Thursday, August 11, 2011

God Bless[es] the Los Angeles Lakers

I haven’t been to church very much. Save for a wedding here or there, I’ve actually never really been to a church on Sunday. The only possible exception is the time I went to a Southern Baptist church for a R&B class I took in college. To hear some gospel music. I wish I made that up. Yes kids, being a music major is very difficult.

I went to a Catholic college and took biblical religion despite being not being Catholic, let alone religious. I’m not sure what I believed in before those four years in Boston, but I don’t think it was God. God just wasn’t…cool. Well, the Christian God, anyway. And I don’t mean to say that judgmentally, that’s just the facts. I went to 30 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs when I was in 7th grade. Obviously this is a byproduct of me being INCREDIBLY popular as a 13 year old, but I suppose if you brush aside my massive ego that shrouds my burning fires of self-doubt, you could surmise the root cause would be that I grew up amongst a lot of Jewish families. If I was going to believe in God, I’m not sure it’d be the one whose son got his ass kicked for all of us about 2000 years ago.

Is this a confession? I am being born again before your very eyes? The answer is of course not. This is a sports blog. Don’t be ridiculous.

After four years of bible study and living with 11 Catholic kids and their guilt, I think I believe in God now. I’m pretty sure I do anyway (peer pressure is cool, you definitely should do it!). And over this time, I’ve learned that if God loves you, He’s going to bless you and your lineage for years and decades to come. So obviously God loves the Los Angeles Lakers

I’ll say it before you do – that opening set of paragraphs there seems only tangentially related to the subject of this article. In life, we call that “a reach”. In writing, we call that a “hook”. On this blog, we call that "an attempt at legitimate journalism". But the truth is, 7 years ago, I never would have written something like this, because I don’t think I would have truly believed it.

I’ve combed through the extensive history of the Lakers, as one does when he’s a) a fantatic and b) has had a spotty employment history over the past two years. I’ve uncovered that the sustained success and winning tradition of the Lakers is second to almost no one in the history of North American professional sports. The miraculous and consistent resurrections of the “nearly dead” Lakers have happened so many times in the past 60 years that they’re incredibly difficult to count, unless you are temping as a receptionist at a technological consulting company for two weeks and you really don’t have anything better to do (if that sounded really specific, it is because I am poor and I did not want to slang drugs to pay my rent. Also, I do not know how to slang anything, or where to get said drugs). Everything about the history of the Lakers goes beyond simple “luck” and intelligent decision-making. Something else has to be there. And I think it might be God.


The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the premier franchises not only in the National Basketball Association, but also in North American professional sports. They boast 16 championships, which less than only the New York Yankees (27 World titles), the Montreal Canadiens (24 titles) and that stupid team from Boston. According to Forbes magazine, the Lakers are one of the most valuable NBA franchises, at over $601 million. The purple and gold jersey is recognized the world over, as are former Lakers icons Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and of course, Kobe Bryant.

So obviously the Lakers are successful. Obviously they turn a profit and obviously they are one of the most popular franchises in the world. If you listen to any interview with Pau Gasol, he'll use the word "obviously" at least 7 times. But what differentiates them from say, the Dallas Cowboys? Or the Pittsburgh Penguins, home to Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby? Or even the hated Boston Celtics with their rich history and 17 championship banners? What makes the Lakers stand out from the rest of these mere mortal teams is that an endless line of lucky draft picks, excellent free agent signings and one-sided trades seem to fall into their laps . Except lets trade the words "lucky", "excellent" and "one-sided", with "Heaven sent".


On with the facts:

In the past 60 years, the Los Angeles Lakers have drafted, in order:

George Mikan
Elgin Baylor
Jerry West
Magic Johnson
James Worthy

In the past 60 years, the Los Angeles Lakers have traded for:

Wilt Chamberlain
Gail Goodrich
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
Kobe Bryant
Pau Gasol

In the past 60 years, the Los Angeles Lakers have signed from free agency:

Shaquille O'Neal

Oh, those guys? This list looks like a who’s who of NBA history. This collection of men have combined for 8 MVPs, 12 Finals MVPs, 57 1st Team All-NBA appearances and 16 NBA championships. And 8 of them are Hall of Famers, not including Shaquille's or Kobe's or possibly Pau's future introductions. In fact, you could look at almost Mikan, Baylor, West, Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic and Kobe, and say that they were one of, if not the most influential and important player of his generation. Even for the most jaded of NBA-head, that’s pretty incredible.

