Showtime Lakers 35th anniversary: How the NBA’s greatest dynasty was built

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - CIRCA 1988: (L-R) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33, Magic Johnson #32 and Orlando Woolridge #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Indiana Pacers during an NBA basketball game circa 1988 at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. Abdul-Jabbar played for the Lakers from 1975-89. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - CIRCA 1988: (L-R) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33, Magic Johnson #32 and Orlando Woolridge #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Indiana Pacers during an NBA basketball game circa 1988 at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. Abdul-Jabbar played for the Lakers from 1975-89. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the fifth and final NBA championship captured by the Showtime Lakers. On June 21st, 1988, they defeated the Pistons in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood to win the franchise’s 11th title and fifth of the Showtime era.

The Showtime years were indisputably the finest, most successful and most exciting era of Lakers basketball. After Elgin, Jerry, Wilt and Gail had all departed, and before Kobe, Shaq and Pau or LeBron and AD arrived, a top-notch roster was led by two of the greatest players in NBA history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Those Showtime Lakers won five championships in nine seasons, including triumphs over the 76ers and Celtics twice each. The players themselves are convinced that they would have won one or two more titles if not for untimely injuries.

Let’s take a look at that iconic era and the steps the franchise took to reach that point in 1988.

Building the Showtime Lakers dynasty:

Step 1: The Huge 1975 Trade

The seeds of that era were planted back in June 1975. It was then that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke and general manager Pete Newell engineered a trade with Milwaukee, swapping four very good players, Junior Bridgeman, David Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters to the Bucks in exchange for one superstar, center Abdul-Jabbar.

Step 2: Two 1977 Player Acquisitions

Two years later, the Lakers made two other important moves. First, they selected point guard Norm Nixon with the 22nd pick of the draft.  Two months later, they signed former UCLA star small forward Jamaal Wilkes as a free agent.

With Kareem manning the middle, the team averaged 48 wins a season from 1976-1979 and finished first in the Western Conference in 1977. But that group was unable to advance to the NBA Finals. In those final three years of the 1970s, with Bill Sharman as the new GM and the legendary Jerry West as coach, the Lakers lost once each in the first round, second round and conference finals.

If the team was going to win a title, the front office clearly had to do something more.

Step 3: The Steal of the 1978 Draft

The next important move the franchise made was totally off just about everyone’s radar. With the 60th pick in the third round of the 1978 draft, the Lakers selected a skinny poor-shooting forward out of New Mexico named Michael Cooper.

He promptly tore knee ligaments and missed the entire 1978-79 season. The following year all eyes were elsewhere when he barely survived the final roster cut. Nobody would have predicted what a vital role Coop would soon play for the team.

Step 4: Three Monumental Months in 1979

In what proved to be an incredible three-month span for the Lakers, the following occurred from May to July 1979:

1- Jerry Buss finalized a deal to purchase ownership of the Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke.  Buss wanted to build not only a winning team but one that would greatly entertain the fans and generate tremendous interest throughout the LA area.

2- Jerry West, who was tearing his hair out trying to coach the team, moved into the Lakers front office. West would go on to become one of the top talent evaluators and general managers in NBA history.

3- Fate or luck was on the Lakers’ side. NBA rules at the time required compensation when a player left his team in free agency. Back in 1976, Lakers free agent guard Gail Goodrich signed with the Jazz, and a complicated arrangement resulted in LA getting their first-round pick in 1979… which turned out to be the #1 pick of the entire draft!

The Lakers used that pick to select charismatic point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the perfect player to help Buss implement his plan. The table was set for the Showtime Era to begin.

Highlights of the Showtime Lakers era

1980– The Lakers won 60 regular season games and began their playoff run by beating both Phoenix and defending champion Seattle in 5 games.

In the Finals, Abdul-Jabbar dominated Philadelphia, averaging 33.4 points and 13.6 rebounds throughout the first 5 games and leading the Lakers to a 3-2 game lead. But a sprained ankle forced Kareem to sit out Game 6.

That’s the game that will forever be remembered for Magic Johnson’s scintillating performance. The rookie seized control away from the Dr. J-led 76ers, scoring 42 points and snaring 15 rebounds. Along with ample support from Wilkes, who scored a career-high 37, the duo helped the Lakers capture their second championship in L.A.

1982– After losing to Houston in the first round in 1981, the Lakers looked to get back on top. But things looked grim when, just 11 games into the season, Magic publicly pronounced he could no longer play for Coach Paul Westhead.

Buss fired Westhead and then surprisingly promoted Pat Riley, who had no previous coaching experience, to become the head coach. At the time, people scratched their heads in wonderment. In retrospect, it is recognized as a bold and brilliant move.

