Every visitor to the Los Angeles Lakers' training camp has basically the same question: Could this team become the first since the Boston Celtics of 1968 and '69 to win back-to-back National Basketball Association titles? Not every query fired at coach Pat Riley about repeating is phrased in exactly the same way. Some simply ask what the Lakers must do to duplicate last year's performance (a 65-17 regular-season record and a triumphant march through the playoffs, climaxed by a 4 games-to-2 victory over Boston in the finals). But the thrust is always the same.
``Most of this team has been together for several years and has reached a point where the players know what they have to do to win,'' Riley said as his team prepared to launch its bid with the opening of a new season Friday night.
``If we do win again, it will have to come from [the players], not from anything I do. I know this: A team can't decide to turn its intensity on and off like a faucet and win. You can't save yourselves for the playoffs, either. You have to step out and risk something.
``We've got a lot of veterans who have been very successful,'' he added. ``Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has five championship rings and has been the league's Most Valuable Player six times. After 18 years in this business, I don't think the idea of owning another ring is going to do much for him. He has to find another reason to motivate himself, and it may be the chance to win back-to-back titles.''
The starting lineup is set, with Abdul-Jabbar at center, James Worthy and A.C. Green at forward, and league MVP Magic Johnson and Byron Scott at guard.
Then there is Michael Cooper, who is listed as the sixth man but really has the status of a regular, plays both guard and forward, and is generally on the court in the final pressure minutes of close games. Last season, in fact, Cooper logged more playing time than Abdul-Jabbar, Scott, or Green. Inch for inch, Coop is probably the best defensive player in the league, and he'd probably make the All-Star team if he averaged 15 points a game. The best he's ever done in nine years is 11.9, which is still not bad for a guy who was once viewed as a defensive specialist.
Riley also has the luxury of using Mychal Thompson, a former NBA starter, as backup center. And a diamond in the rough is second-year forward Billy Thompson, currently on the disabled list but a potential big scorer.
Rounding out the first 10 are forward Kurt Rambis, a tough defensive rebounder and court policeman, and guard Wes Matthews, who has turned up in the playoffs over the years with five teams.
The Lakers became Johnson's team last year, whereas before they belonged exclusively to Abdul-Jabbar. Now when the hour is late and a clutch basket has to be made, the ball goes first to Magic, and maybe not even to Kareem second if someone else is open.
Recently Johnson discussed his new role, plus the changes in his game.
``It was a case where Kareem didn't want the leadership role on this team anymore, and passed it on to me,'' he said. ``At first it was an adjustment, because even though I've always controlled the ball for this team, I had never been so personally involved in scoring as many baskets before. I think I got better at it as the season progressed [he finished with a personal high of 23.9 points per game].''
Asked why so many champions in so many sports can't make it happen twice in a row, Johnson replied: ``Injuries that weren't there the previous season can destroy a team. Too much complacency can do the same thing. But sometimes it happens because a rival team that was already close to being a champion adds that one more player who can put them over the top. Two years ago the Celtics got that kind of lift from Bill Walton.
``I think the Lakers can repeat as NBA champions if two things happen. We have to stay free of injuries, and we have to be playoff aggressive all season.''