Every Memorial Day my thoughts drift back to the 1985 Finals. The Lakers were playing the hated Celtics, trying to defeat them for the first time of what would become the Showtime Era. The previous year the Lakers had been defeated in 7 games by those same Celtics, a series that spawned the nickname Tragic Johnson due to late game gaffes that directly led to losses.
The series didn’t start out well with the Lakers losing game one badly by the score 148-114. The game was dubbed the Memorial Day Massacre and there were serious questions if the Lakers had the mettle to beat the Celtics in the Finals. After the game, Pat Riley said “We’ll be back. If a seven game series could be decided in one game, it’d be over with but there’s going to be six more basketball games.”
There actually wouldn’t be six more games, however. The Lakers would come back to win the series in 6 games behind stellar performances from Kareem and Magic. I’ll never forget Kareem defiantly raising his arms in celebration after he hit a sky hook in the game 6 clincher in the Boston Garden. Not only did the Lakers win, but they did so on the Celtics home floor. That game represented a come back that helped catapult the Lakers to two more championships that decade, including another win over the hated Celtics. That game was a turning point of sorts for the Lakers as a team and solidified their approach as a franchise.
Today, the Lakers look to make a different type of comeback. There’s not a championship to win this season as the Lakers have already been defeated in the conference semi-finals. It’s the 2nd straight year they’ve failed to advance to the conference championship round and, with those early exits, the Lakers face the prospect of having to find a way to get back to championship level form. In a way, the situation they face to day is analogous to what they faced after that game 1 humiliation. After that game, there were serious doubts about the Lakers. Could they win with that group? Could they get past their rivals?
This, of course, will not be easy. There are tough choices to make and we don’t yet know how the organization will move forward. Unlike that 1985 season there isn’t a stock pile of talent to lean on and ultimately trust. The Lakers have some top talent but lack the depth of that team. But like that 1985 season, the Lakers must show commitment and resolve and find a way to come back.
No one knows this better than Mitch Kupchak who was on that 1985 team. He’d made his own comeback of sorts, finding a way to contribute after a knee injury changed the landscape of his playing career forever. Now he must call on some of that experience to find a way to make it work as an executive. Again, no easy task but if there’s a person that knows what it takes it’s him.