by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — They were dancing on the court with nine minutes still left to go. The score was Lakers 85, Celtics 70, time-out was called, and the Laker cheerleaders grabbed fans from the front-row seats and, ho, the heck with Celtic comebacks! They did the victory shimmy right there on the Forum hardwood, fans and showgirls, as the crowd screamed along with the thumping public address system:

“WE LOVE L-A! . . . “


James Worthy wiped his forehead, and a tall guy in a white sweat suit wiggled in front of him. Kareem Abdul- Jabbar tried to listen to coach Pat Riley, and there was a fat woman in suspenders shaking down to his left.
“Hurry up and party!” the crowd seemed to say. They love LA. They won it. They knew it. Where’s the beer?

Well. You can forgive them the premature celebrations. Nine minutes and 44 points later, this thing was really over, the NBA had a new champion, and the dancing could begin in earnest.

“PARTY TONIGHT, PARTY TOMORROW NIGHT, PARTY ALL SUMMER LONG!” yelled a champagne-soaked Magic Johnson, the league and series MVP, after it was over. Why not? The Lakers had returned home from three games in Boston Garden — two losses and a narrow win — and they’d rushed to their Forum lockers and breathed a sigh of relief: Yes, they still existed. Their run- and-run brilliance had not fallen out of the plane somewhere over Nebraska. On Sunday, this team — which seemed to lose its identity by setting its watches three hours ahead — “found itself” in California, as people are wont to do out here.

And that was that.

“PARTY TONIGHT, PARTY TOMORROW NIGHT . . .,” Magic began again.

Hey. Who says champions can’t repeat?

I’m glad it’s over,” said coach Pat Riley, as he wiped his soaking hair following this 106-93 victory, which gave the Lakers the NBA championship, their fourth since 1980. “We had to win. I told them if we let this thing slip away from us, it would be the longest summer we’d ever spent.”

Indeed, the Lakers, who had looked so awesome in the Games 1 and 2 victories here, became mortal, then defeatable out on the East Coast. And when this Game 6 began, it seemed as if the weary Celtics had figured a way to play parquet basketball on a regular floor. They worked the ball inside, kept LA from accelerating, and led at halftime, 56-51. The Forum crowd had been reduced to a big movie theater. Quiet observers.

But that’s why there’s halftime. The Lakers came out in the third quarter like movie actors desperate to get this take correct. Lights, cameras . . . action! A Magic lay-up. A Magic dunk. A Worthy dunk. A Magic 20-footer. A Worthy stuff. A Byron Scott jump shot. An A.C. Green tip-in.

Good night, Beantown. By the time the quarter ended the Lakers led by 13, and reporters were scrambling to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.

“WE LOVE L-A!” the speakers roared.

“WE LOVE IT!” answered the crowd.

Here were the 40-year-old legs of Abdul-Jabbar lifting him for yet another sky-hook. Here was James Worthy, holding the ball high in one hand, then spinning past Celtics and slamming it home. Here was Mychal Thompson, the backup center who is to LA what Bill Walton was to Boston last year, muscling away rebounds from the green team, scoring 15 points. And here was Magic, after a slow first half, being . . . well . . . Magic.

“Did you have a favorite moment out there today?” someone asked him.

“James’s steal,” he said, grinning.

Yes. This was the play that smashed the stalemate. Early third quarter, Kevin McHale bounces a pass to Dennis Johnson. Worthy jumps in front, pokes it away, and gives chase as it bounces toward the out-of-bounds line.

“I dove for it, just trying to keep it in play,” he recalled later, “and out of the corner of my eye I saw Magic coming downcourt.” Worthy swiped it to him as he crash-landed out of bounds, and the ball bounced to Johnson like destiny. He dunked it, the Lakers had their first lead since the opening minutes, and the last they would need this season. The crowd went nuts.

“That play . . . ” said Johnson, ” . . . well, see, you all think of us as this cute, pretty team running up and down the court. But we’ll get on the floor, we’ll bang, we’ll get dirty — and it’s never, never talked about.

“All that’s talked about is how we run. You never notice the heart. But if you don’t have heart, you don’t win a championship. If you don’t play tough defense, you don’t win a championship. If you don’t rebound, if you don’t get down on floor, if you don’t get dirty. . . .

“Well, that’s what makes that play so sweet. We showed everybody we got heart.”

There can be no denying that now. The Celtics carry much historical intimidation. To beat them at any time is a formidable task. But if you salute today the Lakers’ courage, you must do the same for Boston. What could the Celtics have been thinking out there, as the crowd sang and danced? All the injuries, all the endurance, the seven-game playoff series against Milwaukee and Detroit, all just to come to this: a laugher.

“We had a lot of heart and dedication,” said Boston’s Larry Bird, who had his worst game of the series, scoring 16 points, on 6-for-16 shooting, compared to 22 for Worthy, who defended him. “But they have a really great basketball team.

“Last year, I knew we were gonna win the championship. I just knew it. And this year, I somehow knew we were gonna get to the finals. I knew we’d make it this far. . . . “

“But to win it?” someone asked. “You weren’t as sure of that, were you?”

“No,” he said, honestly.

So LA takes it, thanks to brilliant play by Johnson, a return to form by Worthy, and an amazing 32-point game by Abdul-Jabbar — who shaved his head for the occasion, and, reversing the Samson theory, seemed to find more strength with less up top. There are plenty of questions that remain from this series: Why couldn’t either team be at its best on the road? What if Magic hadn’t hit that hook shot in Game 4? How hurt is McHale, and was he foolish for playing this long and this hard with a broken foot?

Take the summer to ponder such thoughts. For now, know this: The Lakers won more games than any team this season. They are the champions.

“It’s hard to say this one is the best,” said a grinning Abdul-Jabbar, who has a handful of championship rings, “but at 40 years old it means a hell of a lot.”

The same holds for Magic, 27, and Thompson, 32, and Worthy, 25, and Michael Cooper, 31. This is more than five or six excellent players. This is a team.

So what’s the word? Party tonight, party tomorrow night, party all summer long. “I’m not even thinking about next year!” laughed Johnson. “Not till October.”

So be it. A few hours later, when the showers were done, and the uniforms packed away, the Lakers stepped out through the Forum doors, and it was sunshine and blue skies, as usual.

Looks like another perfect day. They won, LA. They won it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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