The Forgotten Heroes
With the Basketball Hall of Fame Ceremony just around the corner, all the focus tends to be on the stars. Laker Hall of Famers like Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic et al. made history, but they didn’t do it alone. They had teammates who had equally important roles that should never be forgotten.
Here are ten players who will never be in the Hall of Fame, but who were invaluable in their support of the players that made it to basketball’s highest honor.
The 1971-72 Lakers were a team loaded with stars. They started the season with future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and Elgin Baylor. Nine games into the season, the great Elgin Baylor was forced to retire due to a nagging knee injury.
The player who stepped into Elgin Baylor’s shoes that year was a young second-year player named Jim McMillian. McMillian’s first game as a starter was the beginning of the legendary 33-game win streak that still stands as the longest ever in professional basketball.
The unsung McMillian contributed 18.8 points per game while shooting .481 from the field, along with 6.5 rebounds per game while averaging 38.5 minutes per game. In the playoffs that year, Millian scored 19.1 ppg. McMillian’s steady scoring forced one-on-one coverage of Laker wing players West and Goodrich, resulting in lots of open shots.
Perhaps the most jarring name in the Laker’s 1971-1972 starting lineup was that of Happy Hairston. Not only was Hairston’s career remarkable outside of his being on the Laker team during their long winning streak, but he didn’t even have his best year statistically that year.
What Happy Hairston did contribute was the kind of complimentary play that filled in whatever the Lakers needed while still allowing the others to shine. Lost in the 33-game winning streak was Hairston's 1045 rebounds. 1971-72 was the only time any two NBA teammates have grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds each in the same season; Chamberlain had 1572.
Hairston was the guy who was always open underneath when Chamberlain was doubled. Though he wasn’t a guy who could create his own offense his opportunistic scoring was enough to keep defenses honest
Hairston was never more than a role player in his career. His career averages of 14.8 points and 10.3 rebounds are not eye catching but he was a key player in the careers of three Hall of Famers.
Ask any Laker fan what the beginning of the '80s Laker dynasty was and they will point to the draft of a brash, young point guard. Few of them remember the 22nd player taken in the 1977 draft.
With all the hype Magic Johnson got in his rookie season, it is easy to forget that the point guard for that team was Norm Nixon. During the Lakers' first two championship runs in 1979-80 and 1981-82, Nixon contributed solid scoring at 17.6 ppg while also adding nearly eight assists per game.
The third round choice of the Lakers in the 1978 draft was a quiet, skinny kid named Michael Cooper. Don’t bother looking at his stats, other than field goal percentage, they are unimpressive.
What was impressive about Cooper was his phenomenal defensive play. None other than Larry Bird called him the best defender he played against. Cooper was a regular on the NBA’s All-Defensive team, making it eight of his twelve years.
Michael Cooper was a fixture for the '80s Lakers as the first guy off the bench. His role was to guard the other team’s best wing player. On offense, Cooper was a tall, quick guard who could be devastating in transition with his speed and ability to either slash to the basket or pull up for the long range shot.
The trade of Norm Nixon fundamentally changed the Lakers. It allowed Magic Johnson to take undisputed control of the offense, strengthened the Lakers' wing defense and added one of the best three-point shooters in the league to an already formidable scoring arsenal.
Replacing Nixon’s penetration and dish style game with Byron Scott’s superior long-range shooting opened up the lane for James Worthy, Magic, and Kareem, plus his speed was a nightmare for teams trying to stop LA’s fast break.
In 1985 the Lakers were looking for a strong rebounder who didn’t need the ball to play well. The player they ended up with was A.C. Green.
Green responded to being named a starter in 1986 by leading the team in rebounding for the next four seasons and for six of his eight total seasons with the Lakers. His court speed gave the team yet another weapon in the fast break.
The Lakers won back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988. No one was more important to that run than Mychal Thompson.
The 1985 Finals saw the Lakers win a tough six-game series against the Celtics. They had imported aging power forward Maurice Lucas to counter a powerful Celtics inside game and to prevent the kind of dirty play by the Celtics that had cost them in their previous finals matchup. The 1985 series saw Kevin McHale lead the Celtics with 26 ppg and 10.7 rpg.
While the Lakers missed the 1986 Finals, the Celtics returned with the addition of Bill Walton and dominated the playoffs.
The Lakers had to have someone who could play defense against Kevin McHale. Enter journeyman power forward Mychal Thompson. Brought in to the Lakers in February of 1987, Thompson’s size and defensive prowess was enough to take away what would otherwise have been a decisive edge on the inside.
The new millennium Laker dynasty is usually regarded as being Shaq, Kobe, and a bunch of other guys. While Shaq and Kobe’s importance on that team cannot be minimized, some of the other guys were crucial to their success.
One player in particular stands out, not because of his stats or any one skill. Robert Horry stands out because only nine players have won seven or more championships and all of the others played for the Celtics.
Horry’s contributions on defense were a definite key, but his presence on so many championship teams speaks to another particular skill. Horry’s last-second shots to win NBA Championships for Houston, LA, and San Antonio are legendary.
Appearing in the last four Laker championship runs, Derrick Fisher has always seemed like the guy the Lakers want to replace. In his early years, he struggled to get on the court behind the taller and more experienced Ron Harper. Once he finally did get established as the starter, the Lakers acquired Gary Payton.
Finally, after leaving as a free agent and then arranging a return, Fisher established himself firmly as the Laker point guard.
Fisher’s timely shooting and steady hand were a big key in last year’s championship run.
Much like Robert Horry, Lamar Odom’s calling card is versatility. At 6'10", Odom is a player with very good ball handling skills, good post up skills, and a good long-range game. Somehow Odom has never found a way to use his abilities to become a dominant player...until last year.
On a Laker team that features a very raw and developing young center, Andrew Bynum, teamed with an extremely skilled power forward center, Pau Gasol, Odom has found his perfect role.
His ability to play any of four positions on the court allowed him to create a variety of matchup problems for playoff opponents and create open high percentage shots for himself and his teammates.