One night last winter in the Forum (not the Roman one nor the Montreal one but the Los Angeles one that looks as though it were made of XXXX sugar and will dissolve in the rainy season) a tall and handsome middle-aged man with something of a hangdog look around his jowls cupped his hands and shouted in a bullhorn voice at one of the bounding referees of professional basketball: "Holy gee whiz, Manny! Darn! What kind of a call was that?"
Manny Sokol, a friendly little guy from New York who tries to see the good in everyone, almost tripped over his shoelaces at this burst of uncharacteristically mild language from Los Angeles Laker Coach Willem Hendrik (Butch) van Breda Kolff. "What in the name of heaven do you call that if it isn't charging?" the coach went on. "Darn you anyway Manny!" Sokol and his fellow official, Norm Drucker, kept throwing querulous sideways glances at Van Breda Kolff until at last the coach finished a long string of "Holy mackerels!" and "Gee whizzes!" with a pungent, short-stroke word that is the main underpinning of his vocabulary, and everybody within earshot knew that the evening was back to normal. The nicely nicely Van Breda Kolff was gone; the ex-Marine drill instructor had returned to the Forum.
Butch van Breda Kolff of The Hill School, Princeton, the Los Angeles Lakers and the nearest steam room and saloon is not all that much different from his fellow man. But where the average 20th century American is busy tailoring his own personality to fit the role he is playing, Van Breda Kolff goes his merry way being himself. His brief and unnatural attempt to launder his courtside language (after several complaints) was exactly that: brief and unnatural. His ordinary lexicon is what might be termed Parris Island heliotrope. He never uses a dainty word when a more colorful one will suffice. He salts the air around him and peppers it, and any honest description of his spoken prose must contain many blanks to protect those who have never been in the Marines or in the company of Leo Durocher.
And what kind of heart lies underneath that gruff exterior? "A heart of whipped cream," says his wife Florence, also an ex-Marine but one who seems to have traveled in different circles in the corps. "He might hurt a fly, but he'd worry about it for weeks. He went hunting once in his life, and he shot a squirrel, and then he practically broke a leg rushing it to the vet!"
September 22, 1968
Butch van Breda Kolff, all 6'3" and 200 pounds of him, is a man continuously in and out of hot water, and not for the usual reasons. Last year, his first as a professional basketball coach, he ran around saying all the things that other coaches had been saying for years: that the game was poorly officiated, that the grace and finesse was being lost and that most pro players had forgotten grade-school fundamentals of play. The only trouble was, Van Breda Kolff said these things in his normal manner: at the top of his lungs and to anyone who would listen. Some of his comments brought him technical fouls (30 in all, at $25 each), and one brought a $250 fine from the commissioner's office.
They also brought Butch van Breda Kolff success. He took what was essentially a two-man team (Elgin Baylor and Jerry West), taught it how to play five-man all-court basketball and whipped and cursed and praised it into second place in the NBA Western Division, an eminence to which the Los Angeles Lakers had no right whatever to aspire at the beginning of the season. The word at the outset was that the Lakers might barely manage to squeak into the playoffs provided that West and Baylor got through unhurt. Neither did, and Baylor lost precious time in a holdout, and still the team finished second in the NBA finals. How did Van Breda Kolff accomplish this card trick? Partly by letting his players have it right between the eyes when they played badly. Listen to Van Breda Kolff in a time-out huddle during a tough game:
"Do we want to win this game? Do you listen when I say before the game that each man has to check his man? This looks like high school!" He grabs one of the players by both arms. "You were standing here and Clyde Lee was standing next to you and the ball comes and he taps it in and you're not even in front of him. What the hell do you want me to do? You guys! Do I have to look like an idiot? You guys been playing seven, eight, nine years in the league and you don't even know how to check a man out? Chrissakes! I got freshmen in college that know more than this. Now, damn it, let's start playing a little ball!"
And what is the team reaction to these outbursts that can be heard in the fifth row? Do the Lakers threaten to quit en masse, to take their complaints to the shop steward, to demand the respect to which their salaries and their skills entitle them? No. They simply pull up their socks. As team captain Elgin Baylor says, "He's sitting on the bench. He can judge our play and we can't. And he'll never use one guy as a whipping boy. He's on the whole team. He figures when we lose a ball game we all lose the ball game. And man, we'll go through walls for the guy!"
