A small revolution is under way in the National Basketball Association. The St. Louis Hawks, Western Division champions five years in a row, are being overthrown by the loyal opposition, the Los Angeles Lakers. Last week the Lakers won the first major battle. They beat the Hawks in both games of a home-and-home series to boost their record to nine wins and two losses and open up a 4½-game lead over St. Louis.
The Laker surge is principally the work of two men. Coach Fred Schaus and Guard Jerry West. Their forward, Elgin Baylor, is still the finest all-round player in basketball, but the Lakers have been losing with Baylor for several years. Schaus and West are making them win. (There is still some question about Baylor's call to active duty November 22. His regular Army reserve unit has not been activated; he was called as an individual. Such procedure is unusual and undoubtedly will be reviewed. Furthermore, because of a back injury and an obvious tic that causes his head to twitch, he may not be able to pass an active-duty physical.)
West, in his second year of pro ball, has made enormous progress. Last season he was a standout rookie, scoring on 41.8% of his shots and averaging 17.6 points a game. This season he is a superstar. He is making over 47% of his field-goal attempts and averaging 32 points a game, earning No. 3 ranking in the NBA behind Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. He also is rebounding better than anyone his size, playing an excellent defensive game and shooting fouls with the best of them. Most important of all, Jerry West is giving the Lakers the balance and team confidence needed to win championships.
The Schaus contribution is less measurable but no less telling. In little more than one season he has turned a chronic losing club into a determined winner, largely through his ability to mold capable individuals into a capable team. He is a firm believer in two shopworn sporting clichés—the importance of team effort and team spirit. "Every team in the NBA has good players," he said the other day. "The attitude of the players is what makes the difference. The mental approach is 60% to 70% of the ball game." Club officials claim the Lakers are the friendliest, best-adjusted bunch in the league. This may be an overstatement, but they do get along together uncommonly well. One reason is Schaus's friendly, nonabrasive personality. Another is his sensible system of rotating roommates throughout the season. In a league where superstar teammates are not always on the best of terms, Schaus has kept Baylor and West happy with each other and the rest of the team happy with them both.
West explains his rapid development this way: "I have a lot more confidence now. Last season I was afraid of making a mistake, because I might hurt the team and make myself look bad. I can do a lot more with the ball, too. I was strictly a right-handed shot and I didn't drive much, so the defense was playing me a whole step to the right and in tight. Now I can go to my left and shoot with my left hand, and I'm driving a lot. The driving has helped a great deal. I don't have hands in my face every time I go up for a jump shot, and I'm getting five or six more foul shots a game."
Baylor paces himself now
West's play has taken much of the pressure off Baylor. The Lakers still go to Baylor in tough situations, and they probably always will. But now Baylor can ease up on occasion; he can store a little strength for the crucial moments while West carries the attack. It behooves Baylor to take these opportunities, which West never gets. "Jerry goes all-out all the time and at both ends of the court," says Schaus. "He's one of the few great players who does that. With him, it's a matter of instinct and habit."
Against St. Louis last week, West was magnificent. He scored 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Kiel Auditorium, scored 42 and grabbed 13 in L.A.'s Sports Arena. The points came from all over the floor—one-handers from the side, jump shots from behind the circle, tip-ins, driving layups. Moreover, West was usually in command of the action. He called the offensive plays, shot from behind screens set up by the cornermen, sometimes dribbled the length of the floor to score on a twisting, floating layup.
In the best coaching tradition, Schaus is cautious about predicting championships. "Wait until after this next road trip," he says. But he obviously is struggling to suppress a streak of persistent optimism. He knows the Lakers are the team of the future.