Saturday, October 01, 2011


It last happened in 1960, the year of my birth. Despite winning five NBA Championships in 11 years, the Minneapolis Lakers were ready to move west. With the team’s new superstar, Elgin Baylor, in tow, owner Bob Short decided to take his team from one of our nation’s coldest cities to one of our warmest, Los Angeles. The franchise decided to keep its name – the Lakers – despite the fact that the only body of water for which LA is known is the Pacific Ocean. And more importantly, the franchise figured out how to keep its winning ways. Unbelievably, when the Lakers won the NBA title in 2010, it was the franchise’s 16th title and 31st appearance in the championship series in a little over 60 years. The latter stat is truly astounding. It means that over the course of more than six decades, this one franchise has been one of the top two basketball teams in the world 50% of the time. I don’t believe that any other major league franchise in any sport can make that claim.

So yes, the Lakers have done their share of winning and more – both in Minnesota and Los Angeles. And they have become larger than their sport. When you think cheerleaders you think of two franchises – the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and the Laker Girls. Personally, I can’t name a single Cowboy Cheerleader, but I remember Paula Abdul back when she cheered for the Lakers. I bet Jack Nicholson does too; he’s had courtside Laker seats for literally decades. And Jack is hardly alone. A Laker game isn’t just a basketball game, it’s an opportunity to get out your binoculars and ogle celebrities. You’ll find almost as many of them there as at the Kodak Theatre on Academy Awards night.

Hollywood likes its Dodgers, but Hollywood LOVES its Lakers. And why shouldn’t it? Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neil, Kobe Bryant … these aren’t just Hall of Famers, they’re superstars. James Worthy is a Hall of Famer, but next to those other Laker greats, he’s a bum – which is the word the good people of Brooklyn used for their beloved Dodgers. Nobody in his right mind calls the Lakers bums.

My friends in La La Land, when they say their nightly bruchas, should thank God for life, liberty and the franchise from Minneapolis. A native of the Land of Lakes, Prince had the right idea but the wrong spelling: it’s not Purple Rain, its Purple Reign. It started in Minneapolis and has continued in LA. And we all know that when Kobe Bryant retires, somehow, the Lakers will beg, borrow or steal another superstar to take his place. The Lakers don’t rebuild, they reload. Ain’t no force in the universe powerful enough to stop them for long – not even the force of karma.

The people of LA know about karma. It’s a well-used concept in the movies. One minute the hero is riding high, but a couple of scenes later, his life is falling apart. And it works in reverse too, for Hollywood is full of Cinderella stories. Just ask Julia Roberts: one day she’s turning tricks on the streets of LA, and a week later, she is having sex with Richard’s “Gere” and about to marry into billions. As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!”

Unfortunately for my friends in LA, the karma I’m talking about now doesn’t have much to do with Cinderella. It’s more the “Behind the Music” kind of karma. Do you recall Behind the Music? It’s a VH-1 series that would profile different rock n’ roll groups. Inevitably, the trajectory would be the same: band meets, band plays for almost no fans and makes almost no money, band hits the big time, band members enjoy superstardom, band members enjoy drugs, band members enjoy drugs a tad too much, band members turn their lives into a living hell … or a short story, depending upon the band member. Seen it once, seen it a million times.

So how is that kind of karma going to bite the good people of LA? Enter into the equation another purple clad team from Minnesota. Ladies and Gentlemen of Los Angeles, I want to introduce you to my Minnesota Vikings.

On the surface, the Vikings are one of the flagship NFL franchises. They’ve been in the league as long as the Lakers have been in LA, and they have graced the Super Bowl not once, but four times. They have their own Hall of Famers, men like Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page, Carl Eller, Paul Krause, Randall McDaniel, Ron Yary, John Randle. Hall of Famers yes, superstars no. You see, the Vikings have never won the championship. Not once. And during the last 34 years, when the Lakers have made 16 appearances in the championship series of its sport, the Vikings have been to the Super Bowl precisely zero times. And believe me, it’s not for lack of coming close – it’s because every time they do come close, some seemingly supernatural force stops them from winning during the final play-in game before the Superbowl. In the ‘87 season, it was a running back who dropped a ball in the end zone; in ‘98, it was the kicker who didn’t miss a kick all year but missed the kick that would have sealed the deal; in ‘09, it was the boo-boo of having 12 men in the huddle, a penalty that took the team out of the range of a field goal that would have won the game. Are you mathletes sensing a pattern here? Every 11 years, the franchise flirts with its fans by snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory and keeping the team out of the Super Bowl. And every Vikings fan knows that if and when the team finally does make the Super Bowl, they’ll do what they did the four times they got there in the late ‘60s and early-mid ‘70s: lose.

That, folks, is a snake-bitten franchise. And don’t look now, but it could be moving to Hollywood at the end of this season.

The signs of the move are simply too irresistible to ignore. The Vikings are from Minnesota, the Lakers came from Minnesota. The Vikings wear purple, the Lakers wear purple. The Vikings have a stadium with a lease that’s about to expire and a tax base that isn’t willing to bail out another billionaire owner, and Los Angeles has millions upon millions of people but not a single professional football team (other than the University of Southern California, but supposedly they don’t count). In the past few years, the good people of Minnesota bought themselves a stadium for the baseball team (the Twins) and the flagship college football team (the Gophers). And how did that work out? Well … the Twins just lost 99 games this year. Can you imagine? I know the baseball season is long, but it’s not THAT long. Ninety-nine games is a horrid number. And as for the University of Minnesota Gophers, not only are they 1-3, but they have lost this year to such perennial powers as New Mexico State and North Dakota State.

North Dakota State? Are you kidding me? Imagine your state having spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars that could have gone for teacher salaries or health care but instead went to a stadium in which you can watch your college football team lose to North Dakota State. I suspect that taking a nice leisurely drive to the Mississippi River and dumping the money in the drink would have been a better use of time. At least the scenery would be nice.

And now, Minnesotans have another decision – whether to dump hundreds of millions more on yet another new stadium for yet another struggling team. This time we’re talking about the Never Won the Big One Vikings. And since 11 years have not elapsed since they last flirted with a Super Bowl appearance, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the franchise has lost its first three games of the season. Indeed, the fact that they were winning by 10-20 points at halftime of each of these games might be somewhat surprising – Lord knows that no other team in NFL history has started the season in that manner – but for the fact that this is the Vikings we’re talking about. Their history is as cursed as the Lakers’ is charmed. They don’t just lose when it counts. They lose in freaky ways.

And now, the smart money is on their moving to LA.

I don’t know about you, but I’m expecting to see a movie in around 2025 chronicling the story of the Lakers and Vikings. It will be called something like “A Tale of Two Teams,” and it will have all the ups and downs you can possibly ask for in an Oscar-nominated flick. The problem is that the “best of times” will always be referring to the Lakers and the “worst of times” will always be referring to the Vikings. But for all their differences, they will always be linked together by a common city, a common fan base, and a common color.

Besides, ask any big time director: happy endings are great, but there’s nothing like the drama of a top flight tragedy. With the Vikes coming to town, the possibility for great scripts are endless.

No comments: