It was summer in Los Angeles, the season when the bad air always hangs heavy over the freeways and swimming pools, and the Lakers usually hire another new coach. Their latest choice, Bill Sharman, was explaining his system of game-day workouts to Guard Gail Goodrich (see cover).
"On the road," said Sharman, "I like to take the team out to the arena about 10:30 in the morning and just run through some of the things we plan to do that night."
"It sounds reasonable," answered Goodrich.
"Then about 10:45 we'll loosen up with a few exercises and shoot some baskets," Sharman continued.
December 13, 1971
"Nothing wrong with that," replied Goodrich.
"What do you do at 11?" inquired a bystander.
Goodrich, a quick learner, beat his coach to the answer. "I know." he said. "Then we all go back to the hotel and wake up Wilt."
In Los Angeles, NBA championships are like the smogbound San Gabriel Mountains northeast of the city: they are always close at hand but no Angeleno has ever seen one. This curious disappearing act has led the Lakers to try some strange things in recent years. But none of them was seemingly more bizarre than hiring Sharman a precise organizer, avid practicer and hugely successful leader of other pro teams—to coach that noted insomniac and reluctant exerciser, Will Chamberlain.
The widely predicted clash of personalities was expected to jolt Los Angeles like another tremor along the San Andreas Fault, creating so fierce a ruckus that the Lakers, who already looked a bit worn from old age and injuries, might fail to make the playoffs for the first time since they came to Southern California 11 seasons ago. The forecast was correct, in a way, but badly misguided. The Lakers can indeed be found amid a swirl of mayhem—but this time they are inflicting it right and left on the rest of the NBA.
With three victories last week, Los Angeles increased its string of consecutive wins to 17 games, just three shy of the record streak compiled last season by the Milwaukee Bucks. During the run the Lakers not only throttled lesser teams b) an average of 15.6 points but also defeated the Bucks once and their strong Pacific Division rivals, Seattle and Golden State, four times. By remaining unbeaten through November they became the first NBA team ever to go across a calendar month without a loss. Now there is no longer the question of whether they will make the playoffs—they have a six-game division lead and the best record (23-3) in the pros.
The Lakers have attained this sudden eminence by scuttling some assumptions that have been held about them in recent seasons. Many of them involve Chamberlain. It was said that he resisted coaching more intractably than ever and that he was already over the hill—yet pacing himself so gently that it appeared he intended to play until he turned 45. Another assumption was that the Lakers were too old, too scarred by injuries and that they simply did not have the proper personnel to play a fast-break offense.
When Chamberlain joined Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in Los Angeles three years ago, the Lakers were immediately declared invincible. Once they began playing together they proved decidedly otherwise, twice losing in the playoff finals and last year falling 4-1 to Milwaukee in the conference finals. Although West and Baylor, not Chamberlain, were the superstars who had never won a championship during their careers, Wilt received most of the blame for the team's shortcomings. Members of the fakers gave him harsh nicknames such as Big Musty and The Load and he was accused of being everything from lethargic to lame-brained. Rumors said Wilt would soon be traded and then other rumors claimed that no team wanted to deal for him. Still, during his three seasons with Los Angeles, Chamberlain twice led the league in rebounding and once returned from a serious knee injury far faster than expected in order to perform in the playoffs.
Over his 12-year career Chamberlain has been caught in more different poses than Twiggy. There has been the Shooting, 50-Points-a-Game Will and the Passing, Assists Champion Wilt. There has been the High-Post Wilt and the Low-Post Wilt, not to mention numerous New Wilts and always the Old Wilt. There have been Coachable Wilts and Stubborn Wilts. Few men have been as frequently analyzed in public by amateur psychologists. But no matter how many times he has been peeled like a grape, there has remained one constant Chamberlain: the Strong, Rebounding and Defense Wilt. That role, to the almost complete exclusion of all others, is the one Chamberlain now performs for Los Angeles. He is sixth in scoring on the Lakers with 12.6 points a game, barely over a third of his career average. He has taken only nine shots a game and ranks third on the team in assists. Even his foul shooting is worse than ever, as unlikely as that may sound-he has converted but 31% of his free throws. Despite all this, Chamberlain is the most important player in the Laker revival. He easily leads the NBA in rebounding and he blocked 28 shots in three recent victories over Seattle, Boston and Philadelphia.
