- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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Defining moments are like college recruits. Some are no-brainers from the second you see them and others take a few years to become memorable.
Everyone knew when the Los Angeles Lakers signed Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 he was one of the biggest free-agent signings in NBA history. But how many people knew the Lakers' trade of fan-favorite center Vlade Divac for 17-year-old high school guard Kobe Bryant three weeks earlier would become one the NBA's greatest trades?
What follows is my collection of the top moments that have defined Los Angeles basketball and shaped it into the center of the hoops universe. What moments mean the most to you? Rank them here, or add your own in the comments section.
1 Magic jumps center in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals
Paul Westhead is admittedly an unorthodox coach. The former Shakespeare professor shaped his high-speed coaching philosophy on the smoldering courts of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nothing was ever too far outside the box for Westhead, not even starting his rookie point guard at center in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Philadelphia with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by a sprained ankle. Johnson played all five positions in what was the most impressive game of his Hall of Fame career. He finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block. The image of Johnson walking to center court for the jump ball against Caldwell Jones before the game is still one of the most indelible in Lakers history. Johnson became the first (and still only) rookie to win NBA Finals MVP en route to winning his first of five championships as a Lakers player.
2 Kimble's tribute to Gathers during LMU's 1990 tournament run
It looked more like a shot put than a free throw. Bo Kimble, a right-hander who was an 82 percent free throw shooter, went to the foul line during every game of LMU's magical run in the 1990 NCAA tournament, carefully balanced the ball on his left hand and tossed it at the hoop the way Hank Gathers, his childhood friend and teammate, would have. It was an unorthodox style Gathers, who struggled from the line, used to improve perhaps the only deficiency in his otherwise sterling game. During the semifinals of the 1990 West Coast Conference tournament, Gathers, who had been diagnosed with a heart condition three months earlier, collapsed and died after an alley-oop dunk. Riding a wave of emotion into the NCAA tournament after Gathers' death, LMU advanced to the Elite Eight, averaging a record 105.8 points a game while scoring the most points in a single game during a 149-115 win over defending champion Michigan. Kimble shot the first free throw of every tournament game with his left hand, and made each one.
3 Magic Johnson announces he has HIV and retires in 1991
He heard the news Oct. 25, 1991, after failing a routine physical for a life-insurance policy the Lakers wanted to purchase as protection for a $3 million loan Jerry Buss was planning to give him. The world heard the news 13 days later, at a Nov. 7 news conference inside the Great Western Forum that would change everything. Before Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, education about the virus that can lead to AIDS was not widespread. After Johnson retired, he immediately began imploring anyone who would listen to get tested and practice safe sex. He wanted people to understand you couldn't contract the disease through simple human touch; you could still give him a big hug if you saw him on the streets. How many lives did he change -- or save -- because of his advocacy? It's difficult to say, but the number is so much more meaningful than any stat he accumulated during his Hall of Fame career. When Magic's announcement came, most wondered how long he would live. Highlights of his career would illicit tears from fans believing he would be gone tomorrow. It's been nearly 20 years since Johnson retired and he is still with us, living a life more fruitful than anyone could have imagined. But Johnson knew he'd be around for a long time, even as he closed that fateful news conference in 1991. "I'm going to go on," he said. "I'm going to beat this, and I'm going to have fun."
4 Wooden accepts UCLA head coaching job
If he had it his way, the Wizard of Westwood would have never moved West. John Wooden, who was born in Indiana, played at Purdue and began his coaching career at Indiana State, wanted to stay in the Midwest. It was his home. It was where he met his wife, Nellie, at a carnival in 1926 and married her at a small ceremony in Indianapolis six years later. So in 1948, when UCLA and Minnesota called to recruit Wooden to coach their men's basketball teams, the choice was fairly easy. UCLA's basketball team played at the men's gym on campus, not so affectionately called the "B.O. Barn." It seated less than 2,000 fans and doubled as the home of the gymnastics team. Canvas drapes separated the teams and the players had no lockers or showers. Minnesota had the Minnesota FieldHouse, a basketball landmark waiting for a coach like Wooden to turn the team around. But Wooden wanted to choose his own coaching staff, a request Minnesota wanted to think about. The school promised to call Wooden back by 6 p.m. on a Sunday with its decision. Six o'clock came and went, and Wooden and his wife figured Minnesota must have rejected his request. When UCLA called at 7 p.m., Wooden accepted the Bruins' offer. Minnesota called about 30 minutes later. A blizzard had knocked out the wires in the Twin Cities, preventing Minnesota from letting Wooden know it had agreed to his terms. But it was too late; Wooden had given UCLA his word, and the Bruins went on to win 10 national championships.
