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    Praying the Lakers Regain a Starring Role in the N.B.A. Playoffs

    This postseason, the only reminders of the Los Angeles Lakers’ luster appear on a fictionalized cable series and streaming documentaries.Dear God of Sports,This prayer comes in the name of N.B.A. healing and restoration.The playoffs are happening now, blessed with tension and talent. What a spectacle. Thank you for the young among us, beginning with Ja Morant and Jordan Poole. Make safe the health of the great, grizzled Noah known as Chris Paul.The vigor you have again bestowed upon the Boston Celtics is beauty to behold.But something is missing: the Los Angeles Lakers. Any postseason without the Lakers feels like a breach of a cosmic bond.For all to be right in the Kingdom of Hoops, the Lakers must be a fixture in the playoff firmament; same as they were in all but five seasons from their birth in the late 1940s until 2014, when Kobe Bryant (may he and his beloved rest easy) began edging toward retirement.The Lakers are cherished and hated like no other team. They bestow extra attention, vibe and legitimacy upon the postseason. Nothing is the same without them in the mix.Great Spirit of Sports, the Lakers now wander in the desert. With this season’s epic collapse, they have failed to reach the postseason in seven of the last nine years. Yes, they reached the highest of heights in 2020. But that season’s N.B.A. championship finished inside a pandemic bubble. Two years ago now seems like 20. Today, the journey to that title is a parable few remember. Was it just a dream?Basketball fans have been forsaken. A generation walks in the wilderness, having never seen a powerful Lakers team challenge Steph Curry and Golden State with everything on the line.But you never let us down, God of Sports. Amid the playoffs, you have sprinkled reminders of Lakers luster for all to see — at least those of us who subscribe to HBO Max and Apple TV+.Two years removed from winning an N.B.A. championship, the Lakers missed the playoffs this season.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via ReutersLast week came the unveiling on Apple TV+ of the documentary “They Call Me Magic.”Please allow for good reviews.Heal the hearts of the Lakers family, who now live in distress over another recent depiction, the HBO series “Winning Time.” It is classic Hollywood: a glitzy blend of fact, fiction and glammed-up dramatic license that focuses on the team’s 1980s Showtime era. All that off-court excess, all that soap opera intrigue, along with those five league titles.That series has caused hurt feelings and bruised pride to consume Lakersland.Jerry West demanded a retraction and an apology from HBO over the overheated, fictive way he is depicted.Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called the series a deliberately dishonest rendering, “with characters who are stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford.”Magic Johnson, the show’s centerpiece, the Showtime era’s North Star, said he had not seen the series and that it did not tell the truth. Confusing, I know.Lord of Hoops, Great Giver of the Three-Point Shot, far be it from me to tell these basketball legends that their anger is misplaced. But ease their troubles. Remind them that few will watch a series like “Winning Time” in these discordant days without being in on the joke.Help them see the irony: The Lakers’ iconic modern image was built in part on Hollywood smoke and mirrors. On the cloaking and twisting of reality. Indeed, on magic.The Lakers of the 1980s were more than just a team that won five championships in a decade. Their uniqueness came not just from those titles but from the power of make-believe — the Forum Club, the Lakers Girls, the age-defying movie stars in every other seat.Remind aggrieved Lakers of their team’s twists of narrative. Their storied rise in the 1980s was cast as villains to the Boston Celtics and drawn in simple strokes: the cool, Black team standing in the path of the stodgy, white one.Yes, Boston had Larry Bird and other white stars, but it also had Black Celtics like Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell — legends in their own right.And which team had a Black head coach? The Celtics, led by K.C. Jones for two of their three N.B.A. crowns that decade.In the longtime telling of this duel, the city of Boston has often been projected as mired in racism. But simple stories, as you well know, sometimes mask the complicated truth. Los Angeles has always had plenty of its own problems with race.Injustice exists everywhere. Greatness is a rarer thing. The greatness of 17 N.B.A. championships ground the Lakers, even though mythology has always been a part of their story.Oh mighty one, in the name of St. Elgin, lessen the burden of former Lakers who feel wronged.Then turn back to the hardwood.Restore LeBron James, his creaky knees and 37-year-old back.Remind him that all good things come in due time — so long as due time starts next season. The entertainment empire he is building in Los Angeles is something to behold. But being a movie mogul and community force flows first from the river of N.B.A. championships.Consider purgatory for the front office executives who signed Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the other elder-Lakers before this season.When you finish replenishing Hollywood’s team, would you mind granting an even bigger miracle to another basketball calamity?God of Sports, remember the Knicks? More

