When the Los Angeles Lakers got Wilt Chamberlain (see cover) in a trade last summer, the immediate popular supposition was that they had dealt themselves a wonder team. With Elgin Baylor and Jerry West playing, too, every game would be a thrilling All-Star show and every box office would do boffo, turnaway business. The only problem, it was suggested, was-that the big three superstars would be struggling with each other to see who could get the ball and shoot it the most.
Now, as the NBA season moves into its last two months, it has become apparent that the results are exactly the reverse of the assumptions. The Lakers are, first of all, only a pretty good team with about the same chance to win the championship as last year's Lakers—who did not. Moreover, far from providing raging effervescence, the Lakers are dull almost to the point of tedium, and the slow realization of that fact may soon be reflected in attendance at the Inglewood Forum.
The main problem on the court is not that Chamberlain, Baylor and West do not get the ball enough. It is that Chamberlain will not—or cannot—go to the basket when he does get it. In other words, the fantastic Laker juggernaut lacks a sufficient offense to carry it; the team has been reduced to depending on its defense.
Moreover, there is discontent, which was not altogether unexpected. The Lakers, for so long one of the most comfortable, relaxed teams in sport, have become critical of one another and confused. General Manager Fred Schaus had to call a secret meeting to urge the players to keep their disagreements to themselves. That was in December, when a controversy between Chamberlain and Coach Butch van Breda Kolff first raged publicly over where Wilt was to line up: low post or high post—or maybe even on the bench. "We are all much better off now," van Breda Kolff says, "and I would hate to see anything blow it up again. We're in a better frame of mind and we have a better outlook on playing the game."
January 27, 1969
Though the atmosphere may indeed be improved, the morale is still reminiscent of Christopher Robin's spelling. "It's good spelling," he told Pooh, "but it Wobbles and the letters get in the wrong places." In its transparency, van Breda Kolff's statement points up the Lakers' dilemma: Chamberlain or van Breda Kolff. Invariably, one or the other is blamed for everything. There is some justice in this, since it is their continued inability to compromise that is at the base of the team's problems, and there is some injustice. "The way we bitch about Wilt," says one Laker, "it would never occur to you that anyone else on the team ever even misses a foul shot."
For van Breda Kolff, the pendulum has really swung. When he came to the team from Princeton last year, he was an instant success. The players liked the way VBK gave them a freer reign off the court and the right to free-lance on it. He occasionally would get furious and call everybody "Dum-dum," but his outbreaks were quickly forgotten and the players genially called their coach "Fang" and "Crazy Horse." For the last half of the season the Lakers had the second-best record in the league.
This season, with the introduction of just one significant extraneous factor, Chamberlain—whom the Lakers sometimes call "Big Musty"—van Breda Kolff is being ripped for the same reasons he was drawing raves last year. The people who praised his style of play then as fluid and loose and just right for mature pros now criticize it as disorganized and undisciplined. By last week's All-Star break some printed speculation had already appeared suggesting that last year's resident genius might soon be getting the ax—although the Lakers were still leading the Western Division and were moving along 7½ games ahead of last year's pace.
The point is, more was expected of the Lakers this season. Furthermore, nobody—least of all Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke—dares to consider that he might have traded himself into a weaker team. But Cooke may have done this when he gave up Center Darrall Imhoff, All-Star Guard Archie Clark and Forward Jerry Chambers (who is in the Army) to Philadelphia for a 33-year-old Chamberlain and his huge salary. Certainly, and most ironically, Cooke now has a worse attraction than he had, as the Lakers say, B.C. (before Chamberlain). The present A.D. (after Darrall) Lakers are drawing slightly better than they did last year, but there are signs that Southern California is getting bored. Some season-ticket seats are conspicuously unused. Inglewood City tax records indicate Forum attendance figures are being inflated anyway. The largest L.A. paper, the Times, has sent a correspondent on the road just once all year. (The Times is known to the players as "Butch's paper," the Herald-Examiner as "Wilt's paper.")
