In California, whenever teams representing Los Angeles and San Francisco play each other in anything, there is a real civic rivalry—and the reason is that the citizens care. This is rarely true in the East or the Midwest, except when governors or mayors force the issue by making those fraudulent newspaper bets—a basket of our beautiful state-grown acorn squash against a bucket of your beautiful state-produced ball bearings. Boston and New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington—they have all sprawled there so long, sisters together in megalopolis, that intercity rivalry is seldom evinced when mere nicknames clash. In the East now they are playing 76ers-Celtics. But in California it is San Francisco-Los Angeles.
In basketball the competition in the East is even narrower than team vs. team. For years everything else has been peripheral to the personal duel between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. It is a long-running act, second in endurance in the sport only to the Harlem Globetrotters, but it is still box-office, and it is still the very best. It began again last week, Wilt vs. Russell, best of seven for what may, quite possibly, be the last time. There are young eager teams in the East—the New York Knicks, principally—and the chance that both the Celtics and the 76ers will reach the divisional finals diminishes more sharply each year. Besides, in a league that is better balanced, the intramural Eastern struggle can no longer be accepted as tantamount to deciding the championship of the NBA.
Russell—or at least his Celtics—won the first game of the Eastern finals; Wilt, in consolation, drove off in his $12,000 Maserati, carrying beside him in the front seat like a good companion the regular season's Most Valuable Player trophy. It was fairly won, but Wilt, as much as anyone, knew that not only were the great Russell-Chamberlain duels almost at an end but that the trophy itself was merely in safekeeping for another. Nate Thurmond of San Francisco had been on his way to winning that cup before his kneecap snapped to pieces in a game in January.
At about the time Wilt was driving away from the surprise defeat, Thurmond, still limping, lifted himself into the radio announcers' seats to help broadcast the Western finals between his Warriors and Jack Kent Cooke's Lakers at Cooke's Fabulous Forum. It is always billed as the Fabulous Forum, in the manner of a tawdry burlesque shill pushing all the "fabulous girls, direct from Paris, France." Thurmond was serving as a rookie—but very capable—color announcer. Conveniently, he comes with his own sponsor, too, the Nate Thurmond Basketball Shoe. It is a bit jarring, of course, to hear the announcer speak of "perfect comfort while wearing the Nate Thurmond shoe" while the principal sits there recovering from a wrecked knee received while wearing the Nate Thurmond shoe.
April 15, 1968
But then, of course, it was also confusing that Thurmond's team was still around for him to broadcast about. Without Thurmond or Rick Barry, last year's co-hero, the Warriors won their way to the Fabulous Forum by upsetting the Western Division champion St. Louis Hawks 4-2 after losing to them seven of eight times during the season.
However violent and extended they may be, the NBA playoffs have been traditionally all but redundant, rather like the electoral college. This year, however, the Hawks nearly were joined in first-round defeat by the other divisional champions, the 76ers. New York's muscular young Knicks, scratching, grabbing, pushing and generally carrying on like raccoons in a henhouse, almost produced the first TKO in basketball history before losing in six games. On both sides the quality of mercy was not only strained but fractured. Cazzie Russell suffered a knockout, Bill Bradley a black eye. Luke Jackson of the 76ers, a stolid abutment of a man who once played a whole season on a broken leg (he assumed it was shin splints), had a painful hamstring pull and after the last game the dark blood was frighteningly visible, hemorrhaging at the back of his thigh. Wally Jones lost much of his effectiveness because of a knee cartilage injury. Walt Frazier, the excellent Knick rookie, and Billy Cunningham, the 76ers' quick sixth man, both went out for the season, Walt with a snapped tendon and Billy with a fractured wrist. Chamberlain himself came into the fray off a bad last game in Baltimore, where he painfully injured a big toe, and where he lost $1,000 on the way back on the bus in one of the more spectacular blackjack games in league annals.
If either occurrence seriously disturbed the big fellow, it was not immediately obvious. He throttled New York singlehandedly in the opener, and remained a powerful force in all phases of the game throughout the series. Neither was he any less impressive in spirit, showing up for the sixth game in an ensemble of electric blue and neon blue that all but prompted one observer to remind him that the sheep were in the meadow and the cows in the corn. As virtually all basketball players do now, Chamberlain featured a turtleneck. This has led to some recent locker-room talk that verges on the effete and very nearly erases all memories of locker rooms with tobacco chaws and pleated pants. For instance, Wilt to Matt Guokas: "Will you zip me up in back, please?" Or Jerry West, polite but persnickety, to a locker-room attendant: "Yes, would you please? Just roll it over one time in back." Crushed at last, apparently, is the hallowed cliché that great athletes must put on their pants one leg at a time. Now it seems they cannot even put on shirts by themselves.
Despite their convincing demolition of New York in the last two games of the opening series, the 76ers will miss Cunningham desperately against Boston. Cunningham had the ability to come off the bench in high gear to replace Jackson or Chet Walker, and now the thin 76er bench is even thinner, with only veteran Johnny Green to fill in at forward. Picked up from San Diego late in the season, Green was spectacular in leading Philly to the fifth-game victory over the Knicks, but he is 34, has always been inconsistent and, however high he jumps, you can never be sure which way he will come down. In the opener against Boston on Friday at the Spectrum, which has its roof on again, Green made only six points and could not light up the team as he had against New York. Without Cunningham to contend with up front, Boston's John Havlicek took charge. Russell started Havlicek at guard—as he had after Detroit had moved to a 2-1 lead in the first round—and Havlicek not only responded with 35 points but steered the offense and forced Hal Greer into some bad shooting.
