April 10, 2016

Jerry, Kareem, Magic & Chick

Last weekend I was in Los Angeles for a quick trip out of town centered around my beloved but beleaguered Washington Wizards taking on the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center in downtown L.A. Given the way this season has gone, the Wizards lost of course but that's not what I'm writing about now.

On the north side of Staples Center, just between the building and Chick Hearn Court (the road immediately to the north), there's a small plaza (called Star Plaza) which allows people to gather while waiting to enter the building. It's a great idea from a crowd control and safety standpoint: it allows folks to stand off the street before the game while also keeping the sidewalks clear and it lets those same people get out of the building at the end of a game or event without having to step right into traffic.

In Star Plaza there are six statues celebrating the heroes of the past of the building's primary tenants, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings, and another of Oscar De La Hoya, the L.A. born boxer who over his career held title belts in six different weight classes, none of which (ironically) were won at Staples Center. Statues of Clippers players are conspicuously absent but it's really not surprising: nobody has ever done anything in a Clips uniform which is statue-worthy. For the majority of their 45 year history, the team has done almost nothing worth celebrating. Sure there have been two division titles (both in the last four years) but they've never made it beyond the second round of the playoffs. Never!

When Doc Rivers became head coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Clippers, he was irked by the Lakers banners and graphics on display during Clippers home games. After all, he thought, people were coming to see the Clippers, not their more successful co-tenant at Staples, so why can't the building look like a Clippers home game with no trace of Lakers stuff around? Good question. And his thought worked. Enter the building during a Clips home game and you will indeed see no purple and gold hanging anywhere for people to see.

But they don't take down the statues outside the building during a Clippers home game. So I'm going to do something that would likely irk Doc Rivers if he ever read this little blog and that's pay some attention to the Lakers, even though I was there to see the Clippers. Sort of. They really just happened to be playing my team that day.

By all reckoning, the Los Angeles Lakers are true NBA royalty. They are one of the original 11 teams which started in the league in 1946 (albeit in Minneapolis) and they have won more NBA titles (16) than any other team except for the Boston Celtics (who have won 17). They have far and away the most NBA Finals appearances of any team, with 15 losses to go with their 16 titles, a combined 31 Finals appearances. They have also been remarkably consistent, winning titles in every decade the NBA has existed except for two: the 1960s and the 1990s. Admittedly, four of their 16 titles came while the team was in Minneapolis.

It should come as no surprise then that some of the NBA's best players ever have starred with the Lakers over their 31 Finals appearances. All told, the Lakers have retired nine numbers. Nobody will ever wear 13, 22, 25, 32, 33, 34, 42, 44 or 52 for that franchise ever again, unless someone pulls a Bruce Bowen and lets the team un-retire his number. The Lakers decided to make three of those retired jerseys into statues. Here's who you will find outside of Staples if you visit.

Jerry West
1960-1974, NBA Champion 1972, Number 44

Of all the players in the history of the Lakers, Jerry West is perhaps the most tragic. He was drafted by the Lakers in 1960, just one season removed from their last championship in Minneapolis. In West's second season, the Lakers (now in Los Angeles) were back in the NBA Finals facing the Boston Celtics. The Lakers lost to the Cs, as they would the next five times they made the Finals with West on their roster. When they finally made the Finals facing someone other than the Celtics in 1970, they lost to the New York Knicks. Ten seasons in the NBA with seven Finals appearances and no ring. Although he did win NBA Finals MVP in a losing effort in 1969.

After a year away from the Finals in 1971, West's time would finally come, again versus the New York Knicks, a 4-2 victory to secure the 1972 NBA Championship. It was West's first and only title; he would lose his only other shot in 1973 (again to the Knicks).

