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Remembering the Wonderful and Captivating 1995-96 Los Angeles Lakers

Post-Showtime and pre–Shaq and Kobe, a fond look back at the exploits of Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, and Magic Johnson(!)

Milton Un

With Lonzo taking top billing for sport’s glamour franchise, LeBron possibly on the way, and stars from virtually every team to be found on the streets and in SoulCycle classes, Los Angeles has become the mecca of the NBA offseason. In the second of four weeklong series leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season, we’re celebrating the people, teams, and everything in between that make up the most interesting scene in the league. Welcome to L.A. Week.

When discussing Lakers teams that have existed in the modern NBA (meaning: Lakers teams from 1980 and on), there are three versions of the team that eat up basically the entirety of that conversation. You have:

  • The Showtime-Era Lakers: Generally considered to have existed from the 1979-80 season, which is when they drafted Magic Johnson, to the 1990-91 season, which is when Magic Johnson retired the first time. They were an iconic and brilliant team (nine trips to the Finals, five titles won), and one that, in no uncertain terms, helped turn the NBA into a true force.
  • The Shaq and Kobe–Era Lakers: Generally considered to have existed from the 1996-97 season, which is when they acquired Kobe Bryant, to the 2003-04 season, which is when Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson left (were pushed out?). They were also an iconic and brilliant team (and also an infuriating team, though I’m sure at least a part of the reason I feel like that is because they beat several of my favorite teams to root for, including the Scottie Pippen–led Blazers from 1999-00, the Wild, Wild West Sacramento Kings from 2001-02, and, for sure, my beloved Spurs any season they beat them). I always wondered why they never got a cool name like the Showtime Lakers did. “The Shaq and Kobe Lakers” is certainly edifying, but it lacks the poetry of “Showtime Lakers.”
  • The Post-Shaq Kobe-Era Lakers: This group, highlighted by the championships they won in 2008-09 and 2009-10, certainly casts the shortest shadow of the three. But you absolutely have to include them because, more than just being title-winning teams, they will go down as markers of Kobe Bryant’s iron spirit and bizarre character profile, for which he will remain an all-time interesting curioso.
L.A. Week

So those are the primary versions of the modern Lakers teams. And they of course deserve to be. But let me present to you another Lakers team; a regular Lakers team, or, more appropriately, a Regular Lakers team: a wonderful and captivating Lakers team that has dissipated into nothingness in the hallways of the NBA’s history: the 1995-96 Lakers, which was the team they had the season before Shaq showed up.

To be sure: They were no team of titans. Their best player was Cedric Ceballos, who was good but not great, and their second-best player was Eddie Jones, who was lovable and fun to root for but was like if you took Kobe and turned him down about 60 percent. (Here’s a neat thing: The Lakers had zero All-Stars that season. That wouldn’t happen to them again until 2016-17.) They finished the ’95-’96 season fourth in the Western Conference (53-29) and were knocked out of the playoffs by the Rockets just four games into the first round. But they had so many great and interesting tiny pieces and moments that, unfortunately, we just never ever get to talk about. The three best bits:

1. The exhilaration of Magic Johnson returning for the back half of that season. He’d already been gone from playing full-time NBA basketball for more than four full years, having stepped into retirement following testing positive for HIV between the end of the 1990-91 season and the beginning of the 1991-92 season. He had the appearance at the 1992 All-Star Game, which ended with him winning the MVP. And there was the Dream Team showing, which was its own mega-thing. And then there was the false-start return when he said he was coming back to play for the Lakers in 1992-93 (but ended up not following through because of the controversy surrounding his return). And then, finally, there was that odd stint when he served as head coach of the Lakers for 16 games in 1993-94 (they went 5-11 under him).

But then he actually came back for the last 40 games in that 1995-96 season. And he certainly wasn’t who he’d been, but he also wasn’t a disaster. (He was literally just two rebounds away from a triple-double in his first game back, which is fucking nuts, and also he did this to Latrell Sprewell that same game, and can you even imagine how excited and thrilling that must’ve been if you were a giant Magic Johnson fan? If nothing else, it opens up a whole big discussion about what the previous seasons would’ve looked like if Johnson had stuck around after his HIV diagnosis.)

