Gail Goodrich spent a good part of his professional career as "the other guy." That characterization masked the steady growth of a fine player who continually confounded his skeptics. When he was a 6-foot-1 All-City guard at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, he was told he was too small for college basketball. After becoming an All-American at UCLA, he was told he was too frail to become a pro. When he turned professional, he played in the shadows of Jerry West, Pete Maravich and other more renowned guards.
But the fiery lefthander invariably proved his critics wrong. He responded to his detractors' remarks with perseverance, discipline and improvement. In a career that spanned 1,031 games in 14 NBA seasons, Goodrich averaged 18.6 points and was a five-time All-Star. He was also the leading scorer on one of the greatest teams in NBA history: the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Born in 1943 in Los Angeles, Goodrich starred at Polytechnic High in Pasadena and then accepted a scholarship to play for John Wooden at UCLA. He was part of a powerful Bruins team that won NCAA championships in 1964 and '65, his junior and senior seasons. Goodrich averaged 24.8 points as a senior.
The Los Angeles Lakers selected Goodrich as a territorial pick in the 1965 NBA Draft (the last one), then kept him on the bench for three seasons. His height was an obvious handicap. Elgin Baylor took one look at him and nicknamed him "Stumpy" because Goodrich, at 6-foot-1, was trying to make his mark in the land of giants.
He played in 65 games as a rookie, shot poorly and averaged 7.8 points. The next season, Goodrich divided time with former UCLA teammate Walt Hazzard at guard opposite West, but improved his scoring only slightly. The following season, the Lakers started second-year guard Archie Clark next to West, and Goodrich became a frustrated substitute again.
In '68, Los Angeles lost Goodrich to the Phoenix Suns in the expansion draft, and he quickly became the star of the new franchise and a favorite among Suns fans. A starter for the first time in his NBA career, Goodrich averaged 23.8 points in 1968-69, tops on the team and sixth in the league. Goodrich surprised critics who had labeled him a gunner by ranking seventh in assists with 6.4 per game and was also selected to play in the 1969 NBA All-Star Game.
Goodrich scored 20 points and 7.5 assists the following year, but was traded back to the Lakers in exchange for 7-foot center Mel Counts. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, an admirer of Goodrich, was thrilled to get him back.
The trade paid major dividends for Los Angeles. Under Coach Bill Sharman, West's role had changed: he had become a playmaker, averaging 9.5 assists in 1970-71 and a league-leading 9.7 in 1971-72. Meanwhile, Goodrich thrived as the beneficiary of West's passes. Goodrich came into his own in 1971-72, leading the team in scoring and ranking fifth in the NBA with 25.9 points. He also ranked third in the league in free-throw percentage (.850) and made his second All-Star Game appearance.
With West and Goodrich in the backcourt, Wilt Chamberlain at center, and Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston up front, the Lakers were virtually unbeatable in 1971-72. They assembled an NBA-record 33-game winning streak on the way to a 69-13 record, the best single-season mark up to that point in NBA history (eclipsed by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72-10). The Lakers didn't stop there, rolling through the postseason for its first championship since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis. Goodrich averaged 23.8 points during the Lakers' postseason run.
In 1972-73, Goodrich continued to show that his rise was no fluke. An All-Star for the third time in his career, he led the team in scoring at 23.9, which was good for eighth in the league. The Lakers fought their way past the Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs to earn a return trip to the NBA Finals. They met the New York Knicks, who were eager for a rematch after losing the previous year's championship series. The Knicks stifled Goodrich and the Lakers' fast break to take the series in five games.
Goodrich had one of his finest seasons in 1973-74. Playing in all 82 games, he led the club in scoring (25.3) for the third consecutive season, topped the league in free throws made (508) and attempted (588), and was named to the All-NBA First Team. The Lakers won the Pacific Division with a 47-35 record but lost to Milwaukee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Western Conference semifinals.
Although Goodrich played with the same high level of consistency during his remaining two seasons with Los Angeles, earning his fifth and final All-Star berth in 1975, his enthusiasm for the Lakers waned. With the retirement of Chamberlain in 1973, and West in 1974, the franchise began to decline.
A messy salary dispute led Goodrich to play out his option in 1976 and sign as a free agent with the New Orleans Jazz, leaving a team with which he had spent nine years. In a complex and controversial deal, Cooke allowed him to sign with the Jazz in return for two future first-round draft choices and a second-round pick. The trade, although criticized at the time, paid off for the Lakers a few years later, when they used one of the picks from the Jazz to select Magic Johnson No. 1 overall in the 1979 NBA Draft.
With New Orleans in 1976-77, Goodrich had a new contract and, in Maravich, a new superstar teammate who was as glorious a match for him as was West. Despite a quick start in which Maravich and Goodrich became the highest-scoring backcourt in the league, averaging a combined 48 points, injuries destroyed Goodrich's season. He strained an Achilles tendon in his very first game, and his sustained attempts to play caused him greater pain. Finally, after 27 games, Goodrich underwent surgery in late January and missed the rest of the season.
Goodrich returned to health in 1977-78 and served as an effective role player, averaging 16.1 points in 81 games and shooting a career-best .495 from the field. In an early-season game against the Knicks, Goodrich scored 25 points in 28 minutes to pass the 17,000-point mark for his career.
Goodrich played one final campaign in 1978-79, the 14th of his illustrious career. After averaging 12.7 points in 74 games, Goodrich retired, having scored 19,181 career points.