Whicker: Forty years ago, a Lakers-Clippers Opening Night opened up a new era
LOS ANGELES - Until Tuesday night, the first game was just a day in the life.
Remember last year's openers? Portland 128, Lakers 119. And Denver 107, Clippers 98. And of course you don't.
"Whoever wins tonight, it's going to mean nothing," said Doc Rivers, the Clippers' coach. "And the team that loses, it'll mean nothing. But, having said that, you always want to win."
Game One was always the rocking motion that started the ski run, or maybe the 50K cross-country race. Quick starts rarely matter in a marathon, especially when 16 teams qualify to run another one.
No matter what Kawhi and A.D. and LeBron did to each other at Staples Center in this one, nothing would be decided, except for the experiment to see how many cameras could squeeze into an empty postgame locker room.
But there's always an exception.
On Oct. 12, 1979, the Lakers went to San Diego with cautious hopes. They had this rookie, Magic Johnson, whose smile and game could make any building a disco, and they still had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had put up joyless numbers all those years to no avail.
They had others, too, and new coach Jack McKinney. Nobody was thinking NBA Finals yet. There were no red carpets.
San Diego was home to the Clippers. They would play there five more years before Donald T. Sterling moved them to Los Angeles. But the Clippers knew they'd be entertaining, with World B. Free firing rainbows, and they'd actually won 43 games the year before.
The nation was not tuned in, literally. CBS dared not show NBA games, even NBA Finals games, in Eastern prime-time.
Still, CBS sent Brent Musburger and Hot Rod Hundley to San Diego for the 8:30 PDT tipoff.
Four quarters later, the Lakers produced the snapshot that would launch five championships and, in its own way, would lead to the limousines and entourages of today.
Abdul-Jabbar took a fanciful skyhook from just outside the foul line. It swished, the buzzer sounded, and the Lakers won 103-102.
Johnson then invaded the force field that surrounded Abdul-Jabbar and gave him a tight, rolling hug. The theoretical had become tangible. Magic and Kareem would blend their uniqueness and put the Lakers back on the cover of Sports Illustrated and, eventually, Forbes.
They won the 1980 championship. By the time they won again in 1982, CBS was no longer tape-delaying weekday NBA Finals games, or playing them on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to avoid a prime-time ratings licking. Joined by the Celtics (who won behind Larry Bird in 1981), the Lakers changed everything.
"Before that game, we were Kareem's team," Don Ford said on Tuesday morning. "After that game, we were Magic's team. Magic had that great energy. Kareem was probably the leading intellect of the whole league. It was some combination."
Ford was the forward from UC Santa Barbara. He still lives there, after helping broadcast Gauchos games all these years. He also was the in-bounds passer from the sideline on Oct. 12. Abdul-Jabbar said at the time that Ford was supposed to hit Magic on a lob, but when the Clippers cut it off, Ford went to the familiar port in a storm.
"I don't remember much, but I remember how deep that skyhook was," Ford said.
The next February, Ford was dealt to Cleveland along with a first-round draft pick in the 1980 draft. The Cavaliers gave the Lakers Butch Lee and their first-round pick in 1982. The Cavaliers' pick became Chad Kinch. The Lakers' pick became James Worthy. No need to explain further.
On that night in San Diego, Free shot 19 for 29 and scored 46 points, without 3-point candy.
McKinney rode his starters hard that night, long before "load management." Johnson played 41 minutes in his first game and scored 26 points. Abdul-Jabbar scored 29 with 10 rebounds. Jamaal Wilkes added 19 points.
The Lakers actually started 2-2 but quickly found a groove and were 10-4. With Norm Nixon freeing up Johnson to play all over the floor, they ran and shot to thrill.
On Nov. 8, McKinney and assistant coach Paul Westhead set up a tennis game near their homes in Palos Verdes, and McKinney's wife had the car. McKinney took his bicycle. He crashed, fractured his skull, and would never coach another Lakers game. Nixon, among others, said "Showtime" was always McKinney's creation.
Now everything is Showtime, but until April, they're all marking time.
"I like what both teams did," Ford said of the Lakers' and Clippers' offseason roster moves. "What matters, when you get to the playoffs, is who's hurt and who's not."
That answer is at the bottom of the hill. With one exception and one exceptional hug, you normally can't see it from here.
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