It is as if Wilt has finally caught up with his old nemesis, Bill Russell. Never before has he played more in the Russell style and, because of it, never before have the Lakers executed the fast break as well as they have this season.
This, of course, is no mere happenstance. Sharman played with Russell and also with two of the finest runners and gunners the Celtics ever had, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones. Sharman was quite a gunner himself and his assistant, K. C. Jones, was Boston's best defensive guard. Since first becoming a pro coach in 1961, Sharman has directed a succession of successful running teams. His Cleveland Pipers in the defunct American Basketball League won the only championship the ABL ever awarded. He later led the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA playoff finals and then moved to the ABA where he built the Utah Stars into league champions.
The fast break is Sharman's favorite mode of attack, but his deepest obsession is with pregame preparation. In addition to what he likes to call "the morning meeting" on game days, there are chalk-talks and calisthenics in the locker room immediately before games and strenuous two-hour practices on days when no game is scheduled. Sharman will rearrange travel plans, blow reveille at odd hours of the morning and even call a workout in an antiquated gym and unlit arena as he did in Philadelphia last week in order to give his players practice enough to suit him.
It is that morning meeting, however, that has proven so nettlesome to some players. This is particularly true for starters like Rick Barry, when he was with San Francisco, who figured if he was to play 40 minutes that night he should be resting during the day. Yet the game-day drills arc neither tiring nor very time consuming. In a 20-to 30-minute period Sharman's team does calisthenics—mostly loosening and stretching exercises—runs several leisurely laps, weaves through a few full-court layup drills and then shoots jumpers and free throws.
Sharman, who imposed the same regimen on himself when he was a player, insists that the drills stimulate his team rather than tiring it out before the game. "When guys doze off or mope around their room or the lobby, they get so logy they may not get sharp until after the game is lost," he says. "What I want them to do is develop a game-day routine. I want them to eat at the same time, shoot at the same time and take a nap for less than an hour and a half in the afternoon. If you sleep more than that, it will slow you down. The morning meeting also serves as a reminder, it gets the players thinking about the game. It also familiarizes them with the conditions they will be playing under, what the floor is like and how it feels to shoot into the background at the arena.
"I feel I've been exposed to a lot of basketball as a pro. I've tried to pick out the points that will be effective. I explain to the players that I don't intend to do things that aren't very important. I don't want to do it for my own sake. I've got too much else to do. I've been on both sides and I tell the players that I've got much less free time than they have and I think they believe me."
There is good reason to doubt that the coach really has much sympathy for player complaints about overwork. Sharman drives himself as hard as anyone, a trademark of his extraordinary sports career. As a schoolboy he worked his way up to the national junior tennis tournament and at USC he starred in both basketball and baseball. He was a rookie on the Brooklyn Dodger bench the day Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run in the 1951 National League playoff. Sharman gave up baseball to join the Celtics and became one of the most dangerous shooters in pro history—and was named one of the 10 best players of the NBA's first 25 years. Like many men who feel their success is largely self-made, he expects similar effort from his players. "These guys are basically employed to play basketball," he says. "They are going to put in a lot of time on it."
Sharman conducts the drills with a detachment typical of his coaching style. He rarely yells—except in the locker room after a loss—he almost never swears and his body movements have a controlled, icy air about them. Even during the emotional peaks of a tight game he never gestures wildly. Restricting his displays of frustration to a quick shake of a fist close in front of his chest or a gentle clap of his hands, he more resembles Evangelist Billy Graham giving a sermon than he does his more expressive fellow coaches.
