Among his many talents, Captain Elgin Baylor has the gift of bestowing nicknames that stick. For years, the Laker cast has moved in its own world with Baylor-inspired monikers—Zeke, Beefer, Mouldy, Pops, Hog. Enter Rookie Gail Goodrich, the little bundle of southern California sunshine, all 6 feet 1 of him. At UCLA, where All-America Goodrich played on two successive national championship teams, he was "Twig." Baylor took a look. "Around here," he said, "you're a stump." Now, to match the status of a nickname by Baylor, Stumpy Goodrich has made the team—on the basis of his play in exhibition games.
Goodrich is a lean 175 pounds, positively baby-faced and with long arms and huge hands that belie his size, much as Cousy's did. He will be the most watched rookie in the league, as he performs the last act in the drama that asks the question: Is Gail Goodrich big enough to play here? At 5 feet 8, they said he was too small for high school ball; at 5 feet 11, too small for college. On the Lakers, at any rate, there are no more skeptics. "Goodrich has a chance to become a great one," Coach Fred Schaus says flatly. In the exhibitions he scored, passed, worked himself open, played tough defense, and in one game against Boston not only led the Lakers with nine rebounds, but also blocked three shots and tipped in two rebounds. "Goodrich has a tough fadeaway jump," says 6-foot-10 teammate LeRoy Ellis, "that you just can't get at, I don't care how big you are." The only place where his size may really hurt Goodrich is on defense, if some of the league's taller guards are able to work him inside. But Goodrich has fine defensive instincts and muscling him will not be so easy. Just as his height is deceiving, so is his strength.
If Goodrich lives up to his promise, L.A. will have a fabulous backcourt. Jerry West is the "other" guard. (West may spend more time in the forecourt against smaller rivals this season.) Schaus had so many guards last year that he had trouble finding playing time for them all. It was a beautiful deal for L.A., then, when the team picked up Bob Boozer from the Knicks in exchange for Dick Barnett. Goodrich's shooting made Barnett expendable. Rudy La-Russo has long needed someone like Boozer to help on the boards—besides, of course, the ever-present Baylor who, though only 6 feet 5, still leads the team in rebounding each year. Elgin is in fine shape now; in the exhibitions he suddenly began making the wonderful Baylor rocking moves that supposedly had vanished as he struggled with bad knees. If he has indeed regained his old form, the Lakers not only should coast to a Western title, but could finally win their first NBA championship. They bear the stigma of perennial runners-up. West and Baylor both played on college teams that were national runners-up too. Schaus coached one. Stumpy, however, was a winner. He brings that, too.
In its four years of existence the Bullet franchise has experienced as much intrigue and confusion as a wobbly banana republic. The Bullets have been in two cities (Chicago before Baltimore), have had three nicknames, two litters of out-of-town owners, four general managers, five—count 'em, five—coaches and a grand total of 48 different players. Of what remains—name, players, stationery, owners, everything—only huge Walt Bellamy dates back to the Chicago era. For that matter only Bellamy, Forward Gus Johnson and Guard Kevin Loughery have been with the Bullets for as long as two seasons. Like guerrilla warriors, the Bullets do not believe in taking prisoners.
Nor, like guerrillas, have they been much concerned with defense or supply lines. Last year the Bullets comfortably led the league in giving up points, which negated the fact that they themselves were the second-highest scoring team. On offense, it was a scramble to see who got the shot. The defense was poorest in the backcourt. Never has a team so needed a big nonshooting playmaker who can cut it on defense. This is a very nearly extinct species, so Baltimore has been drooling over 6-foot-5½ Jerry Sloan of Evansville. The Bullets drafted him two years in a row before finally snaring him. New coach No. 5, Paul Seymour, who was a gritty playmaker type himself at Syracuse, is bringing Sloan along slowly because he is a quiet, retiring sort. However, if Sloan has not taken charge of the Bullet offense by midseason it will be time for Baltimore to break up that gang of shoot-'em-ups and start rebuilding some other way. So far, the shooters are all for Sloan. "That man fires the ball," said Gus Johnson (18.6) the other day, taking a Sloan needle pass for an easy practice bucket. Sloan could do wonders for Bellamy (24.8), the giant who traditionally leads the league in fines (for not hustling) and in pouting (for getting fined and because he thinks he doesn't get the ball often enough). Sloan is not much of a shot himself, but either Don Ohl (18.4) or Kevin Loughery (12.8) can handle the scoring from outside and the big men—Bellamy, Johnson and Bailey Howell (19.2)—are all good gunners.
