Posted Oct 11 2010 9:01AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:10PM
Choosing the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers as my favorite team might seem like settling on Casablanca as one's favorite movie. Too easy. Too front-running. Kind of weenie.
Who doesn't like, admire or respect Casablanca? These Lakers were the same way, a team that owned the NBA as few teams had before or have since. They were, even then, the league's most glamorous franchise, built around three legendary players, Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Chamberlain remains the most dominant player in NBA history (sorry, Shaq), a force of nature who authored record books that others merely browse. West was and is one of the league's most competitive and popular figures ever, a wise choice to be used in silhouette as the NBA logo.
How good was Baylor? Oscar Robertson, whom many consider to be the greatest basketball player ever, considers Baylor to hold that distinction.
In that 1971-72 season, seemingly everything went the Lakers' way. They won 33 consecutive games, which didn't just set a record for winning streaks in a single season -- it demolished the previous mark of 20, set a season earlier by the Milwaukee Bucks. Seventeen were at home, a still-record 16 were on the road. More than two months passed -- from Nov. 5, 1971 to Jan. 7, 1972 -- between Lakers losses.
Los Angeles won 69 games, the most ever until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 (in a league spread thin to 29 teams, compared to 17 in 1971-72). Those Lakers won the Pacific Division by 18 games, averaged 121 points in those pre-3-pointer days and outscored opponents by more than 1,000 points (average margin of 12.3 points). In the postseason, the Lakers swept Chicago, then beat the defending champion Bucks in six games and the once-removed 1970 champs, the New York Knicks, in five.
And yet, beneath the surface, the Lakers didn't exactly breeze through a charmed season. They were considered old, with the NBA already looking to the Knicks and, with young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks. Baylor's creaky knees, which limited him to two games in 1970-71, gave out completely after nine games this time. After playing for the last time on Oct. 31, the dazzling L.A. forward retired as the league's third-leading scorer and fourth leading rebounder, but without a championship.
West had suffered along with Baylor, helping the Lakers to seven Finals appearances in the previous 10 years but largely blaming himself for the seven losses (six to Boston, one to N.Y.). Their head coach, Bill Sharman, screamed himself hoarse calling plays and turning a veteran-focused team into fast-breakers (Sharman was a former Celtic, too, a key figure for the Lakers' nemeses before most of the head-to-head tormenting began). Then there was Chamberlain, one of the most maligned and contradictory characters in the history of American sports.
Thrust into the villain role by virtue of his size and the results of his frequent clashes with the smaller, more team-oriented Bill Russell, Chamberlain frequently was judged more on what he didn't accomplish than on the many things he did. "They see me score 75 points in a game and instead of saying, 'Great game,' they wonder why I don't get 75 every night," he once grumbled. His one NBA championship with Philadelphia in 1966-67 -- at 68-13, another one of the all-time great teams -- seemed to count less somehow than West's or Baylor's none. Chamberlain's size, strength and personality always just demanded more.
I had been a Bulls fan -- one of the genuine, pre-Jordan, Tom Boerwinkle-and-Bob Love ones -- but I had watched enough late-night West Coast TV games on WGN to marvel at West and become intrigued by Chamberlain. The goateed giant was just so different -- in size, in style, in demeanor, in body language -- from other NBA players.
At this point in his career, Chamberlain was 35. He was wearing a headband, rare for that time. He had pet moves, most notably his finger rolls, that seemed contrary to his powerful game. He looked like he hated free throws and shot them with a nonchalance, from a couple of feet behind the foul line, mostly missing. His facial hair accentuated his grimaces when he'd implore the refs about the hacking he endured inside -- and he implored often.
Wilt was larger than life and certainly larger than the NBA. In 1967, he and Muhammad Ali bantered on ABC's Wide World of Sports about meeting for a possible heavyweight bout (it never happened). His fantastic, outsized $1 million home on a hill above Bel-Air might as well have been the Fortress of Solitude to a kid with a sports hero. I don't think I quite grasped how the fur-covered bed and the mirrored walls might figure into Chamberlain's later boasts, but I knew that a triangular bedroom ceiling that opened to the stars and the sky was pretty cool.
Then there was the moment I shared with Chamberlain early that season, after the Lakers had visited and won at Chicago Stadium. Sticking around for autographs, thanks to indulgent dads, my buddies and I saw Chamberlain coming down the hall from the locker room. "Wilt! Wilt! Can you sign?" we asked.
Chamberlain looked at us, held out his arms, looked at the garment bag in one hand and the duffel bag in the other, then looked back at us with an amused look. He shook his head and shrugged, as if to say: How? And he kept walking.
Even we had to laugh at that.
As it turned out, Wilt's public image had softened overall by 1971-72. He had shifted his game to defense, averaging 14.8 points -- his first season of less than 20 a game -- and 19.2 rebounds while West and Gail Goodrich drove L.A.'s attack from the backcourt. Abdul-Jabbar was bigger, younger and by that point more dominant, casting Chamberlain in an unlikely underdog role. And he was on board all season with the team's agenda, saying of a possible championship: "If there's any justice in these things, it's owed to Jerry."
After breezing through the Bulls, the Lakers got smacked 93-72 in the opener against Milwaukee. But they won the next two games, both close (with help in one from ref Manny Sokol, who got in the way of what would have been a crucial West turnover near the end). After enduring another blowout in Game 4, L.A. took the fifth and sixth games to reach the Finals for a rematch of the '70 showdown vs. New York.
The Knicks grabbed the opener at the Forum in a stunning 114-92 performance, convincing Sharman to change tactics. With Willis Reed hurt, Sharman went to Chamberlain more offensively, exploiting his physical advantage over Jerry Lucas. The Lakers outscored New York by a combined 25 points in Games 2 and 3, then leaned on West and Jim McMillian in overtime of a 116-111 victory. Two nights later at home, they closed it out, 114-100, for the first title of the Lakers' L.A. era and the one that shut up so many critics.
As the late sportswriter Pete Axthelm described the aftermath in a December 1972 story for SPORT magazine, the Lakers' locker room gradually emptied until only West and Chamberlain remained. "For a moment, the two stars met in the center of the room and embraced happily," Axthelm wrote. "Then they were headed for the door, toward the autograph seekers and friends and the summer they had awaited for so long.
"You know, Jerry," said Chamberlain, "you stick around with me and we may make a hell of a basketball team."
Hmm, sounds almost like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains walking off into the fog in Casablanca.
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