Says the team's other superstar, Jerry West: "He has a way with people I've never seen before. He can call you a son of a bitch and threaten to belt you during a game, and after the game he's completely forgotten about it. He's the kind of guy I want to play for. Early in the season I just wasn't ready to play, and he got on me, but after the game was over he held no grudge. You've got to like somebody who speaks his mind. In sports, the guys who speak their minds are very few."
One who does is Wilt Chamberlain, who joins the Lakers this season. What happens when he and Van Breda Kolff begin exchanging pieces of mind could, in the view of many, decide the outcome of the NBA championship this season. An educated guess is that neither will change his forceful ways but that an accommodation will be made. Both have been known to be tractable—in times of stress.
Butch van Breda Kolff (pronounced van bredda kawf) came to the Lakers as the third most successful active college coach (behind Adolph Rupp of Kentucky and Johnny Wooden of UCLA) with a cumulative record of 307 wins and 109 losses at Lafayette, Hofstra and finally Princeton, where his teams won the Ivy League title four years out of five and in general proved that they could compete with the kids from the housing projects.
"Butch was never a Princeton type," his wife says, "but they seemed to like the way he did things, Ivy or not."
"No," the coach agrees, "I was never Ivy. I was more like a townie. I chewed tobacco and wore crazy hats, anything to be different, and my friends were cops and bartenders and people like that. I didn't make it on the society scene. I also did a very un-Princeton thing: I flunked out—not once, but twice. That at least ties the track record. All I cared about was sports, competition."
Where the competitive drive came from in Van Breda Kolff's case may have something to do with his father, a Dutch-American stockbroker who played on Holland's 1912 bronze-medal Olympic soccer team. "Every summer we'd go back to The Netherlands on business," Van Breda Kolff recalls, "and there was one spell of five months when I even went to school there. We were well-to-do most of the time, certainly not rich but well-to-do. On Sundays we used to pile into the family's Hispano-Suiza—my mother and father and two sisters and me—and go out to the thee gartuin, the tea garden, and the older people would sit around and the kids would play games like soccer. My father taught me early that losing wasn't good. Was he strict? He was Dutch, wasn't he?"
To hear Van Breda Kolff tell it, he would never have been admitted to Princeton in the first place if his father had not sent him to The Hill School for a year of preparation. "The Hill School was like a prison," he says. "All we did was play sports and study, so I had pretty good grades and they let me into Princeton, and I didn't do badly in my freshman year. I mean, I passed, but barely. Then I went to school during the summer and brought my grades up, and my sophomore year came around and the day before the soccer season started the coach said, 'You're ineligible!" He explained that at Princeton summer grades didn't count. That didn't seem fair to me and, being a typical spoiled kid, I said the hell with everything and never picked up another book. So I flunked out and went into the Marines."
Even in those years Van Breda Kolff enjoyed the kiss of the hops, and after three years in the corps and reaching the dizzying heights of buck sergeant, beer almost proved his undoing. He came back to the base one night swinging a newly purchased pair of shoes around his head and singing the praises of alcoholic beverages. A shore patrolman asked him for his liberty card, "and when I didn't flash it practically instantly he gave me some lip. I hit him over the head with the shoes and the next thing I knew I was in trouble."
Over in the women's barracks, a pretty radio operator named Sergeant Florence Smith was getting into trouble, too, for unauthorized chattering on the radio circuit, and so it happened that the wedding of the two Cherry Point sergeants came close to being a wedding of two Cherry Point privates.
After the war Van Breda Kolff was allowed a second chance at Princeton and, although he captained the basketball team and was named an All-America center half at soccer, he managed to flunk out again. He went to the New York Knickerbockers where he played three years as a cornerman and took his BA at New York University in physical education. After 11 successful years as basketball coach at Lafayette and Hofstra, he found himself back at Princeton as head basketball coach. The Princeton Alumni Weekly noted: "True, Butch isn't like the other head varsity coaches at Princeton.... He smokes big stogies and has been known to be downright uncouth. He is plainly a loud, rambunctious guy, something which is a rarity around Princeton's athletic department, and it makes one wonder if there should not be more like him."
Van Breda Kolff cursed at his players, spent much of his time in Joe Fasanella's saloon on Alexander Street, grappled every working-class townie to his soul with hoops of steel and in general ignored the landed gentry from the other side of Westcott Road. He also rang up a 103-31 record in five seasons and established Princeton as a national basketball power. At first these successes were attributed to the presence of Bill Bradley, the vanilla young man from Missouri who was the greatest player of his time, but Van Breda Kolff knocked that idea in the head by racking up a 25-3 record two years after Bradley's graduation. Princeton was rated fifth in the country in 1967, the first time an Ivy League team broke into the top 10, and soon thereafter Van Breda Kolff became the first Ivy coach in history to take over a professional team.