Seymour figures Sloan can stir up a whole new defensive attitude, too: "He's the type that could get the old pros hustling. It's just great to see a player who wants to play defense. If we can get one or two guys going like Jerry, it can spread like measles. He does it the hard way, by grinding you," Seymour adds. "Jerry's not a villain. He just doesn't seem to realize that he hits so hard." Last year the Bullet guards were afraid to foul, and the opponents knew it.
While Sloan adjusts to the pros, Seymour will have other concerns—a weak bench, Bellamy and the effort to keep the Bullets within striking distance of the Lakers while Johnson recovers from last week's injury to his wrist.
The luckless Warriors, struggling for a foothold among the hills of the Bay City, fell back into the valleys of depression last season. They came dressed to kill in bright new uniforms. And they were killed—63 times for a new NBA record. Coach Alex Hannum, acclaimed as a genius the season before when the Warriors won their division, was suddenly just a big man without much hair. Midway through the nightmare, the club traded Wilt Chamberlain in a St. Louis restaurant. Promptly, Wilt's replacement, Nate Thurmond, held up the management for a big raise. Trouble didn't end with the season. Forward Tom Meschery went to Algeria on a State Department tour, and that's when the revolution broke out there.
Coming onto a scene like this, how can Rick Barry lose? The lanky rookie forward from Miami is blond, handsome and was last year's top college scorer (37.4). He ranked almost as high in rebounds and shooting. Indeed, there are few flies on Rick Barry. He even married the boss's daughter, Pamela Hale the daughter of Miami Coach Bruce Hale. A team that was 17-63 can use a guy with moves like this. The Warriors desperately need shooters. With Wilt, the rest of the team shot .383. After he left they got all the way up to .387. The next worse team hit .414, and the difference is at least three baskets a game. So Barry, the good shot, steps right in as a starting forward with Meschery, a rugged hustler. That gives San Francisco the desired forecourt combination—muscles in one corner, finesse in the other. Barry played his role well in the exhibitions and was often high-point man. Said an impressed General Manager Bob Feerick: "He knows how to get the ball up there against the tough defense. Not only that, but he's performing so well in the other ways that we're really pinching ourselves." The only things that may hold Barry back are his slight build (6 feet 7, 200 pounds) and his proclivity for worry. He came up so jittery in his first match with the Celtics that he was lucky to scratch out seven points. Hannum looks for Paul Neumann to bring scoring punch to the backcourt. Neumann, who came in the Chamberlain deal, has the best eye on the team, but has been reluctant to shoot. The playmaker is there—Guy Rodgers, who is showing even more verve with his clever passing now that Wilt has gone—and there are other people eligible to score. In the pivot, Thurmond is back at his natural spot. He showed his gratitude for that (and the raise) by averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds a game after Wilt left—and those are figures that only Chamberlain and Jerry Lucas maintained for the full season. Thurmond has another good rookie, Davidson's Fred Hetzel, behind him, but Hetzel is out for a while because of a finger operation. The Warriors' defense deteriorated along with the offense and the morale last year, but Hannum is still a superb coach and will bring it back to his demanding standard.
Shortly after jazz came up the river from New Orleans, Ben Kerner brought Bob Pettit up from Baton Rouge and the rest of his motley Hawk franchise down the river from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee citizenry had not yet learned to pursue departing franchises, probably because, in the case of the Hawks, no one knew they had been there, much less that they were leaving. But in St. Louis things picked up right away, and within three years Kerner had a world champion—the last in New Testament times besides Boston.
Now Pettit is gone, back to the bayous. His sidekick, Cliff Hagan, who also recalls another era when 6-foot-4 forwards roamed the land, still plays a few minutes a game, but for the most part the Hawks are a colorless lot. Little Lenny Wilkens is the leader now, Zelmo (Mr. Clean) Beaty (16.9) is a pretty good man at center, and Player-Coach Richie Guerin still cuts up once in a while. But mostly the Hawks depend on precision, depth and good morale. Only Boston had a better defense last year, but the Hawks scored much less than any other playoff team. They finished second again in the West only because their tenacious type of play forces bad teams into mistakes. St. Louis had an amazing 26-4 record against the three nonplayoff clubs, but was only 19-31 against its own kind. Pettit was not himself. He missed 30 games and his average was down (for him) to 22.5; still, the Hawks are desperate for someone to replace him. The problem was not helped any when Paul Silas, who rebounded well as a rookie, was shot in the foot this past summer. Journeymen Bill Bridges and Mike Farmer and John Tresvant are what is left, so Pettit's halo is being measured for Jim Washington, the handsome 6-foot-8 first-draft choice from Villanova. Washington, who almost signed on with a Milan, Italy semipro team this summer, never averaged more than 15 points in his three seasons at Villanova, but the Wildcats always had good-shooting guards who got first crack at the basket. Washington demonstrated a pretty good eye in exhibition games. There has never been any doubt about his quickness or agility around the boards.
