- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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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 that 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 of 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.
13 UCLA's 88-game winning streak ends
John Wooden's teams won 10 national championships during his last 12 seasons with the UCLA Bruins, but from Jan. 23, 1971, to Jan. 19, 1974, Wooden's teams were perfect. UCLA won 88 straight games, becoming the only men's college basketball team to post back-to-back undefeated seasons. The Bruins' last loss before the streak came at the hands of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the place, as the luck of the Irish would have it, where the streak ended. UCLA led by as many as 17 points in the first half and held a 70-59 lead with 3:30 left in the game before the Irish completed an improbable comeback, beating UCLA 71-70. Notre Dame players cut down the nets after the game. One week later, UCLA reclaimed its spot atop college basketball, thrashing Notre Dame at Pauley Pavilion 94-75.
14 Chick Hearn announces 3,338 consecutive games
It's hard to pinpoint one moment or one call that defined the career of Chick Hearn, who called 3,338 games in a row and was the play-by-play man for nine championship Lakers teams. Perhaps it was a moment when Hearn wasn't even there. On Nov. 20, 1965, the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors 133-117 in Las Vegas while Hearn was in Fayetteville, Ark., stranded in an airport due to inclement weather after calling a college football game. He didn't miss another game for the next 36 years. Hearn coined the phrases "slam dunk" and "air ball" and provided an exclamation point to wins most fans and players can still recite: "You can put this one in the refrigerator. The door's closed, the light's are out, the eggs are cooling, the butter's getting hard and the Jell-O is jiggling." Hearn's streak came to an end Dec. 16, 2001, when he had to have an operation for a blocked aortic valve. He returned April 9, 2002, and called every Lakers playoff game en route to the team's third consecutive title, an amazing accomplishment considering he fell and broke his hip while recovering from surgery. Two months after the Finals, Hearn fell and struck his head at home. He died on Aug. 5.
15 Marvin Gaye sings the national anthem at the 1983 All-Star Game
There was a time when singing the national anthem before a sporting event was a straightforward assignment. That all changed on Feb. 13, 1983, when Gaye sang one of the most memorable and moving renditions of the anthem before the NBA All-Star Game at the Forum. His slow version accompanied by a melodic background beat wasn't fully appreciated at the time. According to Lon Rosen, then the Lakers promotional director who had chosen Gaye to sing the national anthem, CBS and league officials were furious. Some in the crowd even booed. Gaye's version of the national anthem didn't become iconic until after his tragic death less than a year later. His daughter, Nona, sang a similar version of Gaye's anthem before the 2004 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, with a recording of her father's rendition playing in the background.
16 Lakers trade for Kareem in 1975
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the 1971 NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks and fell to the Celtics in the seventh game of the 1974 Finals. But he didn't enjoy living in Milwaukee, and after his Hall-of-Fame point guard, Oscar Robertson, retired, Abdul-Jabbar let management know he wanted out. He had one year left on his contract and wanted to be dealt to New York, Washington or Los Angeles. After months of haggling with teams and amazingly keeping much of it a secret, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar and forward Walt Wesley to the Lakers for center Elmore Smith, guard Brian Winters, rookie forwards Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman and about $800,000. According to reports, the Lakers tried to include Gail Goodrich in the deal instead of Winters but the Bucks weren't interested. A year later Goodrich left for New Orleans in a deal that netted the Lakers the first pick in the 1979 NBA draft, which was used to select Magic Johnson. The tandem of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson would go on to win five NBA championships in L.A.
17 Jerry Buss buys the Lakers in 1979
In the 14 years he owned the Lakers, Canadian entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke brought an NHL franchise (the Kings) to Los Angeles, traded for Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and built the "Fabulous" Forum. By 1979, however, he was ready to move on. He had become the majority owner of the Washington Redskins in 1974, moved to Washington in 1978 and wanted to take over the day-to-day operations of the team. Enter Jerry Buss, a USC-educated chemist-turned-real estate magnate who was an avid Los Angeles sports fan. Buss purchased the Lakers, the Kings, the Forum and a 13,000-acre Kern County ranch for $67.5 million, then the largest transaction in sports history. The Lakers, who had won one championship in 25 years before Buss purchased the team, won five during the next nine years while advancing to nine NBA Finals in 12 seasons. Their 10 championships under Buss' ownership are the most by any team in the four major North American professional leagues since he purchased the team.
