FORECAST FOR A NEW PRO SEASON
A thorough look at the National Basketball Association, with some predictions on who will finish where and an examination of the strong, young team that may start the sport's next dynasty.
In its 64 frantic, erratic years professional basketball has produced but two dynasties. The first was the Celtics of New York—the original Celtics. They played anyone, anytime, anywhere and finally disbanded in noteworthy disgust in 1928, victims of their own ability. They couldn't find anybody worth competing against. The second was—some will say is—the Boston Celtics. They came imperiously to the top in 1956 and proceeded to win five National Basketball Association championships in the next six seasons. Now, partly because the league's best all-round player, Elgin Baylor, is back from the Army, but even more because a wiry, playmaking guard, Jerry West, has matured so swiftly, a third great basketball dynasty is a building, the Los Angeles Lakers. This is the season it should take over, and with its solid combination of youth and talent it could prevail as effectively as both its powerful Celtic predecessors did.
Last week the NBA season opened and the first team to take the court was these same Lakers. Their average age was 25. Their coach, Fred Schaus, was a mere 36. Their rookies were impressive and their improvement over last year (when they were a strong second to Boston) was marked. With a burst of youthful exuberance and a game full of West to Baylor, Baylor to West, they dismembered Detroit, 122-106, thus beginning the big bid to oust Boston.
The apparent arrival of the Lakers is the most significant development in a very important season for the ever-unsettled NBA. Of all the leagues in professional sport, none is more abused by its players and followers, or more confused by its owners and officers than this one.
Thirty-one times since it was formed in 1946, the NBA has added, subtracted or shifted franchises; seven times over the past 13 seasons it has lengthened its schedule. Currently on the drawing (critics say doodling) board of the league are plans for future franchise shifts to Cleveland and Baltimore. When the turtle sticks its neck out it usually makes progress, but when the NBA sticks its neck out it often doesn't.
Going into this season four NBA franchises—Cincinnati, Chicago, Syracuse and Detroit—appear certain to lose money and a fifth, San Francisco, probably will. Boston, New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles likely will show a profit, but not as much as they should—in part at least because of two bad moves by the league's owners and its officers.
Lost to each franchise this season is $30,000 in television revenue, which came in so terribly handy last year in defraying expenses. (The Lakers, for instance, paid $126,000 last season for travel, hotels and food.) Not present is the biggest new gate attraction in basketball, Ohio State's Jerry Lucas.
The television money was lost because the National Broadcasting Company refused to renew its seven-year-old contract with the NBA after ratings for Saturday afternoon games dipped to 4.8 (or nine million viewers) as compared to the Sunday afternoon National Football League ratings of 10.4 (or 15 million viewers). One big reason why the ratings slipped was simple and silly. By planning its TV schedule before the season began the NBA planted its three weakest, dullest teams—Chicago, Syracuse and Detroit—in the television garden a total of 14 times. Three of the league's most colorful teams—Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis—appeared only seven times.
Lucas is not performing in the NBA because he steadfastly refused to play for the Cincinnati Royals, who own territorial rights to him. Tom Grace, the executive vice-president of the Royals, will not yield those rights so that other clubs can negotiate with Lucas. Not getting Lucas will cost the NBA untold attendance money this season.
Thus the West Coast—where big league baseball found the heartening gold glitter of financial success—may well provide the salvation of the troubled NBA. What has happened in Los Angeles looks good. The Lakers have captured the city's imagination with a zestful, versatile team that performs with collegiate verve, instead of the tall, tired look of too many pro clubs. There is Baylor, who averaged 38.2 points per game last year and was lost for half the season by being called into the Army. He has power, fine finger-tip control and a perfect knowledge of how to spin a basketball off the backboards. He twists and turns in mid-air and, although only 6 feet 5, constantly exerts that precious second effort that enables him to out-rebound many of the league's taller men. And there is West, who brings to the basketball court the shiny, clean look that girls always expected, but never quite saw, in the boy next door.
Consequently, the Lakers already have sold $283,000 worth of $5 seats for the season. It is no longer possible to buy a season ticket in a prime location—all 1,700 of them are gone. The management of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, duly impressed with the popularity of a tenant that it viewed without enthusiasm just two years ago, has cleared prime Saturday night dates so the Lakers can have them. On six of these the home team will play the Coast's new entry in the western march of basketball, the San Francisco Warriors. The games could well be 14,871-seat sellouts.
