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Sport Los Angeles Mount Rushmore of Sports: Magic Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar named best of the best

12:01  14 august  2022
12:01  14 august  2022 Source:   sportingnews.com

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The SN Rushmore project named four pro athletes from the 13 cities that have had at least four of the following five leagues represented for at least 20 years – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA. While there were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected, our panel of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Multiple players from the same franchise were allowed, and not every franchise needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.

There isn’t anything you can’t find in Los Angeles: sunshine, beaches, amusement parks, restaurants, museums, shopping, hiking, music, theater. For a while, it’s true, you couldn’t find NFL football there, but now they’ve got twice as many teams as most anywhere, including the Super Bowl champs.

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Above it all, though, above even the Hollywood sign, there are the Lakers.

MORE: See The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities

LA loves the Dodgers, but it lives the Lakers.

“This city -- and I’ve been here for 25 years – when this city is rocking and rolling and the stars are aligned is when the Lakers are winning championships,” Dave Miller, for years a Lakers analyst on radio and television, told The Sporting News.

It is hard to explain how a region with so much to offer, particularly such a wide variety of spectator sports, can obsess about any one thing. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s as simple as Elgin, Wilt, the Logo, James, Coop, Shaq, Big Shot Bob, Pau, LeBron and AD.

Imagine being home to an array of basketball talent this breathtaking and recognizing there is not room for any of these greats on the Mount Rushmore of LA sports, even with three of the four places occupied by Lakers legends.

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LA built an enduring multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry on stars and glamour and excitement, and that is how their favorite basketball team has functioned. So it was not easy to select which Lakers best would fit on the Mount Rushmore of LA sports, nor to make the decision to exclude the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Wayne Gretzky and Marcus Allen.

That’s not to say we got it wrong, only to remind you it was hard.

MAGIC JOHNSON (Lakers, 1979-91, 1996)

After a rookie season that included averages of 18.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists, it might already have been obvious Magic would be an all-time NBA great as Game 6 of the 1980 NBA World Championship Series began with him stepping into the circle for the opening jump-ball. The next couple hours erased any remaining doubts.

With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out with an injured ankle, Johnson took over all of the duties of the center position and performed them beyond all reason. The Lakers earned the title with a 123-107 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers fueled by Johnson’s 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. Philly’s two starting big men, Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, scored less than half of what Johnson did – combined.

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That performance alone might have sent our fictitious sculptors scrambling for their hammers and chisels to begin work on carving Johnson’s likeness. He almost certainly would be smiling in that depiction.

“He’s always going to be beloved,” Mark Whicker, a Hall of Fame sports columnist at the Orange County Register and then Los Angeles Daily News, told The Sporting News. “Kobe Bryant did have people who would say, ‘Well, he shoots too much. He’s selfish.’ Which he was for a long period of time. But there was very little criticism of Magic in any way, shape or form.

“And in a basketball sense, he revived the franchise. When he showed up in ’79, they had been decent, but they hadn’t been really good in a while. They’d also been boring. The fact he was able to show up and energize Kareem, and them winning the championship, and winning the championship on a night Kareem wasn’t there … all those things added to the myth.”

Although he played only a dozen full seasons, Johnson ranks sixth among NBA players in career assists. He ranks third in triple-doubles. The Lakers won five championships with him in the lineup and reached the NBA Finals nine times.

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His rivalry with Boston Celtics superstar Larry Bird not only defined an era but launched the sport toward the position of prominence it enjoys today among the many popular American sports and helped spread the gospel of the game worldwide.

By the start of the 1987 Finals, the Lakers had won three titles with Johnson twice named playoff MVP, and the Celtics had won three with Bird twice named playoff MVP. The rivalry was about as close as it could be, and again they faced off in the title series. This time, with the Lakers up 2-1 in the series but trailing in Game 4 by a point, Johnson accepted an inbound pass near the left sideline with 7 seconds left and saw Kevin McHale slide over to defend him. Johnson dribbled three times to reach the center of the lane and rose up to fire a “junior sky hook”, as Whicker called it, over McHale’s long left arm. The shot dropped directly through the net, and the Lakers won the series in six games.

“The whole Magic vs. Bird thing was kind of a stand-off at that point. It was a debate,” Whicker said. “After that, the Lakers won in ’87 and ’88 and it became pretty clear that Magic had gotten the upper hand in that rivalry. That shot in ’87 was iconic, because of what it meant.”

Johnson has remained a towering figure in LA even for how he has handled his enforced retirement. In the fall of 1991, an emergency press conference was called and Johnson stood before the assembled media at the Forum and a national TV audience and declared, “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to announce my retirement from the Lakers today.” At that point, with treatments for the virus that caused AIDs still developing, it seemed more than his basketball career might be ending.

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“I’ve never been more shocked in my life,” Whicker said. “At that time, it was a death sentence in most peoples’ minds. He became the symbol that HIV didn’t have to be. Of course, he had a lot of resources, but the fact he was able to play in the All-Star Game in February of that year was just amazing. And then the Dream Team. He was a symbol for people who had come down with the virus. And so I think that kind of put him into a different category.

