Former Laker Happy Hairston Dies at 58
Posted May 1 2001 12:00AM
Forward started for Lakers' legendary 1971-72 team
LOS ANGELES, May 1 (AP) -- Former Los Angeles Lakers forward Harold "Happy" Hairston, a member of what many consider the greatest basketball team of all time, died Tuesday. He was 58.
The 6-foot-7 Hairston died at UCLA Medical Center from complications of inoperable prostate cancer, said family friend Donna Seaton.
He contracted pneumonia and had been hospitalized since August, Seaton said.
"Happy was a longtime teammate and a longtime friend. He put up a valiant and courageous fight during this period of illness, just like he did on the court as a player. I'll miss him," former Lakers teammate Jerry West said.
Hairston, who attended New York University, was playing for the Detroit Pistons when he was traded to the Lakers in November 1969 for Billy Hewitt.
"He was one of the most fierce rebounders the Lakers have ever had. He was tough. He was a leaper. He was very competitive and a good teammate. He was always a perfect gentleman on and off the floor. I liked him very much and I will miss him," longtime Lakers announcer Chick Hearn said Tuesday.
In 1971, coach Bill Sharman took over a team that included Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, West and Hairston. After a fractious start, the team went on to win 69 games, including an unprecedented 33 straight -- a winning streak that has never been broken in any professional sport.
The team also collected its first championship after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley was a substitute on the team.
Jim McMillian and Hairston gave those 1971 Lakers a versatile duo at forward. McMillian averaged 18.8 points, was a good passer and ran the floor on the fast break. Hairston played tough defense and grabbed 13 rebounds a game, helping Chamberlain control the defensive boards.
They were considered perfect role players on a team that put a premium on unselfishness.
"We had great chemistry," Sharman told The Associated Press in 1996. "Everybody sacrificed for the good of the team. Jerry West and Wilt could have scored a lot more points, but they did other things to help us win."
"Happy was the perfect role player," he added. "He was always in great shape, ran the floor very well and was great on the fast break."
The Lakers didn't lose for more than two months, from Nov. 5, 1971 to Jan. 9, 1972, and most of the victories were by comfortable margins.
On Dec. 22, the Lakers won their 27th straight victory, giving them the longest winning streak in major pro sports history, surpassing the 26 in a row by baseball's New York Giants in 1916. Everyone was impressed, except Chamberlain.
"I played with the Harlem Globetrotters and we won 445 in a row," he said at the time. "And they were all on the road."
The streak finally ended in a nationally televised game at Milwaukee. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was unstoppable, scoring 39 points to lead the Bucks to a 120-104 victory.
In the years that followed, Hairston led the Lakers in both rebounds and field goal percentage during the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons.
And, against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 15, 1974, he established the NBA record of 13 defensive rebounds in one quarter.
He remained with the Lakers until he was waived in October 1975.
Hairston settled in Marina del Rey and established the Happy Hairston Youth Foundation in Century City, Seaton said. With financial help from celebrities like Kelsey Grammer, the foundation found bright children from broken homes and paid for their college education. He also hosted a celebrity golf tournament.
"His love for children and his concern for their well-being was appreciated by all those who knew him," Seaton said.
Hairston is survived by a 16-year-old daughter, Amber, and three sisters, all living in North Carolina.
Funeral arrangements were pending.