Guerin also needs quick improvement from Jeff Mullins, a second-year man who picked up a great deal of experience riding airplanes and the bench after the Olympics last year. Mullins shoots well but not often or quickly enough to replace Guerin in the backcourt. Richie wants to concentrate on coaching, which may not be the best idea around Kerner, who has already fired four of the other eight coaches in the league. (It is possible that he has not fired Schaus, DeBusschere, McMahon or Schayes only because he has so far been unable to hire them.) Guerin has done a good job, though, and the team likes him. But unless the Hawks can keep on murdering the humpty-dumpties they had better resign themselves to fourth place.
The Pistons have not become the saddest team in NBA history through any isolated happenstance. The credit must be shared. This status has been painstakingly achieved through the combined offices of bad management, good food, Demon Rum, John Law and Uncle Sam. And now nothing in the negative is impossible for Detroit this season—neither San Francisco's mark of 63 losses, nor the old Providence Steamrollers' .143 winning percentage. Detroit is bad now but, on the other hand, as the season wears on it might get worse.
Least accountable for the disaster is Dave DeBusschere, the youthful player-coach, who just gave up baseball in order to suffer this agony year-round. You can't blame Dave because the Army took his leading scorer, Terry Dischinger; because the Detroit police took his leading rebounder, Reggie Harding; because Owner Fred Zollner has made some atrocious trades in the past. This year Zollner's mistake is contracting for the Pistons to play 80 NBA games. DeBusschere is a yearling Job. He just turned 25 last week, but birthdays do not cheer him. It was, said Harding, then the Pistons' 7-foot center, merely a "birthday drink" with friends that he was having when the cops busted in. It was also 4 o'clock in the morning, and the Pistons' training camp was opening that afternoon. The week before, Reggie had bopped a police officer in the face, and that had not set well with either the police or the NBA. So Dave lost his center. The Pistons moved Forward Ray Scott to the pivot and started negotiating again with Bill Buntin of Michigan, their top draft choice.
Buntin is only 6 feet 7 and figured as a forward, but the Pistons were desperate. Finally, they gave in to most of his demands and Buntin showed up fat and happy. He was three weeks late and 30 pounds overweight, but teammates were without rancor. "We need all the help we can get," said Corner Man Jackie Moreland, a longtime sub and, obviously, a realist, before he was put on waivers. DeBusschere, his own best player, will be at one forward and Eddie Miles and Rod Thorn are set at the guards. Tom Van Arsdale jumped the team for a while, but is back and may eventually move up as a starting guard. Last year's top rookie, Joe Caldwell, is a front-court contender, and Buntin may switch to forward, too, if Detroit can ever dig up a real center. Even if he trims down, however, there are doubts that he is fast enough in the corner, but he is very strong and rebounds well. At center, opponents have up to half a foot on him, and Buntin is already working on drawing them outside with his good soft touch. Detroit considers him as just a warmup in the local-boy department. The one the Pistons really want is Cazzie Russell, who graduates in June. Now that the territorial draft is passé, they must finish last to get Cazzie. They have nothing to worry about.
In the final minutes before they stroll out on the playing floor, the Boston Celtics sprawl around their dressing room in poses of taped serenity, like boxers on rubbing tables, limp and sleepy-eyed. Except one man. Ronnie Watts sits on a bench, 6 feet 7 and 230 pounds, flexes his shoulder muscles and breathes hard. He knots and unknots his hands. Then he slips a white rubber mouthpiece under his upper lip and bites down on it savagely. When he smiles the effect is ghastly. "This here rookie," says Coach Red Auerbach, "is a mean one."