At midseason, former NBA scoring leader Bob McAdoo was acquired for a second-round pick, joining Kareem, Magic, Wilkes and Nixon and providing a vital scorer off the bench. He played an important role as the Lakers recaptured the NBA title by sweeping both Phoenix and San Antonio, then once again beating the Sixers in the Finals in 6 games.

The Lakers’ good fortune continued after the season ended. Two years earlier, they had made a seemingly insignificant trade with Cleveland, swapping forward Don Ford, whose role on the Lakers had shrunk dramatically, and a 1980 first-round pick for Butch Lee and a 1982 first-rounder.

Lady Luck once again smiled at LA when the Cavs finished the 1982 season in last place,  giving the champion Lakers the top pick in the draft. Buss and West wisely used it to select forward James Worthy, who would go on to become one of the all-time Laker greats.

1983– In his rookie season, Worthy combined with Cooper and McAdoo to form a potent trio off the bench for the Lakers. Worthy played both forward positions, sometimes subbing in for Wilkes and also often playing alongside him.

But his season ended in April when he broke a leg. Unfortunately, that was only the first of several injuries.

The Lakers had a successful run through the West, beating Portland in 5 games and San Antonio in 6. But McAdoo tore a hamstring in the final game against the Spurs. Then Nixon separated his shoulder in Game 1 of the Finals. Both were severely limited for the rest of the series.

Although the Lakers led every Finals game at halftime, they squandered those leads each time in the fourth quarter and were swept by a Sixers squad led by Dr J and Moses Malone.

During the offseason, the Lakers made another significant trade, swapping 6-1 Nixon for the #4 pick in the draft, 6-4 shooting guard Byron Scott. The trade would allow Magic to become the team’s full-time point guard while adding a younger, excellent outside shooter.

1984– The Lakers cruised to the NBA Finals, sweeping the Kansas City Kings in the first round, then beating Dallas in 5 games and Phoenix in 6. But instead of the 76ers, they would face an old, familiar foe in the Finals: the Boston Celtics.

Between 1959 and 1969, the Lakers had squared off seven times against the Celtics and lost all seven. Three times the series went a full 7 games.

In most of those years, the Lakers’ two future Hall of Famers, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, couldn’t get over the hump against a full contingent of future Boston HOFers, including  Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn and John Havlicek.

This time around, the Lakers had the athletic edge. But the Celtics’ physicality proved to be the difference, as symbolized by Kevin McHale’s clothesline tackle of Kurt Rambis in Game 4. That takedown turned the tides not just of the game but the series, with Boston ultimately winning Game 7 at home.

1985– The Lakers to a man felt they should have won the ’84 title, and re-doubled their efforts in ’85. They won 62 regular season games as Worthy replaced Wilkes in the starting lineup and Scott became the full-time starter at shooting guard.

Once again LA waltzed through the West in the playoffs, sweeping Phoenix and losing just one game apiece to Portland and Denver to return to the Finals for the fourth straight year.

Their opponent once again was the Larry Bird-led Celtics. The Lakers were brimming with confidence that this time would be different.

But in Game 1, known as the “Memorial Day Massacre”, Boston soundly whipped the Lakers 148-114. At age 38, Abdul-Jabbar no longer looked like the game’s most dominant player, and yet another Celtics title seemed to be on the horizon.

However, Kareem, Pat Riley, Magic Johnson and company weren’t quite ready to concede. First, the Lakers rallied behind Abdul-Jabbar’s 30 points and 17 rebounds to capture Game 2 at Boston.

Next, they continued to ride Kareem’s coattails to win 3 of the next 4 games, clinching the title with a Game 6 victory at Boston Garden for their first-ever victory in the Finals over the Celtics. Kareem became the oldest player to win MVP honors.

1986– The Lakers once again won 62 games. But both Wilkes and McAdoo had moved on. And after 4 straight trips to the NBA Finals, they unexpectedly managed to lose 4 of 5 games to 51-win Houston in the Western Conference Finals to end their season prematurely.

1987– The 1986-87 team is regarded by many as the finest in Lakers history. It was buoyed by Jerry West’s masterful mid-season trade acquiring Mychal Thompson, who would back-up Kareem at center and also play alongside him at power forward.

After a 65-17 regular season record, the Lakers won 11 of 12 games in the Western Conference playoffs to return yet again to the Finals. There they would face a familiar opponent: the Boston Celtics.

Here’s where the presence of Thompson was keenly felt. He was probably the best player in the league at defending Boston’s Kevin McHale, a former college teammate. And Bird has admitted that Cooper was the best defensive player he faced.

The teams had already split their first two series in the ’80s. Now Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Scott and Cooper squared off against Bird, McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge to determine which was the best team of the decade.

