The Los Angeles Lakers, lethargic and slumberous through two losing games of their series with the San Francisco Warriors, came to life with the fury of an irritable giant and crushed the Warriors four straight to move into the semifinals of the NBA playoffs. The most irritable and one of the most effective of the Lakers was massive Wilt Chamberlain, who performed for the Warriors until he was traded by Warrior Owner Franklin Mieuli in 1965.
"Chamberlain is not an easy man to love," Mieuli said last week, with less reason than ever to love Wilt. "I don't mean that I personally dislike him. He's a good friend of mine. But the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, and Wilt is neither. He's easy to hate, and we were the best draw in the NBA on the road, when people came to see him lose. I traded him because of cold, hard facts—I was making money for everyone but myself." (In the NBA home teams keep all the gate receipts.)
"Chamberlain made the rest of the team faceless and anonymous," Mieuli said. But this can hardly be said of Wilt in his role with the Lakers. Although he played a major role in the defeats of the Warriors, he was by no means the only gun in the arsenal. Jerry West, always the beautifully coordinated, controlled athlete, did as much as Chamberlain to set a winning tempo for Los Angeles. Hitting from the fringes of the Warrior defense with lovely, soft set shots, setting up plays and passing unerringly to teammates freed by picks and driving through the heart of the defense for layups, West was the complete basketball player.
On behalf of the Warriors, it must be conceded that their whole game—offense and defense—came unjointed with only 37 seconds gone in the third game of the series when their own version of Jerry West suffered a crippling knee injury. Jeff Mullins, who looks and moves much like West, had scored 36 and 20 points in the two Warrior victories. More important, his ability to hit from outside had forced Chamberlain to come out from under the basket occasionally, opening lanes for the Warriors to sneak through for high-percentage close-up shots.
April 14, 1969
Mullins, like West, is the kind of star who distorts a defense by his very presence. When he was injured, the Warriors, with no first-rate playmaker and no really outstanding long shooter, were reduced to feeble plinking at the Laker defense. Chamberlain stationed himself in the near vicinity of the basket and slapped back any attempts by the San Francisco players to get in close. In one virtuoso performance in the fifth game, at Los Angeles, Wilt batted away 10 Warrior shots, collected 27 rebounds and held the club together when West fouled out with four minutes and 43 seconds to play.
This was the closest of the four Laker victories and it was a measure of West's value to the team. Jerry got into foul trouble early and spent much of the second quarter on the bench. The Warriors, who had been trailing badly, began to surge. Then West came off the bench and, with two beautiful plays, killed off the San Francisco hopes.
With Mullins out, the Warriors were compelled, at this crucial moment, to assign young Bob Lewis the unrewarding chore of trying to stifle West. Jerry, bringing the ball down court with the fluid ease that marks his play, paused near the sideline to the right of the basket, dribbling the ball almost casually and studying the anxious Lewis in front of him. Then, in a flash of wonderfully controlled motion, he faked to his right, back to his left, cut right again past the floundering Lewis and sped down the baseline to drop in a perfect layup.
Moments later, from the top of the key, he slipped by Lewis again and threaded his way through the heart of the San Francisco defense, dipped under the outstretched arm of big Nate Thurman, and lofted a gentle underhand shot that barely stirred the cords as it dropped through the basket. When he fouled out with more than four minutes to play, the Warriors began to move again, but their effort fell short as the Lakers won 103-98. The last game of the series was a rout, Los Angeles winning 118-78.
After the fifth game, Bill van Breda Kolff, the Laker coach, paid willing tribute to West. "We don't play that well without him," he said. "When I had to put him on the bench in the second quarter because of the fouls, we lost some of our coordination. I think we would have blown the game open if I could have played him full time."
It was in this game, too, that Chamberlain established domination over Thurmond, the fine Warrior center. In the first two games—the Warrior victories—Thurmond had outplayed Chamberlain. He is a bit shorter than Chamberlain and a good deal lighter, but he is very quick and smart and a much better outside shot than his rival. He had fought Chamberlain to a standoff on rebounds in the first two games and outscored him.
But on this evening in Los Angeles, moving with the agility that is so surprising in so big a man, Wilt took over both the offensive and defensive boards. "He outmuscled me," Thurmond said later, "especially on the offensive boards." Chamberlain had 27 rebounds to only 13 for Thurmond.
Tom Hawkins, a Laker veteran who had flashes of brilliance in the last two games, shook his head in admiration of Wilt when the series was over. "Wilt has been something else," he said. "You want to know why he's worth so much money? Because he controls the game, the way he has controlled it in the last three games of this series. He makes the tempo."
Of course, there were other Lakers who contributed. After the Warriors had taken the first two games, Rudy LaRusso, who had scored 61 points for San Francisco in those contests, made what turned out to be a rather prophetic comment. "When you get beat," he said, "you usually lose because of what their fourth and fifth players are doing to you. You know the big guns—the Chamberlains and Wests and Elgin Baylors—are going to get their quota of points. A lot of times the difference comes in what the other guys get, the guys you don't expect to score high."
The other guys in this case turned out to be Bill Hewitt, a slender 6'7" forward from USC, and Johnny Egan, a feisty little 6' veteran from Providence. Van Breda Kolff put them into the lineup in the third game and they helped to bring the comatose Laker attack to life. Egan, looking like a small dark terrier yapping at the heels of a pack of Great Danes, animated the offense with his speed and his enthusiasm, while Hewitt, amazingly poised for a rookie, hit several key shots from outside. He has an odd-looking jump shot, firing the ball from off his right ear with his elbow bent and falling away as he releases it.
In all of their victories but the fourth the Lakers showed a tendency to pile up a lead, then coast as the Warriors nibbled away at it. It is a habit that brings considerable sorrow to van Breda Kolff, but it is one he seems unable to correct. "This is a game of streaks," said Warrior Coach George Lee in explanation. "I suppose it's psychological. You build up momentum and pour it on for a while, then it is only human nature to relax. You can't go full tilt all the time. So when you let down the other club begins to go harder, and the momentum shifts to them. You have to hope that your streaks last longer and get you more points."
From the way the Lakers played in the final slaughter of the Warriors, they appear almost invincible. They won this series despite a subpar performance from their third superstar, Elgin Baylor. Baylor, who has been playing superlative professional basketball for 10 years, looked tired and did not move with his accustomed speed and agility. Only a few times in the six games did he jump high, seem to hang effortlessly in the air and loft a clean, arched shot into the basket. If Baylor is fresh and ready and can contribute his full measure to the Los Angeles game, rebounding as well as scoring points, the Lakers should move easily into the final against Boston or New York. In regular-season play, they established themselves as much the best in the West.
Egan, the little guard, allowed himself a rare moment of optimism during the Warrior series, when the Lakers still trailed one game to two. "I hope the Knicks win the Eastern Division," he said seriously. "We've had good luck with them. The matchups are good for us when we play New York." The matchups, with West and Chamberlain at their best, are good for the Lakers against any team in the world.