With good reason. Watts is in roughly the same spot as Barbra Streisand's understudy. A rookie who hopes to make this squad has to believe he is the toughest, meanest newcomer in the pro basketball world—and even then he must face the prospect of not getting into a game until after Auerbach has lighted up his victory cigar. True, after seven consecutive world championships, the betting odds are inexorably swinging against the Celtics. Sooner or later they must miss one; the league is agreed on this much. But there is little reason to believe this is the year. Forget that Auerbach has had last pick in the draft for nine consecutive years. He has the knack of buying up NBA rejects and retooling them to Celtic caliber—the latest is Si Green, just purchased from Baltimore. And with a lineup that includes Bill Russell, K.C. and Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, Willie Naulls and John Havlicek, he can take his time in the process. Last season Oregon State's Mel Counts almost developed a smoker's hack sitting next to Auerbach. This year, says Red, he will be the better man for it. Other occasional Celtics, true to Auerbach's formula, will emerge as regulars—if not stars—this season. Larry Siegfried, his confidence in his scoring ability restored, will start often, and Ron Bonham, always a deadly shooter, is coming around on defense. Rookie Watts's role in this cast—if he can just get on stage—will be to supply the muscle at forward alongside Sanders, replacing Tommy Heinsohn, who has retired to a life as the world's highest-scoring insurance executive. Watts is admirably suited for this action. "He figures he owns the backboards," says Auerbach. "Somebody gets a rebound from him, he gets mad as hell." Watts also faces a potential threat in former Philadelphia-St. Louis Forward Woody Sauldsberry, who is available and wants to become an Auerbach restoration and who has an edge in experience.
Last week Auerbach, still acting uncommitted, mused that "we might not have a rookie this year." There were the faintest signs he might waver. "That Watts," he said. "Boy. When I came out of the draft meeting at the Plaza in New York, who was waiting for me? Watts, my No. 2 pick. He wanted to tell me what a good choice I had made."
There was a terrible night in Raleigh, N.C. recently when Billy Cunningham must have wondered what a sweet, unspoiled lad like himself was doing in a place like that. The blooding of a professional basketball rookie—even in exhibition play, as this was—often is a sight to make strong spectators turn aside. Since this game was in the area where Cunningham was a college whiz (University of North Carolina), the Philadelphia 76ers played him more than they would the average rookie. For the same reason, the education-minded Boston Celtics played him in their own grim way. It was, for Cunningham, a memorable evening of catching knees, elbows, forearms and backsides. Bruises notwithstanding, the fact that he lived the night through (Philadelphia won 103-100) indicates that Billy is not a rookie to be shouldered aside.
The Eastern Division's almost-champions last year (they lost the title on one unhappy play that Boston diagnosed and blocked), the 76ers now have a refurbished look about them. For one thing, they will begin the season with Wilt Chamberlain, who joined them at midpoint last year. For another, they now have Wally Jones, no rookie but hustling like one, to complement Hal Greer's hot hand in the back-court. Finally, Lucious Jackson and Chet Walker have mastered their trade and are ready to produce up to capacity. Under these conditions rookie Cunningham seems to fit handily, though he likely will be in the middle of the action a great deal right from the start because of the lack of experienced depth, which is Philadelphia's big weakness. What Cunningham can provide is a man to work a swing shift like the Celtics' John Havlicek—tall for a guard but mobile enough to handle that job, fast as a forward and therefore hard to handle in that position. Former college center Cunningham, at 6 feet 5½, seems adaptable.
The night of Cunningham's initiation in Raleigh also marked the introduction of onetime Villanova star Jones in a Philly uniform. He impressed both sides with his play-making and ball handling. "This kid," said Coach Dolph Schayes, hopefully, "could make me a genius." Genius or not, the likable Schayes may be in for a heady year, though those who insist that a full-term Chamberlain will make all the difference should be reminded that the 76ers were 22 and 23 before Wilt last year and only 18-17 after Wilt. Chamberlain makes any squad tough and is the only man in basketball who gives you an even chance when the other team has Bill Russell. But the tactical demands of using him to his best advantage severely diminish his own team's versatility and generally create morale problems among those who want the ball as much as he does. In a short two-team series Philly could beat anyone in the league. Over an 80-game season it is still a second-place club.
It is reassuring to note, in a fast-moving world, that the Eastern Division has for years leisurely devoted the months of October, November, December, January and February to eliminating the Knickerbockers. The rule that has made this possible is obviously an agreement among gentlemen, and it has given the Knicks every opportunity, however wearing on the fans that might be. Now—hold the smirks—it is possible that there will finally be basketball competition in the division all season, not just in the playoffs. The truth is that there has been competition in the East since midway through last season. For the last seven weeks the Knicks had the same record as Cincinnati (18-19), they played only a game or so behind Philadelphia's pace and only, for that matter, half a dozen games worse than Boston's. New York is short on experience, but the team has talent, exceedingly good depth and is improving rapidly.
