In the beginning (of the present season) Jack Kent Cooke created the new super Lakers by paying something like three or four trillion dollars for Wilt Chamberlain, big super center. And Jack Kent Cooke said, "Let there be a new NBA basketball champion ensconced in my fabulous new Fabulous Forum." And after Jack Kent Cooke and the Los Angeles sportswriters had contemplated Chamberlain and his two teammates—Elgin Baylor, super forward, and Jerry West, super guard—they spoke more or less in unison. And they said, "There is none like them on all the earth, and how will they ever lose a game?"
And the rest of the NBA said, "We shall see what we shall see."
And the third week of the sixth month of the season arrived. And 11 of the other 13 teams in the NBA had beaten the Lakers at least once and some a great deal oftener than once. So that the Lakers, although they secured the Western Division title with a perfunctory lead over the runner-up Atlanta Hawks, were still a great distance away from a national championship.
For the guys who sit in basketball's drafty bleachers through the long winter months, it is a good thing indeed that the rest of the basketball players of the world were not paralyzed by fear at the thought of facing Chamberlain, Baylor and West. Next week the playoffs for the title finally begin, and a glorious three-way cat-and-dog fight between the Lakers, the Hawks and, yes, even the San Francisco Warriors is in prospect. At Vegas, Caliente and the Paris Bourse, the Lakers are not so much as even money to earn the dubious pleasure of losing to the Baltimore Bullets or the New York Knicks or somebody in the ultimate league playoffs ending sometime in May, June or July.
First consider those orphans of the storm, the Warriors, who have the first turn at assaulting the Lakers. By November, a month into the season, they were comatose, with a record of 7-8. In late December they were moribund (16-22). As the All-Star Game approached in mid-January, they were in fifth place and thinking not so much of the playoffs as whether the season would ever end. The news reports on the Warriors during that dismal spell read like something filed out of a field hospital near Danang. Looking back on it all, now that their luck has turned, the Warriors point to the nadir of their fortunes as that dreadful night of Dec. 6 in Seattle. They had exactly seven players fit for service, but league rules insist that a team must have eight men suited up to play or face a possible fine of anywhere from $25 to $1,000. So Jim King, the guard, who was home in bed with the Hong Kong flu, had to be wrapped like a mummy and flown north to sit on the bench, where he shivered and spectated for all but two minutes, when he had to go in and play.
The Warriors' casualty report is really better suited for a medical bulletin than a sports magazine. King, a tough, peppery little guard from Tulsa who, when healthy, last year led the league in scoring, had been counted on as one of the prime movers and shakers of the Warrior attack, but he has become a chronic invalid with an internal pelvic disorder that is inaccurately described as a pulled groin muscle. He missed the first 20 games and played only sporadically thereafter. Recently he has been in the hospital again for a checkup and is still doubtful for the playoffs.
Alvin Attles, who is even smaller and tougher than King, is the team's other offensive sparkplug as well as its assistant coach. He missed 15 of the early games with a pulled hamstring and 11 of the later ones with a shoulder separation. Two weeks ago in Boston he hurt his back and is now sitting restlessly on the bench mending slowly for the playoffs. Minus Attles and King, the Warriors are a little like John F. Kennedy Airport without a control tower.
Then there is Nate Thurmond, an All-Star for the last four years and one of only two or three men with the height and muscle to play belly to belly against Wilt Chamberlain under the basket. Big, genial Thurmond is the kind of rollicking bachelor who keeps a team loose on those awful road trips, but, even more important, you have to have him around to control the boards against people like Bill Russell, Willis Reed, Chamberlain and the other sequoias of basketball. Injury-prone for much of the last four years, Thurmond pulled a thigh muscle early in the season and was lost to the club for most of December.
On and on the woeful story goes with flu, wrenched knees, strained arches and bad backs, to the point where one figures the team doctor must be the richest fellow on the Warriors' roster. Not that it is over yet, but since the All-Star Game the Warriors have slowly been recovering into the kind of team that last week outshot, outdefended and out-rebounded the Lakers themselves for a smashing 97-85 victory in their final meeting of the season at the San Francisco Cow Palace.
