Say this about the Los Angeles Lakers: When the going got tough, they didn't go to St. Louis. They didn't request divisional realignment, didn't seek a municipal bailout, didn't ask for federal aid or disaster relief. Alone among L.A.'s many floundering franchises, the Lakers endured their calamity quietly. Attendance plunged as Showtime, the NBA's version of Masterpiece Theatre, became burlesque—the stars were going to Clipper games! And still, team officials wouldn't file so much as an insurance claim.
Their stoicism was almost spooky. While the rest of Los Angeles was racked by riot, rocked by earthquake, razed by fire and ravaged by flood—considered nothing more than God's quarterly reports in these parts—the Lakers suffered their own cataclysm: mediocre basketball. They got old and sick, and last season, for the first time since Jack Nicholson began ogling the Laker Girls from the Forum's Rogues' Row, they missed the playoffs. Yet the Lakers didn't once threaten to join the Rams in exodus and, say, move back to Minneapolis.
What did the Lakers know that nobody else did? That new coach Del Harris, 57, a white-haired veteran of four seasons with the Houston Rockets and four-plus with the Milwaukee Bucks and the author of four coaching textbooks, would suddenly emerge from a career of professorial basketball and reinvent Showtime? That 6'6" rookie guard Eddie Jones, out of Temple, the NBA's 10th draft choice overall, would outplay other lottery picks with contracts $50 million richer than his six-year, $13.5 million deal? That Cedric Ceballos, a career backup with the Phoenix Suns, would make the Laker faithful forget recently retired James Worthy? That point guard Nick Van Exel would help them forget Magic Johnson? That through Sunday they would be 21-11, on a 54-victory pace and in third place in the rugged Pacific Division?
For the record, no, hardly anybody, including the Lakers, thought a team that won only 33 games last season would recover just like that. The franchise, really, had been destroyed by Johnson's departure in 1991, when he learned that he was HIV positive (add plague to Los Angeles's Biblical-style catastrophes), and then double-destroyed the year after by his aborted comeback, and then a little further destroyed when he coached L.A. for 16 games at the end of last season. Desperate Laker officials had hoped they could get a good free agent—a Horace Grant, a Danny Manning—in the off-season. But when their only upgrade was Ceballos, they privately despaired and dug in for a .500 year.
So what happened? Laker vice president of basketball operations Jerry West sits behind his desk, almost apologetic, trying to explain his team's quick start. "We're lucky," he says. "Just lucky." Of course, West has made a high art out of self-effacement, and the rest of the league knows to infer the wink in almost anything he says.
Let's take a look at some of that Laker luck, starting with their most recent piece of good fortune: Ceballos, someone who's supposedly too small (6'7") to play forward. He was an anonymous kind of player, overlooked and underrated even last season when, with Charles Barkley and Danny Ainge and Kevin Johnson benched at various times with injuries, he had 43 starts and averaged more than 19 points overall. No team besides Los Angeles thought him worth a first-round pick in trade. "The rest in the league were too stupid," says Phoenix coach Paul Westphal, who, because of a forward glut, was forced to ship Ceballos out. "I took the best deal we could get."
The Lakers were hungry for offense; for two seasons their top scorer had the league's lowest average among team leaders (in 1993-94 center Vlade Divac paced L.A. with a mere 14.2 points a game). They thought Ceballos would be worth about 20 points a game. So far, they've gotten a bonus. Through Sunday, Ceballos was leading the Lakers—and was 10th in the NBA—with a 22.3-point average. But more surprising, the too-small small forward was 14th in the league in offensive rebounding, with 3.1 per game. "Everybody in the league thought, All he can do is score," says West, in a tone as close to triumphant as he ever gets.
But Ceballos has been more important to the Lakers than mere numbers might suggest. Unknown to the civilian world, L.A. had been going through a crisis in leadership for the last two seasons. Worthy, though venerated, was nonetheless a faded star who no longer commanded respect in the locker room. And face it, Magic didn't help matters when, seeing his precious Showtime being vandalized by indifference, he lashed out at the players. "A lot of people were living in the past," is all West says.
Even when he was still in Phoenix, Ceballos—who grew up only five miles from the Lakers' Forum, in Compton—was nearly as upset as West at this failure of spirit among his childhood heroes. "It looked to me like everybody wanted to be a Laker, but nobody wanted to pay the price," he says. "Nobody would commit to playing hard all the time."
He vowed to make that commitment and was so certain he could make a difference that he began bragging to friends and former teammates that the Lakers would win 50 games with him. "Got into a lot of fights and scuffles," he says. "Nobody believed me." So without making another peep he began playing hard and practicing hard, and he has become the team leader. "Suddenly players are doing the same things I'm doing," he says. "Say, wearing sweats in practice. People are getting on the same train."