“And he had always been a great businessman, but in doing so, he looks after the community. He puts theaters in under served areas, and grocery stores in under served areas. He does that because he can make money doing it, but he did not have to do it to make money.”

TSN ARCHIVES: Magic Johnson scores with the Showtime Lakers (April 27, 1987)

SANDY KOUFAX (Dodgers, 1955-66)

The Dodgers wore uniforms with Los Angeles across the front for the first time in the 1958 season. But in those first few years, they played in a convoluted setup at a converted football stadium — left field at the Coliseum was 251 feet, while center was 425 feet from home plate — with a talented roster of players who became established stars in Brooklyn.

They might have played in California but Los Angeles didn’t feel much like home, at least not right away.

Even on that 1959 Los Angeles team that won the World Series, you had longtime Brooklyn heroes Gil Hodges and Duke Snider in the lineup, with 1955 World Series Game 7 legend Johnny Podres starting twice. But that 1959 World Series did offer Los Angeles a glimpse of what young Sandy Koufax was capable of delivering to baseball fans on the West Coast. The 23-year-old lefty with a powerful arm but little control was stellar, throwing nine innings and allowing just a single run in two games against the White Sox.

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The future had arrived. Koufax led the National League in strikeouts per nine innings in both 1960 and 1961 as he worked to perfect his craft, and by the time the club was set to open their brand-new facility — Dodger Stadium in a beautiful Chavez Ravine setting — Koufax was ready to rock the baseball world.

“Sandy Koufax was really Los Angeles’ first baseball icon,” longtime Southern California baseball writer Scott Miller said. “His five-year run that arguably is the greatest five-year run any pitcher has ever had, his first year of that run coincides with the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962.”

Koufax pitched five seasons at Dodger Stadium, and he led the National League in ERA all five seasons, dropping his ERA to 1.88 or lower three of the four seasons. He topped 300 strikeouts three times, including a then-record 382 in 1965. He won three NL Cy Young awards, one MVP trophy and finished runner-up in the MVP voting twice. His Baseball-Reference page is full of black ink — league-leading totals — for those five years.

The Dodgers made the World Series in 1963, 1965 and 1966, winning in ’63 and ’65. The man with the nickname “The Left Arm of God” was somehow even better against the best teams the AL had to offer, posting a career 0.95 ERA in 57 World Series innings.

And then, he retired. The arm that had been kissed by the gods had an elbow that was cursed by demons, and by 30 years old, Koufax had dealt with enough pain. He walked away, a legend on and off the field.

“Without even trying, he’s been the epitome of being California cool. Just comes naturally to him,” Miller said. “And I think, the fact that his career was cut short and the fact that he’s always been incredibly reclusive, there’s always been this air of mystery with Koufax, because he has kept people at arm’s length, and it isn’t all about him.”

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Dodger Stadium has statues of two players. Jackie Robinson — a franchise and league icon who never played in Los Angeles — had his statue dedicated in 2017. Koufax’s statue was dedicated in June, erasing any and all doubt about who is the best player in the franchise’s California history. And it was fitting that Clayton Kershaw, the only player who can make an argument to stand next to Koufax, was there for the ceremony.

“If you were to sit and talk to Clayton Kershaw today, there’s no doubt he would argue it’s Koufax,” Miller said. “He’d say, ‘What are you, crazy? It’s gotta be Koufax.’ I love that the two of them have developed a friendly relationship over the years, with mutual respect.”

Koufax By The Numbers
Cy Young Awards 3
World Series titles 3
Most Valuable Player Awards 1
Strikeouts in 1965 382
Consecutive ERA titles 5

TSN ARCHIVES: Sandy Koufax spins strikeout tale (Oct. 19, 1963)

KOBE BRYANT (Lakers, 1997-2016)

He joined the Lakers as though he had been manufactured to star in LA, and in some ways he was, from his pre-fab prom date with pop singer Brandy to Lakers GM Jerry West’s heist of Bryant on draft night for a trade that cost him only Vlade Divac (and also freed up the cap space to sign Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent).

Bryant lasted to the 13th pick in the draft because NBA executives still were skeptical about whether players could fully succeed after entering the league with no training but high school and summer competition. On the whole, there was some justification to this, but not on those occasions when they were staring genius in the eye.

“The way he patterned himself after Michael Jordan – there was that commercial: I want to be like Mike. I don’t think anybody in the world embraced that like Kobe Bryant did,” Miller told TSN. “Here comes this kid, Jerry West just raves about him from a workout, Michael Cooper guarded him in that workout, and all of a sudden, you’ve got this boy wonder to don the purple and the gold.

“He had his trials and tribulations, but there was something about Kobe Bryant. Eventually, at the height of his career, it became the ‘Mamba Mentality’. The fans in LA, a generation grew up with this kid. There was an arrogance, there was a swagger about him that he brought from day one.”