Sharman's detachment and demands have made him unpopular with many players and he knows it. "I was not hired to win a personality contest," he said last year while coaching the Utah Stars. "I was hired to win basketball games." Although Sharman on social occasions is usually nothing short of charming with the press and the public, a few of the Stars now remember him variously as a "cold fish," "tyrant," "tactical psycho" and "slave driver."
Once, after playing a night game in New York, Sharman changed the Stars' travel plans and put everybody on a bus for a two-hour ride to New Jersey to make a 7 a.m. flight to Kentucky. It was the only way he could get his team into Louisville in time for a practice before the game. Those predawn wake-up calls irked some Stars—but that was the only time last season that they defeated the Colonels in Kentucky. The results are what count; even the most critical of the players he left behind in Utah will admit that Sharman "is a coaching genius."
Chamberlain has met up with geniuses before and he outlasted every one of them. In the past coaches have been rated on how well they "handled" Wilt, but this new relationship with Sharman seems more an accommodation by both men. Sharman listens to his center's suggestions and respects him as an old pro, and Chamberlain obeys Sharman's rules. Perhaps more than for any other player the morning meetings are taxing for Wilt, who rarely is able to fall asleep until almost dawn and for years has gotten most of his rest during daylight hours. Even though he has openly disputed the usefulness of the game-day practices, Chamberlain has been neither absent nor late for any of them, a record for good attendance he has rarely matched before.
"I was concerned about my relations with Wilt in that I hoped the things I thought were important and those he thought were important would not clash." Sharman says. "Before the season I met with Wilt, Jerry and Elgin and got their suggestions. I respect their ideas because they are experienced professionals. The only thing I discussed with Wilt that we didn't see eye to eye on was the morning practices. I told him if I had a choice we wouldn't practice at all, but I didn't know any other way to get things done right. I sincerely would like to make an exception for him, but I can't. I'm aware of his sleeping problem, but we often discuss strategy for the night's game at the meetings and he has to be in on that. I have told him and the rest of the players that any time they don't want to exercise all they have to do is tell me and they won't have to. But they must still come to the morning meeting."
Even Wilt appreciates the Lakers' quick success under Sharman. With Elgin Baylor nudged into retirement by the Los Angeles management after it was determined that his often-injured legs had lost their spring and quickness. Chamberlain was named the Laker captain. Early in the winning streak—which began the night young Jim McMillian took Elgin's place in the starting lineup Sharman was undecided whether to hold a practice the day following a 40-point victory over Philadelphia. He polled the players. And the players told him to ask Chamberlain. "Yes, I think we ought to practice" was Wilt's unexpected verdict.
"I don't like all this talk about how I'm playing only because of Bill Sharman." Chamberlain said last week. "I've always done what's been necessary on any team I've been on. People tend to forget that when I was with Philadelphia we compiled a great record and I sometimes took 30 shots a game. Sonic games now I only lake five or six. but it's a different era and a different team. I'm just doing what's needed."
Another long-held assumption has been that Chamberlain could not provide the maneuver so essential to a last break—a good outlet pass. A quick release of defensive rebounds is mandatory in that style of offense, but it has rarely been part of Wilt's game. His previous coaches resisted the fast break, preferring to move slowly enough so that Chamberlain could set up in the post where patterns would evolve around him. "The outlet pass was something I had to be very conscious of earlier this season," Wilt said. "It was a change of style for us then, but it has become second nature now."
Once Chamberlain releases the ball, he almost never touches it again. When the Laker fast break succeeds, he usually remains standing in the defensive area of the court. Even when Los Angeles settles into its patterns, Wilt handles the ball far less frequently than in past years, when the Laker offense consisted mainly of throwing the ball into the post, letting Chamberlain wave it around in one hand for five or 10 tedious seconds and then throw it back outside for West to take a jump shot.
