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Bob Ryan

For NBA big men, LA is a big draw

Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard during a game against the Knicks on March 28 in New York.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Dwight Howard to the Lakers?

(This is where I slap myself upside the head.)

Of course!

Wouldn’t that be the logical, downright inevitable landing spot for the confused 26-going-on-16-year-old center? Isn’t that what always happens when an unhappy 7-footer of substance decides life in his current locale just isn’t worth living?

Oh, he says he wants to go to Brooklyn, playing in the gleaming new Barclays Center for the Russian billionaire and Jay-Z, and with the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson is the Nets’ version of a Big Three. I assure you LA can make a man forget about all that kind of stuff in a hurry.


Let history be our guide.

Way back when, before free agency was a remote possibility, players had zero leverage in these matters. You were team property in perpetuity. Happy or unhappy, you weren’t going anywhere without your team’s say-so.

Unless you happened to be a very talented and strong-willed 7-foot center of note.

Wilt Chamberlain, who for this younger generation must seem like a fictional character resembling something out of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, was not happy in Philadelphia 44 years ago. He had been making goo-goo eyes at LA for some time. But the 76ers were under no obligation to trade him. But Wilt was Wilt, and he got his way, getting himself traded to the Lakers on July 9, 1968, in exchange for Archie Clark, Darrall Imhoff, and Jerry Chambers.

The 76ers were hardly sympathetic players in this scenario, because they had obtained Wilt themselves in another power play three years earlier. Wilt was a Philadelphia native and he wasn’t particularly happy when the Philadelphia Warriors relocated to San Francisco. He set about making himself a poison pill in San Francisco as he pined to get back home. The 76ers (nee Syracuse Nationals) worked out a deal on Jan. 15, 1965, receiving Wilt in exchange for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, and Lee Shaffer, a nice forward who was so unhappy about the trade he retired on the spot.


Wilt led the 76ers to the 1967 title, but he grew bored with Philly the second time around, and LA was where he wanted to go.

LA wanted Wilt to join Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in the formation of basketball’s first celebrated Big Three. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. I mean, some things never change.

How did that trade work out? Well, let’s see. The 76ers didn’t win again until 1983. Clark was a dynamic scorer, so much so that Philadelphia hoop legend Sonny Hill came up with the “Shake and Bake” label to describe his killer crossover dribble. Imhoff, a 1960 Olympian, was a plodding defense-rebound guy. Chambers, the MVP of the 1966 final Four, was a classic tweener (6-5) NBA misfit whose combined NBA/ABA career totaled 320 games.

The Lakers won the 1972 championship with a record 69 victories. Wilt retired following the 1972-73 season.

I think we know where to put the “Advantage” check mark.

A few years later, another very talented, very large man was miserable in his place of work. This time it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for whom Milwaukee was a bit confining. And which city was the object of his affection? Take a guess.

The Lakers even had someone to play the Andrew Bynum role. His name was Elmore Smith, an amiable 7-footer who had blocked as many as 17 shots in a game. Kareem was a forceful, intelligent man and he was able to get his way. The Lakers traded Smith, Junior Bridgeman, David Meyers, and Brian Winters to the Bucks for Kareem.


How did that work out? The Bucks, who had won it all in Kareem’s second season (1970-71), are still waiting for title No. 2. Smith, it turned out, really didn’t like playing basketball. He was traded to Cleveland in the middle of his second season as a Buck and was out of the league by 1979. Meyers gave Milwaukee four years before quitting to work for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Winters was a solid guard for many years and Bridgeman became an all-time Milwaukee favorite.

Kareem would retire, 14 years and five rings later.

And Magic fans should be aware of this: Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar each scored more career points than the men for whom they were traded combined.

In the more modern, player-mobility era, the Magic once upon a time had a very talented, very large center named Shaquille O’Neal. At his first opportunity, where did he choose to relocate? The tally there was three championships, and three Shaq MVPs.

LA is LA, and it’s always going to be LA, unless Jerry Buss winds up selling it to a Donald Sterling-type bozo owner. But Buss has made most of the right moves for 33 years, and I can’t see him bungling a matter as important as transferring custody of a basketball team that owns the city. If Dwight Howard does indeed wind up becoming a Laker, he can be assured that he will never lack for quality teammates.


Howard has whined so much and made himself such a colossal annoyance in our midst that has caused many, myself included, to downgrade his conceivable impact with whichever team winds up signing his paychecks. Operating in an era in which the classic center is in short supply, he has racked up five first-team All-NBA berths, five first-team All-Defensive selections, and six All-Star Game nominations. His career averages are 18.4 points and 12.9 rebounds a game. He has led the league in rebounds five of the last six years. He has led the league in blocks twice.

But something is missing, and it’s not just his ability to make free throws (career .588, and a dreadful .491 last season). He quite obviously tormented Stan Van Gundy and, yes, cost him his job, no matter what the not-so-young man (27 on Dec. 8) claims. He is the reigning center of his time, but he is not a top 10 all-time center, at least not yet.

But if he goes to LA, look out. The Lakers will be fine. The odds are Orlando will never recover.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.