Stars realigned, L.A. shines through

Lakers combination of O'Neal, Bryant acts like refined champions

With stars realigned, Lakers shine through in championship style

June 21, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - Inside sold-out Staples Center on Monday night, they were singing "I Love L.A." Outside, it looked as if they were going to tear the city down.

The Los Angeles Lakers won their first NBA championship in 12 years and the celebration on the streets outside the new arena turned so ugly that it ended with police in full riot gear shooting rubber bullets at rampaging kids in Kobe Bryant jerseys.

Lakers legend Magic Johnson called the post-game riot "a shame." Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan said he was "saddened" that such a happy occasion could turn into such a violent mess.

It had been so long since a Los Angeles team had won a major sports title of any kind - the Lakers and Dodgers both won titles in 1988 - and maybe the fans just didn't know how to act.

The Lakers certainly did. They won their seventh NBA title since moving from Minneapolis in 1960, and celebrated inside Staples Center with the class and dignity that they had asked of their fans in scoreboard public service messages during the game. Shaquille O'Neal hugged his mom. Johnson, now a minority owner of the Lakers, hugged his old college and pro rival - Indiana Pacers coach and Hall of Fame player Larry Bird, who had just coached his final game and suffered a disheartening 116-111 come-from-ahead defeat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

No trash talk. None of that in-your-face, look-at-me garbage that is fast turning sportsmanship into a lost art. Several Lakers postponed their on-floor celebration to walk across the court and pay their respects to Bird and an out-manned Pacers team that had played valiantly during the best-of-seven series.

That is the kind of scene the Lakers are known for, not the scary rampage that took place outside. The Lakers franchise, from Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain to Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaq and Kobe, has been one of the classiest organizations in professional sports - and that showed even through the tear gas on Monday night.

Now, for the question of the ages. Does this team deserve to be placed among those great teams of the storied Lakers past?

Not yet. The Lakers feature the most imposing center since Chamberlain and a flashy guard who seems certain to be regarded among the greatest players in the history of the sport, but one championship only builds a reputation, not a dynasty.

The Lakers clearly were the best team in the NBA this year, even if they did keep the Portland Trail Blazers at the party a little long in the Western Conference finals and needed some fortuitous bounces to keep the Pacers from forcing a seventh game. They figure to be a heavy favorite to repeat next year. Maybe then they can start talking about a new Lakers dynasty.

"I really feel that this team has a lot more winning to do," said forward Glen Rice, who knocked down three big three-point baskets in the clincher. O'Neal, who is 28, spent part of the post-game news conference playfully prodding owner Jerry Buss to give him a contract extension. Bryant is just 21 years old and will be with the club for the foreseeable future. There really is no reason why the Lakers can't go on dominating the NBA for years to come.

"I tell you, that is the best duo that I've seen in a long time," Rice said. "And they are going to be together forever. And hopefully, I'll be as well, and the rest of team will be able to stay intact. I've been able to sit back and watch those guys go out and do their thing. It's an unbelievable duo."

Rice was the only other player in the Lakers starting lineup with the same kind of star power as O'Neal and Bryant, but he struggled to accept a less visible role in the offense. His name came up in trade rumors during the regular season. Rice is now a free agent who wants more than the $7 million he earned this season, and there has been speculation that he will not be back with the Lakers. He said after Game 6 that he hopes to be.

O'Neal was the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, near-unanimous choice for the league MVP award and was an obvious choice for similar honors in the Finals (averaging 38 points and 16.6 rebounds in the championship series), but he deflected much of the credit for his first NBA title back to Jackson, who has established a dynasty of his own by winning his seventh championship.

From a personnel standpoint, this Lakers team wasn't all that much different from the ones that ran aground in the playoffs the past couple of seasons, but Jackson had the juice to turn two very individual stars - O'Neal and Bryant - into teammates. Happy teammates. That bodes very well for the team's future.

It is the kind of on-court relationship that took several years to develop fully between Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, two very different players who were the cornerstones of the "Showtime" Lakers team that won five titles from 1980 to 1988.

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