When the Warriors are asked what happened to suddenly send them careering along in an opposite and considerably happier direction, they offer a lot of explanations. But one name keeps popping up in most of them—Jeff Mullins (see cover). Mullins is a most charmingly friendly Kentucky boy of not unusual dimensions for a basketball player at a mere 6'4" and 200 pounds. He has the kind of open, ingenuous manner about him that often makes older men say of his kind, "I'd like to have a son like that."
It is only happenstance that Mullins is still a basketball player after a spectacular three years at Duke and his part in the Olympic team's victory in Tokyo. The Hawks, then of St. Louis, drafted him, and he spent two unhappy years with a bench-eye view of the action, while Len Wilkens and Richie Guerin (also on this cover), the team's player-coach and a couple of other seasoned guards did the work. During those two years Mullins averaged a rather unimportant 4.9 and 5.8 points a game. To a young man as intelligent and otherwise promising as he was, it seemed a waste of time, and he so told the Hawks.
"I can't really blame Guerin," Mullins replies in answer to the suggestion that there might have been bad feeling between the rookie and the veteran coach. "The Hawks were always in contention for No. 1, and they couldn't afford to take out a couple of All-Star guards to teach a young player the game. The only misunderstanding I had with Guerin was that I was a jump shooter, and he wanted me to drive more, because he was a driver. As a result, I became a driver myself. So he helped make me a more complete ballplayer."
In the expansion draft for the new Chicago Bulls, Mullins was taken from the Hawks, and he reluctantly showed up at training camp unsure of whether he wanted to play. After the first week he and King, another draftee, were traded to the Warriors in exchange for that fine old guard, Guy Rodgers. For once the cliché held up: it was a trade that was beneficial to both teams.
Mullins broke in at San Francisco in Rick Barry's final year, when the team lost in the playoff finals to Philadelphia. With an 18-point average in the playoffs, he proved he could shoot against the pros. So, when Barry defected to the new league the following year, Mullins seemed to be one who might help take up the slack. Franklin Mieuli, one of those ebullient types from the world of broadcasting, had bought control of the team, and he had visions of Jeff Mullins as the looming superstar who would make the world—or, at least, that part of it within sight of the Top of the Mark—forget Rick Barry.
With the team in third place and just barely .500 for the season, one could hardly say Barry is out of mind. But since the All-Star Game, Mullins has been averaging about 26 points per game, fourth in the league among the guards, and his 49% field-goal shooting average leads them all. More important, since the Warriors have begun to click in the late season, winning six of their last seven games and 15 of their last 22, it has been Mullins' steady 25 points or so, with a career high of 42 against Detroit, that has kept the team moving.
Closing out the season with a winning streak and beating the super Lakers in a playoff are two different things entirely, like having a good day at the races and breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. No one knows that better than the Warriors, who finished the season 3-4 against Los Angeles. The victories included one triple-overtime victory, and another came on a basket in the last second. Meanwhile the Lakers had beaten them once by more than 30 points. What confidence there is must come from last week's convincing win at the Cow Palace, when the Warriors came from eight points behind in the third quarter to win by 12.
"The matchups are the thing," says Rudy LaRusso, the ex-Laker forward who is now so important to the Warriors that they let him live in Los Angeles and commute to San Francisco for games and practice. "Thurmond against Chamberlain, that's got to be a standoff. Neither can do very much against the other. Wilt will get a few dunk shots, and Nate will get a few hooks, and that's about it. They'll be about even in rebounds." As if to prove the point, in last week's Warrior victory Chamberlain scored five points, Thurmond six; the former had 20 rebounds, the latter 26.
"Baylor, West and Mel Counts are the answer then as far as L.A. is concerned," LaRusso continues. "You know Elgin and Jerry are going to get their 20 to 30 points shooting those 17-footers unless they're way off. And Counts has been the really bright spot for them this season with his outside shooting and his rebounding. Jeff and I are just not in a class with Elgin and Jerry, but our bench is a little better than theirs. A little more versatile."