While all these names and figures are very impressive, it is not so much that the Lakers collect titles, individual accolades and Hall of Famers like Wilt collected harems - it's the sustained manner in which they have done so for over 60 years now. Looking at an overview of their history, it just seems as though every time the Lakers are “dead”, another "lucky" incident will happen - an impossible trade, an acquired draft pick turns into a top-5 selection - and all of the sudden, the Lakers are contending for yet another title. Let's lock-in for a little history lesson and examine how all these events miraculously happened.


The franchise was started in 1947 in beautiful (I'm told...I'm never going there) Minneapolis, MN. The Lakers won their first title in 1949, which turned out to be the first of 5 in the span of 6 years. This was all done under the leadership of George Mikan, the league’s best player at the time, and now regarded as the game's first true superstar (though the guy, Saint Mamba rest his soul, resembles my sister's physics teacher from 11th grade).

As Mikan retired early from injuries, the club finished last in 1958 and ended up with the first overall pick in the draft - which ended up being Elgin Baylor, future 10-time 1st Team All-NBA small forward and Hall of Famer. Despite Elgin's future promise, the team ended up with at 25-50 record and landed the no. 2 pick in the very next year’s draft. That pick ended up being Jerry West. He is otherwise known as first Finals MVP, an NBA Champion, 19th on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Hall-of-Famer. If you still don't know who is he, just look at the NBA logo. That's his silhouette. That guy was a Laker.

So just to recap, by the beginning of the 1960-61 season, we have 3 of the game's greatest players and 5 titles. We have cratered twice, and both times we drafted one of the greatest players ever. Not too bad for the first dozen or so years of the league’s existence.

In the summer of 1960, Lakers owner moved the franchise from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and the team benefited financially and on the court - they made the playoffs each of the next 8 years and the finals 5 of those times.

Unfortunately for Elgin, Jerry and the Lakers, the Boston Celtics stood in their way- beating Los Angeles in all five of those Finals matchups. Just when they thought they would not be able to get over the hump, the Lakers made their first of many great-future-Hall-of-Fame-NBA-big-man-getting-traded-for-a-bunch-of-guys-whose-names-don't-matter-because-they-amounted-to-nothing trades; getting the immortal Wilt Chamberlain from Philly.

With Jerry and Wilt (Elgin retired in the beginning of the 1971 season), the Lakers won the 1971-72 title, their first in LA. The Logo retired two years later and the Lakers missed the playoffs for two seasons in a row. For many teams, this is business as usual, the cost of keeping (and winning with) aging stars. For the Lakers, this would be the longest such streak they would ever have in LA. Then, after the 1974-75 season, they would make their second great-future-Hall-of-Fame-NBA-big-man-getting-traded-for-a-bunch-of-guys-whose-names-don't-matter-because-they-amounted-to-nothing trade, getting the Captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar from Milwaukee. For those keeping score, in a 10 year span they traded for two of the greatest 5 players of all time, each time after they thought they were screwed. JESUS. And I'm not just saying that for emphasis...I really think this was the work of Jesus.

Despite Kareem's excellence, the team couldn't quite get to the Finals. However, during this time, the Lakers had already traded for, and subsequently traded future HOFer Gail Goodrich. Who did they trade him out for? A few draft picks from Utah, one of which turned out to be a future #1 pick in the 1979 draft. They used that to choose a guy from Michigan State University. His name is Earvin Johnson. Some people call him Magic.

From there the story is well known - 9 Finals appearances in 12 years, with 5 of those resulting in championships. Magic carved out a place for him amongst the games greats, and until Michael Jordan's reign in the 90's, was considered the greatest player ever to live. And by the way, in the midst of all that winning, they somehow traded a guy named Don Ford (averaged 6.4 points per game in his distinguished NBA career) for the future draft rights to future NBA champion, future Finals MVP and future Hall of Famer "Big Game" James Worthy. GOD. LOVES. THE LAKERS.

As the 90s began, the stars of the 80s made their way out of the NBA; Kareem after the 89' season, Magic before the 91-92 season and James Worthy 12 games into the 1994-95 season. Pat Riley, Showtime and all of their accompanying accomplishments were gone. The squad missed the playoffs for the first time in 20 years and did not win more than 48 games (though, by comparison, the Los Angeles Clippers have never won 48 games....ever) until the 1995-1996 season.

