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Tinseltown's Finest

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, June 7, 2009

LOS ANGELES There's no place in America where pro basketball matters as much as the Lakers do to Southern California in June. The Lakers aren't secondary to the folks here, as the Celtics are to the Red Sox in Boston. There's no pro football team consuming the local passions here like there is in Washington or Dallas.

The most famous names of all here are Laker names: Wilt, West and Baylor.

Kareem and Magic, Shaq and Kobe, Buss and Jackson. The Lakers aren't the only show in town -- but they're the biggest, the best and the most important.

That's because the Lakers, arguably, are the most important basketball franchise in the world. Yes, the Celtics have won more league championships, 17 to the Lakers' 14. But of the 60 NBA Finals in league history, the Lakers have played in 29. And it's likely that seven of the top 50 players in the history of the game are Lakers.

It is, simply, the greatest show in American sports, barely interrupted for the past 50 years. And when Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals tips off Sunday, some of the most famous people in the world will be watching the Lakers, adoring them, and stressing over their chances of winning a 15th championship. The hysteria over them here, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, is a phenomenon one would more likely associate with Green Bay, Wis., or Portland, Ore.

Rick Fox, who played for the Lakers' three most recent championship teams (2000, 2001 and 2002), played high school basketball in hoops-mad Indiana, college basketball at North Carolina and was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics, making him something of an expert on America's preeminent basketball communities. "I went from playing high school in a basketball state to college in a basketball region, Tobacco Road, to being drafted by the franchise, by Red Auerbach. During pregame stretching, I used to lay on the floor, look up and count the championship banners. There were so many banners, you couldn't see the ceiling.

"Then, I got to Los Angeles. The most famous people in America seemed to all be sitting courtside night after night. For the longest time I couldn't look at them. I played for the Lakers [seven] years and I still haven't had a conversation with Jack Nicholson. We're talking about the most beautiful people in the world coming to watch you entertain them, the funniest people in the world, the best musicians in the world. They're not that easily impressed," Fox said, "so if they get out of their seats for you what does that say? Just think, these are people who could be anywhere in the world they choose to be, and they choose to be there, watching the Lakers."

Rich and famous, or not, they chose to watch the Lakers play not just Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and now LeBron James, but Oklahoma City. David Israel, once upon a time a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a writer and producer of television shows, and recently the president of the Los Angeles Coliseum Committee, has been a Lakers season ticket holder for years and an observer of sports in Los Angeles for even longer. "The Lakers," he said, "are the best run, most successful team in pro sports. They've played in every other NBA Finals. And they've done it in four incarnations: Mikan, West/Baylor/Wilt, Kobe and Shaq, and now Kobe with this new cast."

While the Lakers were winning eight championships since 1980, the Dodgers failed to win a single playoff series for 20 years and the Rams and Raiders left town. Even within professional basketball the Chicago Bulls rose, then fell and the New York Knicks just fell. "The biggest myth in basketball," Israel said, "is that the Knicks matter. They stink. They had two great years, 1970 and 1973, and other than that they've been ordinary at best and lousy much of the time. Even the Celtics had one trip to the conference finals between 1988 and 2008. But Jerry Buss has been the best owner in sports. He's hired extremely good general managers [Bill Sharman, Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak]. They have a concept, they have a goal, and they execute it."

They certainly have had the players to execute it. Any reasonable list of the top 50 players would have to include George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

"Look at the A-list people who come to Lakers games to be entertained," said Fox, who is now a producer, writer, actor and commentator. "Los Angeles gets a bad rap about fans coming to pose and do business at the games. And yes, business is conducted, I'm sure. But they're not there just to pose. Young actors, old actors, they'll talk to you about the team in great depth.

"Denzel Washington, David Arquette, Penny Marshall. I'll talk to Penny and we'll be on the phone 90 minutes just talking about basketball. Her basement of memorabilia could be a museum. Andy Garcia, Leo [DiCaprio] and Toby Maguire. We're talking major box office stars and producers and guys who run agencies. They're not there to pose. If they're in town, they're at the game.

"Jack structures his shooting schedule around the Lakers. They know the game. They have opinions about the game and the team. Look, L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world and our form just happens to be basketball."

Fox thought back to his days playing with the Celtics (1991-1997), when they would come to Los Angeles to play in the old Forum. He recalled the conversations opponents would have, how they'd check the schedule to identify road trips to Los Angeles. "You thought your game might just be good enough," Fox said, "to get somebody sitting in the front row to fall in love with you."

Turns out, that sentiment, as it has since the 1960-61 season, was going to be reserved for a Laker.

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