The singular moment of the series occurred in the waning seconds of Game 4 in Boston when Magic Johnson sank the “junior, junior skyhook” to win the game. A few days later the Lakers clinched the series in Game 6 at home, their fourth title of the ’80s.

In the victory celebration, Riley boldly guaranteed that the Lakers would repeat as champions the following season. No team since the Celtics of the ’60s had won two straight titles.

1988– Although the Lakers won 62 games in the regular season, the 1988 playoffs were not the typical Lakers cakewalk through the Western Conference.

They swept San Antonio in the first round but were pushed to the limit by both Utah and Dallas in the next two series. LA used home-court advantage to win series-clinching Game 7’s at the Forum against both teams to advance.

They met an unfamiliar opponent this time around in the NBA Finals: the Detroit Pistons, a team that had never won a title and hadn’t been to the Finals since 1956, when the franchise was still located in Fort Wayne, IN.

But these “bad boys”, including Isiah Thomas, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and a young Dennis Rodman, proved to be a deep, formidable foe.

By now 40-year-old Abdul-Jabbar had become more of a secondary offensive weapon. Instead, the Lakers were led by three players still in their prime, Worthy, Johnson and Scott, while Thompson and A.C. Green provided scoring support. And although Cooper struggled offensively, he was still a defensive stopper.

The Pistons, however, stole Game 1 in LA behind Dantley’s hot 14-16 shooting. The Lakers recovered to win Game 2 at home and Game 3 in Detroit. But the Pistons buried the Lakers by a total of 35 points in games 4 and 5 to grab a 3-2 lead heading back to the West Coast.

If the Lakers were to repeat as NBA champs, not only would they have to win two straight games at home, but they’d also have to become the first team to ever win three consecutive seven-game series. The only sure thing was that the Pistons wouldn’t make it easy.

In Game 6, Thomas sprained his ankle but somehow scored 25 points in the third quarter while hobbling on one foot to give Detroit a one-point lead heading into the final quarter. Thomas would go on to tally a game-high 43.

But the Lakers defense held the Pistons to just 21 fourth-quarter points and LA won 103-102 on a pair of late free throws from Kareem to force Game 7. To this day, Detroit fans claim that Laimbeer didn’t foul Abdul-Jabbar on the play.

In the series finale, James Worthy had one of the best Game 7’s in NBA history, scoring 36 points on 15-22 shooting along with 16 rebounds and 10 assists. The Lakers built a 15-point fourth-quarter lead only to have Detroit cut the margin to just one, 106-105, with six seconds remaining.

But Magic passed to Green for a layup to put LA up by 3. Then Thomas lost the ball while trying to launch a desperate shot in a collision with Johnson and time ran out. The Lakers had earned their repeat title the hard way in 7 grueling games.

1989– The Lakers were favored to make it a “three-peat” in Kareem’s final season, and looked like a championship squad when they swept Portland, Seattle and Phoenix in the conference playoffs, winning 11 straight games.

Because they would then have a full 8-day break before a Finals re-match with Detroit, Riley arranged for the team to have a 3-day mini-camp to keep the team sharp. Unfortunately during those sessions, both Magic and Scott suffered torn hamstrings.

Scott, who had averaged over 20 points per game against both the Blazers and Suns, couldn’t play at all in the Finals. Magic hobbled through parts of the first couple of games before he was forced to the bench for the remainder of the series.

Without their starting backcourt, the Lakers were unable to compete with the Pistons and lost all four games of the Finals.

1991– After losing to Phoenix in the second round in 1990, the squad was now minus Abdul-Jabbar and Riley. But behind the mainstays of the team, Johnson, Worthy and Scott along with new head coach Mike Dunleavy, the Showtime Lakers made a final, somewhat surprising return to the NBA championship round in 1991.

Their opponent was the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, making their first-ever Finals appearance. The question was whether experience would triumph over the heroics of the game’s greatest player of all time.

Unfortunately, the injury bug struck the Lakers once again when Worthy sprained an ankle in the conference finals. He struggled through the first few games of the Finals before aggravating it further in Game 4 and was forced to sit out the rest of the series. Scott soon joined him on the bench after spraining his shoulder.

The Lakers won Game 1 in Chicago. But the aging squad faded and lost four straight games, including the final three in L.A.

Despite the losses in 1989 and 1991, the Showtime Lakers had an impressive run. Over a 12-year span, they made the Finals 9 times, winning 5 titles. Key injuries in 1983, ’89 and ’91 prevented them from perhaps winning more championships. And the excitement they brought to the fans is unparalleled.

Happy 35th anniversary to the 1988 champions!

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