Norm Nixon isn’t walking through this door. Elgin Baylor isn’t walking through this door. Silk Wilkes isn’t walking through this door.
I was born in 1982, and I didn’t begin to understand NBA basketball until sometime around 1988. So before I roll out a list of my all-time favorite Los Angeles Lakers, I should point out that I missed a lot of the “Showtime” era (though ESPN Classic has helped rectify that), and I never watched Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain when they wore purple and gold.
Still, growing up in Seattle — where we had the “Beat L.A.!” chant down as much as any crowd in Boston or San Antonio — I compiled plenty of experience with the League’s most glamorous franchise. The first basketball game I ever went to was Sonics/Lakers, where I can’t exactly recall anything Magic Johnson did, but I do have a crystal-clear memory of Sedale Threatt dunking on L.A. I’ve been in KeyArena as Kobe was booed lustily and people sitting courtside gasped at Shaq‘s size up-close. More recently, I’ve done cover stories on Kobe, features on Lamar Odom, and I’ve been in the Lakers locker room a few times. They’re not my team, but I know the Lakers well enough:
10. A.C. Green — The rebounding, the hustle, the dirty work. The Jheri Curl. Green was the L.A. version of Michael Cage, one of my favorite Sonics, but despite three championships, one All-Defensive and All-Star nod, he’ll still be better known for his anti-Hollywood lifestyle. Green’s prime was in the ’80s, and yet he came back to the Lakers in 2000 as a 36-year-old, started all 82 games at power forward, and helped bring home another ‘chip in the first successful run of the Kobe/Shaq three-peat regime.
9. Ron Artest & Lamar Odom (tie) — Odom is a good player and a better person. He’s been to hell and back in his personal life, losing his mother as a kid and losing his child as a young adult. He’s fallen short of the superstar expectations many had for him coming into the NBA, but has become a key player on a championship team. Artest, in just one year in L.A., has already made his place in team lore with the conference finals game-winner against Phoenix. If he contains Laker-killer Paul Pierce in the 2010 Finals and walks away with a title, Artest will be an instant legend. Say Queensbridge.
8. Nick Van Exel — Helped bridge the post-Magic, pre-Kobe era, dropping about 15-16 points and 7-8 assists per game for five years and four playoff appearances. Reputation-wise, Nick the Quick got a raw deal when he “shoved” a referee and the guy flopped onto the scorer’s table worse than Vlade Divac, but the dude could ball. Back in middle school I tried for about a week to change my shooting form to left-handed just because I wanted to shoot like Van Exel.
7. James Worthy — Could have been the No. 1 guy on some really good teams if he hadn’t landed in a perfect situation with Magic and Kareem. Worthy ‘s smooth style and athleticism suggest he could have played in today’s game and still dropped major buckets.
6. Michael Cooper — My introduction to the term “defensive stopper.” Coop was a self-made star, a third-round draft pick who rode the pine as a rookie before turning himself into an eight-time All-Defensive pick, ’87 Defensive Player of the Year, and owner of five championship rings. Even in his 50s, Coop (coaching the women’s team at USC) looks like he’d keep you scoreless for about three or four days.
5. Kobe Bryant — Best player of this generation? I’d still put Kobe behind Tim Duncan, but the argument is getting tougher to make in Duncan’s favor. The most skilled offensive player of his era, you wonder how much more popular Kobe would be if he didn’t always have the (self-inflicted, I’ll admit) Jordan shadow constantly trailing him.
4. Gary Payton — My favorite basketball player of all-time, but I couldn’t in good conscience put him in the Top-3 for this franchise when GP only played one year in L.A. and was fully in his decline (14.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 1.2 spg).
3. Shaquille O’Neal — You go back and look at the numbers, the win-loss records, and the championships, and it makes no sense that Shaq only copped one league MVP during his tenure with the Lakers. Shaq hit his prime during his L.A. years, and say what you want about him now, but he was always entertaining.
2. Magic Johnson — One of my sports heroes, Ken Griffey Jr., retired yesterday. I imagine that Junior is to Seattle fans what Magic was to the L.A. faithful. Along with his otherworldly talent, his outward love of the game was what set him apart from the rest. I get paid partially to spark debate and start arguments, and I still haven’t come up with a logical way to suggest Magic isn’t the greatest point guard of all-time. For people around my age, Magic made passing the ball cool when Jordan still had us enthralled with dunks and circus shots.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Before I could even appreciate what he did on the court, I was a Kareem fan. I read his autobiography (Giant Steps) when I was a kid, and while he was near the end of the road at the time as a player, Kareem instantly became one of my favorite athletes. I still have that book and read it again a couple years ago, and it still impacts me. Six championships, six league MVPs, all-time leading scorer, best college player of all-time … and yet people still don’t give Kareem enough credit in discussions of the NBA’s G.O.A.T.