Toward the end of his stay at Princeton, Van Breda Kolff was suffering from a plethora of success. "We had to win every game or the rich and the townies'd get sore," he remembers. Then there was a matter of money. "Not that I care all that much about money." Van Breda Kolff says. "If I were a money man, would I have coached at Princeton? I have a little money put away, and my family's not starving, so I don't worry as much about money as some guys do. But then it becomes a matter of pride. At Princeton I was making $12,000 a year. The school wasn't on a big-time sports kick, and that's all the job was worth. So one day I say to myself, 'What the hell's the sense of all this? You're breaking your chops!' So I talked the money situation over with Princeton and they told me what my 1968 salary would be: $13,000. And I said, 'That's it?' and they said, 'That's it!' " Van Breda Kolff decided to leave for Los Angeles, even though he had to come to terms with Jack Kent Cooke, the abrasive little infighter who has bought Southern California and is negotiating for Arizona and Texas and still has the first Canadian nickel he ever made selling encyclopedias to people who could only look at the pictures. "He came up a little in the salary—maybe about double what I was getting at Princeton," said Van Breda Kolff, "and I took the job."
The transition from previous Coach Fred Schaus (now general manager) to Van Breda Kolff was abrupt for the players. West had played under Schaus since leaving high school. Baylor had known other coaches, but not in the last seven years. Schaus was the obverse of Van Breda Kolff. His most demonstrative act was a stomp of the foot. "Maybe Fred got a little too easygoing in the last few years," an insider says. "He knew all the players so well, and he relaxed on 'em a little too much. But then in comes this loudmouth college coach who hasn't had a thing to do with the pros in 15 years, and everybody's waiting for the players to gobble him up and spit him out. And what happens? He works their butts off and makes 'em like it. I heard Elgin say under his breath one day, 'If my man keeps pushing me like this I won't last the first game!' And on top of that what does he do? He starts chewing them out! Elgin Baylor! Jerry West! All-Pro players! He calls 'em everything in the book, and they not only take it, they respond to it."
From the beginning, Van Breda Kolff brought a peculiar sort of tight looseness or loose tightness to the basketball team. On fundamentals and team discipline, he was an absolute martinet, but off the court he was relaxed and friendly, the opposite of Schaus, who did not fraternize with his players. "All I really care about in the world is, first, my family, and second, being with the guys: jerking around, kidding, arguing, laughing," Van Breda Kolff says. "Who cares about anything else? You have a few beers and go home and that's it."
Before a game he keeps a steady torrent of chatter and banter going in the dressing room, not as a calculated way of relaxing his team but simply because he enjoys a steady torrent of chatter and banter. He kids, rags, jokes and takes as good as he gives. The walls reverberate to a blend of Halls of Montezuma English intermingled with the lower Mississippi valley constructions that have been brought into the game by Negroes, and Van Breda Kolff is fluent in either tongue.
Thirty minutes before the tap, his whole attitude changes. The opponent is Cincinnati, and there is some doubt that Oscar Robertson will play. "All right!" the coach snaps. "Let's get ready. Let's sit down! Let's go! Let's go! Elgin! Archie [Clark]! Come on, Darrall [Imhoff]! I don't know who the hell they're gonna play. Archie, if Oscar plays we'll let Jerry start off on him, and then you take Smitty [Adrian Smith]. Elg, you've got [Jerry] Lucas. If [John] Tresvant starts, then Hawk has him. If [Tom] Van Arsdale plays forward Hawk'll [Tom Hawkins] have him; if he plays guard Jerry'll have him."
Not a word is said. The room is silent except for Van Breda Kolff's booming voice. The players lean forward to hear, vying with one another to see who can pay the sharpest attention. "If Van Arsdale and Oscar are in, well, we'll worry about that when the time comes. I don't really care if Oscar is in. In a way I'd rather have him play, because I think when Oscar plays the rest of you guys get a little more up for the game. And when a guy like Oscar doesn't play everybody figures, aw, [word deleted], Oscar isn't playing and we'll win it easy. And then Smitty gets hot and Lucas starts dropping them and the first thing you know we're losing. One thing: if [Guy] Rodgers plays, they're gonna run, and that means we've got to run with them. You know [Connie] Dierking can run. He's in a whole lot better shape, so you got to come down, you've got to run with them all the time.