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    ‘Winning Time’: When the NBA Went Pop

    A new HBO drama chronicles the 1980s Lakers, whose fluid style and Hollywood flair changed the game and the culture. An N.B.A. writer takes account.When asked to describe the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, the actor DeVaughn Nixon, 38, paused for a moment. “Stylized,” he said. Then he rattled off more words: “Fast. Cool. Fun. Sexy.”That’s not how most sports franchises are typically described. But the Lakers of that era were built differently.The Showtime Lakers, as the team was known, set a new template for how professional basketball came to be viewed on and off the floor. The team crossed over into pop culture consciousness in a way no N.B.A. franchise had. It spurred discussions about the place of money, race, celebrity and sex in the game. With their brash new-money owner, Jerry Buss, the Lakers challenged what was then the status quo — which included poor attendance and ratings. They helped save the league.They also made for great TV, both in their time and as the basis for an equally flashy new HBO docudrama, “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” in which Nixon plays his own father, the point guard Norm Nixon. Episode 1 of the 10-part first season debuts Sunday.Created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, the series is based on the book “Showtime” by the journalist Jeff Pearlman. But the chatty, fast-paced, fourth-wall-breaking style of “Winning Time” is signature Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Don’t Look Up”), who executive produced and directed the pilot.“It was a story that I thought I knew the basics of,” McKay, a lifelong basketball fan who hosted a podcast last year about the N.B.A., said in an email. “I thought it was mostly about Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. Buss.”“I had no idea until I read that book what a complicated, layered story it was,” he added. “It was like ‘Brothers Karamazov,’ only about basketball.”DeVaughn Nixon, left, plays his father, Norm Nixon, in the series. He said he hadn’t truly understood the impact of the Showtime Lakers until he got a bit older.Warrick Page/HBO“Winning Time” isn’t the first chronicle of the 1980s N.B.A., a seminal period for the sport and the subject of numerous books and documentaries. Based on the eight episodes provided to journalists in advance, “Winning Time” tells the story in a tone befitting those Lakers teams. Cuts are frenetic, needles drop hard, and characters frequently deliver commentary and exposition straight to the camera. Grainy film and glitchy video mix with real and faux archival footage, adding to the vintage vibes.Much like the Johnson-era Lakers, it’s an unconventional show that doesn’t pretend to be subtle.The legendThe accomplishments of the Showtime Lakers have become the stuff of lore. The Lakers won five championships from 1980 to 1988, one of the most successful runs of any franchise in N.B.A. history. Their main rivals, the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird, won three in that same period. (This N.B.A. writer grew up a Celtics fan and was exposed to the rivalry out of the womb.) Together, those teams produced some of the greatest basketball players the world had ever seen.DeVaughn said he hadn’t understood the importance of the Showtime Lakers until he was older and on a trip to Positano, Italy, well after his father had retired.“I come back from the bathroom and Michael Jordan’s sitting down next to us, and he’s just chopping it up with my dad,” Nixon said. Jordan, he recalled, called his father a “bad boy on the court.”Solomon Hughes, right, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The rivalry between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics was in many ways a rivalry between opposing views on what basketball should be. Warrick Page/HBO“I was like, ‘Oh, OK, all right, cool.’” Nixon added. “He was a part of something.”Jordan wasn’t alone in his admiration. Eighties basketball, particularly the Lakers, had a cultural and political poignancy that has influenced the game and the world at large ever since. One could draw a straight line, for example, from the political activism of Abdul-Jabbar, who played for the Lakers from 1975 to 1989, to that of LeBron James. (Something that hasn’t survived: