before, the Lakers choked in two games as Boston won in seven. The '85 Finals started with the Memorial Day Massacre, but ended with Kareem, Magic and Worthy dancing off the court in victory. As Dick Stockton said in the should-have-been-nominated-for-an-Oscar-or-an-Emmy video Return to Glory, "It was the greatest of the Lakers nine NBA championships. For Wilt, Elgin, Jerry and everyone who wore a purple and gold uniform, this was the fulfillment of a promise, and a return to glory."

2. 1988. There are about four different titles that could reside here. I'm going with 1988 because of the history. The Lakers became the first team since Russell's Celtics to repeat as champions. It'd been 19 years. In the last two decades we've gotten used to teams repeating, from Jordan's Bulls to Houston to the Lakers from the first part of the decade. But through the 1970s and '80s, no one could go back-to-back, not even legendary teams. A year before, Pat Riley had guaranteed the Lakers would repeat, a motivational ploy that ultimately worked. Today it seems like a player makes a ludicrous guarantee every week - Patrick Ewing seemed to specialize in this - but Riley's proclamation put pressure on the team and they actually responded to it. The Lakers outlasted Utah and Dallas in seven games and then survived Detroit. The victory also clinched the title of Team of the Decade, as the Lakers won their fifth of the '80s, two more than Boston.

Here are a few videos from a couple of the key games that year. In Game 5 against Utah, the Lakers needed a late jumper by Michael Cooper to prevail, giving them a 3-2 lead.

And here's the seventh game against Dallas. The Mavericks hung in through part of the second half before Magic and the break took over.

3. 2010. Hey, this one's familiar. The elements that put it here: It's the Celtics. It was a Game 7. It was a repeat. It's revenge from 2008. Kobe himself called it the sweetest of his five titles. They came back from 13 down in the second half. And Ron Artest's post-game conference also elevates it. Oddly, Jerry West acted the same way after the '72 title.

4. 1972. After years of frustration, the Lakers finally win a title in LA. It wasn't just the losses to Boston. In 1970 the Knicks humiliated the Lakers in Game 7 as a guy with one leg - Willis Reed - sparked New York, further cementing LA's reputation as being chokers. They erased those memories - or at least scratched over them a bit - with the help of an absurd 33-game winning streak.

5. 1980. This game set the stage for the next decade, and the clinching game - the aforementioned Game 6 - remains one of the most famous games in Finals history.

6. 1987. This was the rubber match between the Celtics and Lakers, after each team had won a title from the other. The Celtics battled injuries but it was the Lakers year, regardless. This game included the most famous shot of Magic's career, the junior skyhook in Game 4. It was also satisfying because the year before, many people had written at least the first line to LA's obit, and it started with, "The Twin Towers have replaced Showtime..." Houston stunned the Lakers in five games in 1986 and many expected the Rockets to control the West the rest of the decade. The Lakers entertained the thought of trading James Worthy to Dallas. They kept the team intact - while adding Mychal Thompson - and went on to win two more titles and appear in four more Finals.

7. 2000. It'd been 12 years since the Lakers won a title, but Shaq, Kobe and Phil Jackson combined with Devean George to start the three-peat. This renewed the Lakers franchise while kickstarting a mini dynasty.

8. 2002. The Finals were anticlimactic that year - the Lakers swept that year's East patsy, the Nets. But the series against the Kings - Horry's shot, the Game 7 victory, cries of conspiracy from Kings fans - made this season memorable. It was also the third straight title, a feat the Lakers will accomplish again in 2011.

9. 2009. Kobe proved he could win without Shaq, provided he had a sidekick not named Kwame or Chucky. After four years in mediocrity, the Lakers returned to the top of the league.

10. 2001. The most dominant postseason run of any team in league history. The Lakers went an amazing 15-1 in the playoffs, the only loss coming in Game 1 of the Finals, an overtime defeat against Philadelphia. An even more remarkable stat: the Lakers won the final eight games of the regular season that year. And to start the 2001-02 season, they started the season 16-1. So over a 41-game span - half a season - they went 39-2. Of course, if Michael Jordan had been on that team instead of Kobe, they'd have gone 40-1.

11. 1982. Sort of the forgotten title of the Showtime years. Nothing real spectacular happened in the six-game victory over Philly. The other titles that decade all had an iconic moment. Still, this was a dominant team, led, of course, by Magic and Kareem, but Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon also enjoyed standout seasons. One reason this title doesn't get enough credit is that the championship video is one of the worst produced by any sports organization. It's all creepy music and fan shots, with little game action. It looks like a high school sophomore prepared it and came home with a C-minus grade. That video's not on YouTube, but here are some clips from LA stations.

And some leftover thoughts from the Finals:

* ABC can't compete with the old intros from CBS and NBC - memories of Brent Musburger's narration and John Tesh's sweet notes are too strong. The network does compile a pretty good montage that plays after the player intros. It includes clips from previous finals, played to stirring music. I have one minor complaint. The montage begins just after the one-minute mark.

My complaint's about the famous Michael Jordan shot against the Lakers in 1991. Go back and watch, it's at the 2:40 mark. See if you notice anything wrong with the clip. Only NBA nerds and those with Michael Jordan tattoos on their stomachs might see it. The problem? They have the shot going in as a swish. In reality, he banked it. To swish it, he would have had to defy all known laws of physics. Not a big deal. And I'm sure they did it because it helped the graphics flow better, but damn it, if you're setting the stage for a historical game and you're using the history of the game to set the scene, use the facts.

Here's the real shot. Off glass.

My letter of complaint to ABC is in the mail.

* Adam Morrison now has more rings than Jerry West, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, J.J. Redick and LeBron James combined.

* Game 7 might have been the final game of Rasheed Wallace's career. What an odd career. An unblockable turnaround jumper on the block, nearly unlimited range on his jumper. Yet he'll almost certainly be remembered mostly for his temper and his technicals. He was there the last time a team collapsed in a Game 7 like that - with Portland in 2000, when the Blazers blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, in a game that shared many similarities to last Thursday's. Here's one of Rasheed's more enjoyable ejections. Ejected for staring, with the referee saying, "Whack, get out!"

* The Celtics certainly missed Kendrick Perkins in Game 7. But ultimately I don't think he would have made a difference. And even if he did, I wouldn't feel bad about the Lakers winning in his absence. Do the Pistons have any regrets about the 1989 title, being that Byron Scott didn't play and Magic played basically a game and a half? Do the Lakers feel bad about the 1988 title, being that Isiah played Game 7 on a sprained ankle, the same injury that might have kept him from winning Game 6 for Detroit? The Bulls clinched their first title in 1991 against a backcourt of Magic Johnson and...Tony Smith, who was filling in for an injured Scott. There are countless examples of injuries damaging teams in the finals. Perkins's knee injury is the latest, and it won't be the last. Of course, it goes without saying the Lakers would have won in 2008 if Bynum had been healthy...

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