It wasn't "showtime" for the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers, and they weren't "magical," either -- But Wilt, West, Goodrich and the rest of the Hollywood crew were simply spectacular


For one season, for so many reasons, there never has been an NBA team the equal of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

Greatest team ever? In the immortal words of the late, incomparably great Chick Hearn: “Slaaaam dunk!”

They didn’t sustain it over a decade like the dynastic ‘80s Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the first of Los Angeles’ nine NBA champs left an indelible mark on the game.

Not only is it the best team ever for one season; it stands among the most fascinating in the sport’s history.

Those Lakers were pure Hollywood with uncommon star power, from coach Bill Sharman and superstars Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West down through reserve ranks that included a tough Irishman named Pat Riley.

They also gave us classic elements of tragedy.

An epic 33-game winning streak, unmatched in professional team sports history, began the November night the great Elgin Baylor, his knees shot, retired, having labored through nine painful games.

Stunning as the news was to his adoring fans, Baylor’s exit created an opening for young Jim McMillian, an ideal small forward complement to the veteran cast featuring Wilt, West, power forward Happy Hairston and scoring machine Gail Goodrich.

Unleashing a fast break in the image of Sharman’s ‘60s Celtics, triggered by the shot-blocking defense and outlet passing of Chamberlain in the role of eternal rival Bill Russell, the Lakers authored a slew of new records, including 69-13. It was produced in a tighter, more competitive 17-team league than the 29-team NBA the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls feasted on in going 72-10.

Defying age with their blazing break, the Lakers averaged 121 points, giving up 108.7. They shot 49 percent while opponents shot 43.2.

By the time their magical ride was over, the Lakers had conquered two other all-time great clubs – Milwaukee’s Bucks and the New York Knicks, league champions the previous two seasons. Talk about completing a mission in style.

On a sadly ironic note, however, Sharman’s voice was evaporating into a hoarse wisp as the club toasted its crowning achievement.

Advised to exercise caution, Sharman was too competitive to throttle down with so much at stake. The master communicator would be forced to leave the sidelines for a front-office position, his voice muted.

A Zen master long before Phil Jackson, with innovative ideas regarding diet and preparation, the Hall of Fame guard originated the morning shootaround. Along with able assistant K.C. Jones, another former Celtic who’d tortured Lakers fans, Sharman kept stars aligned and anchored to the team concept, allowing lesser lights to shine.

In a pivotal move, Sharman convinced Chamberlain over a preseason lunch that Wilt needed to alter his approach and play in the image of Russell – without mentioning No. 6 -- to make the master plan work.

A man who’d averaged 50.4 points in 1961-62, featuring his monumental 100-point night, Chamberlain listened intently and consented. He hadn’t played in a running system since high school, largely because of his dominance in the low post, and was intrigued by the possibilities.

Averaging 14.8 points, less than half his career average of 30.1, Chamberlain never had a better or more meaningful season -- even if he failed to persuade MVP voters, who handed the hardware to his young rival, Abdul-Jabbar.

Wilt, third in the NBA in minutes played, led the league in rebounding (19.2) and field goal percentage (.649) and doubtless would have claimed the blocked shots title if those numbers had been kept. (Rejections and steals became official statistical categories in 1973-74).

Like West and Baylor, the twin pillars of a franchise that had come up empty in the NBA Finals seven times in a nine-year span, Chamberlain was recovering from knee surgery. Baylor was 37, Chamberlain 35, West 33.

Sharman, having won the ABA title with Utah, had his sanity questioned by friends when he accepted owner Jake Kent Cooke’s offer to direct this aging, star-crossed cast with a fitful history. The same troupe had lost Finals to Boston and New York in 1969 and ‘70 and was eliminated in the West finals by Milwaukee in ’71.

“We had a lot of players who’d enjoyed personal success but hadn’t enjoyed team success,” said West, the only player to win a finals MVP award with a losing team. “We had a lot of frustrated people. It was terrible, losing year after year.”

Sharman’s relentlessly positive nature convinced him these Lakers could extinguish ghosts of past failures and make sweet music – to a decidedly upbeat tempo.

Hairston, like Chamberlain, would be asked to sacrifice points for rebounds and defense. Hairston averaged 13.1 rebounds and 13.1 points.

Sealing off the middle and controlling the glass, the Lakers were able to free West to run the break, McMillian and Goodrich filling lanes. West led the league with 9.5 assists to go with his 25.8 points, right behind Goodrich’s 25.9.

This was a tremendous defensive team, Chamberlain’s undocumented rejections and alterations setting everything in motion.

Celebrated for his unstoppable jumper, West, in Sharman’s words, “had the impact of Michael Jordan on both ends of the floor, getting close to 10 steals a game and blocking a lot of shots. With his long arms and fantastic anticipation, he was a tremendous defensive player.”

McMillian and Hairston were solid defenders, and reserves Riley, Leroy Ellis and John Q. Trapp kept up the pressure while Flynn Robinson was delivering instant offense.

Chamberlain maintained that his 1966-67 Philadelphia team was slightly better than L.A.’s 1971-72 champs, but there was some nostalgia involved in that view. A younger Wilt was more physically dominant in the Sixties.

No team ever put together a winning streak close to what those Lakers managed, finally crashing, 120-114, in Milwaukee on Jan. 12, 1972 against Kareem, Oscar Robertson and the reigning champions.

Roaring into the playoffs, the Lakers swept a solid Chicago outfit before taking out the Bucks in a six-game classic.

The Knicks shot the lights out to claim Game 1 of The Finals, but the Lakers roared back to win the next four. Wilt was dominant throughout, playing 47 minutes in the final game with a broken hand.

Father Time took its inevitable toll, but for one shining season, the planets and stars in dazzling harmony, the Lakers were close to perfection. Slam Dipper dunk -- the best team we’ve ever seen.