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Lakers leading L.A. renaissance

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2000

Los Angeles, in nearsighted pro sports history, pretty much had it all. Dodgers were strong, with Tommy Lasorda crowing. Angels got to be pretty good, if never heavenly, before Gene Autry went up there.

For a few years, the local NFL menu offered both a traditional dish, the Rams, plus a drive-through special, the Raiders. The Great One, known to Gretzky family members as Wayne, graced the Kings.

Clippers stunk, like always, but the old-time Showtime Lakers, they were extraordinary, with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a grease-haired young boss named Pat Riley.

It's been a while.

After some face lifts, implants and reshaping, maybe we're headed for a comeback of sorts, with a new Jackson Five, managed by Phil and starring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, hoisting L.A. back to jock prominence.

Elsewhere, a twice-transplanted Riley, a brief New Yorker who went south, is urging his Miami Heat, now that Elian's left town, to prove a famous old NBA coaching act can dazzle again.

It's loudly promoted, "The NBA is FAN-tastic," but from October through April, it seemed to me that commissioner David Stern's children were more interested in entertaining themselves and impressing their hoops buddies than in delivering a product that was easy for the masses to embrace.

There were positive departures, like in Orlando where Darrell Armstrong played so hard his heart almost thumped out onto the floor and Doc Rivers coached as though he truly cared about what Magic patrons were getting for ticket dollars.

In the post-season, the Magic is gone, being not sufficient of talent, and Rivers is left to polish his NBA coach of the year trophy.

But there are positive signs in early May. Good, emotional indications that players are temporarily parking their Mercedes, docking their yachts and putting off tattoo-parlor excursions in the interest of playing mesmerizing playoff basketball.

Reggie Miller, a pompous Indiana prince, focused his extreme physical gifts on the Milwaukee Bucks and delivered a 41-point masterpiece in a fabulous Game 5, at times resembling bygone playoff arts of his coach, Larry Bird.

Miller may be sweet-grooving now. In the opener of an East semifinal series against Philadelphia, the bony brother of Cheryl scored 40. This time, the Indiana left hand not only knew what the right was doing, it duplicated. Jalen Rose, a southpaw shooter, likewise made 40 against the Sixers.

This is likely Indiana's last chance, before roster reconstruction, to win the title. Prime players are getting old. Despite their millions, there should be desperate hunger. Miller, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin and their many mates have not one championship ring among them, like the ones that glitter from multiple digits on Bird's hands.

Alonzo Mourning and Jamal Mashburn squashed the New York Knicks in Sunday's first game of the other East semi. So far, no brawls. Stay tuned. This is a rivalry with Mike Tyson mentality. Let's hope there's no need this time for Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, bad hair flying, to go tugging at Zo's ankle, trying to be a 5-foot-11 bouncer in a 6-11 world.

Utah, it's easy to forecast, will stumble somewhere short of ultimate NBA glory. Always, the Jazz manages. How many times has it come close? Anybody got Michael Jordan's phone number to check? How about you, Bugs?

Portland will be a severe exam for the Salt Lakers. It's difficult to imagine those indefatigable Utah graybeards, Karl Malone and John Stockton, surviving both the Blazers and L.A. Oh, am I assuming the Lakers will torch Phoenix?

Frankly that's a mistake. Even though the Lakers were 4-0 against the Suns in the regular season and had a 16-3 run. In opening playoff rounds, two No. 8 seeds (Milwaukee and Sacramento) did push two No. 1s (Indiana and L.A.) to a deciding fifth game. Even in the NBA, emotions can reach collegiate zeal in the playoffs. I mean, in a tycoon kind of way.

Los Angeles is a wacky bird of a city. Negative sports stuff kept happening. Occurances that would pulverize the ego of most metropolises. Bad teams. No teams. So, hey, they sighed, had some sushi, sipped wine and went to the beach. Awaiting the next wave.

Not only were the Rams lost to St. Louis, but the Raiders backtracked to Oakland, leaving the country's second-largest market without an NFL franchise. Dodgers went sour. Angels foundered. Kings didn't contend. Clippers were, well, the Clippers.

But now, the Lakers are back, or so it seems. Phil Jackson, who let Michael be Jordan in Chicago and won six championships, is at work with Shaq.

This is a human being who stretches 7 feet 1, weighs somewhere between 315 pounds and a ton, is remarkably agile, is plenty tough, and who makes maybe two free throws in every five. All that and O'Neal has never, never, never won a championship, in the pros or college or high school or at the San Antonio YMCA.

Reasons aplenty to be intrigued.

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