This was the week the NBA planned to give us the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks in that long-awaited smash thriller, the Western Conference championship playoffs. The show would star Jerry West, everybody's alltime playoff favorite, plus a huge cast of big-name players who would amaze us with their soaring choreography, leave us agape at their virtuosity and grip us with their dramatic intensity.
Indeed, there were glimpses of all those things. Yet somehow the production, intended as high suspense, often dropped to the level of simple farce. Perhaps it was the bad lighting or the comic score in the first act, or possibly it was the squat little referee who made an unexpected cameo appearance in the second. The bomb scare that sent the audience scurrying after the third act didn't exactly help. But fortunately there were some unexpectedly good performances to uplift the entire show. Wilt Chamberlain, never noted for extraordinary postseason success, was often spectacular in his whirling duels with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And one of the least-known Lakers, a self-acknowledged spear carrier known among his teammates as Floyd Butterball, suddenly became a bright new Los Angeles celebrity.
Retired star forward and official team nicknamer Elgin Baylor gave that title to his successor, Jim McMillian (No. 5 on cover), when he decided that McMillian looked like a rotund facsimile of Floyd Patterson. McMillian is, indeed, a heavyweight—last summer he ballooned to 235 pounds—but still he hit the Bucks for his pro high of 42 points just when it seemed that Milwaukee had the Lakers on the ropes. After his team stumbled off to a horrendous start, McMillian's shooting evened the series, and then, joined by Gail Goodrich on offense and Chamberlain on defense, he kept firing while Los Angeles won the third game.
At least the comedy overtones were gone when the Lakers faced Milwaukee for the fourth session Sunday evening. When the series had started, it seemed that the Bucks would get all the laughs. In the opener at Los Angeles, Milwaukee's defense, overplaying and double-teaming the Lakers, pushed them away from their favorite shooting spots. Thus, a number of off-target attempts by the Lakers—even when men were open—resulted in a dismal 27% shooting average. Los Angeles managed merely eight points in the third period and lost by the high school total of 93-72.
April 24, 1972
On the day before that first game, several Lakers, led by Goodrich, complained during practice about the extra lights ABC television had installed in The Forum. Although an identical lighting setup had been used to televise the 1970 playoffs, the Los Angeles front office asked ABC to change it. Network technicians worked until midnight to make the modifications, but when Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke arrived at The Forum on the next morning he said the lighting was still unacceptable and told ABC to remove even more globes. Out they came.
After the game and the stunning Laker loss, both Cooke and some members of the Los Angeles press seemed convinced that the only reason the Lakers could have dropped 50 points below their usual scoring average was the lighting—even though the Bucks played under the same conditions. Cooke called in the heads of the ABC crew for further lighting conferences, initially demanding that only The Forum lights be used for the second game, then eventually agreeing to a configuration only minimally different from the one ABC had intended to use in the first place. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner seemed ready to call technical fouls on everyone from the network to Thomas Edison. The dispute ended abruptly after the second game, which the Lakers won 135-134.
"The change in the lights did take away some of our home-court advantage in the first game; it changed the environment somewhat," whispered Laker Coach Bill Sharman, who is suffering through his second month with strained vocal cords and sounds these days like Walter Brennan with a strep infection. "If we had lost by one point, I might have said the lights could have had something to do with it. But when you lose by 19, it's not the lights. It was simply that our good shooters were all way off. Gail made two of 14, Jimmy hit three of 20 and Jerry four of 19."
McMillian and Goodrich broke their slumps in the second game, but West did not. He hit merely 10 of 30 shots and said afterward, "I know what I'm doing wrong. I'm turning my hand over too much, and I've got a slice like in golf. I can't get it stopped; it's just got to go away by itself." Something which would not go away by itself was Oscar Robertson, who guarded West tightly, harassing him with firm hand checks and his superior size and strength despite a deep muscle pull in his stomach which restricted his normal quickness. Since Robertson arrived in Milwaukee in 1970, West has not played well against the Bucks: last season he hit only 32% of his shots, and by the fourth game of this year's playoffs he was still under 40% for the series. In the third game West scored on nearly half his attempts, but he tried only 19 shots and generally took only wide open ones.
In the first Laker win, McMillian, shooting mostly long jumpers from the corner, outscored Jabbar, who threw up a mixed bag of precise hooks and jump shots, by 42-40. "I can't really tell you how I fit into this team," McMillian said. "I'm just the fat, little dude wearing No. 5. To tell you the truth, I was thinking the other night when I was in bed that after we win it all I ought to go to Sharman and ask him how my play measured up this year to what he had in mind for me. He's really never defined what he expects of me. But that's not too important in my case. With Jerry, Wilt and Gail it is, but I'm not as important to the core of the team as they are."