18 Prep stars Miller and Leslie score more than 100 points in one game
Cheryl Miller was widely considered the best girls' basketball player in the country long before her senior season in 1982 at Riverside Polytechnic High School. What few could have imagined before she dropped 105 points against crosstown rival Norte Vista High School was she might be the best high school player in the country, of either gender. Miller had a storied career at USC, where she was named player of the year three times and led the Women of Troy to back-to-back national championships in 1983 and 1984. She also led the U.S. team to the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Her play inspired a new generation of women's basketball players, including Lisa Leslie, who had received scholarship offers before playing a single game at Morningside High School in Inglewood. In Leslie's last home game at Morningside, where the tradition was to let the senior captain score as many points as she could in her final home game before the playoffs, she scored 49 points in the first quarter and 52 in the second as Morningside took a 102-24 halftime lead over South Torrance. There would not be a second half. Leslie went on to play for coach Cheryl Miller at USC and became the most decorated women's basketball player since her idol. She became the first WNBA player to dunk in a game, won four Olympic gold medals, three WNBA MVP awards and led the L.A. Sparks to two WNBA championships.
19 Lakers trade for Pau Gasol in 2008
Long before Andrew Bynum dislocated his left knee cap on Jan. 13, 2008, the Lakers had thought about trading for Pau Gasol. A year earlier, Mitch Kupchak had heard Gasol was possibly on the market and called his former boss and Lakers great Jerry West, who was running the Grizzlies at the time. Gasol was potentially available but not for anything the Lakers had to offer. A year later, with Bynum now out for the season, Kupchak called the Grizzlies back. This time Chris Wallace was running the show and Kupchak had a little more to offer. The Lakers had selected Marc Gasol, Pau's brother, in the draft seven months earlier and he was ready to play in the NBA the next season. Almost as importantly for the cash-strapped Grizzlies, Kwame Brown was in the last year of his contract and his $9 million salary would be coming off the books at the end of the season. The Lakers threw in Javaris Crittenton and future first-round picks in 2008 and 2010 and the deal was done. It took about three weeks to consummate the trade, which was amazingly kept under wraps until it was announced on Feb. 1, 2008. Gasol made his debut Feb. 5, 23 days after Bynum's injury, and put up 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 105-90 win over the Nets. Gasol fit into the triangle offense seamlessly and the Lakers haven't been the same since.
20 Buss and Kupchak refuse to trade Bryant in 2007
Sometimes the trades that aren't made turn out to be the most important. By summer 2007, Kobe Bryant had had enough with the Lakers. It had been three years since they traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat. Bryant had finished his first post-Shaq season out of the playoffs, the first time in his career he hadn't played in the postseason, and for the next two years in a row had been eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. Bryant went on a confusing radio tour on May 31, 2007, saying he wanted to be traded, then saying he wanted to be a Laker for the rest of his career, then saying a separation was needed, all within a three-hour period. "I would like to be traded," Bryant said at the time. "And as tough as it is to say that, as tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there's no other alternative." He later said, "Promises made to make this team better have not been kept. So where does that leave me?" Bryant was booed by Lakers fans on opening night of the 2007-08 season as he dropped 45 points in a 95-93 loss to the Rockets on Oct. 30, 2007. His trade demands faded as the season progressed and the Lakers, with Derek Fisher back at point guard, showed they were better than most expected, and the demands disappeared completely when the Lakers traded for Gasol in February to return to the NBA's elite.
