After the Los Angeles Lakers of current vintage exited the playoffs disgracefully, in more ways than one, it behooves us to travel back in time to remember this franchise the way we should, as one of the classiest and most successful in the league. No era epitomizes that style and grace from the top down better than Showtime. Behind Magic Johnson's charismatic smile, and Pat Riley's can do anything attitude, the Showtime Lakers were the toast of the NBA. They won five championships in eight years, and they did it without having to make any sacrifices in either substance or aesthetic. Their winning got people's attention. Their style made them stand out. Their stars made them adored. But it was their love for each other, and their commitment to the team, that gave them class.
There were plenty of egos on that roster. How could there not be? The sheer number of #1 overall picks, of Hall of Fame talent, of superstars, just about required a healthy ego to play on that team. And yet, all the issues that plague such a combination never seemed to drag Showtime down. When Magic first came to the team, he acknowledged that his role was supplemental to the Captain, Kareem Abdul Jabaar. Later in that era, when it came time for Magic to take the reins from the Captain, the best center in the history of the game didn't sulk or pout. They cared only about winning, except in the rare moments when winning didn't matter.
Like in 1986. That's when Mitch Kupchak seriously injured his knee for the second time as a Laker, and was forced into early retirement despite showing considerable potential as a player. Mitch was brought to Los Angeles in a trade in 1981. He started the first 26 games of the 1981 season, but then injured his knee so badly that it was expected he'd never play again. He missed the rest of that season, and the entire season after that, but through a lengthy rehabilitiation, Mitch was able to come back and play 34 games in the 83-84 season. Over the next two years, Kupchak worked to regain a role in the team, but in 1986, he was misfortune's victim once again. Another serious knee injury, a career over.
Looking at this situation on the surface, it's easy to see why the Lakers might have wanted to just cut their losses. After all, Kupchak was on the payroll for five seasons, and yet only managed to play in less games than Derek Fisher has played in the past two seasons. Aside from those first 26 games prior to injury, he never played a vital or important role on the team. Instead, they treated Mitch like family. He transitioned immediately upon retirement from the locker room to the front office as an assistant general manager. When Jerry West decided to walk away, Kupchak took over as the team's General Manager, and he has helped the Laker franchise obtain just as much success as a general manager as he was forced to observe as a player. The Los Angeles Lakers didn't need to treat Mitch Kupchak with so much respect, didn't need to treat him as a member of the Laker family, but they did, and the franchise is so much the richer for it.
It's a lesson the current version of the team could do well to remember.