Boston shot 58% for the game, and the Celtic defense, overplaying Greer and Walker when they did not have the ball, proved even more effective with Cunningham's firepower gone. Wally Jones will have to come back to life to help take up the slack, but the edge has already passed to the Celtics. "We came into this with the attitude of proving that Boston isn't dead," Havlicek said. The fact is that Boston did not lose to Philadelphia this year except when missing either Larry Siegfried or Sam Jones through injuries.
An imponderable factor, however, is the ultimate effect of the murder of Martin Luther King. Russell and Chamberlain conferred at length on Friday afternoon about the possibility of trying to call the game off. Neither really wanted to play. To Russell, Dr. King had been a "personal friend." Chamberlain then conducted a vote on his own team, but only he and Jones asked for a postponement. The second games, both East and West, were scheduled for Sunday, but were put off until Wednesday. The rest should help Philadelphia most, for the 76ers were still recovering from the rugged New York series.
Coach Red Holzman had turned the Knicks into late-season winners with adroit and constant substitution—26 times to produce 17 different combinations in one game, for instance—and the regular application of a full-court zone press, which is considered legal in the NBA even if the half-court zone is not. Walt Bellamy played a hard and courageous series against Wilt. He even out-scored him 14-0 in one memorable quarter, and made the contest on the boards—against Chamberlain, Jackson and Walker—as rough as the battle over the rest of the court. After a while George Kiseda of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin stopped using regular lineups and started printing the names of the players with their weights, in the fashion of boxing summaries.
"New York is doing what San Francisco does, and what they both learned from Boston," Alex Hannum said, announcing that he, too, was ready to escalate. "It is a matter of taking the initiative. You start out touching your opponent and establish in the minds of the officials that a certain amount of contact is natural. Then you begin to grab and hold, and finally you start pushing. Then the other team starts the same thing and pretty soon it all deteriorates into what I call a rat game."
It is also called muscleball. In the West, however, the game is called finesse. Without the massive man in the middle, the Lakers and Warriors are employing a style that differs vastly from the classic Eastern thump-thump. They both spread wide, move the center outside and try to work for drives down the middle or long shots off high picks. Both teams like to run, both possess depth and shooters. It probably will come down to a question of whether San Francisco's larger forwards—Rudy LaRusso and Fred Hetzel—or L.A.'s smaller, quicker ones—Elgin Baylor and Tommy Hawkins—are the more efficient combination. The Lakers, who finished the season 30-8 with Baylor nearly at his oldtime best and with a healthy Jerry West now available, are obviously the logical choice.
The Lakers won the opener 133-105, blowing it open early and coasting past a desultory San Francisco performance. The Warriors probably were suffering a reaction after their victory over St. Louis, which was the result of fine team play and outstanding coaching on the part of Bill Sharman. Somehow, Sharman managed to get his skinny men to clog up the middle and keep the powerful Hawks at bay. The Warriors cut off Joe Caldwell's breakaway play, and the guards—particularly Al Attles—steered Lennie Wilkens, the playmaker, off his favorite courses. On offense the Warriors went to their hot hand, which was most often Jeff Mullins. Shooting 53%, he averaged 27 points a game. He started with 29 against L.A.
In the opener in Los Angeles the smaller Lakers not only decisively outrebounded the Warriors but kept the visitors from getting the ball inside. "We may have been too obvious in our strategy," Mullins said. LaRusso, who for eight years played the other forward on the Lakers opposite Baylor, could not hit against his old teammate. That produced friendly needling from his former fans, who are not quite prepared to fully acknowledge that he plays against them. LaRusso confuses the civic rivalry issue, since he agreed to sign with San Francisco only if he could continue to live in Los Angeles.
When the series moves to San Francisco, the Lakers will be forced to endure a new diversion that Warrior Owner Franklin Mieuli instituted during the playoffs with the Hawks. He clangs a cable-car bell—his bell hand is now raw from the task—while the spectators ring little love bells that are distributed to them. The Hawks, who were not well supported in St. Louis this year, may have been unsettled by the huge, ring-a-ding crowds in San Francisco. But the Lakers are not likely to be such easy prey. They have had a full season of working under Butch van Breda Kolff, and have comfortably assimilated two strong midseason additions, Fred Crawford and Erwin Mueller.
On a team with a long heritage of nicknames, all of the newcomers were quickly dubbed. Van Breda Kolff is "Choppers," Crawford is "Mole" and Mueller is "Mules," an appellation Van Breda Kolff bestowed on him by process of elimination. "I can't possibly call you Erwin," he said, "and I can't call you Dum-Dum, because if I did every guy on this team would turn around."
"This whole team gets along better together than any I've ever played on," Jerry West says. "That's part of the reason I was so discouraged when I was hurt again a few weeks ago. We're a more aggressive team. I play against better defense in practice than in a lot of games. And this is absolutely the best-shooting team I have ever seen. I mean shooting. Not drop it in or beat it to death on the backboard."
There has been a great deal of talk all year about how Van Breda Kolff has managed to spread the scoring load around. But in the Lakers' first playoff series, which they won in five games against Chicago, Baylor and West made 293 of 510 Laker points. Both players appear as contented and assured as they have ever been, and when the Eastern teams get through hacking each other to death, the survivor may not be prepared for finesseball. In a season when playoffs are no more predictable than presidential politics, the lithe Lakers look capable of bringing the first NBA title to California, a year before Nate Thurmond does it.