Bryant wanted so badly to be that player, that superstar, that he and O’Neal sometimes feuded. Bryant didn’t appreciate O’Neal often using the start of the regular season to get himself into proper playing condition. O’Neal didn’t appreciate Bryant often hunting shots that could have been passes into the post. Once Phil Jackson was hired as coach in 1999, though, they functioned well enough together to add championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002 to the Lakers’ vast collection.

“People picked sides, but nobody who was pro-Kobe was saying to get rid of Shaq,” Whicker said. “It was just the frustration the fans had: How are they going to work this out? Is Kobe going to acquiesce? Is Shaq going to acquiesce? Or can they get it done without acquiescing?

“Phil was able to get them at least, when they needed to, to work together. Kobe chafed under that because he wanted to be the star, and he thought he deserved to be the star because he put more work in.”

The ultimate beauty to Bryant’s career, though, was his continued growth as a player and teammate throughout his career. When O’Neal left to join the Miami Heat after the Lakers flopped against the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, Bryant seemed to appreciate there was more to being a pro than being the player around whom everything flowed. He was that, for sure, while winning the scoring title in 2006 and 2007, and he was MVP while finishing second in that category in 2008. But he seemed to be a different player after helping the United States to win the gold medal at that year’s Olympic basketball tournament.

With Pau Gasol and not much elite talent beyond, Bryant led the Lakers to championships in 2009 and 2010 and was named playoff MVP.

“I think that in my experience, he was probably the most popular LA athlete of all time,” Whicker said. “Just the passion people have about him. People respected Kareem and they liked Magic, but Kobe was more of a rock star. And I think it’s probably because of different times in which he came up. The media was different, obviously – a lot more social media when he played.

“People saw him from day one. He was 17 when he showed up and had this amazing talent, and they watched him struggle with it at first and try to find his way, and then they saw him win the championships. And then after Shaq left, he really exploded in terms of seeing all his talents. I think people sensed how much desire he had to be great; they all have that, but Kobe always knew what his place was going to be, even when he was a teenager.”

TSN ARCHIVES: Kobe Bryant, 19, was most electrifying player in the NBA (Dec. 8, 1997)

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR (Lakers, 1975-89)

The trade that delivered Abdul-Jabbar “home” to LA at age 28, after six seasons and one championship with the Milwaukee Bucks, was not the immediate bonanza one might presume. Through his first four seasons, the Lakers earned just a .564 winning percentage in the regular season and won only two playoff series.

The last of those seasons had concluded when “Airplane” began its two months of shooting, with Kareem cast in the role of co-pilot “Roger Murdock”, who looked an awful lot like a certain 7-2 all-star center.

“I think you’re the greatest,” young Joey said while visiting the cockpit. “But my Dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense. And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run downcourt. And that you don’t really try, except during the playoffs.”

“The hell I don’t!” Murdock exclaimed, his secret identity revealed. “Listen, kid. I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”

Then, Magic happened.

OK, that was an amazing piece of film history, but we mean on the court. The greatest of several Lakers dynasties was conjured when Kareem was joined by 1979 No. 1 overall pick Magic Johnson and then by 1982 No. 1 overall pick James Worthy. All now are enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But it was Johnson whose skill and style helped invigorate Kareem and put him at the center of another five NBA titles.

“Before Magic showed up, he scored a lot of points, got a lot of rebounds, and yet they kept falling short. They didn’t have a great team,” Whicker said. “Kareem was well-respected, but he was kind of remote. He didn’t really interact with a lot of people.

“And then Magic came, and he sort of forced him into being one of the guys. He included him. He was very deferential toward him, but that very first game when they beat the Clippers, Magic’s first game, they win the game and Magic goes up and gives him this big hug, which nobody did. It was like Kareem had a force field.”

When Abdul-Jabbar reminded Johnson they were going to play another 81 games just like that one, Miller said, Magic’s response was direct: “You keep hitting shots like that one, I’m going to jump in your arms 81 more times.”

Jabbar was 28 when he returned to Southern California, where he had won three NCAA championships with the UCLA Bruins. If his time with the Lakers had represented his entire career, his 24,176 points would rank behind only 30 players. He won the last of his championships in 1988, at age 40.

Although surrounded by stars, Abdul-Jabbar was an essential component of those titles. The competition was fierce – among the opponents conquered in the Finals were Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas – and he averaged 20.7 points and 2.3 blocks across 90 playoff games in the championship years. His minutes declined as he aged during the final Finals years, but he still mattered.

“What I thought Magic did best for Kareem was bring pace to the game,” Miller said. “Because down low, Kareem was really unstoppable with that sky hook. If you’re facing a guy with that talent and skill, your defense can’t let him get into the paint because something bad is going to happen. So when Magic brought pace to the game, I thought he brought a whole new element to Kareem not only being unguardable in the halfcourt, but he was forced to run the floor because Magic pushed the ball.

“It was that old thing that goes with all Lakers teams: Don’t worry about yourself because if we can win, everybody will get paid, the wealth on an off the court will continue to come in bags and bags.”

TSN ARCHIVES: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement leaves large void (July 3, 1989)

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