However, the gossip about dissension—no matter how harmful it may be at home—actually is increasing attendance on the road. Part of this success is certainly attributable to Chamberlain, who—as the only real villain for NBA fans—has always been a strong out-of-town attraction. After Baylor made a free throw a few days ago at Atlanta the game was stopped and it was announced that he had passed Bob Pettit to become the second-highest scorer in NBA history. Applause began, then swelled, and soon everyone in the building was standing and roaring for a man most of them probably had never seen play before this season. Chamberlain, very graciously, came out from under the basket and was the first to shake Baylor's hand. When at last the applause subsided, the P.A. went on: "...and now Baylor is second only to Wilt Chamberlain." Suddenly boos rang down, covering the cheers.
This lightning-rod quality is of no value to the Lakers, since the NBA still operates under the rule-or-ruin philosophy that permits the home team to keep all the revenues. Thus Cooke, like the San Francisco and Philadelphia owners before him, is now in the somewhat woeful position of helping to subsidize the league.
Certainly, whatever happens for the balance of this season, upon its conclusion either van Breda Kolff or Chamberlain will depart. VBK is firm in denying rumors that either Philadelphia or New York has already approached him, but there can be little market for Chamberlain. The only franchise that might take him would be one of the expansion teams that does not get Alcindor—and that will need a special consolation to assuage its disappointment. But Chamberlain has a five-year contract at $200,000 or more and, besides, there is a growing school of thought that he no longer possesses sufficient moves to make him a bona fide high-scoring threat.
When he was coaching Chamberlain last year, Alex Hannum suggested this possibility, and Wilt promptly went out and scored more than 50 points in each of the next three games. Perhaps he needs a challenge, for nothing else has served to make him go to the basket, even though van Breda Kolff and his teammates keep urging him to and he acknowledges to them that he should.
He still wants the ball and moans when he does not get it, but he seldom shows any inclination to shoot. In pregame practice he throws up desultory 30-foot hooks and long one-handers. The Lakers watch him and shake their heads.
Opponents agree that the Lakers are tougher to defend against when Chamberlain is working to score. "His man, Zelmo Beaty in our case, has to concentrate on him then," says Atlanta Coach Richie Guerin, "so Zelmo can't step back and help anybody else—and when he has to stick on Wilt that opens up the whole middle for the Lakers."
When Chamberlain first appeared, in 1963-64 under Hannum, as the "new," nonshooting Wilt, he averaged a revolutionary low of 29 shots a game. This year he is averaging about 13 shots, and on a recent five-game road trip when West missed three games with an injury and there was even more need for him to contribute offensively, Chamberlain made only 20 of 49 shots, trying fewer than 10 a game.
Chamberlain, the most punctual member on the team, is never late for practice—but he does not like to practice basketball. He prefers instead to run laps, which van Breda Kolff lets him do while the rest of the team scrimmages. Chamberlain is leading the league in rebounds, and this has freed Baylor from the major responsibility under the boards. But the Lakers have lost their fast break because Chamberlain does not look for an outlet pass. "This is a very old team," he says, "and we are simply not much of a fast-breaking team anyway. We don't have the players conducive to that type of play."
So the Lakers walk the ball up the court, get arranged and then, as VBK says, start "to grind it out." The Lakers do not often make 100 points now. "Defense is the thing we're really living on," van Breda Kolff admits, and Chamberlain has been superb, sometimes even awesome, on defense. In a recent game on national television he blocked 23 shots against Phoenix.
Fans of Chamberlain point out that he is being criticized for doing the same thing that has brought glory to Russell—concentrating on defense and going easy on offense. Russell, however, has always triggered the Boston attack with his outlet passes. Chamberlain forces the Lakers to play his style—and then, when he fails to shoot, he is not being Wilt Chamberlain. Raquel Welch in baggy pants and a fright wig would not be showing herself to best advantage, either.
