It was a sunny and bitterly cold late Sunday afternoon, and the bus was on its way back to Chicago from Milwaukee, back to O'Hare airport, where the Los Angeles Lakers had landed Friday evening and from which they would move onward to New York. "It's some kind of different ride than coming up, isn't it?" Joe Mullaney asked, needing, and expecting, no reply. Mullaney sat alone in the second row on the right, gazing through his window at the snowy countryside, and the nine viable members of the Lakers, chattering and clowning, were scattered all the way to the rear of the chartered Greyhound. Last midnight, after the Lakers had taken a three-point beating from the Chicago Bulls, the bus had brought them up this same expressway in the blackness, on their way to a Sunday afternoon game with Milwaukee, and the silence inside had been leaden and nearly total.
They were on a four-game road trip—Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, Baltimore—four games in five days for a lame and weary team. With first place in their division only half a game away, losing to mediocre Chicago had been a disaster; there was so little hope of beating the other three, the strongest teams in the NBA. Yet scarcely 12 hours after the Chicago loss, after the icy midnight bus ride to Milwaukee and the plastic meal at some deserted cafeteria along the way and four hours' sleep in a downtown motel—after all that, the team had rescued a last-seconds, two-point victory over Milwaukee and Lew Alcindor with a theatrical jump shot by Jerry West. From 12 points back, the Lakers had come on to win. "That was a biggie," Mullaney said, more or less to himself. From the back of the bus Happy Hairston of the painful shoulder echoed him, "Man, that was some big win." Another voice added, "Chicago'll want to know what kind of food we ate after their game."
Since last December there had been times—and this trip was one of them—when the Lakers reminded you of the winter at Valley Forge. As far back as early November, in the ninth game of the new season, there had been the shattering loss of Wilt Chamberlain, who had hit the floor like a sack of meal and was gone, apparently for the duration, with a ruptured tendon in his knee. Elgin Baylor, who at 35 and without benefit of Tchaikovsky can still make moves that Nureyev would envy, was lost for weeks with a pulled groin-muscle. Jerry West, perhaps the game's best all-round player today, was gimpy on a sprained ankle, when he wasn't out because of it. So was Rick Roberson, the rookie who replaced Chamberlain. A groin-muscle injury also incapacitated Guard Johnny Egan, and Keith Erickson, the quick forward from UCLA, had a bad ankle on one side, then on the other. Willie McCarter, the No. 1 draft choice, tore ligaments in his ankle and joined Chamberlain in cast and civvies. Dick Garrett, the other rookie guard, limped along on still one more flimsy ankle. "There were times in the dressing room," says West, "when we'd look at each other and just laugh. 'Who's going to get it tonight?' someone would say."
These were the athletic ruins among whom Joe Mullaney found himself standing soon after his debut as a coach in the pros. A soft-spoken man with an avuncular manner, Mullaney had reason to expect better. He had just abandoned a 15-year sinecure at Providence College, sold his house in the East and packed his wife, four sons and a daughter off to a strange land. He might even have had momentary intimations of immortality as he assumed charge of the Lakers in October. With their three superstars more or less intact, the team had come within two points of the Celtics in the seventh game of the finals of the NBA playoffs the previous May. Bill Russell was no longer around to harass Chamberlain and the others, and this looked like the Lakers' year for a championship. Then—catastrophe.
Among his other assets, Mullaney is a patient man. As the injuries multiplied and the Lakers slowly slid into fourth place in the Western Division with a record of 15-19 just before Christmas, Mullaney's courtside cool amazed Angelenos, especially those used to the manner of his predecessor, Butch Van Breda Kolff. Mullaney did not shake his fists at referees. His speech remained unhurried, his pleasant face unlined by tension, his neat gray hair unruffled, his conservative East Coast garments unripped. "I was just watching," he has since explained in an Irish-tinted accent that could come from nowhere but metropolitan Queens. "We had only 5½ days of practice before our first exhibition game, and I deliberately did not come on very strong. I certainly did not want to come to an established team that had been very close to winning the championship and, like a little dynamo, say, 'Look, fellows, this is the way we're going to do it now.'
"I just felt I was going to get to know this group. Offensively, we had all kinds of talent—three of them had scored something like 68,000 points in their careers—so I felt there was very little I could offer them at that end of the court. What am I going to tell an Elgin Baylor about offense? At the other end of the court, though, I felt I could do a little more, once I discovered what they liked to do, where they liked to play, how they'd developed their skills."
The day after Christmas the New York Knickerbockers flew into Los Angeles for another easy touch, and 17,219 Angelenos came out to watch the limping Lakers take another bite of humble pie. Instead, they saw the start of a Lazarian episode in the agony of their heroes. West scored 40 points, 29 of them in the second half, and the Lakers held the Knicks to 106 points against 114 of their own. Over the next 5½ weeks the team won 15 of 20 games, the last nine in a row, until the string ended in Detroit with West and Baylor again on the sidelines with injuries. The Lakers were firmly in second place and closing on first-place Atlanta.
During the earlier dismal decline, Mullaney had been filling the minds of his players with one thought: defense. It was an idea many of them had not been asked to consider seriously since school days. "It wasn't until Wilt was out and Elgin got hurt the first time that we started emphasizing it so strongly," Mullaney says. "We started trapping the ball outside and forcing it down one side, so we got real sluffing possibilities from the opposite side. As I said when I took the job, I thought I could probably influence them defensively to some degree. I probably haven't influenced them as much as I would like, but part of this has been due to the number of injuries we've had. We haven't been able to stay with one unit long enough in practice. It's very difficult to have a sensible practice when you're running with eight men and the coach is the ninth man.
