Lakers, like the rest of us, have gotten old

MIKE LITTWIN

June 05, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

CHICAGO -- If you haven't heard, the hot news from the NBA is that Showtime is now officially known as Slowtime. It seems like while we weren't paying attention, the Lakers -- for years the hippest team in all of sports -- got old, slow and, yes, boring. No wonder Pat Riley, the ex-Lakers coach, gave up his hair gel. What's next: Spike Lee does milk commercials?

Here's what happened: The Lakers, always faster than a speeding Porsche, no longer run. In L.A., this couldn't be more shocking than if warm brie didn't run.

They don't run, jam or, heck, even jog. They use the clock, is what they do. And they post up players, instead of jumping over them. They're -- gosh, I hate to use the word -- methodical. It's like watching IBM play.

What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here? We've heard about the graying of America, but this is ridiculous. Used to be, you had to take Vitamin E just to watch the Lakers at their Showtime best, and now they're filling the team Gatorade jug with Geritol.

All that's left is for Jack Nicholson to start nodding off at courtside.

Who would have thought it?

The walk-it-up Lakers are like Streep without an accent, Beatty without a woman, Madonna with all her clothes on.

The Lakers don't run?

Did Magic Johnson skip town?

Why don't they just move the team to Cleveland?

People, also movie stars, pay $475 a pop to sit at courtside at the Forum. They want entertainment. They want dunks and smiles. They want Eddie Murphy in short pants. Face it: The Lakers, in show-biz lingo, used to show a little cleavage.

And now?

Watching the Lakers is like watching the San Diego Freeway at rush hour. Nothing moves very quickly.

So, what I'm trying to say is, when you tune in Game 2 of the NBA Finals tonight between the Lakers and Bulls and you think you need to adjust the set, remember that's the speed at which the Lakers actually play. It sure ain't rock and roll.

What happened to the old songs, Mikey?

"Simple," says Mychal Thompson, who's so old at 36 that he doesn't even get to play anymore. "We got old. We had to change."

Magic Johnson -- you may want to sit down before reading this -- is 31 years old. James Worthy is 30. Byron Scott is 30. Sam Perkins is 30 next week. I'm surprised they don't have rocking chairs for benches.

They don't run because they can't run. They don't run because, if they do, the Chicago Bulls would run them over. New coach Mike Dunleavy saw that when he came to the team and convinced the Lakers that life in the slow lane wouldn't be so bad.

Boring?

"It's not Laker-like," Byron Scott concedes. "Boring? I don't think it's boring. We're in the finals."

They're in the finals, and so are the Bulls, who play the game in sort of the way the Lakers used to, which is the way that will bring a house down, not to mention the odd backboard. They don't just run, they fly, or haven't you ever seen Michael Jordan? He only gets two points for each dunk, but you feel as if he ought to get at least a 5.9.

"I'm sure," Thompson says, "that if kids are watching us or the Bulls or the Trail Blazers, they're not going to pick us."

Well, no. Except they're the guys in purple and gold, and it just seems they can't be this post-up, jam-it-inside, play-to-win-in-the-'90s team that they really are.

They are still the Lakers, after all.

And yet, the headlines say that the Bulls must find a way to speed up the Lakers. Once up a time, teams would set up roadblocks. Remember the Coop-a-loop? How about Worthy filling the lane and finishing the break with that long arm that seemed to extend forever? And Magic. God, Magic ran the break better than anyone else has ever run it, better than Schwarzkopf could run a war. In the mid-'80s, they were the most exciting team that ever was. They may win another championship this way, but I don't think anyone's going to want to write poetry about it.

Next thing you know, the Laker Girls will be gyrating to Julio Iglesias.

Let's ask Magic what he has to say about it. It's still Magic's show. In the half-court game, he patiently sets the offense, puts the ball where it must go, can still get you excited when he nails that pass through what seems like 200 arms to hit Vlade Divac ZTC under the basket for a layup. And, occasionally, if just for nostalgia's sake, he'll even take off on the break and maybe even smile.

"We went from the Raiders to the 49ers," Magic says. "We used to be like the Raiders, always looking for the bomb, like when Daryle Lamonica was the quarterback. Now we're like Joe Montana. Ten yards here. Eight yards there. Setting up for the big play.

"We power you, then we run you. We power you again. Maybe the other way is more exciting, but I like winning."

And so, what we get is the Lakers as '60s rock-and-roll reunion show. The music is still pretty good, but it may not be quite as much fun to watch the guys play it.

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