The brilliance of the 80’s era – sparked by Ervin Magic Johnson was also bookend by his abrupt retirement in 1991. Maybe he was meant to open and close the door on the Greatest Generation – so as not to confuse us, but to stamp a time of monumental achievement. Mission accomplished.
The New Generation began with a triple strike of lightning – Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson – all arriving together in 1996. Shaq was a force not seen since Wilt Chamberlain – a mountain of agility and raw strength with Madison Avenue appeal. His physical gifts were never fully realized, but his career is filled with storied moments of how extraordinary he could be:
– Like the night he scored 61 points and grabbed 23 rebounds against the Clippers, only because he became agitated by Pete Chillcut and Michael Olowonkandi – who were trying to defend him on his self-designated night off – his birthday. His specific goal for that game was to conserve his energy – after all, he had a birthday celebration to prepare for that night. If not for his early 4th quarter exit from the game, he may have been the first player to drop 81 points in a Laker uniform. Shaq cruised through his prime years as a Laker simply because he could. The lack of a physical equal to him during his prime, may be the reason he never pushed harder and achieved so much more. Don’t get me wrong – three titles in seven years is nothing to sneeze at, but think about what might have been? Salary demands that didn’t equal his effort on the court were made – and before you could blink, Shaq was headed to South Beach and the New Generation moved on.
Kobe Bryant – was the young lion that refused to wait for the spotlight to find him – he wanted the spotlight to never leave him. His prime years proved to be a bit tougher than he imagined. Trying to emulate the greatest – MJ – every night was harder than it looked. There were lots of points scored and equal amounts of mediocrity. Phil Jackson, a coach allergic to anything mediocre – threw in the towel, moved to Montana and wrote a tell all – calling his star player “uncoachable.” Shooting all the time can be a double-edged sword. It can become a slippery slope if it is not managed properly. Cancer can develop if it is left untreated – and after 16 seasons, Kobe’s treatments have not resulted in a cure.
As the cast of Laker characters changed, Kobe remained determined to be the knight in shining royal purple and gold amor. Enter Andrew Bynum and few years later, Pau Gasol and just like that – winning became the norm again. Seven foot solutions are never the proper cure for basketball cancer, but it can mask the symptoms for stretches at a time.
Follow me now.
– Can you imagine – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar getting benched for taking a three point shot and proclaiming that he’s going to continue to take them? He probably wouldn’t ignore his coach’s instructions during a timeout or carelessly park in handicap spots around Los Angeles, as if it’s his right to do so. Would he lay a player out in the 4th game of a playoff blowout and remove his jersey on the court after being ejected? Andrew Bynum? – yes. Kareem? – probably not.
– Can you imagine – Magic Johnson using a gay slur at an official because he was whistled for a foul? Would he ever shoot the team out of games and proclaim to continue doing so no matter what? Would he blame losing seasons on one player as if that one player was the difference between disappointment and success? Kobe Bryant? – yes. Magic? – probably not.
– Can you imagine – James Worthy changing his name before a season followed by a quirky explanation for doing so? Would he be self-aware enough to understand when he’s not playing well and not question the coach for his inconsistent play? Ron Artest? – yes. James Worthy? – probably not.
– Can you imagine – Kurt Rambis being bothered enough by rumors and admitting to it as a reason for disappearing when it matters most – the NBA playoffs? Pau Gasol? – yes. Rambis? – probably not.
– Can you imagine – A.C. Green being so bothered by trade rumors that he asks the GM to move him since they felt the need to explore options that would keep them competitive? Can you imagine A.C. being traded as requested and performing so poorly on his new team – that the team tells him to stay away with pay? Lamar Odom? – yes. A.C.? – probably not.
Of course you can’t imagine any of that – So, I ask you again – do you see any future head coaches in this bunch? Any basketball analysts? Any future business leaders in Los Angeles? Long time Laker employees?
The New Generation of Lakers couldn’t be any further apart from their predecessors. A coach can only provide the tools for success. The players have to use those tools together in order to achieve their goal. Successful basketball requires unity, teamwork and an ego check from every player. They say winning is the ultimate equalizer, the cure all solution – and for that reason – I say that the 80’s Lakers – The Greatest Generation – have no equals.
The Newest Generation is here. I hope you like it.
Part 2 of 2.