The Knicks also seem to have eased their backcourt problem considerably with an 11th-hour trade, getting the Lakers' Dick (Fall Back Baby) Barnett for Forward Bob Boozer. Barnett, a marvelous off-balance shooter, should also give the Knicks a colorful gate attraction. So—all together now, sing one chorus of Who Needs You, Bill Bradley?—it appears that New York could finally finish ahead of someone, probably the Royals. Red Holzman has done a superb job of scouting, forcing the Knicks to go with youth. Coach Harry Gallatin had three rookies playing more than anyone else last year—Rookie of the Year Willis Reed (19.9), Bad News Barnes and little Howie Komives. Holzman has come up with another good trio this year, and they pushed some veterans into unplanned retirement. All three rookies were collegiate forwards, but the Knicks have already shifted 6-foot-4 Dick Van Arsdale to the backcourt, and 6-foot-7 All-America Dave Stallworth will be moved there soon. Gallatin undoubtedly has observed Stall-worth's fondness for the ball and his petulant air when it is not promptly passed to him. In addition, the word is already out among NBA corner men that Stallworth does not enjoy a scrap. However, no one is demeaning his other skills—the players think he has the moves, vision and shooting and passing ability to cut it in company with the Joneses and Wests, and he does have four inches on most of them. Not surprisingly, Gallatin—a stolid old rebounder and defender himself—is more concerned with Stallworth's defensive shortcomings. He suffers particularly by comparison with the third new man, Barry Clemens, who will stay at forward. Clemens has the same skills Gallatin had—and reminding the coach of his own days of glory is not a bad quality in a rookie. Clemens has lots of muscles and is studying to be an optometrist. Stall-worth is studying to be a superstar. Holzman is already studying next year's draft list, fortunately for Ned Irish.
Five days before the season opened the Cincinnati team came to contract terms with management, the Cincinnati team—and franchise, if you will—being Oscar Robertson. "Listen," one Royal had said during the holdout, "they can cut me 25% and give it to Oscar if it means bringing him back. That's how important he is to us." Wisely, the player did not make this statement within earshot of the front office or he might have had a deal. As it was, the Cincinnati team finally signed for about $70,000 cash, various bonuses based on the gate, and the use of a car.
Not that all the Royals admire Oscar's personality, on or off the court, but he means so much to the team that the weeks spent practicing without him might just as well have been spent playing amiable games of horse. This year, however, even with Oscar, the Royals are going to have to struggle to make .500—which is all they managed the second half of last year anyway. Perhaps this is why Oscar wanted more of that cold-cash guarantee, for since the dream of threatening the Celtics faded, so has the gate. The Royals have not exactly been Auerbachs in the draft, their only good choices in the last few years being Oscar and Jerry Lucas—territorial picks that hardly required much acumen. This year the draft disaster was not management's fault, however. The first two choices—Nate Bowman of Wichita and Flynn Robinson of Wyoming—were clipped by injury and illness. But the third choice, Jon McGlocklin of Indiana, not only seems to be a real sleeper but also precisely what the team needed, the big guard to replace retired Arlen Bockhorn behind Robertson and Adrian Smith. McGlocklin, a dedicated young man, is 6 feet 5 and 205, but he was pretty much overlooked at Indiana, where the Van Arsdales outnumbered him. On campus, though, he was referred to with respect as "The Third Twin," and quietly managed to average 17.2, hit 54% and become something of a legend as a free-throw shooter. He hit 91 for 100 in practice and left the line muttering deep disappointment. McGlocklin has the advantage of having played guard as a collegian, which few kids 6 feet 5 ever do. The Royals need height most everywhere. Coach Jack Mc-Mahon had counted on Bowman to bring some to center, where Wayne Embry glares up at the monsters. Embry suddenly became injury-prone last year, Forward Jack Twyman is only 6 feet 6 and all of 31, and All-Star Lucas—though he has never looked better—has the maximum possible number of bad knees. McMahon has three good bench forwards—Tom Hawkins, Happy Hairston and Bud Olsen—which gives him some option there, but Oscar must carry this team more than ever. The car the Royals gave him won't help for that kind of portage.