"Lucas? Hell, you've played Lucas 100 times anyway, but remember: maybe he'll try and score a little bit more if Oscar doesn't play. Darrall, now you know Dierking's got that little one-hander, so don't go jumping all over the place but really play him fairly tight and he's gonna go to his right anyway if he wants to drive. We gotta keep Dierking down, we gotta keep Smitty down, we gotta keep every guy a little bit below his average, especially if Oscar plays. If Oscar doesn't play, then we play defense anyway. The more we think of defense the better ball club we're gonna be. All right? Here we go!" The players rush out of the dressing room with a yell.
Van Breda Kolff's control of the team is absolute. From the outset of his tenure with the Lakers, he has treated Baylor and West exactly as he has treated the humpties, which is to say sometimes nicely and sometimes with all the antic gentleness of a guard at the Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas. One night when Baylor threw a bad pass, Van Breda Kolff chased him into the dressing room hollering at the top of his capacious lungs. "Ten years All-Pro!" he cried, "and you make the dumbest play I've ever seen in my life! You're a—You're a—You're a dum-dum!"
Everyone waited to see what would happen. At last the shoot-down had arrived. High Noon in the dressing room. But there was only silence. Baylor dressed quietly, and Van Breda Kolff left in high dudgeon. The next day the team flew back to Los Angeles, and the coach was waiting for his luggage when he saw the 6'5" Baylor sidle alongside him. "Hey, coach," Baylor said in a half whisper. "Would you mind not calling me dum-dum in front of my teammates? I'm captain, you know."
Van Breda Kolff turned to see if Baylor was serious, and he could see that the big forward was trying to act angry but a smile was forcing its way up from the corners of his mouth, and the two of them laughed out loud at the silliness of it all. Later Baylor said, "Anything that man does, he's right! Why, one night he finds out after a game that I'm a little upset about some things, so he gets into his car and comes out to my house at midnight and we fix some shrimp and talk till 5 in the morning. The next night we play and win, so I guess he knew what he was doing."
The first half against Cincinnati had not gone well, even though the Lakers were slightly ahead. But Oscar Robertson wasn't playing for the Royals, and Van Breda Kolff thought the team should have put the game away already. He sat quietly in the dressing room for a few minutes, and then began talking in a soft voice. "I'm trying to figure out how to describe that first half. Workmanlike isn't quite correct. We weren't sharp, that's about the best way I can think of it. We weren't moving quite well enough, especially in that second quarter. Stumpy [Gail Goodrich], try to stay more in the backcourt and then we can get our movement started. If you cut yourself through when Archie has the ball, then there's no court balance left. Now if Archie wants to throw it to a forward and follow, we have no one in the backcourt and who knows? After you've swept through when you come out you might come right back out into the play again.... That's just one of the things we were doing wrong in the first half, and it bothers movement. Now I keep saying it till I'm blue in the face, but we have to learn from mistakes! I've already told Darrall about his pass upcourt in between two Cincinnati guys to Hawk. Now if we're gonna throw to Hawk, he'd better be out ahead of everybody. Right?"
He goes on for another five minutes, telling each player individually what he is doing wrong. Then he slips in a few compliments, but compliments at half time are not his style, so quickly he says: "But we're not sharp! Now we've gotta pick ourselves up and be ready to fly in this third quarter. Come on! COME ON!" The Lakers won by 30 points.
It was 15 or 16 years ago at Lafayette that Van Breda Kolff discovered that riding his players produced certain beneficial results, and coincidentally began a successful college coaching career. "I started out with the real gentle attitude," he recalls. "I tried to encourage my players, pat them on the back, tell them not to worry when they made a mistake. Man, they started making the same mistakes over and over. So one day during practice the ball rolled to me and I got so mad I kicked it all the way to the top of the gym. It was rattling around the girders for about five minutes. And then the ball club started to move. Later a player came to me and said, 'Coach, that's one of the best things you've done since you got here. The guys were beginning to wonder about you.'
"But people still say to me, 'If a ballplayer makes a mistake, don't you think he knows he made a mistake? Do you think a pro player needs somebody yelling at him when he does something wrong?' And I say yes, they do need somebody yelling at them. Even in pros. If you don't climb all over them, they'll make the same mistakes over and over."