West hasn't done so bad for himself following his playing days. He stayed on with the Lakers after he retired in the front office and secured six additional titles with the club as an executive. He also managed to grab another ring last year as general manager of the Golden State Warriors in addition to making the NBA's 50th Anniversary Team and being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The NBA also designed their logo based on his silhouette. Not bad at all.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1975-1989, NBA Champion 1971*, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, Number 33

The season following Jerry West's retirement, the Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1959-1960 season, the year before West's rookie year. But the Lakers were in luck. The Milwaukee Bucks' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who in his first six seasons in Milwaukee had walked off with three MVP awards and the 1971 NBA Championship, was sick of life in the midwest and demanded the Bucks trade him to either the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers won out.

Kareem turned out to not be an instant cure all for the Lakers. In his first season in L.A., the team failed to make the playoffs for the second straight year. But Kareem turned out to be remarkably durable over his career and anchored the Lakers' starting lineup for the next 15 years, winning five titles in Los Angeles in addition to doubling the number of MVP awards in his trophy case.

Kareem is shown in statue form outside Staples executing his famous and pretty much impossible sky hook shot. He retired in 1989 as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, a mark he holds to this day. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.

*With the Milwaukee Bucks.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson
1979-1991, 1995-1996, NBA Champion 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, Number 32

Despite having one of the premier players in the game in the late 1970s in Kareem, the Lakers could not get back to the NBA Finals in his first four seasons in Los Angeles. That changed in the 1979-1980 season when the team drafted Earvin Johnson first overall in the 1979 NBA Draft. Showtime was born.

In his first ten years in the league, Magic led the Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times, taking home the trophy in five of those seasons, including his rookie year when he sealed the deal by scoring 42 points playing center in the deciding game against the Philadelphia 76ers. He also won two MVP trophies during that span and added a third during he 1989-1990 season when the Lakers fell short of the Finals. His career was cut short when it was discovered he had contracted the HIV virus and was forced to retire.

I'm not sure what the deal with Magic's statue outside Staples is. He seems to be bursting out of the black pyramid below his feet as if he is being spit out of some sort of abstract volcano. Of all the Lakers statues outside the building, Magic is less strictly representational and more cartoon-hero like. I think I like the realism better.

Francis "Chick" Hearn

Ever heard the term "no harm, no foul"? What about "garbage time"? How about "triple double"? "Air ball"? "Slam dunk"? Well if it wasn't for Chick Hearn, you might never have heard any of these.

Chick Hearn was a true pioneer for NBA broadcasters, serving as the Lakers primary play-by-play voice from the time the team relocated to Los Angeles in 1960 until he left the air in December 2001. That's more than 41 years doing the same job night in and night out. Starting on November 20, 1965, Chick broadcast 3,338 consecutive Laker games. I know this was his job but think about how much dedication and luck plays into that streak. I've been a Wizards season ticket holder for almost 16 years now and I've only made it to every home game one of those seasons. Something always gets in the way whether it's sickness or something in life. Showing up for 35 or so consecutive years at home and on the road is super impressive.

Chick was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster in 2003. He was the first to receive such an honor. Chick's statue in Star Plaza features a guest chair, which I had to sit in and have my picture taken. From the picture at the top of this post, he's clearly much larger than life-size in his statue form.

The Lakers statues in Star Plaza represent six of the 11 championships the team has won in its time in Los Angeles. Three of the remaining five will get some representation next year, when the team apparently will unveil a likeness of Shaquille O'Neal. I expect the final two will be picked up by a Kobe Bryant statue relatively soon thereafter.

The Lakers aren't the only team to immortalize it's past legends outside their building in statue form. Michael Jordan can be found outside the United Center in Chicago, Dominique Wilkins has a spot in the shopping mall adjoining Philips Arena in Atlanta and Karl Malone and John Stockton have statues in Utah. While I'm not holding my breath for a bronze Wes Unseld likeness outside Verizon Center, I think this is a great way to connect current fans to the team's past successes. These things have to kill the Clippers who I feel are going to be waiting a while to put one of their own in Star Plaza.

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