Sports Nut

Showtime, Part XXXI

How the Lakers built the greatest dynasty in pro sports.

Gary Payton and Karl Malone
Payton and Malone: WMD?

Let us begin with a recent pronouncement from the Big Aristotle who, upon learning that his Los Angeles Lakers had acquired not only veteran All-Star forward Karl Malone, but also veteran All-Star guard Gary Payton for their drive next season to reacquire the NBA championship, exclaimed, “Last year, I had a couple tanks, a couple grenades. Now I got atomic weapons, I’m going nuclear. I’m Colin Powell, and I can drop the bomb anytime I want to.”

Clearly, Shaq’s rhetoric has outstripped his geopolitics here. Nevertheless, by obtaining the services of Payton and Malone, and by doing so at a cost of only $6.4 million for the both of them, the Lakers have laid the groundwork for continuing what is probably the longest run of consistent excellence in the history of professional sports—one that stretches from O’Neal all the way back to George Mikan, from the Pacific Ocean back to Lake of the Isles Boulevard. in Minneapolis, and all the way back beyond when Gary Payton was born (1968, when the Lakers lost to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics) to the hot July day in 1963 when Karl Malone first appeared to the world in Summerfield, La. The Lakers lost to Russell’s team that year, too.

Once Russell deigned to get the hell out of the way, the Lakers began a run unsurpassed by any other franchise in sports. Consider the competition. The New York Yankees were mediocre in the mid-1980s and godawful in the mid-1960s. The Montreal Canadiens went down so far that, a few years back, an American bought the team. The National Football League is deliberately rigged to prevent anything like multiple championships. (It’s 2003—Cincinnati Bengals, come on down!) Or consider the most obvious comparison—the Boston Celtics. The history of the Celtics is one of incredibly fat years alternating with incredibly lean ones. The Celtics were horrid after Russell retired. After the ferocious Dave Cowens teams of the 1970s came apart, Boston became so bad that paterfamilias Red Auerbach seriously considered taking a job with the Knicks. Along came Larry Bird and the great run in the 1980s, but the last Celtics championship was 17 years ago, and the team is now mired in the NBA’s dreadful paludal regions—just good enough to make the playoffs, but not quite good enough to do much of anything once it gets there.

By contrast, it’s been nearly a decade since a Lakers team even was mediocre, and none stayed that way for very long. Since winning the first National Basketball Association championship in Minneapolis in 1950, the Lakers have finished below .500 only 11 times, and over the past 20 years they’ve won more than 70 percent of their games nine times. A number of dynamics were at work here. The team’s location always helped; until the NBA put a team in Phoenix, the Lakers were the league’s only true Sun Belt franchise. (For the league’s first predominantly African-American workforce, the St. Louis—and, later, Atlanta—Hawks were not in the Sun Belt. They were in the South, with all that entailed.) Location worked in concert with the desire of good players to play on good teams. This is especially true among veteran stars like Payton and Malone, who lack only an NBA championship on their career CVs. Leaving your longtime employer in order to take your last shot at a championship—and doing so for what is essentially boutonniere money—now is an accepted NBA rite of passage.

The phenomenon became widespread during the NBA’s Magic-and-Larry-driven revival, a singularly dynastic period in NBA history. Beginning in the 1980s, the Lakers and the Celtics battled for the championship almost annually. They were supplanted by the Detroit Pistons, whose pair of rings look almost petty compared to what came after them—the towering dominance of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. And even when Jordan took his two-season sabbatical because (nudge, nudge) he’d always wanted to play baseball, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets won both championships in his absence.

Most of these teams featured at least one superannuated veteran who’d signed cheaply for a last, best shot at a title. People were uniquely driven to ride the pine on Jordan’s Bulls teams; former stars like Mitch Richmond and Glen Rice took their career victory laps in L.A. for the same reason. However, Payton and Malone have not hopped aboard merely for the honor of it. Both of them have considerable talent left. Last season, Malone averaged 20 points and almost eight rebounds per game, and Payton put up almost identical averages in points and assists. Both of them played at least 80 games, and they are manifestly better than anything the Lakers had last year at their respective positions.

The fact that Malone and Payton hungered for the opportunity they perceive to be presented by the Lakers has allowed the team to rebuild without either sinking into the abyss—have a nice day, Chicago Bulls—or finagling too openly with the league’s salary cap. Whether or not the whole business will succeed depends on two factors: a) whether or not Payton and Malone can work and play well with others, most notably the Big Aristotle; and b) how good a lawyer Mark Hurlbert is over there in Eagle County, Colo. Unless Karl Malone can pick up a J.D. in the off-season, Hurlbert’s the guy holding all the nukes now.