At least once in every game Van Breda Kolff will begin a long monologue on the bench, partly for his own benefit, partly for the team's. "Nobody cares," he will say. "Nobody tries. Nobody works together. Nobody looks for the other guy. I don't care. If they don't care, I don't care." Sometimes he calls the team together at half time and says something like, "Look, let me know the next time you guys are gonna play like this. Let me know ahead of time, and then I can sit and relax and we'll all understand that it's a night off for everybody.... Let me see the bottom of your shoes! Hmmmm. Where are the nails? Well, what else is holding you down out there? O.K., the hell with you guys! If you want to play that way, I'm gonna relax. I'll just enjoy the game."
Butch van Breda Kolff is not the first new coach to come into the league roaring about gunners and superstars and lack of team play and poor fundamentals, nor will he be the last. The problem is not in recognizing that the star system produces poorer team results but in doing something about it. "These guys are trained to get points and assists, points and assists, and that's what they base next year's salary on," the coach says. "You can explain to them that team play, the five-man offense, will pick them up a little playoff money, but they know where their basic income comes from, and it's the paycheck, and the paycheck varies according to their statistics. That's something I'm trying to do my best to change, but some nights it's right back to the old habits. Elgin'll get the ball and won't give it up. The ball goes up and down in that yo-yo dribble till he gets a chance to score or pass off for a basket. That sets the tone, and Jerry starts the same routine. It was different when we just had the two shooters, but now we've got some other guys and they can shoot, too. One of them says, O.K., and he gets the ball and the defense is all packed in there and he's shuffling back and forth trying to find his way in and maybe he forces a shot and misses, and in the meantime guys like Tom Hawkins never even touch the ball!
"Now, don't misunderstand. I'm not singling out our guys as the worst offenders, because they're anything but. They're the least selfish professional ballplayers around. Why, I saw New York and it was unbelievable all the superstar, one-on-one ball they played. Dick Barnett is a one-on-one ballplayer from the word go, and then it's Cazzie Russell's turn and he forces one up, and then Willis Reed is upset and he's gonna go one-on-one, and then Bellamy gets upset and it's his turn and you have it right down the line. Nobody's gonna pass off except for a basket, because that goes in the stats.
"That's the attitude I'm resisting. I tell the boys, 'Look for each other out there! The only way you can win this game is to play together.' Tom Hawkins is very valuable to us, even though he's not one of our high scorers. He sets more picks than anybody, more than the rest of the club put together. He's a completely unselfish player, although once in a while he gets a wild hair and wants to get points. But not too often."
When Van Breda Kolff's admonitions about passing off and looking for one another and playing a five-man offense are followed to the letter, as they are in perhaps one game out of 10, it can be an awesome sight indeed. One time last year Van Breda Kolff's teachings dropped into place neatly in a game against the Celtics, and the nationally televised game almost became an embarrassment to watch. The Lakers, moving up and down the court like Peggy Fleming, led 70-40 at half time, extended their lead to 40 points, and finally won by 37. It was the Celtics' worst defeat in two years, and it happened at home, much to the discomfiture of Coach Bill Russell, himself renowned for defense. Later Jack Twyman attributed the rout to "pressure defense," and said it was the first time in his own long career in basketball that he had seen the Boston Celtics unnerved.
But no coach who stresses defense is ever going to find peace and contentment in the National Basketball Association, where offense has become a way of life and scoring proceeds at an average pace of six points per minute, or about two points per yawn. It is not scoring per se that disturbs Van Breda Kolff and many of the other NBA coaches, but the manner of scoring. "You should have seen him in our first 15 games," says Jerry West. "He was beside himself. He just could not accept the fact that the big bulls, as he calls them, would grunt and groan in there and run over our poor little boys and score. He was unbelievable. I asked for combat pay for sitting next to him!"
Van Breda Kolff explains, "I love this game: the movement, the good passing, the movement without the ball, the finesse, cleverness, whatever you want to call it. This is the game I like to teach: the fluid game. And this is the game the fans like to see, too. Fans are sophisticated enough to deserve something more than just pure scoring and bulling around. When do you hear the loudest cheers? It's always over one of two things: a little extra hustle or that real good passing play. Bulling your way in for a layup doesn't impress anybody. People want to see movement, the nice passes underneath, stuff like that. And these pro players are capable of doing all of it, too. They have a rhythm, almost a poetry, some of them. Why, when the pro game is played right, it makes the college game look downright dull.
"Sure, it's true that if they started playing the game the right way, certain successful players would become unsuccessful players. But then you'd find other guys that can't even make the league now but would be very nice to watch. They have the quickness, the agility, the shooting and the passing and everything else except the muscle. But maybe this poor guy is only 6'5" and 180 pounds, and if you put him up against somebody like Bill Bridges what's he gonna do? They'll just take him to the inside and bull him to death.
