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Fran Blinebury

The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, with coach Bill Sharman (first row, center).
NBAE/ Getty Images

Streak of streaks propelled '72 Lakers into NBA firmament

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Aug 1 2011 2:38PM

It began in the same fashion as most storms, a few drops at a time, with wins over Baltimore, Golden State and New York.

By the time it ended two months later, the Los Angeles Lakers were an uncontrollable flood that rose over the riverbanks and simply washed away the rest of the NBA.

From Nov. 5, 1971 through Jan. 7, 1972, the Lakers won 33 consecutive games to establish the longest winning streak in professional sports history on their way to a then-league record 69 regular-season wins. What capped it all off was their first championship (after eight straight losses in the NBA Finals), the first since the franchise had relocated to the West Coast.

"No one could beat us," Hall of Fame guard Jerry West said. "We went along and along and along. One month went by, then all of a sudden two months, and we hadn't lost a basketball game. It almost got to be funny. We knew that no one could beat us."

"I don't think that record will ever be broken," said Miami Heat president Pat Riley, a reserve then with the Lakers. "I'd be very surprised. Thirty-three in a row? That's a hard one."

To put it in perspective, the next longest winning streak in NBA history is 22 by the Houston Rockets in 2008. The MLB (1935 Chicago Cubs) and NFL (2003-04 New England Patriots) records are only 21. The longest winning streak in the NHL (1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins) is just 17.

When the season began, a full season removed from a loss to the N.Y. Knicks in the 1970 Finals, that streak was as unimaginable.

"We sure weren't expecting anything like that to happen when training camp started," said 85-year-old Bill Sharman, who was then in his first season as the Lakers' coach. "As a matter of fact, when (club owner) Jack Kent Cooke hired me, he said, 'Bill, I think we're in a rebuilding phase.'"

The Lakers, who had played seven times in the Finals since moving from Minneapolis to L.A. in 1960, still had four future Hall of Famers -- West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich -- on a roster that many thought would show its age.

Nine games into the season, after battling chronic knee injuries, Baylor retired. In the very next game, the streak began.

"You win five or six in a row and it's really no big deal," said Jim Cleamons, who was a rookie on the team. "It wasn't until the streak got up to around maybe 14 or 16 that anybody started talking about it."

The Knicks had won 18 in a row in 1969. Then the Milwaukee Bucks set a new mark with 20 straight wins in 1971.

"My recollection is that there was a lot more about Houston being able to get to 20 than when we were running our streak," said Goodrich. "I don't think it was until we passed the Knicks' number that anybody really noticed.

"We knew we were good, and we played with a lot of confidence, maybe sometimes bordering on cockiness. It's a fine line. I think we respected everybody. But we felt that we were better than everybody when we walked onto the court, and somehow we would figure out a way to win ... We were 6-3, and the next time we looked up, we were 39-3."

Much of the credit for the streak and the Lakers' transformation from perennial runners-up to world-beaters belongs to Sharman, who during his playing days with the Boston Celtics regularly beat L.A. when there were titles on the line.

"It was just not a coincidence that when he showed up, that team that could never get over the hump got over the hump and had the greatest season any team ever had," Riley said.

Chamberlain, for one, bought completely into Sharman's coaching and dramatically changed his style of play, sacrificing his offense to concentrate on other parts of the game. Wilt's scoring average dropped to just 14.8 points per game, but he averaged 19.2 rebounds and shot 64.9 percent. In one game against Boston, Chamberlain did not take a single shot in 31 minutes but grabbed 31 rebounds. In another win over Detroit, he scored 31 points and pulled down 31 rebounds.

Other roles changed that season for the Lakers. Sharman opened the season by inserting Goodrich into the starting lineup, hoping to ease the offensive burden on West. It worked as Goodrich scored 25.9 points per game to rank fifth in the NBA and West was sixth (25.8 ppg) and also led the league in assists. Jim McMillan and Happy Hairston split the minutes that Baylor had played.

Another change by Sharman, a Hall of Famer as both a player and coach, was the introduction of the morning shootaround on game days. It was an individual habit he developed on his own during his playing career in Boston, an effort to get players out of bed in the morning for a brief session of stretching and shooting.

An apocryphal story has the team trainer knocking on Chamberlain's door on the first morning for a shootaround.

"You tell Bill Sharman that I'll go to the arena one time today," Wilt supposedly said. "Either now or for the game tonight. He can pick."

Decades later, Sharman still laughs at the tale.

"I've heard that story hundreds of time over the years," he said. "It's a great story. But it never happened.

"I talked to Wilt right before camp, and he said, 'You know, Bill, I usually don't get out of bed until noon. But if you think it will help, I'll go along if we win.' "

Which, of course, they did. The Lakers won 23 games in their streak by double figures, eight games by 20 or more, one by 30 and two by 40 or more. They beat every other club in what was then a 17-team league.

The Lakers made three coast-to-coast round trips during the streak. They flew commercial, not on plush charter jets. And they played three nights in a row -- back to back to back -- three times. The closest anybody came to beating them in the streak was a five-point win in Houston.

"We only had two or three close games in the whole streak," Sharman said. "But I never talked to the players about the win streak on or off the court. I didn't want to use it as motivation. I just wanted them to have pride in what they were doing."

It finally ended on Jan. 9 in a Sunday afternoon game on national TV at Milwaukee as the defending champion Bucks, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, broke the streak, 120-104.

But that hardly snapped the Lakers' confidence. During the second half of the season, they had a pair of eight-game winning streaks and closed out with 15 wins in their final 17 games to finish 69-13. They won the Pacific Division by 18 games, swept Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, knocked off Milwaukee 4-2 and then defeated the Knicks 4-1 to claim their first title in Los Angeles.

The streak loomed over them all through the playoffs.

"We had to play with that pressure through the second half of the season," Sharman recalled. "If we hadn't won the championship, I don't think that streak would have held up all these years with all the glory."

Now, even though the franchise has won 10 more championships through the Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant Eras, the streak remains an indelible mark on the game and something that lifts up those who were a part of it.

"I don't think we realized what we did until the streak was over," Goodrich said. "Wow! 33! But you have to remember that we'd lost time after time to the Celtics in the Finals. The championship was our goal.

"If we had fallen short, I don't think we'd all be so fond of the streak. The fact is that we have both of them and that lets us look back and say. 'Yes, that was a storybook season."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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