This seems as good a time as any to examine the Laker Myth -- the premise that this is one the great basketball teams in recorded American history (if not the greatest team in history) because it is perhaps (and perhaps not) about to win its fourth NBA title in five years with Kobe and Shaq, the Irresistible Force and Immovable Object of basketball, and various supporting players.
That is the premise. Everything -- the great wheel of NBA commerce (of which ESPN and I are happy partners) and ancillaries such as fame, celebrity endorsement income, V.I.P. parking, great dip, vestigial cameos in movies, pretty much everything, perk-wise, that comes along with that central myth, including a certain amount of protection provided by everything from NBA referees to kick-ass defense lawyers. Everything works off that, this myth.
But, like most things in sports, it is in point of fact only a myth. In fact, if either the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Detroit Pistons were at their full-strength rosters, and sound of mind as well as body, each of them, it can be argued, could win the NBA title; and one of them should win the NBA title this year. I do not include the Indiana Pacers because I do not see them as yet capable of beating the Lakers, unless coach Carlisle, the Cable Guy, suddenly turns into Bruce Almighty. Not even then. He doesn't play.
Whether or not the Wolves or the Pistons actually do it is almost a moot point. One of them should, and one of them just might -- that one being the Pistons. But these Lakers already pulled one rabbit out of their hats when Derek Fisher, a fortunate man, career-wise, flipped in an improbable shot with 00.4 seconds left to win pivotal Game 5 of the San Antonio series. That's how fine the difference is at this level these days. If Fisher doesn't throw that one in, it can easily be argued that San Antonio could be going for its third NBA title in six years. So what would that make the Spurs?
See what I mean? Myth. Thus, the point has already been made.
In truth, if there were, say, eight to 10 fewer teams in the league, more rosters would look apparently power-packed, the way the Lakers' do, and which, thirty-odd years ago, the Knicks, Celtics, Bullets and Lakers looked at the same time -- i.e., Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, Fred Carter, Jack Marin and Earl Monroe at one time. Or Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Hap Hairston and Gail Goodrich at one time. To say nothing of my personal favorite: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe, the original Basketball Jesus, at the same time.
I wonder which team Phil Jackson would prefer? He played on the latter.
This is not to mention the Lakers and Celtics of the '80s and the Bulls of the '90s, who Phil Jackson coached, having been shrewd enough to align himself with the best talent because he saw what happened the first time he did that. And any team with both Bill Russell and John Havlicek on it does sort of give them the matchup with Shaq and Kobe, doesn't it?
If there were half as many teams with no cap or abnormally large salaries, you'd have teams clogged with talent instead of teams with two stars (which gets you to at least the conference semis) and a bunch of one-dimensionals named Joe, or older ex-stars living off their own fat, press clippings and rep.
The truth is, the Lakers are quite vulnerable. The question is, how?
There are several ways in on the Lakers, several ways they can be exploited.
First, let's take the Mailman. An absolute physical specimen, still. Too bad he can't move it around so well any more. I'm not sure he was ever a better player than, say, Dave DeBusschere or Elgin Baylor. In fact, I'm pretty sure he wasn't, in the sense of basketball skill and basketball acumen. Yes, he was in Utah and scored a boatload of points, serving as the muscle behind John Stockton and being his team's No. 1 option for so many years. I suppose in a way he's like Henry Aaron, but Hank was never so chippy.
Now look at Mailman; he's turned into a chippy, classless, churlish boor who can't take losing. I don't know why. He should be used to it by now. We all should. It's part of the package. You learn this, unless you become part of the Laker Myth. When he was clocking Isiah Thomas with an elbow or absolutely KO-ing the Admiral David Robinson with another, he was equally charming. But now he's HD-enhanced old as well. Ugly to watch.
His bulls*** move against Darrick Martin showed his desperation, among other things. The game was lost. Minnesota was the No. 1 seed. They'd won. Martin, a career ham-and-egger, had a good game. And Mailman dropped his shoulder and tried to murder the guy. Nakedly and unashamedly. What was he going to do? Say "Get me the ball," and drop 40? Not any more.
Mailman and Artest should start their own league -- the League of Anything But Gentlemen -- and see how many people come out to watch that.
It will be interesting to see how Mailman tries to bully his way by Rasheed Wallace. He cannot hope to outplay Wallace at the point; nor, perhaps, ever.
