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An expert's view on the Lakers' greatest centers

September 5, 2010 |  8:30 am


So, I'm highly unmotivated, but know I have to offer up something for the morning Laker-holics. I'm searching the Web for stuff that hasn't been discussed, thinking of things with which I might be able to entertain you.

Then it dawns on me. WWJMD? What would Jim Murray do? Not that perhaps the greatest sports writer of all time would be blogging at 3 a.m., but maybe I can draw inspiration from The Times' GOAT. Then the moment of clarity. I've got access to our archives. Let's follow the lead of LRob, one of our blog's historians, and see what Mr. Murray has to say about the great centers in Lakers history.

So, folks, I give you his column on Shaquille O'Neal's regular-season debut on Nov. 3, 1996. Enjoy.

-- Dan Loumena

"No Way He Misses This One"

By Jim Murray

I don't often feel this way, but somehow I felt I had to be there.

You see, I had been there when Sandy Koufax pitched his first game for the L.A. Dodgers. Saw him too, when he struck out 18 Giants in a night game.

Saw Bob Waterfield take his first snap as an L.A. Ram quarterback. Was there when Ben Hogan won his first U.S. Open at Riviera Country Club.

And I was on hand when the L.A. Lakers played their first home game at the Sports Arena. I was there when Wilt Chamberlain played his first home game as an L.A. Laker. Same when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made his debut as a Laker. Also when Magic Johnson did.

So I had to be in on the start of the Shaquille O'Neal Era, didn't I? Had a ring of deja vu about it.

I don't remember too sharply Wilt's or Kareem's inaugural game. But I do recollect that the advent of Chamberlain had a deleterious effect on Elgin Baylor's game. Chamberlain seemed to be occupying the places Baylor wanted to go to perform his sleight-of-hand under the basket.

I also remember that Chamberlain, who used to throw up as many as 3,000 field-goal attempts a season--and make as many as 1,500--and who rolled up as many as 4,000 points a season, suddenly became a playmaker in L.A. Only 7-foot-1 point guard I ever saw. His field-goal tries descended into the low 1,000s. So did his point totals. His rebounds remained the same. He led the league every year in those. He went and got the ball and dished it off to the shooter.

Abdul-Jabbar more or less brought his game intact. His rebound total, never robust, was less of a factor than his shooting. Abdul-Jabbar relied on Oscar Robertson to seek out the ball for him in Milwaukee and Magic Johnson to do it in L.A.

But how do the Lakers wind up with these nuclear forces in the pivot in the first place?

Well, in the cases of Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, you have to detect the fine covert operations hands of then-Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke. The CIA lost a fine prospect when Cooke elected to turn his talents to business dealings and, particularly, the business of professional sports.

No one ever knew for sure how Cooke maneuvered for Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, how many arms he had to twist, how many favors he had to call in. Cooke was never one to leave a telltale trail. No DNA would ever attach to his machinations.

But it was well-known Chamberlain was fed up with Philadelphia and Abdul-Jabbar was mild about Milwaukee. Every franchise in the league would have wanted them, but Cooke was never one to let nature take its course. Cooke had paid $5 million in cash for the Lakers at a time when basketball was something you went to for the dance afterward and pro basketball was considered the preliminary game on a show featuring the Harlem Globetrotters as the main event.

So, Cooke got his show-stoppers in the pivot. He got Magic Johnson in a coin flip that, so far as anyone knows, was honest (although, when the New York Knicks got Patrick Ewing, you had to wonder).

When Jerry Buss bought the team (along with the hockey Kings and a couple of mountains of real estate up in Kern County) for $62 million, he got Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, and the world championships came with some degree of regularity. The act was a show-biz smash known as "Showtime," the seats were full of film goddesses and leading men, season tickets cost just less than an all-expense cruise in the Caribbean.

But then, Abdul-Jabbar retired, Johnson hit the wall, and the Lakers were back to square one. No skyscraper in the pivot and no one to go get the ball for him if there were. Almost enough to make you yearn for a dance afterward.

But then, Buss comes up with a page out of the Cooke school of ownership. A major coup. The most visible player in the game, the modern successor to Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar shows up in a Laker uniform.

I hotfooted it over to owner Buss to see what subterfuge he had to resort to to bring off this master stroke, bringing Shaquille O'Neal to L.A. Whose arm did he twist, what markers did he have to call in?

Buss sighed and denied complicity. "Do you want the dramatic version, the emotional version -- or the truth?

"The truth is, I relied on [his general manager] Jerry [West]. I prayed a lot. We kept hearing Shaq wanted to play here, but when we got around to signing, it looked like it didn't.

"We got rid of Vlade [Divac] and kept our options open.

"My feeling is, L.A. really needs something like this. This town has lost its football teams, it has lost a lot of star players. The town has been good to pro sports. It deserves something better."

In New York, the Yankees are the Yankees again. Are the Lakers the Lakers?

O'Neal's debut opened to what Broadway would call "mixed reviews." He was a presence in the sense that Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar were. The visiting Phoenix Suns seemed to go in a circle-the-wagons mode when he hit the floor. When he left the floor (with foul trouble), they were somewhat less intimidated. The Shaq-less Lakers squandered a 19-point lead on one occasion when he was largely bench-bound.

He came within a foul of disqualification. It's well to remember Chamberlain never fouled out and Abdul-Jabbar fouled out only once in each of his last two seasons. Of course, it would have taken a very brave official to foul Chamberlain out of a game in the days when he was one of the league's few drawing cards. O'Neal's fouls, too, are apt to have a referee looking around to see who he can pin it on.

O'Neal's 23 points for his opening game were creditable for a guy who had to spend 13 minutes on the pine. His 14 rebounds were downright encouraging.

Is it the start of something big? Will it end in a ticker-tape parade at City Hall? Or will Michael Jordan and Co. prove it's going to be just a lot of Bull once again? Oh, well. Either way I can tell my great-grandchildren some day I was there on one more start--whether it's big or Bull.

Photo: No Wilt Chamberlain, but three generations of great Lakers centers: Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan. Credit: Peter Read Miller / NBAE/Getty Images