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TheGreatMambino | May 22, 2015

The most important off-court moments in Lakers history

Lakers lore is filled with huge moments, but which ones changed the history of the franchise the most? A journey through the most important moments for Los Angeles.

The junior-junior skyhook. 81 points. The Artest three-pointer. 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. Big Shot Bob. A 15-point, fourth quarter rally. The birth of Big Game James.

Even in a half-dozen half sentences, most NBA fans would know that we're talking about the greatest moments in Los Angeles Lakers franchise history. The organization is in possession of some of the most iconic images in NBA lore, coming off the hands of all-time greats like Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Kobe Bryant. Without the Lakers and all of their on-court dramatics, it's hard to imagine the league being the place it is. No matter which way you cut it, there is no shortage of great basketball moments for the purple and gold.

But with all these iconic players, championship teams and the complicated dynamics of building an NBA squad, the momentous events off the court sometime rival what's happening on it. Over the past four decades of basketball, the Lakers have had their share of non-basketball moments that have changed the course of NBA history, as well as their own.

So what are they? Let's take a look at the biggest franchise-changing moments in Los Angeles Lakers history.

Magic Johnson's announcement

In just over 9 minutes and 20 seconds, future NBA Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson didn't just change the course of Lakers history, but likely the trajectory of popular culture.

On November 11, 1991, the three-time MVP called a sudden press conference in which he announced to the world that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the NBA, effectively immediately. The news not only sent shockwaves throughout the NBA and sporting world, but throughout the world in general. Up until then, Magic was considered the greatest NBA player ever to live. Now he was certainly the most famous person (after Rock Hudson) to publicly come out with the news that he had contracted HIV. The virus was a virtual death sentence at the time and in a most unexpected twist, Johnson's retirement from the game was secondary news in that presser on the eve of the 1991-1992 season.

From there, the story takes a turn for the better. Magic became one of the world's most well-known spokespersons and advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness and research, raising millions for the cause and helped to seriously educate the world on the deadly disease.

There's no question how this day affected the Lakers--they lost their leader who was in the prime of his career, and a franchise icon who had changed the game of basketball. In that respect, it certainly was the biggest off-court moment in the organization's history. But considering that the day doubled as one of the most important days in the 20th century? No other off-court moment can even come close.

meeks(Photo credit: Brian Drake, Getty Images)

The coin flip for the #1 pick in 1979 .... and the Gail Goodrich trade

In 1976, Gail Goodrich was great player, but in hindsight, probably not worth the New Orleans Jazz trading three first rounders for him. Especially not when one of those picks turned out to be the number one overall pick in 1979. And not when that particular number one overall pick turned into one of the five greatest players of all time.

But that wasn't always a certainty. Finishing the season with the same record as the 31-51 Chicago Bulls, the Jazz were involved in a simple coin flip to determine which team would pick number one and which team would pick number two. After gravity had done its work, the Lakers were on their way to picking Magic Johnson. The Bulls, on the other hand, were picking David Greenwood. Who is that, you might ask? I rest my case.

Safe to say that this simple flip of a coin helped lead the Lakers to five titles and one of the greatest players ever.

Dr. Buss purchasing the team from Jack Kent Cooke

The Lakers are one of the greatest franchises in North American sports history. Without Dr. Jerry Buss? I'm not sure that they ever achieve this status.

There's no way to oversell how instrumental he was in leading his organization

Dr. Buss took a successful organization in a middling league and made it into one of the most must-see attractions in a town that was built on the shoulders of entertainment. With Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, head coach Pat Riley and GM Jerry West, the Lakers became the most entertaining team in sports and an iconic franchise worldwide.

It was Dr. Buss' vision and judgment that helped scoot LA along for over three decades, bringing in ten championships and 17 Finals appearances. An owner is always going to have a strong hand in a franchise's success, or lack thereof. However, in Dr. Buss' case, there's no way to oversell how instrumental he was in leading his organization to the cutting edge of basketball evaluation that consistently kept the Lakers ahead of the curve.