"So often it seems like I'm out there fighting the referee, but I'm not really. It's their philosophy that I'm fighting, the way they make it almost impossible to play defense and yet allow almost anything that makes for baskets. Somebody is telling those referees how to officiate, somebody 'up above.' It's whoever's 'up above' that I'm fighting, and by that I don't necessarily mean Walter Kennedy. He's just a sounding board for the owners. He calls them the way the owners see them. That's his job. But if the owners could just get it into their heads that the game could be a better game.
"When we played in Boston and I met Bill Russell for the first time, right after I'd been fined $250 for saying things like this, Bill said, 'Welcome to the league. I read what happened. I just want you to know that I agree 100% with everything you said.' I said, 'Fine, Bill, from now on you say it and you pay the fine!' "
The fine followed a column by Robert Markus entitled This NBA Coach Thinks Pros a Bore. The writer said that Van Breda Kolff feels "the officiating is ridiculous," and immediately the post-office department began to feel an upsurge in gross receipts. Owner Dick Klein of the Chicago Bulls mailed the column air special to Jack Kent Cooke and observed that such remarks "could better be left unsaid, particularly in Chicago where seven pro basketball teams have experienced financial and artistic flops." Commissioner Walter Kennedy dispatched his own air special letter to Van Breda Kolff, in which he said, "It would seem that your good judgment would dictate that you should keep these opinions to yourself, or discuss them with me personally, on your trips to New York."
There were some who suspected that the fine Italian hand of Boston General Manager Red Auerbach might have been behind the fine. But Kennedy made it plain that neither Auerbach nor Klein nor any other front-office figure was the gray eminence behind the penalty slapped on Van Breda Kolff. "I'm the person behind the fine," Kennedy said, "and he had it coming to him all the way. Late last summer and early in the exhibition season he was publicly criticizing our officials, and this is against our regulations. I sent him a letter telling him I wanted him to stop. I told him if he had criticism of the referees he should take it to Dolph Schayes, the supervisor of officials. We simply aren't going to have abuse of our officials."
The fine had its effect on Van Breda Kolff, though not necessarily the full impact that Kennedy might have desired. "Nowadays when people ask me certain questions I have to say, 'Look, I answered that question once and it cost me $250,' " the coach says. "Of course, I haven't changed my mind. I can't change. Sometimes during a game, if Walter Kennedy were there, I'd get that $500 fine they've been threatening me with. I'd take that $500 fine. I've got to get some things off my chest. I mean business about this. I do like the pro game. I never in my life told anybody that the pro game was boring, though I might have said certain aspects of it could become boring the way things are going."
As disturbing to Van Breda Kolff as the calls is the trend toward the giant, the man whose shots travel down to the basket, but even before the Lakers landed Chamberlain—or Chamberlain them—he was quick to admit that he is no closer to a solution than anyone else in the league. "What're you gonna do?" he says. "You can't legislate them out of the game. Right now I understand there are 50 seven-footers playing college ball. Some of them'll wind up in the league. One of them certainly will. Lew Alcindor. And don't you think the league isn't staying up nights trying to figure out what to do about that! Fact is, nobody will be able to stop Alcindor. He'll turn a losing team into a championship team, you wait and see."
Chamberlain might represent something more than mere capitulation on Van Breda Kolff's part to the bulling game. Even last year the Laker coach was speaking of Chamberlain in a way that made you wonder what sort of a player he would be if he were on the Lakers. "Wilt could do the same as Alcindor," Van Breda Kolff said, "but Wilt is different. If Wilt were mean, nobody could stop him. He can pass well if he wants to. If he wants to he can play better defense than anybody in the league. If he wanted to he could be two Bill Russells on defense. But Wilt's always been celebrated, he doesn't know the word work. It's not his fault. That's just the way things are with him. But Wilt doesn't fracture the game the way Alcindor will. See, Wilt is a good-natured giant. Alcindor is serious. He's quick, he can run, jump, shoot, he's agile. When a guy like that plays, it's not really fun for the rest, not even for his own teammates.
"So what can you do about it? I've suggested jokingly that each of the 14 teams in the league should give him $10,000 a year not to play. We should say, 'Here, kid, here's 10 grand from each of us. Get lost! Go to the beach for a few years.'