"When I first came here each player felt he was responsible only for his own man on defense, and when you started mentioning that you wanted him to play his man a certain way—forcing him in a certain direction—the player would question it. The fact that we'd be forcing a man in a certain direction, and giving him an avenue to move in, kind of went against the grain with some fellows. They thought, 'He's my responsibility, and he's going to beat me.' And I'd say, 'If he does, we know in which direction he's going, and we're going to have a man help you now. In turn, he will be helped by a second man. Then if they can make a pass to their fifth man, away at the end of this succession of moves we make, more power to them. Then it'll be my fault. You can look over at me and say, 'Coach, he's open.'
"But there's resistance to forcing your man in a direction that you think will certainly give up a basket if you don't get help. And it would be foolish basketball if you weren't going to be given help. Say you are fronting this man. If they drop a pass over you, you are going to get help from the weak side. If you half a man on one side, and he backdoors you, as they say, or reverses on you—well, we almost invite that play, because he's going to run into the next defensive man. It's a team principle. The Knicks have been employing it extremely well."
Mullaney talks like that, and though many Laker fans would not understand him, they have been turning out to view the results at a rate of more than 13,000 a game, well over 2,000 better than the best previous year. The team's broadcaster, Chick Hearn, a man with the enthusiasm of a carload of pompon girls, keeps reminding his public that not since Horatio was standing at the bridge have there been such defensive heroics as Mullaney's men are displaying.
It is a rather recent notion on many teams, this idea that you can lead a professional basketball player to water and make him drink. Richie Guerin, the Atlanta coach, expressed the old, traditional thesis after one of his recent games with the Lakers. Guerin's Hawks had won, and Guerin was denigrating the suggestion of a reporter that he had prepared some strategy to deal with the rejuvenated Lakers. "We all know that coaching has been overemphasized in this game," Guerin said. "I think the main thing about coaching is getting along with people." He might have added the Procrustean viewpoint that an NBA coach's chief function is to get the boys to the planes on time.
One reason Mullaney was willing to risk a career with the pros was that he thought he detected a change in this philosophy. During the previous 10 years at Providence, a Dominican college of slightly more than 2,000 undergraduates, he had achieved the third-best won-lost record (behind UCLA and Cincinnati) in college basketball, and his interest in the pros had been limited to spectating. Then he began to observe what his friends, Red Holtzman and Jack Ramsey, were doing in New York and Philadelphia. Of Ramsey, Mullaney says, "Here was one guy I figured would die as a pro coach. In college, every game to him was like a war. If he lost, you couldn't talk to him after a game. I didn't see how he could survive an 82-game season, but he was very happy with his first year. He felt the fellows had responded very well to what he wanted to try. And he had done a lot of things that were new to the league. So I kept this in the back of my mind."
Since history sometimes has a certain logic, the Laker job was offered to Mullaney at just the moment he was ready to chance such an adventure. And here he was, in the waning weeks of his first season, on a bus with nine invalids. At O'Hare airport, carrying bags and equipment, the Lakers stood around for the inevitable team debate over which plane to take. The 5:30 won.
In New York there was a rare and welcome day's rest, and everyone sat around the Statler Hilton lobby and argued about cars and movies and the dimensions of passing girls and discussed the rumor that Chamberlain might soon rejoin the team. His cast was off, and he had been working out at volleyball and running on the Santa Monica beach. Baylor was told that some press-box kibitzers insisted Wilt would weaken the team. In the low post, where he likes to play, it was argued, he clogs up the lanes for Baylor and West. Not only that, but how would he ever adjust to Mullaney's new defense in so short a time?
"Stronger without Wilt? No way," said Baylor, whose enormous dignity always adds authority to his words. "Do you think New York would be stronger without Reed, or Milwaukee without Alcindor? If we had had Wilt all season we would be leading our division by seven games, probably even more. When we lost Wilt it hurt our defense."
It was much the same reaction from West. This has been Jerry's year, his best ever as a pro. "We get outrebounded every night, but we wouldn't with Wilt," he said. "With a guy like that, if you're going bad defensively or offensively, he can pick you up by himself. Actually, our season is still ahead of us, not behind us. The way Mullaney has helped us on defense is responsible for what we've done so far. He's one of those coaches you want to play for." West paused, thought a minute and added, "I think he might be one of the nicest guys I ever met in my life."
The strongest indication that West may be right about the Lakers' season came last Thursday. Returning from a dicey three-point victory in Baltimore to play all their remaining eight games at home, the players were out on the practice court three hours after the plane landed. Half the city's TV cameras glared at them from the sidelines. The moment had finally arrived: Chamberlain was ready to test his knee in a hard workout. Los Angeles had seldom known such suspense since Jean Harlow took her first deep breath in Hell's Angels.
Chamberlain worked up a good sweat. He bounded around like a giraffe in springtime. He ran, he leaped, he dunked the ball, he rebounded, he pushed people around, and he was pushed back. And he looked good. It was a tribute to his determination to get back in action this year and to the hours of exercise.
After the workout everyone crowded around him. Wilt was cautious: "If I don't think I can do the job after a week or so of practice, I'll say so. I've done all I possibly can to get where I am. If I think the knee is all right after a week, the next decision is up to my coach and my doctor."
At stake is not just the season of Joe Mullaney and his Lakers. That decision is anxiously awaited in all the citadels of the NBA whose teams will be in the playoffs.