But without Magic Johnson guaranteed to come into the fold, there's no guarantee that our beloved shrewd businessman would have ever made this purchase.

Trading for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The Lakers had finally busted through the glass ceiling, breaking a streak of eight consecutive Finals losses by defeating the New York Knicks in the 1972 NBA Finals for the team's first LA title. The ensuing years would soon scrub off the championship luster, with stars Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West joining Elgin Baylor in retirement. The Lakers were in shambles, posting the worst record in franchise history in 1974-75 at 30-52. But as it always seems in LA, it truly was darkest before the dawn.

The team soon traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then the most dominant player in the NBA. In return? The Milwaukee Bucks received Elmore Smith, Walt Wesley, Brian Winter, Dave Myers and Junior Bridgeman.

Yeah, I don't know either.

Four NBA titles and three MVP awards later, this was truly one of the most momentous occasions in Lakers history.

Shaquille O'Neal's free agent signing

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The Lakers weren't quite dead in the water, but one could hardly call it Showtime. LA won 53 games in the 1995-1996 season, but with who? Cedric Ceballos, Sedale Threatt, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell, with a 32-game cameo appearance from a 36-year-old Magic Johnson. An exciting, solid, young team (minus Magic), but not one that was truly on the rise. They were a nice story, but ultimately a team full of second and third options lacking a true superstar to anchor them.

Enter the Big Fella.

Shaquille O'Neal had long eyed Los Angeles as a potential destination to fit his outsized personality, as well as his numerous interests off the court. The Orlando Magic had been a dominant Eastern Conference team, but it was obvious that the Diesel had outgrown the franchise that drafted him and watched him blossom into a star. After a contentious set of negotiations that went nowhere, O'Neal turned his attentions to the Lakers and signed a seven-year, $121 million deal. Superman himself captured three titles, went to four Finals, won three Finals MVP and one regular season MVP. At the end of his time with the purple and gold, there wasn't a question of if Shaq's jersey would be retired to the STAPLES Center rafters .... it was when.

The Big Aristotle's signing signaled a new era of Lakers basketball. The next great center in the lineage of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem was here, a franchise icon that could fill their shoes and more. While Kobe Bryant may have been with the Lakers for more titles, there's no doubt in my mind that it was Shaq's arrival that started the ball rolling. That alone may give his signing with the Show a little more juice than the next great off-court moment.

Trading Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant

"Best workout I've ever seen. He's better than anyone we have on the team right now. Let's go."

And with that summation from then-GM Jerry West, the trade talks were underway.

High school senior Kobe Bean Bryant had just destroyed a 40-year-old Michael Cooper--former Defensive Player of the Year--in a private workout before the 1996 NBA Draft. Jerry West knew that he had to have the 17-year-old guard for a Lakers squad that was on the precipice of signing O'Neal. The only problem? The Lakers didn't have a lottery pick where Bryant surely would be taken. But West's praise didn't come cheap, so even the most significant price to get the young guard would be worth it.

Weeks later, veteran starting center Vlade Divac was on his way to the Charlotte Hornets, and a teenager was headed to the Lakers. The package for Bryant was certainly steep, but the outcome? May have been worth it.

Kobe Bryant re-signing in 2004

When examining Kobe's time with the Lakers, we can look at it two ways: one, straight through line, or two, distinct eras. I always look at it as the latter, determined by Kobe with Shaq .... and without.

The summer of 2004 was one of the most controversial in Lakers history. The team had just come off a gruesome beating at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, being bludgeoned in five, excruciating games in which Kobe Bryant looked particularly horrible (averaging 22 ppg, but shooting just 38% from the field for the series). Bean, just 25 at the time, was an unrestricted free agent, and with tensions between Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and himself at its all time zenith, there was doubt that he'd re-sign with the Lakers.