5 Goodrich's 1976 departure leads to Magic's 1979 arrival
There was a time in the NBA when losing a superstar free agent was a good thing, and if you were the Lakers in 1976, it was a great thing. Gail Goodrich, an L.A. native who had a storied career with the UCLA Bruins and with the Lakers, signed a three-year contract with the New Orleans Jazz on Aug. 6, 1976. League rules at the time said the Lakers were entitled to compensation for losing a veteran free agent and the Jazz agreed to send the Lakers their first-round pick in the 1979 draft. Goodrich, who was 33 at the time, sustained an Achilles' heel injury early in the 1976-77 season and played just two more in New Orleans, which finished the 1978-79 season with the worst record in the league. Back then (and up until 1985) the two teams with the worst record in each conference would flip a coin at the league office to decide who would get the first overall pick. The Chicago Bulls called heads, the coin landed on tails and the Lakers ended up with the first overall pick in the 1979 draft. They used it to select a player by the name of Earvin "Magic" Johnson out of Michigan State.
6 Westhead takes over as Lakers coach with Riley in the wings
Nov. 8, 1979 was an off day for the Lakers, 13 games into the season. A perfect opportunity, Paul Westhead thought, to play tennis with Jack McKinney, his close friend and the new coach of the Lakers. When Westhead, a 39-year-old assistant who was new to coaching in the NBA, called McKinney to see if he wanted to meet, McKinney told him his wife had the car but he would ride his son's bike through Palos Verdes to the courts at Westhead's condominium. McKinney never made it to Westhead's place. While trying to brake down a steep hill near the intersection of Whitley Collins Drive and Stonecrest Road, he flew over the handlebars and crashed headfirst onto the street. McKinney was placed in intensive care after suffering severe head injuries and facial fractures. Westhead took over as Lakers coach and plucked Pat Riley, a former player who had never coached, out of the broadcast booth and made him his assistant. The Lakers won the championship that season and McKinney was let go. The honeymoon period with Westhead ended 11 games into the 1981-82 season, when he was fired after the team's 7-4 start and amid a dispute with Magic Johnson. Riley became the head coach and the Lakers won four more championships during the "Showtime" era.
7 Phil Jackson hired as Lakers coach in 1999
The way Jackson remembers it, he was in Alaska on a fishing trip when he got the call from his agent, who had just gotten off the phone with Lakers executive vice president Jerry West. Three weeks earlier, the Lakers had been ousted from the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, losing their last meaningful game at the Forum, 118-107. Jackson, who was taking the lockout-shortened 1999 season off after leading the Chicago Bulls to six championships in eight seasons, had been courted by the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks' interest waned as New York advanced to the NBA Finals and New Jersey, which reportedly offered $7 million per season, were nowhere near a championship contender at the time. The Lakers, meanwhile, were arguably the league's most talented team -- with a nucleus of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox -- but could never get over the hump. They were swept out of the playoffs in 1999 and 1998 and lost in five games to the Utah Jazz in 1997. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who had never broken the bank to pay for a coach, could no longer afford to leave his roster in the hands of Del Harris and Kurt Rambis. On June 16, 1999, the Lakers inked Jackson to a five-year, $30 million deal. The introductory news conference was held at the Beverly Hilton hotel, where Jackson was staying while campaigning for presidential candidate Bill Bradley, his former teammate. The Lakers went on to win three straight championships and have an unprecedented 11-year run, highlighted by five titles (so far).
8 Lakers sign Shaquille O'Neal in summer of 1996
Jerry West is always tense on the job. His nervous tension drove him to greatness on the court and he managed with a similar tension as a front-office executive. He famously paced the tunnels of the Forum and Staples Center during games. But West was more than just tense the evening of July 18, 1996, as he sat in the Atlanta hotel room of Leonard Armato, Shaquille O'Neal's agent. West had essentially gutted a young team on the rise that had gone 53-29 the previous season. He traded Vlade Divac, George Lynch and Anthony Peeler and renounced the rights to Sedale Threatt, Derek Strong, Pig Miller and Frankie King. The moves left the Lakers with a huge void on their roster but also enabled them to offer O'Neal a seven-year deal worth $121 million. The Orlando Magic stayed firm with their initial offer of seven years at $115 million for their star center. The day before O'Neal was to make his decision, an Orlando Sentinel poll asked readers, "Is Shaquille O'Neal worth $115 million over seven seasons?" More than 90 percent of the respondents voted no. O'Neal finally showed up in Armato's room at 2:30 a.m. and signed with the Lakers. The Lakers went to four NBA Finals and won three championships with O'Neal, who was the league's MVP in 2000. "I think if he hadn't of shown up and signed that contract," West told the Times, "I might have jumped out of that 60th-floor window."