The Laker team was shifted from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in July of 1960 because it was $250,000 in debt and was cultivating about as much Minnesota excitement as a YWCA canasta tournament. Owner Robert Shore had had his fill of losing campaigns while running for Congress as a Democrat and boosting Estes Kefauver in 1956. He had also made a tidy amount in the trucking business and saw no reason to donate it all to the NBA. Or, as he puts it, rather more discreetly, "I felt it was expedient and convenient to take a flyer in what everyone said was the sports capital of the world rather than staying in Minneapolis where we had mediocre artistic achievement [144 wins and 219 defeats from 1955-59] and anything but financial success."
Short ordered his general manager, 62-year-old Lou Mohs, out to Los Angeles to begin building a franchise. "I'll never forget leaving for the West," says Mohs. "It was a hot day and when I jumped into my maroon Buick I had no team, no coach and only one player, Elgin Baylor, under contract. I knew that the baseball Dodgers had found immediate success in Los Angeles, but I didn't know how basketball would be accepted. After all, the high school championships were played as early as January, just to get them out of the way. No one seemed to care a hoot about them; why should they love us?
"When I arrived, the Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League were promoting like the devil. They were spending money left and right. Now Bob Short had given me three specific instructions: 'Go out there and don't let me hear from you; if you have any money left send it back to me; if you need any money forget where you came from.' So I couldn't very well spend us into prosperity. In the first 10 days I drew up a mailing list of potential season-ticket buyers. Then I sent them a mimeographed order blank. It didn't look too good, but we were so poor we didn't even have any office furniture. The Los Angeles Sports Arena let us borrow chairs to sit down on. Luckily, we got season-ticket orders totaling $150,000. If that money hadn't come in we would have been through."
On the night of October 24, 1960 the Lakers opened their season against the New York Knicks. Only 4,008 people showed up and, to make things worse, the Lakers promptly lost. The next evening the Knicks were again the opponents and 3,100 went to the game. But this time the Lakers won.
This started a long season of good promotion—and good team building. The Lakers finished a surprising second in the Western Division, then beat the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs before carrying St. Louis to a seventh game in the semifinal playoffs, which they lost by only two points.
The reason for the good basketball was Frederick Appleton Schaus, who seemed bent on peopling both his basketball court and the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard with the population of the state of West Virginia. Schaus had left an excellent record (146-37 with six Southern Conference championships in six seasons) and a couple of country fair ballplayers behind when Mohs got him to give up coaching at the University of West Virginia and bring his collegiate techniques to the pros. Jerry West, LA's first draft choice, joined him that fall from West Virginia and Hot Rod Hundley, whom Schaus had developed into an All-America in college, was happy to be reunited with his old coach after three rather desperate seasons in Minneapolis.
Schaus was big enough (6 feet 5) and respected enough (a former NBA All-Star with Fort Wayne) to get out on the court and show his team what he wanted.
He also injected some of his old West Virginia flair for crowd pleasing into the Laker franchise. He made sure that they were the best-dressed and the neatest-looking team, both on and off the court. (He didn't, however, have them shave their armpits, a fastidious move he undertook at West Virginia.)
His West Virginia teams were among the most colorful in the history of college basketball. They would warm up with a ball painted gold and blue. Their flashy guard of that era, Hundley, would stand in the center of the foul circle twirling the dazzling ball on his index finger or whipping passes through his legs as the team ran patterns around him. To give his 1959 Mountaineers an extra feeling of exultation Schaus convinced the Wunda Weve carpet company that it should make a rug 90 feet long and 40 inches wide with West Virginia spelled out in big block letters. The rug arrived at Morgantown and Schaus kept it a close secret. As his team left the dressing room he had janitors unroll the rug down the middle of the court and under the basket. When Jerry West dribbled over the rug and dunked the ball the crowd roared. This was Schaus's way of opening West Virginia's 1959 season.