Personal Aside Alert No. 1: I say this even though I'm guilty of an SI cover story on Mailman in the fall of 1988 called "Bigger, Faster, Stronger." It included a double-truck photo of Karl and his beloved mother. He did not know his father well, if at all, and was fated to nearly relive that unfortunate experience with his daughter.
While out in Utah researching the piece, and still being relatively young at the time, I happened to play a little pick-up ball, an informal run in a forgotten facility with some of the Jazz and a few other hoop deadbeats. I'd occasionally done this since my early days on the beat, as a goof, surmising that I could, just every now and then, take a guy, like, say, Raymond Townsend -- until another guy like, say, Phil Smith, came up and pinned one of my shots up on the backboard and said, "Don't bring that Kool-Aid up in here." Then I'd shake my head and go back to the side, having seen the goods up close.
Anyway, I was on Mailman's team (no fool, I) and on the other team were a guard named Bobby Hansen and a forward named Mike Brown. Just bring it up, hit Mailman, make a fist, get back on D, nothing much to it. Only Hansen kept dribbling high and I figured, what the hey, it's there. And I happened to pick his dribble, twice as a matter of fact, and take it in for layies.
For some reason, Hansen began to grumble about this and me in the most profane way. I wasn't worried, because Mailman said, "Shut up. If you play harder, maybe you won't have nothing to complain about."
Mailman hadn't gotten his cover story yet, and he wasn't that big a fool. Professionals from Bob Hansen to Shaq are notorious in thinking they have some kind of divine right, and that you must respect the pecking order of the thing, and I don't care how high or low you go on the hoop food chain they are this way, from the playground to Shaq himself.
Anyway, in the immortal words of Marion Barry, bitch set me up. There Hansen was, dribbling high again. So I thought, "Well ... " And I picked his dribble again and was coasting in for another layup when I heard Mailman yell, "LOOK OUT!" Out of the corner of my eye, I saw big Mike Brown take flight and slam into me with, as Kevin Harlan says, no regard for human life, and also no real thought or plan of blocking the shot. I was slammed onto the accordion stands. Mailman came down with an ice scraper and managed to peel me off without further incident. I inbounded the ball to him smartly, and he hit the wing jumper. Ball game. Whether he had hit the shot or not, it was going to be ball game for me anyway.
"Are you all right?" Mailman asked, no doubt concerned about the status of his cover story in SI.
"Sure I am," I said. "What do you think?"
Then I looked over at big Mike Brown. Now, I was real strong in those days. I was just strong enough to pick myself up and get back to the hotel and get into bed. The next day, I couldn't get out of bed for an hour after I woke up.
Yes, it's neither here nor there, but I thought I'd throw it in.
Another way in against the Lakers is against GP. Or should I call him the elfin GP. Not much tread left on that tire, either, is there? Let's see now: Who would the erstwhile Glove rather get scorched by, Chauncey Billups or Rip Hamilton? Certainly not Rip Head Ham. That's no match. Neither is Billups, really. GP's perpetual and inexplicable facial tics, that death's-head scowl of his, used to be like the warning on an iodine bottle; and you could make believe it was somehow fitting and proper when he was making All-Star teams and All-Defensive teams and running his yap like an aggressive breed of small canine.
But now ... it's just pathetic. That's what I thought when GP got in Wally World's face after World just set a simple back pick on Derek Fisher, who is one of the great floppers of all time -- and sometimes flops and then takes umbrage at you because he flopped.
Weird, yes. But not timeless.
So in Game 2 of the Western Final, there was the shot-out GP, in Wally's face, jaw-jacking about ... what? The fact that he has precious little game left? Plenty of guys in the league, if they have the ball in their hands all the time, can put up numbers. But what impact do you have on the game when the ball is not in your hands? In Payton's case -- zero.
Not that I blame him completely. No NBA star -- or any star in any field, I imagine -- takes it well when he or she has slipped. They hope no one will notice, or are in denial about it, but there it is. I remember when Larry Bird got in Doc's ear -- and Doc was a good citizen, unless you think being a good citizen precludes the occasional meeting with a woman for a little Dance of The Quilts and Ride of the Valkyries action. (And if you do, well, you're either old, or lying.) But still, Doc, who has some pretty big hands, did the choke-out on Bird.
Jordan was no picnic either, once he started losing it.
