Jim Murray, the prize-winning syndicated columnist of the Los Angeles Times, was at the Derby in Louisville last week, telling his readers of the horrors of another city ("This crummy old bawd of a river town") and its famous spring event ("It's like holding the heavyweight championship on a barge"). He really should have been home, for the annual championship futility of the Los Angeles Lakers is at least as reliable a part of the sporting calendar as the Derby, and, by now, very nearly as rich in tradition.
This is the seventh time in the last nine years that the Lakers have reached the NBA finals, a prodigious record of consistency that only the most royal of sporting families—people like the Yankees, Canadiens and Celtics—have ever approximated. Of course, any resemblance between them and the Lakers ends there, since the other teams win, and so the New York Knickerbockers came to town last week determined to do their part to see that the Lakers kept losing.
What a pity for the devoted Angelenos that Murray wasn't on hand to assess their city and their sporting highlight. It doesn't seem fair. So, with apologies to Murray:
All right, sports fans, here we are in Los Angeles for the NBA finals, They Shoot Lakers, Don't They? The league has taken the rule books away from the refs and given them copies of Silent Spring. The Lakers have finished second so many times that in this town Avis employees wear Laker buttons. They say, "We Try Often." The fans still come out to see the Lakers only because they have a lot of local flavor. The Lakers remind them of Grauman's Chinese Theater since they always play the finals with their hands in cement.
Of course, the fans are used to second-best here. Anybody who can get out of L.A. does. Hollywood is on location in Europe. The mayor is away so much he makes Judge Crater look like the man who came to dinner.
This is the town that first gave us smog, under its maiden name, Pasadena. Saint Bernards patrol the freeways, carrying stale tacos around their necks for the stranded. Los Angeles is the only city in the world where the suburbs are so tacky the slums won't let them near for fear it will lower their property values. If the Santa Barbara oil slick drifted south, Los Angeles would put a rope around it and call it a public park.
Jerry West made a 63-foot shot at the buzzer, and the Lakers still lost. This is like surrendering after Hiroshima—to the Japanese. The team has finished second so often that Tom Dewey and William Jennings Bryan could open in the backcourt. The last time Floyd Patterson fought, he came prepared to leave disguised as a Laker. Not even Doris Day has come as close as the Lakers so many times.
The team's arena is located next to a racetrack, so the fans at least used to be able to get even at night. But the bookies here are smart and after six years stopped taking place bets on the Lakers. If the Lakers lose in the NBA finals one more time, they win permanent possession of a new trophy presented by the management—the Los Angeles Kings.
The New York-Los Angeles series was developing along the usual Laker lines—perverse. The players were winning games they seemed destined to lose, and losing those that must surely be theirs. As usual, the Lakers were the underdogs; as usual, just as everything was going great, West bruised his left thumb in the third game and woke up the next morning with a painful, misshapen, nearly grotesque hand. Naturally, in the best Laker tradition, he played his finest game the next night. "What could we do?" said Knick Coach Red Holzman. "We didn't have thumb practice."
Even after six straight championship defeats (seven, counting one in '59 when the team was in Minneapolis), no one—least of all the Boston Celtics, who beat them in all those series—has ever suggested that the Lakers have caved in to pressure or been guilty of anything except not being quite good enough.
Indeed, once again the Lakers showed their heart in this championship, as they came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits—and they had to win the fourth game in overtime after suffering an emotional overtime defeat in the third. Now they must be tested again, as the Knicks went into the lead once more by winning the fifth game Monday night in New York, and stood only one game away from winning their first championship.
In the end, though, the outcome will almost certainly be decided, as it has until now, by how well the Knicks shoot from outside and how well the Lakers control the tempo of the game. It has been a series not so much of matchups as of flow. When the Knicks have been able to run and open up the court—as they did in all but the third quarter of the first game—the Lakers are no match for them. But the Knicks' main weakness is rebounding, and without the boards they can't set the pace—unless a high percentage of their outside shots go in. Their problem is accented more by the fact that Willis Reed, the league's MVP, must battle the larger Wilt Chamberlain, and, on offense, is far from the boards when he shoots outside.
What Reed has accomplished in these playoffs has been magnificent—particularly since he has been hobbled with a chronically sore left knee. No man has had to face, in succession, the quality of opponents he has—Wes Unseld, last year's MVP; Lew Alcindor, next year's MVP; and Chamberlain, MVP two years ago and still a great bulwark even in active convalescence from knee surgery. However, in moving outside to find room to shoot over Chamberlain (and Alcindor before him), Reed has, by necessity, usurped Walt Frazier's territory.
Frazier hasn't been able to penetrate so well up the middle, has had to take the offense more to the sides, and the Knicks haven't been able to get as many of their good shots over the top. This may account for the shooting slumps that plagued them in the first four games.
The team's success depends on its outside shooting. After the first game West could only shake his head in awe. "They just raise up and shoot," he said. "They're such a very, very intelligent team. Reed is so active, and they recognize this, and use him so well in their offense. And they just all can hit. They work for an open 15-foot shot, and if this man isn't open, he passes to another man for a 15-foot shot, and if he isn't open, they keep passing it till they find a man who is open for a 15-foot shot. And if he happens to miss, then they just go to the bench and find another man who can make a 15-foot shot."