21 Bryant scores 81 points against Toronto in 2006
Phil Jackson was ready to take Kobe Bryant out of the game. The Lakers were in control against the Toronto Raptors and he wanted to give him the rest of the night off. "I think I better take him out now," Jackson told assistant coach Frank Hamblen, who was keeping stats on his clipboard. "I don't think you can," Hamblen said. "He has 77 points." Jackson finally pulled Bryant with 4.2 seconds left and gave him a hug as Bryant, who had scored 81 points, walked toward the bench and raised his hands at the Staples Center crowd that was giving him a standing ovation. The Lakers' game on Jan. 22, 2006, against the 14-27 Raptors wasn't supposed to be remembered by history. L.A. trailed 63-49 at the half and Bryant scored "only" 26 points in the first half. It wasn't until Bryant scored 27 points in the third quarter and 28 in the fourth that it became legendary. Bryant finished with more points in a game than any NBA player outside of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point night on March 2, 1962.
22 Clippers win the 2009 draft lottery
Of course the Clippers' moment would come during a draft lottery. After all, they've been a part of 21 of the past 25 lotteries. They are to the lottery what the Lakers are to the playoffs. The Clippers, however, rarely get it right on draft night, which would explain their consistent participation in the annual pingpong party. That all may have changed May 20, 2009, when they won the right to draft Blake Griffin, the national college player of the year. If Griffin continues to play the way he has so far in his first season with the Clippers (after missing his actual rookie season with a broken left knee cap), history will remember this as the day the fate of the Clippers changed.
23 UCLA plays Houston at the Astrodome in 1968
The significance of the "Game of the Century" between UCLA and Houston on Jan. 20, 1968, was far greater than the outcome of the game. Houston's 71-69 win over UCLA, which had won 47 straight games, in front of what at the time was the largest paid crowd (52,693) to see a basketball game, was certainly significant. The "Game of the Century," however, established college basketball as a viable national television product, capable of attracting huge ratings and huge attendance figures. (The schools met again two months later in Los Angeles, when UCLA beat Houston 101-69 in an NCAA semifinal before beating North Carolina 77-58 to win the national championship.)
24 Magic leaps into Kareem's arms after their first game together
Maybe he forgot he was in the NBA. Maybe he forgot there were 81 games left. Maybe he forgot the Lakers were playing the San Diego Clippers. Whatever it was, Magic Johnson's ecstatic reaction after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's buzzer-beating skyhook to win their 1979-1980 season opener 103-102 was a breath of fresh air. Johnson grabbed Abdul-Jabbar's neck and practically gave him a choke hold as he jumped up and down after his first NBA game. Abdul-Jabbar barely cracked a smile and sat his rookie point guard down after the game and reminded him he wasn't in college anymore. "We can't be at this emotional pitch for the whole season or we won't make it to Thanksgiving," he would later say in the film "Always Showtime." It was a preview of what Lakers fans would see over the next decade as the tandem of Kareem and Magic would have plenty to celebrate, winning five titles in 10 years. "People realized that's how I was," Johnson said in the film. "And how I was going to be."
25 Tyus Edney goes coast-to-coast
The memory stayed with Tyus Edney for two years. UCLA had led Michigan's Fab Five squad by 19 in the 1993 West Regional and squandered the lead late in the game. Edney made two free throws to tie the score at 77 with 6.3 seconds left, then stole the ball at midcourt. But he threw a bad pass to Ed O'Bannon that was intercepted by Jimmy King. Michigan carried the momentum into overtime and won 86-84. Edney's chance at redemption came in Boise, Idaho, but an entire court and five Missouri players stood in his way. With UCLA trailing 74-73 and 4.8 seconds left on the clock, Edney took the inbounds pass, zoomed past Missouri's Jason Sutherland at midcourt, turned in the lane and banked in the winning shot over the outstretched arms of Derek Grimm at the buzzer. Edney's shining moment propelled the Bruins to the Sweet 16 en route to their first national championship in 20 years.
Honorable mentions: High school star Raymond Lewis goes for 52 against Lakers rookies in a Summer League game; John Barber scores 188 points in 1953 when Los Angeles State beat the Chapman College JV squad 206-82; Robert Horry's last-second shot against the Kings in 2002; Derek Fisher's 0.4 shot against the Spurs in 2004; Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop against Portland in 2000; Pat Riley promises a repeat at the 1987 parade and Lakers go on to complete first back-to-back in 18 years.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Legends and lore helped shape Los Angeles into hoops heaven.