At first glance, Rudy LaRusso hardly seems the athlete best equipped to intellectualize on any sport, including his own, basketball. There is something about his prognathous jaw and the occasional scowl on his big, shaggy face that tells you not to annoy him. Players claim that meeting him head to head on a basketball court is a little like playing a game of tag on the freeway during rush hour. Yet Rudy LaRusso, Dartmouth '59, is one of only two Ivy Leaguers who have made it big in pro basketball in recent years. The other is a Rhodes scholar from Princeton named Bradley. To complete the paradox, LaRusso is a devout student of Don Rickles, and his Rickles routines are worth more to the Warriors in times of stress than a truckload of Miltown. George Lee, the Warriors' soft-spoken young coach, is apt to use LaRusso almost as much as Attles as an extra set of brain and eyes during the heat of a contest.
So what LaRusso says about playoffs is worth listening to, and what he says is this: "The key to playoffs is winning at home and then winning one game on the road. I figure there's a little advantage opening the playoffs away from home, as we do this year against the Lakers. Before the momentum gets started it's sometimes tough for the home team to win two in a row at home right away.
"Of course, away from home the floor's a little different. The lighting's a little different. There are things you're not used to. And you don't have the home crowd with you. But sometimes playoff crowds may be a disadvantage. They're unsophisticated, and a lot of times you don't know what they're cheering about. You pick up a loose ball and hear a lot of cheering and wonder what's happened. The regular fans would just be sitting there.
"There are fewer lapses of concentration in a playoff, because everyone is at a very high emotional pitch. This is a good time for us to go into the playoffs, because we've been playing better the last month and have our confidence and a winning attitude. The team has needed this overall concentrated effort. The easiest thing in the world to do is lose. You've got to be willing to make the effort to win, to pay the price. Early in the season we had this copout about injuries, but now that we have been winning we have the confidence and the right attitude. Mullins in the last 25 games or so has really been shooting well, scoring well for us. He's the leader of the team. He's assumed the burden. He'll take the shot at the crucial time. It's what the team needed."
As befits a modest young man, Jeff Mullins agrees in a slightly different way. "It's going to take a super effort by Atlanta or us to beat L.A.," he says, "but I don't think a super effort in the playoffs is out of the question. This team has great rapport and is capable of pulling together. It has not been a good season for the Warriors, but the last month and a half has been a big improvement. If we're going to beat L.A. we're going to have to shoot from the outside, and if we're not as sharp as we can be in six or seven games or however long it takes, there is no way we can beat them. I think we are optimistic, though. We're very strong defensively. We're as healthy as we've been all year, and we're playing them while we're fresh. If we can just get their superstars a little tired we have the bench to beat them."
Still, there seems to be a sense of doubt in the minds of the Warriors, this notion that unless everybody plays about perfectly there is not much hope of beating the super Lakers. You will not find any such hypothesis around that strangely lit pavilion on the Georgia Tech campus called the William A. Alexander Memorial Coliseum, where the Atlanta Hawks keep house. The Hawks have a little score to settle with themselves, and most of them would rather desecrate the flag than allow themselves to think they cannot do it. Last year, having won the Western Division's regular season, the Hawks opened the playoffs against San Francisco, operating without Thurmond. Cocky and careless, they lost the series in six games, and they are still talking about that 12 months later.
Listen to Bill Bridges, the Hawks' superb forward, who has been with the team ever since he graduated from Kansas in 1961. A tall, dignified, marvelously constructed man, Bridges would look more at home in a diplomat's homburg and striped pants than in the garish underwear of a basketball suit. In his seventh season as a pro he has reached the point where he can see the end and appraise what it all means to him. "I'm at the zenith of my career," he said recently. "I'm never going to be a superstar. All I want at this point is to play on a world championship team and make some money out of the game. Last year I thought would be the high point. We led our division, but we let down and lost in that playoff to San Francisco. It was humiliating, and the whole season meant nothing. I'd hate to go through a summer like that again; it was the longest summer of my life. This is a team of character, and we aren't going to let it happen again."
