Archive for Sunday, August 10, 2003

Turmoil abounds in Lakers’ history

August 10, 2003


Kobe Bryant's legal problems represent the latest trouble for the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the NBA's most successful teams and, at the same time, one of its most star-crossed.

The Lakers' resume is full of enormous achievement -- 14 championships, the NBA's best all-time regular season and playoff won-loss record and the most playoff series won by any team.

And yet there is a dark side to this team's brilliant history, an undercurrent of trouble that surfaces every so often and stains the Lakers' legacy of success.

Kermit Washington of the Lakers nearly killed Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich on Dec. 7, 1977, with a devastating punch to his face at the Forum, then the Lakers' home court. Washington was suspended for 60 days and fined $10,000 -- the heaviest penalty in NBA history at the time.

"It was a catastrophic situation," said Jack McCloskey, then an assistant coach with the Lakers. "It was the hardest punch I ever saw and I've seen some big ones.

"The team was stunned that it happened. In our practices after that, I felt they were a little subdued and didn't have the energy or focus they normally had. I think it lasted throughout the season. It was always there."

The Lakers drifted to a fourth-place finish and first-round playoff elimination. Two years later, they were NBA champs, carried to the title by a precocious rookie named Magic Johnson.

There would be four more Lakers championships orchestrated by Johnson before the shocking announcement Nov. 7, 1991, that he was retiring at age 32 because he had the AIDS virus. He made a brief comeback, tried coaching and now is a successful businessman.

On the 10-year anniversary of that news conference, Johnson was a grateful man. "I feel wonderful," he said. "I celebrate life and I live every day. Every day is a holiday for me."

The Lakers' first championship in Los Angeles came in 1972, the season the team set an NBA record with 33 straight victories. Those were the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, and they became the toast of Tinseltown.

In his 1990 autobiography, Chamberlain, a Kansas University product, claimed he had affairs with 20,000 women, a stunning admission at a time during heightened concerns about sexually transmitted diseases.

Lakers standout James Worthy was arrested in 1990 for soliciting a prostitute. It did not prevent him from being picked as one of the NBA's 50 greatest players in 1997 and being elected to the Hall of Fame last April.

Then came Bryant, telling a packed news conference in Los Angeles last month that he had cheated on his wife. The admission and the sexual assault charge against him could cost him millions in endorsement income.

The common denominator in every case is the Lakers.

"They've been very fortunate because their brand has not been significantly tarnished by a number of player indiscretions over the years," said David Carter, a principal of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. "I think what it boils down to is the Lakers' brand is greater than the sum of its parts, which in this case is the players.

"Many people think player first and then the team. I think around the world, people think first of the Lakers and not always the players. The comparison there might be to the New York Yankees. It seems to be the Lakers are in rare air, getting a pass while others might not."

During their run of three straight NBA titles, there was constant squabbling in Los Angeles between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Occasionally, coach Phil Jackson was drawn into the fray, when he didn't have his own intramural spats.

And still, they win.

One day, the team introduces new stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The next day, in the same building, Bryant tearfully acknowledges cheating on his wife but proclaims his innocence to the criminal charge.

Good news, then bad news. Team Teflon or Team Turmoil, the Lakers press on, always finding a way to flourish in the fishbowl.

"It is Hollywood," said Jamaal Wilkes, who spent nine seasons playing in Los Angeles. "It's where heroes are made. It's the whole imagery thing. When it's working for you, it's awesome, when it backfires, it's equally awesome."

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