Van Breda Kolff's problem in dealing with Chamberlain is often one of matching stubbornness. Hannum consulted with Chamberlain, listened to his ideas, sometimes compromised, sometimes gave in. But the Dutchman does not lean in this direction. Perhaps it is really more a conflict of life styles than of playing styles. Van Breda Kolff is a boisterous, gregarious man who bounds through the Eastern winter without an overcoat just because it is a nuisance to bother with one. "All he needs is a turtleneck and a throat lozenge," Baylor declared one day as the coach came out of some north winds. Chamberlain is a loner, sensitive to criticism and comparison to Russell, plagued by the mental derelicts who find in his size only humor and a license to pry.
"You know, we've gotten along fine from the first," West says, "and I've never cared where Wilt played or any of that. The thing that has amazed me—I just didn't have any idea how put upon he really is."
It is a curious folkway of our society that the excessively short, fat and thin are not to be mocked, while it is open season on the tall. The same people who would never think of asking a fat man, "How's the diet?" somehow conclude that it is perfectly in order to point at Chamberlain's height, to engage him in inane conversation about his shoe size or even, yes, to ask him how the weather is up there.
It is no wonder he moves quickly through public places. He has a single room on the road, a prerogative Baylor and West also enjoy, and it is something of a refuge, for he is a prodigious sleeper, as well as the possessor of a Ruthian appetite. The Lakers still watch with some fascination as he washes down pies or cakes at halftime with large quantities of milk. He finds the Laker experience no different from that with the Warrior or 76er teams. "Everything is relative, my man," he says. "Just different personnel, but everything else is the same once you get accustomed."
That, in a sense, is the real nub of the matter—that the Lakers and Chamberlain have not really adjusted to each other, or to numerous other new personalities, either. Security is hardly the hallmark of an organization where the office gag is that, if you last a month with Cooke you will be awarded a gold watch. On the team, which once prized continuity, only Baylor and West remain.
The high post-low post controversy became famous largely because it was a simple thing that the public could easily grasp. It concerned the fans much more than it did the players. The Lakers have been beaten mostly for old-fashioned technical reasons—they are too slow, there are not enough good shooters among them, or quick basketball minds or much depth. And, also, they do not work well together. The Lakers are trying to do all they can to win on the court without letting personal feelings enter the picture. Still, vital to the whole situation has been the constant bickering, the second-guessing and the misunderstandings, of themselves all inconsequential but, taken in steady doses, able to create an atmosphere where the high post-low post issue can thrive.
Take one incident that was altogether innocuous and quickly forgotten, but which was illustrative of how spontaneity can be so quickly turned into sour dissonance on the Lakers. The players, in a good, relaxed mood, were bantering and kidding as they came into the locker room in Boston to dress before practice. Someone mentioned casually to Baylor that Jay Carty, a rookie who is so slow that West had named him "Golden Wheels," had played with Mel Counts at Oregon State. Counts is not renowned for his speed either.
"Sure, didn't you know?" someone said. "They called them the High Cs."
"There must have been a lot of fast breaks going the other way, huh, Wheels?" another player asked. Everyone laughed, Counts and Carty included. "That team must have run like a bunch of turtles with arthritis," Baylor said. More laughter, except from Chamberlain.
"Are you talking about people again?" he said querulously to Baylor.
"I'm not talking about people," Baylor replied.
"You always talk about people."
"What do you mean?"
"How do you think people feel when, you know, you call them turtles with arthritis?" Wilt went on.
"I didn't say they were turtles with arthritis, I said they run like turtles with arthritis," Baylor said, trying to drown the issue in semantics. It was too late. There was only the shifting of seats, the hurried tying of shoelaces, and the Lakers, suddenly subdued, moved upstairs to practice.
For all the rumblings and despite their obvious shortcomings, the Lakers could still finish with the best record in the league. Even so, Los Angeles right now is not as good a team as Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York. Boston with Russell, San Francisco with Nate Thurmond and Atlanta with its reservoir of muscle are all capable of beating the Lakers in a playoff series. But, come April? The Lakers are just contrary enough to shuck off all the weediness of the past few months and prove that everybody was right after all: you can't beat a team with Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West on it. Or can you?