Other Hawk players say the same thing, although not in quite such impressive prose as that of their captain, Bridges. Of course, the Hawks have to knock out either San Diego or Chicago in the playoff semifinals before they get their shot at the super Lakers. Or will it be their revenge on the Warriors? It is hard to imagine them losing to Chicago, whom they have schneidered this year, or even to expansionist San Diego, against whom they have had to work a little harder for their 3-2 advantage. But why quibble? Barring catastrophe or doomsday, the Hawks should be spending April commuting to California, and the matchup they are thinking about is against Los Angeles.
"The problem against Los Angeles—and I think it is the only problem," Bridges says, "is going out and playing our game and being healthy. Our strength is in Zelmo Beaty. He is a great shooter and is capable of shooting Chamberlain right out of the gym. If Beaty has a great night against the Lakers, don't worry about it. They're going to do their thing, and if we do our thing well, we're going to beat them. If we do our thing excellently, it will be a wipeout."
Later that evening, in the Hawks' dressing room before a game with Philadelphia, Bridges remembered something he had meant to tell the visitor. He leaned down, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Don't forget another reason we're going to win the playoffs. We've got the best coach in the league."
The next morning, following the Hawks' 39-point victory over the 76ers, the best coach in the league sat in his brand-new eighth-floor office overlooking much of Atlanta's glass-and-concrete rehabilitation. His name is Richie Guerin, and for the next few minutes he was as relaxed as a New Yorker—or, anyway, a New Yorker who coaches professional basketball—is apt to get. Twelve hours earlier, dressed in the Hawks' red, white and blue sweat suit and ready to put himself in as a substitute guard if he thought his team needed him, Guerin had been jumping up and down off the bench, shouting a continuous, 48-minute stream of instructions to his players on the court.
"Up the floor, up the floor," he would yell when the Hawks took a rebound and passed it off to their new guard, Walt Hazzard. "Off to the left, keep moving, get the ball up."
Guerin, who seldom plays anymore unless one of his regular guards is sick or in foul trouble, was drilling his players in the change of style he had decided upon some 10 days earlier. "At the beginning of the season I thought we should play a more deliberate game to make use of our big men," Guerin explained, "but that was hurting us with some of our other players. Now I've decided we should make the big men get up the court quicker. We've got enough big men to substitute freely if any of them get tired.
"The real difference in our play now is Walt Hazzard," he added, his big face filling with furrows and his big hands cutting the air in front of him karate-fashion. "When we made the trade for Hazzard just before the season began I had to give up one of the best guards in the league, Len Wilkens, but I knew I was getting my kind of a player. There wasn't time to break him in properly in training camp, so some of the things he did were good and some not so good. Now he is the key to our club. When we rebound we get the ball to Hazzard, and it's his responsibility to get the ball upcourt as soon as possible. No one in the league does it better. He's the one who has to get the ball to our big men."
Early in the season, when they were losing as much as winning, the Hawks were being faulted as a slow team. Nobody had more strength off the boards, with Beaty at 6'9" in the pivot and forwards like Bridges at 6'6", Paul Silas at 6'7" and Lou Hudson at 6'5", all with plenty of muscle and elbows. And Hudson, a quiet third-year man, has developed into a consistent 22-points-per-game type. In the backcourt with Hazzard was Joe Caldwell, a wonderfully wide-eyed, innocent-looking athlete whose outside shot was good for another slew of points. So there it all was, plus what the Hawks like to think is the strongest bench in basketball (with, oh, maybe, the exception of Baltimore), yet the team wasn't winning consistently.
"That was our big problem—consistency," Guerin emphasized. "We're basically a good rebounding team, Beaty and Hudson are two of the best offensive players in the league, Caldwell has had a very good season for us stealing the ball—he's very aggressive—so if we can keep some consistency going into the playoffs, then basically there won't be any weakness. There's no time to be inconsistent in the playoffs."
Well, if concentration will beat the Lakers the Warriors will do it. If speed and consistency are needed, it is up to the Hawks. But if superstars can with-stand all these admirable qualities, then Jack Kent Cooke hath bought himself a champion after all. Of the Western Division, that is.