Thursday, January 28, 2010
Updated: February 1, 11:11 PM ET
The five greatest Lakers
By J.A. Adande
The same way I can make a distinction between "best player" and "most valuable," I don't assume that Kobe Bryant becoming the leading scorer in Lakers history automatically makes him the greatest Laker of all time.
Even though three of the top four scorers in NBA history -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Wilt Chamberlain -- set their final numbers while wearing Lakers uniforms, this franchise is about more than just points.
In a city that runs on show business and demands championships from its teams, the Lakers are defined by entertainment and winning. Mere victories aren't enough. They must be delivered in style.
It's the people who grasped that concept and delivered on their potential who get the accolades here. It goes beyond performance on the court. It's more about impact on the city, the people who did the most to turn the Lakers into the team that defines Los Angeles.
5. Kobe Bryant
Bryant didn't build the brand. He has ascended by climbing on the shoulders of those who came before him. If his era were stricken from the books, the Lakers still would be one of the most storied franchises in sports. That said, he has accomplished things his playing predecessors never did, such as winning three consecutive championships and later winning a championship without another surefire Hall of Famer beside him. Pau Gasol is one of the best big men in the game today, but he isn't in the discussion of all-time greats with the likes of Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal.
However, Bryant did miss the playoffs in 2004-05, then lost in the first round of the playoffs the next two years. None of the other Lakers greats ever went three years without winning a playoff series.
One advantage in Kobe's pocket: time. He can still get to six championships and have ring supremacy over everyone else who wore the uniform. His relentless quest to be the best has allowed him to enter the elite rankings, earning a berth on my list of greatest Lakers. It may still get him to the top. Here are the men he'd have to pass:
4. Jerry West
Lakers fans are realistic enough to know their team can't win championships every year. All they demand is a trip to the NBA Finals. We can trace these expectations back to the 1960 draft, when they selected Jerry West with the second pick. (I wonder if one day we'll trace the behavior of Justin Combs back to the day his father Sean "Diddy" Combs gave him a Maybach for his 16th birthday.)
With West, the Lakers went to the Finals nine times. Even though it took him until his eighth try to finally procure a championship, he set the standard: When the last NBA game of the season is being played, the Lakers should be involved. West combined with Elgin Baylor to give the Lakers instant credibility after the team arrived from Minneapolis.
What elevates West to the higher realms in Lakerland is what he did in the second phase of his career as a front-office executive. He made the moves that kept the Lakers on top in the '80s, kept them relevant in the '90s and made them the team of the new millennium.
He traded Norm Nixon for Byron Scott in 1983, an unpopular move initially but one that gave the Lakers a top-notch guard for the next 10 years. He traded Frank Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson and draft picks to San Antonio for Mychal Thompson in 1987, providing the frontcourt depth to win back-to-back championships. In 1990, he signed Sam Perkins, who made the winning shot in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the Lakers' only Finals game victory in the 1990s.
West drafted Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell and Nick Van Exel (in the second round, no less) and signed Cedric Ceballos to form the nucleus of the "Lake Show" squads that made two surprising trips to the playoffs. West maneuvered to clear the salary-cap space to sign Shaquille O'Neal, and in the process acquired the rights to the Charlotte Hornets' 1997 draft choice: Kobe Bryant.
So he gets credit not only for his own Hall of Fame career in purple and gold, but Bryant's as well. That's why he gets the higher rank.
3. Magic Johnson
Like West, Magic Johnson took the Lakers to nine NBA Finals. Unlike West, Johnson won five of them. Yes, Abdul-Jabbar was there for each of those five Lakers championships in the 1980s and was the Finals MVP in 1985. But that Lakers run of Western Conference dominance didn't start until Johnson arrived in 1979
and he did make it back to the Finals in 1991 after Abdul-Jabbar retired.