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has had to depend on working set stuff off of Wilt, and on West, and on West, and on West. The conflicting styles have been one factor in making this series so exciting. Only two other playoff series in all NBA history had two overtime games. Moreover, the second game, in New York, was decided by only two points, and the Knicks came from behind in the last quarter to win the opener.
It's only appropriate that the championship has been so thrilling, for never have so many cared so much about the NBA. It's the rage, especially in all the most important places. The Knicks have played to 956,226 fans at home. With the possible exception of Oh! Calcutta! which, of course, appeals to more exalted instincts, Knick tickets are the prize catch in a town where there are tickets to a lot of things. Even Mayor Lindsay showed up in the locker rooms after one game. "Fun City, baby, Fun City," Frazier said in greeting.
Interest is equivalently high in the nation's other largest city. Imagine, even this: all the hotshots in Las Vegas are scurrying around for tickets for something in L. A. There aren't any, of course, and the Lakers, like the Knicks, have been happy to accommodate the overflow with theater TV. The home TV of the second game from New York had 31% share of the Los Angeles audience. Hugh Hefner and his bunny wabbits even delayed the taping of their TV show to watch the third game on monitors.
This was the game that the Lakers managed to lose 111-108 in overtime, after blowing a big lead. The Lakers had taken a 56-42 halftime lead when Keith Erickson hit a 40-foot shot at the buzzer. New York was cold, shooting 33%—25% not counting Reed—and the vaunted bench was useless. This was one for L.A. to take.
In all their seasons of teasing greatness, the Lakers have, however, never exhibited a tendency to go to the jugular, and they let the Knicks come right back at them. West grew tired, and the hand began to hurt. It was his man, Barnett, driving on him, who led New York in the rally until, at the last, it was a 100-100 tie with 12 seconds left. The Knicks called time and set up a play to spring Bill Bradley free for a shot off a Dave DeBusschere pick. Bradley couldn't get clear and, with seven seconds left, DeBusschere burst high to his left, above the free-throw line. Frazier passed him the ball. DeBusschere gave a head fake, but his man, Happy Hairston, did not bite, so DeBusschere could only raise again, for real, and, turning slightly sideways, he jumped. Hairston went with him, but DeBusschere put the shot in.
Wilt, under the basket, reached down in dismay for the ball and took it out of bounds. West and Erickson looked up at the clock that had stopped at :03. The Lakers had no time-outs left. Wilt passed the ball in to West at the left of the lane. He used three dribbles, cutting to the right side by the free-throw lane with the last one, for Reed had suddenly loomed up before him. In fact, West didn't shoot uncontested. Reed had a hand high, jumping with him, as he began his shot. West stepped, finally, about two feet beyond the free-throw circle, 63 feet from the basket, and let fly with the ball.
Chick Hearn, the Laker announcer, whose game account is broadcast in The Forum, his voice droning in the background like some Himalayan chant, said: "An 80-foot jumper. [Pause] Good." No one else was any more lucid or composed as the ball tumbled into the basket, just missing the back rim. DeBusschere, later to characterize it as "a disheartening hoop," was standing three feet from where the ball landed. He threw out his arms and collapsed backward in a heap. Chamberlain, playing under ABA rules, rushed over and tousled West's hair, clapped his hands together and tore off to the locker room under the impression that Los Angeles had won. He was retrieved for the overtime.
"If the Lakers can't pick up momentum from that—wow!" Hearn said. They could not. They came out uninspired, reluctant to move or shoot. West missed all five shots he took. Barnett, rested briefly, came back to make the deciding basket off of West. New York was ahead, two games to one, and in command, and the pain and swelling in West's left hand was growing.
He kept ice on the hand the next night, and the next afternoon alternated treatments of ice, whirlpool and sound. The swelling went down, so he gave it a try. In 52 minutes he shot 13 for 26, 11 for 12 from the free-throw line, got five rebounds and assisted on 18 of the Lakers' other 33 baskets. Elgin Baylor played his best game, too—with 30 points, and some moves that he took from his 1960 repertoire—and Chamberlain was at the top of his game. So was Erickson, who is now the fine player he showed promise of being when he held the full-court press together at UCLA several years ago. Despite leading for virtually all of the game, the Lakers let Barnett and DeBusschere bring the Knicks back, and they could have won it if Frazier hadn't missed at the buzzer.
Then, in this overtime, the Lakers didn't need momentum. They had John Tresvant. A substitute forward, Tresvant had seen no action in this series until the last minute of regulation time, when Coach Joe Mullaney decided he needed some height for defense. Tresvant responded like a puppy dog let off the leash, making steals, getting rebounds, starting fast breaks, passing, drawing fouls, giving them and generally inspiring his teammates with an exuberance that carried the Lakers to a 121-115 victory.
And so, Tresvant had brought the Lakers closer, once again, in their eternal quest for a title for Los Angeles. West, who still wakes up in the night during playoffs, his bed dripping wet with the perspiration of nervousness, can't forget all the previous close calls. "Think? Of course I think. I think of all those shots that could have done it. I still see [Frank] Selvy's basket falling off, and the others, and I just wonder why just once we couldn't be the one to get those baskets that mean it all."
Baylor, stately now, one of the few men who has ever managed to appear dignified in a basketball uniform, is more philosophical. The only specter he sees is ahead. "Oh, I forget the losses. I'm immune to the past," he says. "This doesn't seem completely real anyway. It seems to me that even if we get by the Knicks, the Celtics must be waiting for us somewhere out there."