Probably my favorite thing from that return attempt, though, came from—somehow—Dennis Rodman. The Lakers played the Bulls after that first feel-good game against the Warriors, and that was the season the Bulls were just flamethrowing everyone into the sea (they showed up to the game against the Lakers with a 40-3 record). Dennis was guarding Magic for most of the game, and he for real just beat the snot out of him, hammering him every chance he got. After the game, Rodman told reporters, “Who cares if he’s got HIV, measles, cancer, whatever. I’m going to slam him anyway, and anybody who’s got any balls will do the same thing.”

(Four fun stats, all per (1) Johnson played in 32 of the remaining 40 games. The Lakers went 22-10 in those games. (2) Before Magic joined the Lakers, they averaged about 109 points per 100 possessions. That put them outside of the top 10 in that category. After Johnson returned, they averaged about 115 points per 100 possessions, pushing them all the way up into third place behind only the Magic and the indestructible Bulls. (3) Magic is the oldest player in the Basketball-Reference database to have scored a triple-double off the bench. (4) Magic was 36 years old when he got his last triple-double. So was Kobe.)

2. The strangeness of Cedric Ceballos disappearing. Ceballos was a cocaptain that season, and he was also their leading scorer, and he had also helped the Lakers to a surprising spot in the playoffs the season before. So he was a very important piece. There was speculation that he was upset that he was ceding minutes to Magic Johnson (though it was never verified; additionally, it was a weird claim, given that he was playing about 36 minutes per game before Magic got there and then about 34 minutes per game after Magic got there). And then one day, Ceballos just didn’t show up to work. He missed two games, two practices, and a shootaround, all without notifying anyone. (Word later arose that he’d rented a houseboat in Arizona and had been there, which is really fucking funny to me. Houseboats just always feel and sound so ridiculous.) He had his cocaptaincy stripped, and he was later traded back to Phoenix, and the whole thing was just a great big mess. (Sidebar: Cedric, in addition to being a midlevel star in the NBA, was also a rapper. I don’t know exactly how that helps an argument for the strangeness of the situation, but I know it definitely doesn’t hurt it.)

3. The OH MY GOD–ness of Nick Van Exel bodychecking a referee into the scorer’s table. This one happened just three weeks after Cedric Ceballos’s vanishing had splintered the team (and, incidentally, less than a month after Dennis Rodman had headbutted a referee upon being ejected from a game). Nick and the ref, Ron Garretson, got into an argument after a foul had been called on Dale Ellis. Garretson gave Nick a technical; Nick responded by calling Garretson a “little midget”; and then Garretson responded to that by giving Nick a second technical, resulting in Nick getting kicked out of the game. When it happened, Nick went fucking bonkers. He charged back at Garretson, put a forearm into his ribs, and gave him a boost up onto the scorer’s table. (For my money, it looks like Garretson tried to sell the call, and I can’t think of too many things better than an NBA referee flopping.) Nick ended up getting fined $25,000 (at the time, it was a league record) and also suspended for the final seven games of the season (at the time, it was the third-longest suspension ever, behind just Kermit Washington, who got suspended 26 games in 1977 for nearly killing Rudy Tomjanovich during an in-game fight, and Vernon Maxwell, who got suspended for 10 games in 1995 for going into the stands and hitting a fan, which is the most Vernon Maxwell–y thing of all).

I think the best part of the situation (insomuch as a situation like this can have a “best part”) was that Magic Johnson really laid into Nick afterward, just beating him up in the media about being irresponsible and selfish, and then five days later Johnson got ejected from a game for basically doing the same thing. I wish we’d had Twitter around back then, because I’m certain that Nick Van Exel would’ve been throwing 100 miles per hour on it the night of Johnson’s incident.