Personal Aside Alert No. 2: I often thought of myself as the Larry Bird of Sports Illustrated during the 10 years I wrote articles there -- a statement that might at this very moment be causing anguished screams from my colleague, Mr. Bill Simmons, and why-black-people-tend-to shouts from my friend and occasional collaborator, Mr. Spike Lee, although for different reasons.
But, not counting public sentiment, I know the comparison to be apt. I lived it. I know very well what it was like to be good in an occupation where nearly all the good guys were of the other so-called "race," and assumed by divine right deep down that this was the way it was. That made you not a colleague but a threat.
I'd heard the equivalent of "If Larry Bird was black, he'd be just another player!" about myself. I'd gotten the equivalent of a literary choke-out. People want you to be good at the things that make them comfortable, and bad at the things that they are good at; that makes them most comfortable. Some people buy into other peoples' evaluations, and never get the best out of themselves. I give you Detlef Schrempf. But some guys, like Larry Bird, don't care. Later, for some conversation, they think. Let's play and talk; but either way, let's play. I always felt the same way. Let's just play and see. In my case, let's put it in black and white. Let's put it in black and white and see. One thing I did learn: I always could tell when I was writing well, because I would come in and nobody would speak to me.
This probably ticks off everybody from Simba the Sports Guy to Spike, not to mention you, pilgrims. But if that's the way you want to take it, hey. Complain to the eds. Talk to God, not to me. I was there. It happened ...
... so I was glad, glad I tell you, when Wally World bumped Fisher off his spot with a pick. Nothing malicious, just a pick, nothing like what Mailman did later to Darrick Martin. Just tough playoff basketball. I was glad Wally World stood there with GP, jaw-jacking right back at him.
Why? Nothing to do wth the fraud of race. I was glad because Wally World is legit. I learned to see through the fraud of race. See who was legit. Who had game.
Guys trying to intimidate you either with their muscle or their yap are equally sickening. GP was no different from the blonde "Michael Bolton clone" in the Harvard bar in "Good Will Hunting," the one that Matt Damon puts in his place. Somebody's got to fight him on his terms. GP's almost done. He did some things, but won't be missed. Not quite done; almost done. In his prime, he was highly functional, a productive player, the caveat being that it's easier to do this with the ball in your hand all the time. He was a good player, at times maybe even approaching a "great" player, in the lower-case sense of the word.
Neither he nor Mailman are taking their declension admirably. These guys never do. They've been the lead dog so long, they don't like being strapped behind the pack, having to sniff the other dogs's ... well, picture a dogsled.
These guys are actually now less valuable than Derek Fisher.
Derek Fisher is my own favorite personal loophole in the Laker Myth.
On Fisher, I go to Bobby Jackson's feeling that Fisher is scared of the Kings backcourt: Jackson and Mike Bibby. Fisher is the Norm Nixon or Byron Scott of this Laker era -- except, for some reason that I cannot write off to nostalgia, I think both of them were better. Maybe not better 3-point shooters, although Byron might want to argue that just as a theoretical exercise, since Byron is now closer to AARP status than to playing.
The question in the NBA, and in life, isn't whether or not you can shoot. The question is, can you get your shot? It is a question that, for example, Fisher, or, say, Ron Artest of Indiana, has yet to answer.
We are near the summit of basketball now, the NBA conference finals, the four best basketball teams in the world. Things come quite a bit harder here. Fisher, Kareem Rush (the Laker's other designated 3-point shooter, beyond Battlestar Kobe) can't get their shots off without the luxury of playing with two players who usually require a double-team.
Devean George? He's the guy who, if he would only play, then the Lakers might be closer to what people say they are ... virtually unbeatable. But he has no nose for the role of rat terrier and ferret. If he would only apply himself to the Mahorn-Najera-Bowen method ... but I have seen that this, too, is a gift, the feel for the angle of the ball coming off, etc. But George does not even take the othert team's great 2-3 scorer. In the pinch, Kobe does that.
We'll save Phil Jackson for another day.
So it comes down to defeating Shaq and Kobe. Difficult, not impossible. Not with that cast of Crips and Bloods around them.
Kevin Garnett has no excuse with Mailman on him. He can't just sit there and think "24 points and 11 boards is fine, I'm playing basketball. I'll find the open man, pick my spots." The Lakers doubled KG fiercely with Kobe and George in Game 1, and likely would do it again, if pressed -- which they won't be if KG doesn't attack Malone. He must attack Malone every time, on every possession, until the Lakers adjust to stop it.
All Mailman can do at this point against KG is try that hard slap move designed to either knock the ball away or to break or otherwise damage KG's wrist. Either way, it works for Mailman. It must remind him of when Jordan stripped his unaware ass before hitting what should have been his swan-song shot in the NBA Finals.
When the Lakers double to help Malone -- which they must do to keep an aggressive KG from dropping 40 -- it's not as simple as hit-the-cutter-diving-to-the-basket, because Shaq is playing center field. No, KG needs to pass out of the double and swing it, looking for the three-ball. Really make 'em pay.
As for Shaq, this is the biggest part of the myth, literally and figuratively. It's like all Shaq has to do is stomp his foot, and the world trembles. I actually thought Doug Collins would soil himself the other night when Gary Trent had the temerity, the gall, to tap Shaq on the shoulder and move him off Mark Madsen.
"Don't pull on Superman's cape!" Collins begged. OK, when Superman shows up in the NBA, I'll remember that. In the meantime, play on, m&@$%@!
That has to be your attitude, or you are lost.
You know who has that attitude?
You think Ben Wallace cares? You think Ben Wallace will shrink in front of Shaquille O'Neal and say, "Please, sir, may I have another?" Ben Wallace is one of 10 children of poor sharecroppers from a little spot on the map called Benton, Alabama. Ben Wallace has gone up against cotton gins and giant threshing machines and nine brothers and sisters for food. Do you really think Shaquille O'Neal is going to intimidate him? You better play on.
No, the Laker Myth will not penetrate the Piston front-court, a redwood forest of humanity featuring Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Price and Elden Campbell and Memeht Okur, five guys who are either seven feet fall or play like it. They block shots the way you and I pick our teeth. All this talk about how the opponents of the Pistons can't shoot is patently absurd, how this is not good to watch. Evolution of the game is always watchable.
Reggie Miller had a breakaway layup in Game 2 of the Eastern final. A layup is a 90-percent shot. And Tayshaun Prince blocked it. The Pistons blocked 19 shots in that game. You have to hit 19 shots in a row just to break even and shoot 50 percent in that game. That's the evolution of the game now. I've seen it coming for years. So I tell these young high school boys who can shoot it so well, "Yeah, but you can't go to the NBA because you can't even get that shot out of your hand in that league; it's counterfeit."
The question, in the NBA and in life, is not whether or not you can shoot.
The question is whether or not you can get your shot.
Finally, we come to Kobe Bryant, the one part of the Laker Myth that holds up, at least in one way. He is their on-court salvation against Detroit.
He will be their only way.
But even there, there is this myth that what Kobe is doing by flying back and forth from a courtroom in Eagle, Colorado, to an NBA playoff game is so very difficult and admirable. There are other people on trial for felonies who are black males, or white females for that matter, and some of them can't even make bail, much less be ferried about in limos and private jets. There's no getting around it for them, so I'd have to think they have a bit more to focus on than a guy does who is getting limoed and privated-jetted back and forth, and who then has Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone as muscle on the court.
I think what Kobe Bryant is doing is, for him, rather normal. Even easy. In fact, I might say it's cake, compared to other situations you and I know of.
Of this about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers we can be assured: Without Kobe, they are infinitely less interesting, and timeless. If there is anything mythic about this version of the Lakers, it is him, and his partnership with O'Neal.
As currently constructed, the Minnesota Lupe Garou should not be expected to beat the Lakers, or to dispel the Laker Myth. Not after having made the mistake of signing Olowokandi and losing Troy Hudson to injury and with Wally World playing with a broken back. Not now. All that counts is now.
But in the Finals, there is no such barrier. The Pistons can win.
In fact, the Pistons, if of sound mind, have a better-than-even shot of exploding the Laker Myth, at least for this year, as constructed around this current edition co-starring the brooding Mailman and the crochety GP. If those two keep it up, they might be able to get another Martin Lawrence-Eddie Murphy movie collaboration out of it. I doubt if Will Smith would be interested.
He's holding out for Kobe.
All this might sound crazy, a bit mad, wacko like Jacko. But what can you expect from a guy who understands what Rasheed Wallace is talking about?
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.