President Reagan, describing the Los Angeles Lakers as "America's Heroes," played host to the new National Basketball Association champions at a brief reception yesterday at the White House.
In a Rose Garden ceremony, Reagan received gifts, including a jersey, cap and autographed basketball, from Coach Pat Riley, team captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and all-star guard Earvin (Magic) Johnson.
Reagan stepped up to a lectern in front of the team and said, "These are the ones who deserve your applause. Today we'll say, 'Hail to the Lakers.' " A short time later, the president, citing the Lakers' 111-100 victory Sunday over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA championship series, said, "Yesterday really was showtime in the Boston Garden," a reference to the champions' flashy, fast-breaking style.
"You're no longer simply Los Angeles' heroes," he said. "Today, you belong to the whole country."
Reagan was asked by members of the White House press corps to comment on his report to Congress regarding future U.S. adherence to the unratified SALT II treaty. The president declined to respond, saying, "I'm here to play basketball." The comment got a round of applause from some of the Lakers' supporters.
Shortly before the ceremony, the president met with NBA Commissioner David Stern, Lakers President Bill Sharman, Riley and Abdul-Jabbar in the Oval Office. The commissioner invited the president to a Lakers home game next season, and Abdul-Jabbar said that he's taken courses in yoga from the same school where the president's son-in-law, Paul Grilley, is an instructor.
During the ceremony, the president said the Lakers were "an inspiration" for the country. Regarding Johnson, who had a record 84 assists during the championship series, the president asked, "Does America believe in Magic? You bet we do."
He also lauded forward Kurt Rambis and reserve center Mitch Kupchak for their aggressive play in the series, a gesture that left Kupchak a bit stunned. "I can't believe it," he said. The president said my name, he said my name."
Abdul-Jabbar, voted most valuable player of the series after averaging almost 26 points and nine rebounds in Los Angeles' six-game triumph, said this championship, the fourth in his 16-year career, perhaps meant more than the others. "We worked hard and crossed some big barriers along the way," he said. "We erased a number of bugaboos."
The biggest was a string of eight championship series lost to Boston, including a seven-game defeat last year when the Celtics were able to capitalize on the Lakers' apparent aversion to rebounding. In this series, though, the teams were virtually even in that department.
For much of the season, the league consensus was that the way to beat the Celtics was to clog the inside and force them to shoot from the perimeter. That did not happen often during a 63-19 regular season or in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Even after guards Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson combined for 32 points and controlled the action in Boston's 148-114 victory in Game 1, the Lakers never abandoned their plan.
"You have to go with the odds," assistant coach Dave Wohl said. "It's not that their guards are bad, it's just that they're the weakest part of the team. If you're going to get beat, you'd rather it be them than people like Robert Parish and Kevin McHale pounding you on the inside."
Throughout the series, the Lakers sagged into the lane, almost inviting the Celtics' back court to shoot. Then, the Lakers added an element of gamesmanship, switching Magic Johnson and Byron Scott on defense against Boston's guards. The Lakers sometimes would pressure one man, then the other.
"We would keep alternating the pressure but they never knew when it would happen," Wohl said. "It maybe got them to start thinking a bit too much, wondering if they should pass it off this time or maybe shoot it."
Ainge, who averaged 11 points a game, was not an important factor after Game 1. Johnson hit the winning shot in the Celtics' other victory, 107-105 in Game 4, and had a strong overall series. But he shot just 38 percent from the field. Ainge made 29 of 70 field goal attempts (41.4 percent).
The two were six of 31 in Sunday's deciding game, with a number of shots traveling into and then out of the basket. That was an irritation for which Dennis Johnson said he had no answer.
"If the ball could talk, maybe you could ask it what was happening," he said after the game. "I don't think any of us were tight out there. Everybody plays bad sometimes, and we hated that it was today, but how we played could probably be attributed to their defense."
Which is why the Celtics didn't get to make the trip to the White House, as they did after last season's championship.
For Abdul-Jabbar, yesterday's visit atoned for an opportunity he once missed. "When I saw the 76ers come here a couple of years ago (after sweeping the Lakers in the finals), I thought, 'Oh well, there goes our chance.' I haven't had a chance to get into it yet because we've had so many things to do since we won, but this is definitely very nice."
Abdul-Jabbar was asked what he thought of his meeting with the president. "I thought he handles himself well, he's a real pro," he said.
Clearly, it takes one to know one.