Abdul-Jabbar’s deadly skyhook, which has rarely been seen in this century.)And today’s fashion parades, sexy dancers and boisterous lineup introductions — with their pyrotechnics, laser light shows and T-shirt guns — owe a lot to Buss (played in the series by John C. Reilly), the transformational owner who purchased the Lakers in 1979.Buss helped usher in an era that put celebrities courtside and expanded the fan experience. Celebrities had long been connected to Los Angeles sports teams — Doris Day and Jack Nicholson were already frequent sightings at Laker games — but Buss ratcheted up celebrity attendance, a dynamic that still exists.Solomon Hughes, who plays Abdul-Jabbar, said that “the uniqueness of that professional sports team in the backdrop of Hollywood really just changed how we how we look at sports.”The Lakers were nicknamed “Showtime” was because of a nightclub called the Horn, which Buss frequented. There, a singer would start a show by saying, “It’s showtime,” and Buss adopted the phrase to describe his approach to the Lakers. A frequent guest of the Playboy Mansion who held a Ph.D in chemistry and sported disco lapels and an impressive comb-over, he was intent on marrying Hollywood glamour with high-quality basketball — a significant break from the standard mold of how N.B.A. teams operated.The rivalryThat standard was strongly influenced by the Celtics, who dominated the N.B.A. in the two decades before Buss bought the Lakers. Red Auerbach, the former coach and general manager of the Celtics (played by Michael Chiklis), detested, for example, the idea of cheerleaders at games; Boston didn’t have them until 2006. Buss was an interloper, wreaking havoc on the sanctity of basketball.But Buss wanted more than just a glitzy experience surrounding the game. He wanted the basketball itself to be flashy. That made Johnson’s availability in the 1979 N.B.A. draft all the more serendipitous. Johnson played the game with an eye for fast-paced showmanship, frequently whipping behind-the-back, no-look bullets to teammates as if he had a third eye.“He wanted to put on a show,” Quincy Isaiah, the 26-year-old who portrays Johnson, said. “But he definitely wanted to make everybody in that arena feel good while watching, including his teammates.”Not everyone felt good, especially outside Los Angeles. Chiklis, a native of Lowell, Mass., grew up a fan of the Celtics, a franchise with a diametrically opposed view on how basketball was supposed to be.“I had just about as much hate and ire for them as I did for the Yankees,” Chiklis said, adding, “You couldn’t be in Boston at that time and not get sucked into the vortex of that rivalry.”The rivalry had a racial component, too. Bird was a transcendent player like Johnson, but some wondered whether he would have received the same attention had he been Black. Dennis Rodman, one of the game’s greatest rebounders, said in 1987 that Bird won three straight Most Valuable Player awards “because he was white,” adding, “Nobody gives Magic Johnson credit.” Isiah Thomas, Rodman’s teammate on the Detroit Pistons, agreed, adding that if Bird “was Black, he’d be just another guy,” setting off a furor.As the Lakers and Celtics rivalry evolved, interest in the league grew and more games were shown live on TV. (The rise of ESPN, which debuted in 1979, also helped.) Johnson became a household name, especially as the Lakers kept winning.John C. Reilly, left, (with Isaiah, center, and Jason Clarke, as Jerry West) plays Jerry Buss, the flashy, new-money owner who helped usher the N.B.A. into a new era. Warrick Page/HBOThe celebrityBefore the 1980s, the N.B.A. was a struggling league with low ratings, and the networks wouldn’t give it prime slots. One Finals game in 1977 tipped off at noon Pacific. Many games were aired on tape delay.The Lakers helped turn the N.B.A. from a fringe sports league into a titan, which set the stage for Jordan and, later, Kobe Bryant to help make the game a global phenomenon. As McKay put it, the Lakers “changed fashion, music, the way people behaved, the way they spoke.”“It’s an explosion that just rarely happens in any form of culture,” he continued, “let alone sports.”Along with Bird, Johnson became a star unlike any basketball player before. He and Bird appeared in TV commercials together and clocked huge endorsement deals. When Johnson — a heterosexual athlete who was averaging 12.5 assists and 19.4 points a game — announced in 1991 that he had H.I.V. and was retiring, it sent shock waves around the world. Pau Gasol, a native of Spain, said he had been so inspired by Johnson’s news conference that he vowed as a boy to find a cure for H.I.V. Instead, he became an N.B.A. All-Star, who helped lead the Lakers to multiple championships.Some of the key figures in the story have said publicly that they aren’t happy with the show, including Johnson. (Neither the central figures portrayed nor the Lakers organization were involved in the production.) In an email, a spokeswoman for Abdul-Jabbar described the series as “based on a fictional account taken from a book” written by “an outsider,” adding that Abdul-Jabbar had not seen the show and that “the story is best told by those who lived it.”Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner of the Lakers and the daughter of Jerry Buss, who died in 2013, is executive producing a documentary series about the franchise for Hulu, set to debut this year. Johnson is developing one about his own life for Apple. (Spokespeople for Johnson and the Lakers declined to comment.)“If I was Kareem to Magic or any of those guys, and I looked at it personally, like they’re telling my story, it would probably feel weird to me, too,” Rodney Barnes, an executive producer and writer of the show, said. But the creative team wanted to tell a story about everything that period encompassed, he added — about not only the Lakers but also “America as a whole.”And their story would hardly be the last take on the Showtime Lakers, Barnes acknowledged.“There’s still a lot of meat on that bone,” he said. More

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    The Bucks Have Big-Time Supporters: Kareem and Oscar Robertson

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were the top two scorers on Milwaukee’s 1971 title team. They’re rooting for Giannis Antetokounmpo to win it all this year.The Milwaukee Bucks’ only title came in 1971, when they swept the Baltimore Bullets.It was the third year of the franchise, a potential signal of a new powerhouse to be reckoned with besides the Boston Celtics, who had dominated the N.B.A. for much of the previous decade. More

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    How Kevin Garnett Made His Case for the Hall of Fame

    Garnett was widely doubted before he was drafted, but over more than 20 years in the league he reset the limits for N.B.A. big men and made a case for the Hall of Fame.“Does the N.B.A. have no shame?” a Dallas Morning News columnist wrote in 1995 about the prospect of Kevin Garnett going right into the league from high school.Soon after, a Washington Post columnist chimed in, “If Kevin Garnett winds up leaving childhood for the N.B.A. without first going to college, then a whole lot of adults who claim to have his best interests at heart will have failed him.” That same columnist added, “The kid isn’t physically ready to play under the basket in the Big Ten, much less against Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.”“It’s preposterous,” Marty Blake, a veteran N.B.A. scout, told The New York Daily News.It’s hard to envision now, but before Garnett was chosen by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick of the 1995 N.B.A. draft, he was viewed by many — including The New York Times — with a great deal of skepticism. The conventional belief was that a teenager could not adapt to the rigors of professional basketball. A columnist for the Detroit News even scoffed at rumors that Garnett was interested in playing for the University of Michigan, saying: “Michigan doesn’t need the huge headache Garnett would bring. Sorry. This is an easy call.”We all know what happened next. Garnett starred in the N.B.A. for more than two decades and retired in 2016 as one of the greatest players to ever take the court. He made 15 All-Star Games, his first coming during his sophomore campaign. He won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2004 and the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008. And last year, Garnett was selected for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, alongside the journalist Michael Wilbon, who is now with ESPN but was at The Washington Post in 1995, when he wrote that Garnett was not ready for the N.B.A.In an interview, Wilbon said that Garnett was “one of the great players of the last 25 years,” but that he also wished Garnett had gone to college. Wilbon said that he still felt there were too many people who said “education was an impediment to success.”“That’s not on Kevin or Kobe,” he said. “That’s on the system.”Wilbon added later: “I look at what these things have done to Black Americans and all the kids who think that they’re going to play pro basketball at 18 or 19, and they’re not.”In 1995 Kevin Garnett went directly from Farragut High School in Chicago to the N.B.A Todd Rosenberg/ALLSPORT via Getty ImagesOver his career, Garnett disproved the predraft doubts and disrupted the conventional wisdom about how someone who is nearly 7 feet tall should play.Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an early critic who once told The Hartford Courant that Garnett was “in for a rude awakening,” now describes Garnett as “a consistent offensive threat and a great rebounder and defender.”