- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The conventional wisdom is what is good for the Los Angeles Lakers is good for the NBA.

The Lakers have the superstars, and Los Angeles is a major market, and those two things are important for television ratings and promoting the league and all that.

But for the good of the game — not the good of the NBA but the game itself — the Lakers cannot come back and win the NBA championship.

A victory for the Lakers would validate this group of bickering, self-centered misfits that represents everything that is wrong with basketball.

For the good of the game, the Detroit Pistons, up 3-1 in the series, have to win the NBA title — and the quicker the better. As in tonight in Game5. There is no need to return to La-La Land. The Pistons would face an ugly team and an ugly crowd if the Lakers lost there.

How perverse is this? A team that includes Rasheed Wallace represents the good guys? That is how bad the Lakers have become. To reward Gary Payton for his pouting and Kobe Bryant for his selfishness and immature on-court outbursts at his teammates would taint what these Lakers and their coach, Phil Jackson, accomplished in the past with their three NBA championships.

A Lakers championship this year — probably the last because it’s unlikely this team would stay intact — would be the one people would remember, and it would not be a pretty memory. If Jackson passes Red Auerbach with a 10th championship, it only would serve to show the distance between what the men accomplished, not to put Jackson’s legacy on a level above Auerbach.

Plus, how uncomfortable would it be to watch Kobe kiss the championship trophy and listen to him talk about what a hard year it has been for him and how he had to overcome so much, what with the burden of being an accused rapist and all?

A championship for these Lakers would taint what great Lakers teams have done before this group. Magic Johnson knows that.

This has been so offensive to him that he felt compelled to rip his old team after Game3.

“I think the Lakers had a mind-set that was disrespectful to the Pistons,” Johnson said. “They thought it was going to be easy. That is not the case.

“No one is welcoming anyone to the bench. Guys are sitting there, wandering off into the crowd, defeated. We’ve got to get that look off our faces and play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played. If not, the series won’t get back to Los Angeles.”

Johnson singled out Karl Malone and Payton — two players lauded before the season for taking less money to come to Los Angeles for the chance to win an NBA title.

“Gary Payton has had a lot of great, wide-open looks and hasn’t knocked them down,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t change if you’re in the triangle or a 1-4 or what. Wide-open looks are wide-open looks. He shot an airball just the other day, wide open. Nobody was 10 feet from him. He got it, caught it, wide open, airball. You’ve got to make that shot. You’ve got to make plays.”

He hammered Malone for his spat with a heckler before Game3, but Johnson might have a different agenda with Malone. These two go way back to the time Malone publicly expressed reluctance to play against Johnson because he was HIV positive.

It’s difficult to lump Malone in with the rest of the malcontents. It must be difficult for him to play on a team that is the antithesis of the Utah Jazz squads he played with for most of his career.

Malone doesn’t have a ring, but what he and John Stockton drove the Jazz to over 18 seasons earned him far more respect than a cheap title he might win as a passenger.

Watching Malone barely get off the floor because of the injury to his right knee is sad, and what was supposed to be the crowning achievement of his career has instead turned out to be a pathetic ending.

The only Laker who has carried himself with respect and professionalism is Shaquille O’Neal. He did as much as he could Sunday night, scoring 36 points and pulling down 20 rebounds in the Pistons’ 88-80 victory in Game4 — all accomplished without the pouting or complaining that has marked the playoffs for Kobe. Win or lose now, it is apparent this is Shaq’s team. Kobe isn’t mature enough to carry that load.

The Pistons are hardly the light of the league.

They play great defense but can be excruciating to watch on offense. That isn’t just the Pistons’ problem; the lack of scoring around the league needs to be addressed for the good of the game.

For now, though, a greater concern is that these Lakers could be considered to represent the best of the NBA because nothing could be further from the truth.

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