9 Lakers trade Divac for Bryant after the 1996 draft
When the Charlotte Hornets selected Kobe Bryant with the No. 13 pick in the 1996 NBA draft, Bryant, wearing a teal and purple necktie, proudly put on the similarly colored hat of the Hornets and raised his hands in the air before posing for pictures with NBA commissioner David Stern. But Bryant was never going to play in Charlotte. He knew that, his agent knew that and the Hornets certainly knew that, making the selection on behalf of the Lakers in a trade that would land them Lakers center Vlade Divac. While Divac was one of the best centers in the league at the time, the Lakers had their eyes set on signing O'Neal and needed Divac's cap space and position. West had also fallen in love with Bryant's potential after two private workouts, the second of which West had Michael Cooper helplessly trying to defend Bryant. The trade took 13 days to become official after Divac threatened to retire instead of going to Charlotte, but he eventually agreed and Bryant became a Laker. Two years after the trade, Divac left Charlotte for Sacramento and four years after that the Hornets left Charlotte for New Orleans. Bryant has gone on to become the all-time leading scorer in franchise history, surpassing West, while leading the Lakers to five NBA championships.
10 Magic's junior skyhook beats Boston in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals
Larry Bird was practically speechless after the game, and it had less to do with the 3-1 hole the Celtics were in and more with how they got there. The Celtics were in control of the pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Finals at the Boston Garden and poised to tie the series at two games apiece. Boston jumped to a 16-point halftime lead but that advantage had all but vanished with less than a minute left. After a couple of lead changes, the Celtics were up 106-104 with 8 seconds left when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went to the free throw line. He made the first shot and missed the second, but Boston was unable to control the rebound, which went off the outstretched arms of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Johnson took the inbounds pass after a timeout and was forced to the key by McHale. When Johnson saw an opening, he flicked a running hook (he later dubbed it a "junior, junior skyhook"). It went in and gave the Lakers a 107-106 win and a 3-1 series lead. After the game, Bird, who missed a last-second shot, said, "You expect to lose to the Lakers on a skyhook. You don't expect it to be from Magic." The Lakers won the Finals in six games. It was their fourth title of the decade, second over the Celtics, and it cemented their place as the team of the '80s.
11 Wooden tells his players he will retire after the 1975 tournament
Rumors had begun to spread toward the end of the 1974-75 season that John Wooden would retire after the NCAA tournament. Wooden, however, didn't say anything. The man who had kept his word to coach UCLA 27 years earlier wasn't about to make any pronouncements until he was absolutely sure of his future. After UCLA's 75-74 win over Louisville in the tournament semifinal, Wooden was sure. He announced he would be retiring after the championship game against Kentucky. "I'm bowing out," he told his team after the game in their cramped quarters inside the San Diego Sports Arena, according to a story in Sports Illustrated. "I don't want to. I have to." No one thought much of the not-so-deep and not-so-experienced Bruins heading into the tournament and they were certainly the underdogs heading into the title game, but UCLA beat Kentucky 92-85, giving Wooden and the Bruins their 10th national championship in 12 years.
12 The Lakers' 33-game winning streak ends
Nine games into the 1971-72 season, the Lakers were 6-3 and dealing with the abrupt retirement of Hall of Fame forward Elgin Baylor, who could no longer play through knee trouble. Baylor was replaced by Jim McMillian, a second-year player who proved to be the final piece of the championship puzzle. The youngest player on the team averaged 18.8 points and 6.5 rebounds and perfectly complemented Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston. The Lakers' 33-game winning streak began the moment McMillian stepped into the lineup for the 10th game of the season, a 110-106 win over the Washington Bullets on Nov. 5, 1971, and extended for over more than two months until the Lakers lost to the Milwaukee Bucks 120-104 on Jan. 9, 1972. The Lakers finished with a 69-13 regular-season record, which remained the highest win total until the Chicago Bulls went 72-10 during the 1995-96 season. The Lakers' 33-game win streak, however, remains the longest winning streak for any team in the four major North American sports leagues. The Lakers finished the season by winning their first title in L.A. and the franchise's first in 18 years.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
4hMatt Walks, ESPN.com