During those few years of futility, General Manager Jerry West managed to keep pieces moving, in order to clear cap room for the summer of 1995. Shaquille O'Neal, who in only his fourth year in the league was named as one of the 50 greatest players of all-time, had somehow managed to become a free agent. West wasted no time, signing Shaquille to a 7-year deal, simultaneously resurrecting the thought-dead Lakers and sinking the upstart Orlando Magic (thank God no one would ever let a free-agent fiasco like that ever happen again! Good thing the league learned its lesson). A few weeks before, West had made a much more under-the-radar move, trading starting center Vlade Divac for some 17 year-old kid from Philly named Kobe Bryant. At the time, it was a bold move, given that Divac was a 27 year-old center and just averaged 13 ppg and 8.6 rpg, to go along with some of the best passing that the league had ever seen from a big man. But looking back on it, I think the trade ended up being worth it. The combination of Shaquille, Kobe and coach Phil Jackson went on to 4 finals, 3 titles and 812 articles by Bill Plaschke.

After a tumultuous 2004 offseason which saw Shaq and Phil acrimoniously depart Los Angeles, the team nosedived to a 34-48 record with Kobe, missing the playoffs for the third time in 30 years (dios Mamba!). Though this enabled them to draft Andrew Bynum, now regarded as one of the best young centers in the game, the Lakers looked like Job. God had forsaken them. They had no cap room to speak of, and Kobe was flanked with guys like Smush Parker, Brian Grant, Jumaine Jones and Luke Walton. They were in no man’s land. Kobe was too good for them to be a lottery team, but they weren’t good enough to compete for a title.

After slugging their way through two 45 and 42 win seasons (albeit seasons where Kobe averaged 34 ppg, scored 81 in a single contest and was the single best player on the planet), GM Mitch Kupchak pulled off an astonishing coup, as he made the latest great-future-Hall-of-Fame-NBA-big-man-getting-traded-for-a-bunch-of-guys-whose-names-don't-matter-because-they-amounted-to-nothing trade in team history, getting Spanish forward Pau Gasol. Pau and Kobe have teamed for 3 Finals appearances in four seasons, winning two titles, and counting.

By the way, Chick Hearn called Lakers games for 50 years.


In summary, the Lakers have gone through this chain of players, with a 2 year gap or less in between them:

George Mikan (1947-1956) - Elgin Baylor (1958-1971) - Jerry West (1960-1974)- Wilt Chamberlain (1968-1973) - Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (1975-1989) - Magic Johnson (1979-1991) - James Worthy (1982-1994) - Shaquille O'Neal (1996-2004) - Kobe Bryant (1996-Current) - Pau Gasol (2008-Current)

I haven’t always been a man of faith. I am a logical person, sometimes to a logical fault. To be honest, the most illogical thing that I consistently do is cheer for groups of large men I have no relationship with to succeed in an organized competition of somewhat arbitrary goals and movements. But as I pored over the history of this team and how seamlessly the eras of legends, championships and success overlapped one another, I couldn’t help but explain it with anything but incredible luck and faith.

Let me clarify. This is not to disparage the incredible work that GM Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak , Pat Riley or anyone before did. It's not like they were buffoons whose success was just a bi-product of a free-spending owner and his millions. I mean, this isn’t an examination of Brian Cashman or anything (oh, ka-pow!). Both Jack Kent Cooke and Dr. Jerry Buss has been incredibly shrewd with their front-office personnel choices, and their general managers have, more often than not, been able to put themselves into places where if the perfect opportunity were to present itself, they would be ready to strike. That has nothing to do with divine intervention or luck. That is just a very smart owner wisely choosing the right people to run his business. However, it is the fact that these perfect opportunities to continually fall into the laps of the Lakers is what makes me think that God has something to do with it. A lot of teams are in great position to make great trades or draft great players. But that home run ball just isn’t coming across the plate at the right time. Luckily for the Lakers, they've been Albert Pujols staring down a fastball dead red down the middle.

One more note - It would be one thing is this happened for one or two decades, but this has been going on for six. As in sixty years. Absolutely astonishing. And with all the incessant chatter and rumors of Dwight Howard to the Lakers, I wouldn't at all be surprised if this continues for another 10.

In his "Book of Basketball", NBA writer Bill Simmons refers to the Lakers' string of success and simply says "[they've] gotten really lucky. But one day, their luck will run out". If history has taught us anything, I don’t think so Bill. And I know Someone else that agrees with me.

1 comment:

  1. nice job jinxing them, idiot.

    when you are a knicks fan, you have to believe in god. otherwise, what's it all for?