Magic was the maestro of Showtime, the one who made the Lakers the most enjoyable team to watch as well as the best. He was the most valuable player in the league twice and the MVP of the Finals three times during the 1980s. He understood that showmanship mattered in this town, thus the flair on his no-look passes, the celebratory dances and high-fives after his success. Still, he did it with substance. His focus wasn't on the most glamorous aspect of the game, scoring, but on all the other components that went into winning. How many best-ever nominees for good franchises -- west of Bill Russell on the Celtics -- had career scoring averages of less than 20 points? It's no surprise the former NBA all-time assists leader tops the franchise list in that category, but he's also third in rebounds.
He was an unusual physical specimen, the league's first 6-foot-9 point guard. But his wasn't an athletic game. He didn't dominate from the air as Michael Jordan and Bryant did. That was never his means of winning.
Once, at the charity basketball game he hosted annually, Johnson was egging on a participant in an impromptu dunk contest. The player suggested Magic try dunking himself. Magic, already retired at that point, directed everyone's attention to the championship banners hanging on the wall of the Forum. "Those are my dunks right there," Johnson said.
They were his dunks, his passes, his smiles, all represented in five pieces of golden fabric. To date no player has brought more NBA championships to L.A., which is why no player can rank ahead of him.
2. Jerry Buss
If winning matters most, then Jerry Buss has indisputably been the greatest owner in sports since he acquired the Lakers in 1979. Nine championships. That's a number that the baseball Yankees' revival in the '90s or the NFL Patriots' arrival last decade can't touch.
He consistently has spent what it took to keep the Lakers competitive, from giving Magic Johnson a then-outrageous $25 million, 25-year contract in 1981 to signing O'Neal for what was the largest contract in NBA history in 1996: $120 million. When the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to shed salary, the Lakers were more than willing to take it on and thus Gasol arrived in 2008 to make the Lakers championship material again.
By serving as the lone string connecting the past nine Lakers championships, Buss has demonstrated it was more than just the lucky coin toss that brought them the No. 1 pick and Magic, and more than the wizardry of West, who left the Lakers in 2000. It was the leadership from the top, which is the origin of all winning franchises.
Buss took his shots for dismantling the team and catering to Bryant in 2004. But he reasserted control by bringing back Phil Jackson in 2005 and refusing to bend to Bryant's desire to be traded in 2007, and the Lakers were better off for it.
Speaking of better off, Buss' $16 million investment in the Lakers is now worth $607 million, according to Forbes.
1. Chick Hearn
Even the greatest entertainers need a promoter. Muhammad Ali, master showman, had Bundini Brown. For all of the stars the Lakers have had on the court, the man who eclipses them all is Chick Hearn.
His voice provided the narrative for Lakers highlights in five different decades, on everything from West's backcourt shot against the Knicks to the final seconds of the championship three-peat in 2002.
For Hearn's importance in Lakers history I defer to the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, who described the days during which the Lakers drew fewer than 3,000 people for a playoff game, before a Hearn radio broadcast of the next game on the road brought 15,000 fans to the Sports Arena when the series returned to L.A. When the Lakers were still establishing themselves -- competing in the marketplace against the Dodgers at their most dominant and the UCLA basketball dynasty -- they used to have players drive through neighborhoods, making their pitch via loudspeaker to get people to buy tickets.
"The sound of Chick Hearn did more for the team," Murray wrote. "The Lakers prospered. And carried the pro game along with them."
You might have heard that famous voice doing Harlem Globetrotters games on "Gilligan's Island" or Goofy's soccer matches, but it served no greater purpose than to provide play-by-play for the Lakers (and hand out their championship rings). Multiple generations learned to love the Lakers through Chick Hearn.
Chick reworked the lexicon of the sport, giving birth to the phrases "slam dunk" and "dribble drive" and "air ball." He provided an education on the fly. It's because of him that generations of Southern Californians know the dimensions of the court are 94 feet by 50 feet and that the team that wins the opening tap will have the ball to begin the fourth quarter. (And thanks to Chick, who could forget the basketball seating capacity of the Forum was 17,505?)
The truest test of impact is after a person is gone. And when Chick Hearn passed away it wasn't just the legendary Lakers players who came to pay their respects; the governor of California and mayor of Los Angeles also attended his funeral Mass.
It's hard to imagine any other Laker meaning that much.
J.A. Adande is a columnist for ESPN.com.