We all know what happened next: Dr. Buss made the bold one two-punch of letting Jackson walk and trading O'Neal to the Miami Heat and after a close dalliance with the Clippers, Bryant finally decided to stay with the Lakers. Without this signing, there's no telling what would have happened to the Lakers. The team had already dealt away a star and were simply waiting to see if Bryant would leave them for nothing. If Kobe had crossed the hallway to that red, white and blue locker room, the Lakers just wouldn't have been without a legendary player that led them to two more titles -- they would have been at absolute ground zero.

meeks(Photo credit: Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

Pau Gasol for .... Kwame Brown?

I refreshed the ESPN page several times. Could it be true? Could the Lakers have possibly traded the stone-handed Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and Pau Gasol's fat kid brother for Pau Gasol himself? How could that be possible? How could the heist of the century be possible?

How could the heist of the century be possible?

Two All-Star selections and a Defensive Player of the Year trophy later for Marc, it's hard to say that this was a heist. But was it a franchise-changing moment for the Lakers? Absolutely.

With emerging center Andrew Bynum on the shelf with a knee injury (a sentence that would become intensely familiar to all), the Lakers had stolen Gasol away from the Memphis Grizzlies for a seemingly underwhelming package. Pau's post play and passing were an instant fit with Kobe and the triangle offense and the Lakers--an also-ran playoff team to begin the season--morphed into instant contenders. Though they lost to the Boston Celtics in six brutal games in the 2008 Finals, the Spaniard was a chief reason for titles the next two seasons and a window being open for two seasons following that.

The Veto

Chris Paul was a Laker in December 2011. The depth chart would have featured him alongside Bryant in the back court, with Michael Beasley at starting power forward and Andrew Bynum as center... at least, until a trade could be worked out for Dwight Howard. The two new 20-something Lakers All-Stars would buoy Kobe's title hopes until his retirement, thus giving the organization two cornerstones for the next great dynasty. LA's future was secure.

For a few hours anyway.

Ex-NBA Commissioner David Stern, acting as the interim "owner" of the New Orleans Hornets, struck down the deal and re-orchestrated a new one that featured CP3 heading to the Clippers. Some Lakers fans -- myself included -- breathed a sigh of relief, though that exhalation was tinged with nostalgia and stubbornness. Years later, it's obvious that dealing Pau and Lamar Odom for Paul would have been the best move for the franchise -- a move that could have changed the past five seasons for the better.

Would the Lakers, fitted with Kobe, Paul and Dwight, with Phil Jackson at the controls, have competed for titles? Is the correct question to ask not just if they would have won championships, but rather, how many? Would Kobe's career have been extended with more qualified running mates saving his body?

We'll never know the answers to any of those questions. But there's no doubt that The Veto changed the course of Lakers history.

Lakers winning the No. 2 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft

Without knowing who the Lakers will select with the pick and how he'll pan out for the next five to ten years, it's difficult to say just where this week's off-court moment will lie in relation to all the others. However, it's less who LA will select and much more that they didn't lose the pick in the first place.

The potential of this off-court event is massive. The number two pick, especially if allocated to a player that's allegedly franchise-changing like Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor, could forge the organization's future championship prospects for the next decade. Trading it could mean bringing that caliber of player to the Lakers right now. Either way, having a player of that ilk in the fold attracts other great players, and that force could very well be the one to contend for titles for years to come.

However, if they had lost the pick? Maybe it would have worked out eventually. Maybe the front office would have figured out a way to make lemonade. But none of the scenarios that I just described would have existed. And the roads back to contention that looks fairly clear right now, would never even have been made available after such a steep, steady decline to the bottom.

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These moments were ranked not just on their place in NBA history, but how they directly affected how many titles the Lakers won and who they won them with. LA, more than almost any other team in any other sport, have nearly as many great days off the court as on it.

You've seen how we're ranking them at Silver Screen & Roll. What do you think?

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

About the Author

Writer for Silver Screen and Roll, the finest Lakers website on the planet.

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