"Boy, that would solve a lot of headaches! Imagine what happens at draft time. There'll be five or six teams trying to finish last so they can draft him! I'm not kidding. You'll see the first nothing-nothing game in league history! It's that important. Alcindor could turn a losing franchise into a winner, at least for a while. The way it looks now, a new franchise team will get him. But is that fair to teams like Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, clubs that lose money or barely break even and live on the hope that a guy like Lew will come along and lead them out of the wilderness?
"One thing we could do is raise the baskets, and I think it'll come to that. But not too far. Not to 12 feet. That's out of sight. At Tennessee they played an exhibition game with 12-foot baskets and nobody could score. Wound up 40-something to 30-something. They have a 7' center named Boerwinkle and he shot one for 16. My idea is bring the baskets up maybe six inches, to 10½ feet, and then maybe in 15 or 20 years go up to 11 feet, and so on. Just enough to keep the big guys from being all over that ring. And then they could widen and lengthen the court, too, proportionalize the game. Twenty years ago the court was 94 by 50 feet and our center was 6'7". Now the court is exactly the same size and our forwards are 6'7". There's no room to maneuver, and that's another reason there's so much contact out there and why the game is so hard to referee."
Whether the game does or does not change, it is hard to imagine that there will ever be a different Bill van Breda Kolff on the bench. There he is—Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey, Mr. District Attorney and The Flying Nun all wrapped into one. When he is not screaming at his players, he is engaged in a permanent program of rehabilitating the referees. He pleads, begs, cajoles, taunts, insults and gesticulates. He gets on his knees and throws his huge hands imploringly into the air, like a supplicant at Lourdes. This is a habit he picked up in the colleges, when in one pixilated year the officialdom ruled that any coach who got on his feet would be hit with a technical foul. "How the hell are you gonna spend a whole game without getting off the bench?" Van Breda Kolff says.
When he is angered, which is practically 48 minutes of every game, Bill van Breda Kolff does far more than get down on his knees. He kicks water buckets and ashtrays with fine impartiality, and in Seattle his own players taped a sign, "Please don't kick me!" on an oversized ashtray that he had sent into three different orbits with a single kick earlier in the season. His involvement in the game becomes so intense that he is all but unaware of where he is. One cannot get his attention during a game with a mere tap on the back. It must be a smack, delivered with full force, and even then Van Breda Kolff will say "huh?" about three times before he realizes that someone is trying to ask him something.
Some nights the coach sits in the corner of the dressing room and delivers himself a pregame lecture. "Tonight, you stupid [word deleted], you are going to relax. Relax! You are not going to holler about a single call. You are going to sit back and enjoy the game. Enjoy!" Then he goes out on the court and starts complaining. He estimates that the longest he has gone without jumping a referee was eight minutes, the shortest two minutes. Usually he clips out his complaints: "Charging! Walk! WALK! Three seconds. THREE SECONDS! Aw, for Chrissakes!" Sometimes he delivers long harangues, cupping his hands and aiming his rich baritone voice at the official so that none of the precious words will be missed. "He charged his way down the court, and then you call a foul on us! The defense just gets driven back. How the heck can he play defense if the guy just drives him back? You cannot play defense in this league. You can't play defense!"
He draws a warning from a young referee ("Listen, I've had enough of you tonight!") and then a technical from the senior man on the floor. "Unbelievable!" Van Breda Kolff says. "Unbelievable refereeing! He was up in the air when you called walking. How can a man walk in the air? First time I've ever seen a man walk in the air!" A few minutes later West is bumped to the floor. "No foul?" Van Breda Kolff shouts. "NO FOUL, you say? He knocked himself down, didn't he?"
But slowly he subsides. The first technical foul of a game is only a $25 fine, but the second carries with it expulsion from the game. Van Breda Kolff has been thrown out of only one regular-season game, and the experience was so painful that he does not want a repetition. He is aware that he is a bit hard to take at times. "I know that and I understand it, and I don't blame the officials a bit. Some of these guys are away from home for two or three weeks at a time. It's tough. It's one of the toughest jobs going. But some of them are just plain bad, too. You get the impression sometimes that if you didn't have a job and you needed one, you could go to the NBA office and say to them, 'I want to be an official,' and they'd say, 'Here's your shirt and your whistle. You've got to be in Seattle at 8 o'clock tonight!' "
The referees have their scouting reports on coaches, and vice versa. Before a referee calls a technical foul, he usually has convinced himself that the coach is being malicious, being intentionally nasty. One referee explains: "That means you have to know what constitutes malice in each individual coach, am I right? Like Alex Hannum. How do you know when he's being malicious? He's a cheerleader, he's always screaming for his guys. But that isn't malice, and Alex never got many technicals. When he kicked at the floor, then you knew he was trying to be nasty. Or take a guy like Bill Sharman. He complains more than anybody, but it's all out the side of his mouth. All game long you can hear him, 'Aw, c'mon, give me a break, give me a break, you're killing us!' Now what're you gonna do about that? There's 10,000 people there and as far as they're concerned Sharman hasn't said a word. Or you take a guy like Charley Wolfe, used to be at Detroit. The man never cursed; he was a daily communicant. But he'd sit there and say, "Three seconds. Three seconds. Three seconds!' and after a while this'd get on your nerves, and finally he'd say, maybe, 'Oh, darn,' and then you'd know he was being mean and you'd give him a technical.
