As the curtain came down on the 1987-88 NBA season, the images that remained were those from the locker room of the deliriously happy Los Angeles Lakers, the team that had done what a year earlier coach Pat Riley had said it would do—repeat as champion.
Over there was finals MVP James Worthy—his Game 7 triple double of 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists enabled the Lakers to beat the Detroit Pistons 108-105—asking his wife, Angela, to spin around so he could admire her orange dress. There was sixth man Michael Cooper anxiously searching the wild crowd for his wife, Wanda, just as he had sought her out in the stands after making an important three-point shot late in the third quarter of the June 21 clincher. There was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuffing a towel into Riley's mouth after the coach was asked if he was going to predict a third title.
And there was the champagne-soaked prognosticator himself, old Repeat Riley, laughing, hugging, shaking hands, kissing and being kissed and resting his case, all at the same time.
The verdict is in, and you win, Pat. This Laker team belongs with the great ones.
As for the Pistons, their defeat seemed more a coronation than a wake. With a few more favorable calls, a few more wise decisions in the clutch and a few more minutes of playing time from Isiah Thomas (whose severely sprained right ankle limited him to 28 minutes in Game 7), the Pistons could have won their first NBA title ever. At the very least, Detroit is next season's early favorite in the clubhouse.
The Lakers, on their way to becoming the first NBA team to win back-to-back titles since the Boston Celtics of 1968 and '69, careened rather than cruised through the postseason. Both Utah and Dallas took L.A. to the limit, and then the Lakers became the first champions to have to play a third seven-game series. To some observers this marathon struggle somehow reduced the Lakers' effort to a murmur rather than a roar. Such reasoning was foolish.
The basketball world cannot, on one hand, proclaim the NBA stronger and more balanced than ever, as it most certainly is, and then, on the other hand, denigrate its champion. How good were the 1987-88 Lakers? Good enough.
Of course, Riley insisted that these Lakers be judged by another yardstick. They played this season—and more self-consciously than most other great teams—for a niche in history. That was the whip that Riley used all year long. If the Lakers won, he insisted, they would belong not only among the greatest NBA teams of all time, but also among the greatest dynasties in all of sports.
"We made a very strong defense," said Riley. "Now it's up to you, the prosecutors, to judge us, to give us our place in history."
It was convenient for the Lakers that Magic Johnson came along with the dawning of the '80s (his rookie season was 1979-80), giving the team the opportunity to put its stamp on its very own decade. And so the Lakers have, winning five titles ('80, '82, '85, '87 and '88) and losing twice in the finals ('83 and '84).