“He was able to play and lead at both ends of the court,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement emailed by his manager. “It was like that from Day 1 until he retired, and that’s why I consider Kevin a Hall of Famer.”Garnett’s impact on the league went far beyond his on-court accomplishments. He showed that a 19-year-old could thrive in the N.B.A., and he influenced the thinking of scouts and executives, most likely easing the transition for others who were drafted immediately after high school, such as Kobe Bryant (1996) and LeBron James (2003).“He’s paved the way for a lot of players,” said Thon Maker, a fifth-year center who played for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season and has worked out with Garnett. “A lot of young bigs in the league like myself, the first thing I learned from him is to drown out the noise and let your basketball do the speaking.”Garnett became one of the country’s top high school prospects after playing for three years at Mauldin High School in South Carolina and his senior year at Chicago’s Farragut High School. He was compared to players ranging from Shaquille O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Walton and Shawn Bradley. His 220-pound frame made him difficult to assess, as did the paucity of prior high school draftees.One of them was Moses Malone, who was drafted in 1974 out of Petersburg High School in Virginia by the N.B.A.’s competition, the A.B.A. Malone would, like Garnett, have a Hall of Fame career, and in some ways, Garnett’s debut represented a passing of the torch. Malone’s last season was the year before Garnett’s first.“Garnett has more skills than Moses, but he doesn’t always come to play every night,” Tom Konchalski, an N.B.A. scout who died this year, told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1995. “He takes nights off. Emotionally, he isn’t ready to handle the N.B.A. lifestyle. He still is a kid. Moses was a man.”Kevin Garnett was chosen by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick of the 1995 N.B.A. draft.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE, via Getty ImagesThere was also Bill Willoughby, who spent eight seasons as a role player for six teams from 1975 to 1984. He struggled in his transition and lost much of his money. (He called Garnett to offer advice as Garnett prepared to make his decision to enter the league.) Darryl Dawkins had a productive career from 1975 to 1989 after being drafted fifth over all. Both Dawkins and Willoughby entered the N.B.A. through a hardship waiver.Shawn Kemp enrolled at the University of Kentucky but left without playing and briefly went to a junior college instead. He did not play there either before becoming the 17th overall pick of the 1989 draft and joining the Seattle SuperSonics.There was a downside to Garnett’s brilliance: His immediate triumphs in the N.B.A. set a lofty bar that few players coming out of high school could meet. In his rookie year, he averaged a productive 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, while starting roughly half of Minnesota’s games.“His legacy is as one of the greatest players, one of the greatest two-way players,” said Danny Ainge, the president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics. Ainge traded for Garnett in 2007, revitalizing the franchise and helping it win its first championship in more than 20 years.Garnett was, Ainge said, “a guy that was all about winning and gave great energy night in and night out. The ultimate teammate.”Before entering the N.B.A., Leon Powe, part of Boston’s 2007-8 championship team, was on an A.A.U. team called the Oakland Soldiers along with a future Celtics teammate, Kendrick Perkins, and LeBron James.“LeBron, me and Kendrick, everybody, we all wanted to go out of high school,” Powe said, referring to the N.B.A. “Especially because we knew what happened with Kobe, K.G., everybody that came before us. That just inspired us.”Like James, Perkins made the leap in 2003, becoming a late first-round pick who would have a 14-year career in the N.B.A. If not for an injury, Powe might have jumped too, he said. Instead, he attended the University of California, Berkeley.There were more high school players who did not meet expectations in the N.B.A. — such as Kwame Brown and Sebastian Telfair — than those who did. The result was a rule in the mid-2000s that said a player had to be a full year removed from high school before he could be eligible for the N.B.A. The last high school player to be drafted into the N.B.A. was Amir Johnson in 2005.But the clamor to reverse the rule has grown larger with every passing season. In 2019, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said that it would probably be eliminated within a few years, and in March he told reporters that it would be discussed as part of the next collective bargaining agreement. So soon enough, the craving will start anew for another Garnett: a worldbeating talent whose prime might last 15 years. That’s still a lofty bar to clear, but he was the one who, as he might say, made it so that “anything is possible.” More