The Los Angeles Lakers needed something like this. While they lead the league in drama, they also can bring out the lore and luster like no other NBA franchise. It was all on display Friday night at the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar statue unveiling outside Staples Center.
Nine members of the Basketball Hall of Fame were on hand -- Jack Nicholson too. There were laughs, moistened eyes and, most of all, class. That's the Lakers as we remember them, not the fractured franchise of late.
There was a disconnect this week when their most beloved alumnus, Magic Johnson, voiced his anger over the hiring of Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson and what direction it represented for the team under the leadership of Jim Buss. That wasn't the case Friday night, when Johnson took everyone on a nostalgic trip back to his first game as a Laker in 1979, when Abdul-Jabbar made a skyhook to beat the Clippers and Johnson wrapped him in a hug as if they'd just won a Game 7.
Not many franchises can have such a significant part of their identity go from ripping them on national TV to leading the celebration of an all-time great in 48 hours. That's the Lakers, though. Their legends have a way of returning to the fold. They brought Jackson back once after he wrote his tell-all book. Pat Riley's Lakers days were two franchises ago, but he was on stage. Jerry West now advises the Golden State Warriors. He was up there too.
It no longer mattered that five statues were erected before Abdul-Jabbar got his or that he let his displeasure about that be known. He won five championships with the Lakers; he broke the NBA's all-time scoring mark wearing their jersey. He had this honor coming to him.
It's not just the Lakers. Tack on the three championships that Abdul-Jabbar won at UCLA and he has hung more banners in this city than any other athlete. This city loves winners, and none of its players have won like Abdul-Jabbar.
Few sports figures have his depth as well. It was fitting that he was honored not only by his teammates and coaches, but also by civil rights activist Dr. Richard Lapchick and, via video, former President Bill Clinton.
Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya already had statues even though Gretzky didn't bring the Stanley Cup to L.A. and De La Hoya lost the only boxing match he ever fought in Staples Center. Magic Johnson, Jerry West and broadcaster Chick Hearn didn't score as many points, but they were more beloved. Still, the oversight didn't sit well with Abdul-Jabbar. Friday night, the squeaky wheel got greased.
"Even though we had some words over it earlier, they forgot about that, and my contributions to the franchise meant a lot to them," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We were able to patch it up and get it done."
And get it done in grand style. Magic, Riley, West and James Worthy shared the stage with him. Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Bill Walton and Bill Sharman watched from the first two rows of seats. And those were just the guys with Hall of Fame credentials. Lakers teammates Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon, Kurt Rambis and James Worthy were also on hand. Plus, because it's Hollywood, Nicholson and Lou Gossett Jr.
Abdul-Jabbar looked happier than I've ever seen him, smiling broadly at every fond memory. He was visibly moved.
"I always kept my emotions inside," he said. "But I'm retired now. I can be a cranky or happy old man, and I'm very happy right now."
When he addressed the crowd, he managed to be serious and appreciative without turning too somber.
"I realized four years ago when I was diagnosed with leukemia that a lot of this doesn't mean as much as we think it means as we're living our lives," he said. "The fact that we get to the chance to wake up and enjoy life on this planet every day -- every day is a blessing from the good Lord. I'm out shopping or going to the movies or going to a bookstore or places and Laker fans come up to me and say, 'Kareem, how's your health? How are you doing?' And that means more to me than any of this. And I want to thank all of you for that."
I always kept my emotions inside. But I'm retired now. I can be a cranky or happy old man, and I'm very happy right now.
”-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Abdul-Jabbar stood next to a giant version of himself in middle of a "majestic skyhook," as Riley called it. That had to be the pose for the statue. Greatness often simplifies the choices.
The Lakers are much more complicated these days. Someone asked Kobe Bryant what would be an appropriate action for his statue one day. He looked perplexed, then froze his face in a smirk when someone suggested they mold him in the "Kobe Death Stare."
What would be the definitive Bryant pose? Would he wear No. 24 or No. 8? Nothing seems certain about the future of the Lakers these days, as they prepare for life under D'Antoni.
They don't have the luxury of reflection, as all of the former Lakers at the ceremony seemed to enjoy and appreciate.
"Only now, at this ripe old age of 67, do I realize how fortunate I was to have been a part of the Laker family for 25 years," Riley said. "Sometimes you think about where you end up in your life, and where I ended up in my life today is because of the people that supported me."
If someone as accomplished as Riley owes so much to Abdul-Jabbar, then Abdul-Jabbar was owed a statue. At the very least.