West had no rug and not many cheers as he, Schaus and the Lakers opened that 1960 season at LA. "In his first year in the league," says Bob Cousy of the Celtics, "West allowed players who weren't half as good to push him around. He wouldn't force a scoring opportunity even if he thought he could get away with it. He'd pass off. Now his confidence is up 100%. West has size, speed, stamina, reach, hands, a shooter's eye and great defensive ability. There isn't much more anyone can have."
"When Jerry first came," says Schaus, "he had some trouble making the transition from college ball to the pros. By the end of the season he had learned and learned and learned. Let me tell you what kind of desire he has. In December of 1959 we were playing in the Kentucky Invitational tournament. Near the end of the first half Jerry went up for a rebound and an elbow caught him in the nose. You could tell right away that it was broken. There was blood all over the place. West had his nose bandaged and insisted on playing the second half. He scored 19 more points and we won."
Last winter, when Baylor was called into the Army, the Lakers were in trouble. No club can truly lose a Baylor, but West stepped forward and played surprising basketball as the Lakers fought to retain their Western Division's lead. West had previously appeared afraid to cut to his left, and the pro defenders had taken advantage of this. Now, possibly because he knew he had to lead the team in Baylor's absence, West began making all the moves he had in college—and more. In the first eight games that Baylor was away West lifted his scoring average from 28.3 to 38 points per game. "I knew that the guys would be expecting me to get the key buckets," says West. "I found myself bearing down a little more, and driving more."
"When we lost Baylor," says Schaus, "we had to rebuild our offense around our guards, West and Frank Selvy, and they both came through. In fact the whole rest of the ball club put out 18 to 20% more. I felt that Jerry was ready for that. In his rookie year I only played him about 30 of the 48 minutes early in the season. I wanted to bring him along slowly, because these pros can discourage a young fellow pretty quickly." Schaus's plan worked, and the Lakers now have one of the most formidable one-two punches in NBA memory.
This year Fred Schaus is working hard on two more rookies, and they will not be discouraged either. One is LeRoy Ellis of St. John's, the other is Gene Wiley of Wichita. They will be used as centers and both can jump exceptionally well. The Lakers acquired both in last spring's player draft and, unlike many other teams, the Lakers began to coach their newcomers immediately.
In June, Wiley and Ellis went to the Lakers' rookie camp along with 12 others trying to make the club. "We would work them in the afternoon," says Schaus, "and see how they did against one another. Then in the evening we'd play them against our regulars.
"We could do this because most of the team lives out in Los Angeles now. The players came to me early this summer and said, 'We'd like to work out together at least one night a week just so we don't get stale.' That is a type of spirit that normally doesn't exist in pro basketball, but we have it. The team knows that they have a long-term thing out here. They realize that it is a profession. That's the way it has to be. Last year we lost the championship to the Boston Celtics in the last 15 seconds. This year they just want Boston bad."
This camaraderie of the Los Angeles Lakers is omnipresent. It can be seen, for example, when West, Baylor, Hundley and Center Jim Krebs sit down to their constant bridge game. Baylor has a well-known nervous twitch in his neck, and Hundley irreverently accuses him of using the twitch as a way of looking at Hundley's hand. Krebs and West think this is a very funny running gag—but the point is that Baylor does, too.
Perhaps the spirit of the Lakers was best exemplified recently on a night the club had an exhibition game against the San Francisco Warriors. The team was in San Luis Obispo, Calif. and Mohs took a bus from Los Angeles to get the players and return them to the city for a day off. Mohs invited the wives of the players to go along. (Naturally, Mrs. West, Mrs. Baylor, Mrs. Hundley and Mrs. Krebs jumped aboard and began playing bridge.) The Lakers beat the Warriors, but did not look up to their normal excellence in doing so.
The bus ride back was a 4½-hour thing through fog and rain. Schaus knew that the club didn't feel proud of itself. He fed them at the best restaurant he could find, but it didn't help much. About an hour outside of Los Angeles a rest stop was asked for. It was 4 a.m. and drizzling. Players and wives got out of the bus and gathered around a soda-dispensing machine. They looked tired and their long legs were stiff. Their clothes were a mess of wrinkles. "Men," said Hot Rod Hundley, "even when we look as bad as we do right in this here night we still got the look of champions."