Los Angeles' new scrambling style also has taken shots away from West, who was out with a sprained ankle during the team's three losses and thus remains personally undefeated so far this season. Jerry leads the league in assists for the first time in his career but no longer heads the Los Angeles scorers. Early in the season McMillian, then playing as Baylor's substitute, topped the Lakers. He has since dropped to third with a 19.5-point average, but his 41-point outburst last week against Philadelphia led Los Angeles from 17 points behind to its 16th straight win.
Goodrich, the 6'1" guard whom the Lakers call Stumpy, leads the team in scoring. By sneaking away for quick lay-ups and by taking deft feeds from West to pop in his strange-looking jump shot—he curls the ball far over his head before he fires—he has become the NBA's fourth highest scorer (25.4 points a game) even though he still appears young enough to be King of the Hop.
"The running game really helps a small man," he says. "Sharman simply told me to shoot the ball off the break whenever I felt I had my shot even if the other guys weren't around yet to rebound. He knew that if I did that, pretty soon the other guys would begin to come down the court fast, too. They'd know they'd have to hurry to get in on the action—and everyone wants to be in on the action."
Goodrich was no longer running ahead of the rest of the Lakers when they came East last week for one of those NBA scheduling atrocities, a two-game, three-day, 6,000-mile road trip to Boston and Philadelphia. Airport bystanders must have wondered if they were witnessing the return of the German General Stall from Berchtesgaden, since most of the Lakers (excluding Happy Hairston in his $2,000 ranch mink) wear the same sort of leather overcoats, favored by Erwin Rommel. Inmates at the Sheraton-Philadelphia Hotel no doubt got a distinctly different impression. In the lobby, where a water bed was on display, the Lakers were involved in something that looked like the Easter Bunny's slumber party. During the day, when the team seemed always on its way to practice or just returning, players would bounce around the aquatic mattress in their Forum blue and gold warmup suits, which are really not blue and gold at all. The gold is a brilliant yellow and Forum blue is regal purple. It is called blue because Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke does not like the word purple (he likes the color, however). Since Cooke is the man inside the Forum with all the green, he can call purple anything he wants.
In Boston, Los Angeles' new fast break was stymied by the old masters of the running game, the Celtics. But then West, whose shooting had been slightly hampered by the aftereffects of last spring's knee operation and two sprained ankles early this season, broke loose for his first big scoring game of the year with 45 points. The Lakers won 124-110.
Two nights later in Philadelphia, Los Angeles geared up its running game in the second half after the 76ers had built a wide lead. Trailing 82-65 with 8:24 remaining to play in the third period, Sharman replaced Hairston with 6'11" Leroy Ellis to help Chamberlain with the rebounding. Ellis blocked Philly's tough Bill Bridges off the boards and pulled in 11 rebounds to go with Wilt's 25 while McMillian, Goodrich and West burned the 76ers with 15 fast-break baskets in the closing 20 minutes. By the end of the third quarter Los Angeles had already taken the lead and went on to win easily 131-116.
Ellis' role in the victory was indication of another Laker strength—depth. While competition from the ABA and expansion in the NBA has weakened most benches, Los Angeles has put together a strong one. The Lakers, a team that in the past three years tied the record for casualties previously held by the Demolition Derby, should not be caught short again. All of the substitutes, except first-round draftee Jim Cleamons, have been NBA starters in the past and most were obtained in waiver deals or through transactions in which Los Angeles gave second-round draft choices and cash to teams hard pressed for money, something the Lakers have plenty of. In the Philadelphia game, for example, another sub, bewigged Flynn Robinson, relieved Goodrich late in the third period and scored two consecutive 17' jump shots that brought the Lakers from a 93-90 deficit into the lead they never relinquished.
Just before the final buzzer of the 131-116 victory, Chamberlain picked off a loose ball and slammed home a dunk for his eighth point of the game—he tried three field goals in all—and Dave Zinkoff, the flamboyant Spectrum public-address announcer, said simply, "Dipper Dunk." That was a common call when Wilt played for Philadelphia not long ago, but now that he has awakened to a new game in Los Angeles it already has the distant ring of nostalgia.