"Al Bianchi is another chirper: chirp chirp chirp all night long, and then he'll jump up and say, 'Jesus Christ!' and head for the water cooler, and when he comes back you've got to give him one. Johnny Kerr, he'll just stand up and give the chair a little backward kick, real quick and graceful, or he'll try to lift up the bench. One night he lifted the bench and there were six players on it.
"Some of them calm down as they get older. That's Richie Guerin. A strange case. He used to be an animal. An animal! Now he's one of the best behaved. You almost never give him a T. And you may find this hard to believe, but I think that's the route Van Breda Kolff is going. Why, I saw him in the street in Baltimore the other day and you know what he said? He said, 'Well, there are two different opinions on every call, right?' And then he says, 'The only trouble with you [word deleted] guys is you need a raise.' Now how can a guy like that be all bad?"
Despite his outspokenness and his refusal to be muzzled and his acidic observations about the powers that be, Willem Hendrik van Breda Kolff is one of basketball's most popular figures. "He doesn't have the word 'no' in his vocabulary when it comes to old friends," Florence Smith van Breda Kolff says, "and then they all have to go out for a beer, and they start reminiscing about the good old days at Lafayette and it's one beer after another and then he comes home and he says, 'I never want to see another beer as long as I live!' But what he really means is he doesn't want to see another beer till he sees another old buddy, which will be the next night and the night after that. He likes to tell me, "Well, I only drink beer with my friends,' and I say to him, 'Well, Butch, who are your enemies?' "
"He is an absolute hedonist," says one of the Laker functionaries. "He loves steam baths and beer. When the typical NBA coach gets to a new town, he looks for the nearest bar. Bill looks for the nearest steam room. Then he looks for the nearest bar. In Cincinnati they call him Mr. Steam. He thinks nothing of taking two or three steam baths a day. But he loves life, this man. He's a joyful person. He gets a kick out of every breath of fresh air. And when he's drunk too much beer and smoked too many cigars and done too much hollering and his throat is raw, he quits for a while, and I say to him, 'Bill, I guess you're through with drinking and smoking for good, huh?' And he says, 'You nuts? I'm just waiting for my throat to get better so I can start up again!' The guys I feel sorry for are the ones that try to keep up with him. He's so big and strong it doesn't bother him, but what about them?"
"Well, isn't the whole idea of life to meet your responsibilities and enjoy yourself?" says Van Breda Kolff. "Too many of these coaches around the league don't seem to be having any fun. Look at them. They sit there on the bench and look like they're slowly dying. They've all got pretty good personalities, but they're all a little odd in their own ways, too, or they'd be in other jobs. Look at all the concentration that's involved, the intensity, and it lasts for 10, 11 months, counting practice and all. A coach has to be a little weird to take all that. I tell you: one of the toughest things about it is the sheer length. We used to play 25 games in college, but now it's up to 82 games in the pros plus exhibitions plus playoffs and you've got to be up for every one of them. And I'm wringing wet after every game. I don't care if we win by 50, I'm still a wreck, and I'm off to the nearest saloon as quick as I can get there. I can't imagine a coach not having a few beers after a game. To me, that would be the weirdest thing of all!"
The pro game began to reach Van Breda Kolff at the end of last season. "It was the first time I'd ever been tired since I started coaching," Van Breda Kolff said, sipping at a beer and slouching down in his seat. "Half the time you're on the road like a traveling salesman. You wake up in the middle of the night and you say, 'Where am I? Do we have to catch a plane? Is the switchboard about to call?' And then I wake up and look at my watch and it's 5 in the morning. I worry some more and the next time I look at my watch it's 6, and then it's 7, and five minutes before the operator's due to call me I fall into a deep sleep. I'm 48 years old now. I was 45 when last season started."