He was too modest. In the next game, McMillian's pinpoint bombing (16 of 25 shots) led the Lakers to a victory they could hardly have expected, since the Bucks shot an extraordinary 61%. Milwaukee actually outscored Los Angeles by 10 points from the field, but the Lakers were awarded 21 more free throws and made 11 of them. In fact, in all the games, Los Angeles got many more foul shots than the Bucks, a circumstance that sent Milwaukee, particularly Coach Larry Costello, into continual tirades against the officials. And no official action infuriated the Bucks more than the incident involving Referee Manny Sokol in the crucial final moments of that second game.
With Los Angeles leading 133-132, the Bucks began closing in on West as he brought the ball over the 10-second line. Trapped against the sideline by Robertson and Jabbar, West tried to reverse his direction and cross over his dribble. The ball squirted away from him and was hopping rapidly toward the backcourt—where it automatically would have become the Bucks' property—when it hit Sokol, who was trailing the play and was unable to jump clear of the ball's path. Rebounding off the referee's thigh, the ball bounced directly back to West, who was again challenged by Jabbar. This time the big Milwaukee center batted the ball from West's hands, and Jerry narrowly outraced him to it. "It was like he was eight feet tall," West said, an observation that is not too far from wrong.
Before the third game, both teams staged secret practice sessions in the Milwaukee Arena. The Bucks worked out in characteristic near-silence, Costello guiding his tightly organized drills with little exchange of amenities or information with his players. The Lakers, who practice more than any other pro team, were looser. Neither West nor Chamberlain (who arrived in one of his custom-made pinstriped blue suits and walked through the patterns in his stockinged feet), participated fully in the drills. Even on strategy questions Sharman consulted with his players, who often made suggestions that were readily accepted.
After the game plans were set, the Lakers split into groups of twos and threes for their competitive shooting drills—conducted with plenty of cheating, laughter, ribaldry and lower forms of gamesmanship. At one point West bet Goodrich $100,000 (a substantial chunk of the two-year, $600,000 contract Jerry reportedly has approved for the coming seasons) that Gail could not make eight six-foot jump shots in a row. Goodrich easily made 10; collecting his winnings will be considerably more difficult. Wilt, long a great outside shooter in practice—he made 28 of 29 free throws this day—then defeated Goodrich in two of three games of shooting corner shots for $5 apiece.
The next night Chamberlain took only three shots in the entire game as Goodrich (30 points) and McMillian (27) again led the Laker offense. And again the Bucks lost a slim lead in the closing minutes. But it was Chamberlain who turned the game to the Lakers' favor. Chamberlain's tactic of overplaying Jabbar to his left had not been effective in the first 18 minutes of play; the Buck center had scored 17 points. Wilt's intent was to prevent Abdul-Jabbar from swinging leftward for his deadly hook shot, but Kareem had reacted by rolling to his right for short jumpers and several easy layups. But from 5:13 of the second period until 5:38 of the third, Wilt held Jabbar scoreless and blocked five of his shots, including a dunk and a layup in which Jabbar crashed into Wilt, knocking Chamberlain to the court in pain.
Meanwhile, McMillian scored 15 points as Los Angeles surged from three points behind to six ahead. Then Abdul-Jabbar, fooling Wilt with head fakes and flashy ball handling, scored four consecutive baskets, bringing the Bucks to a 72-72 tie. In the fourth quarter Chamberlain regained his mastery, holding Kareem without a field goal in the final 11:10. In all, Abdul-Jabbar scored 33 points and outrebounded Wilt, but Chamberlain had forced him to take 37 shots to hit his total.
Several minutes after the game was over some of the Bucks were seen scampering from the arena still wearing their warmup suits, perhaps to escape the press, but also perhaps to avoid another bombing. During the evening a caller had informed arena officials that a bomb was inside, due to go off about 10 minutes after the game. Unlike the Lakers, it never went off.
Then came Sunday afternoon. And out came the Bucks, breathing fire, belching smoke, spitting venom and acting generally mean. Milwaukee broke to an 11-0 lead, and the Lakers never again came closer than five points as they lost 114-88.
It was a simple brute win—no comedy. All three of the Buck starting frontcourt men outrebounded Chamberlain (Milwaukee finished with a 75-43 advantage on the boards), and Kareem showed Wilt every move from a behind-the-back dribble to outside jump shots to a rare left-handed hook. He scored 31 points to celebrate his 25th birthday.
But more important than Jabbar's superiority over Wilt—which is never unexpected—was the performance of his Buck teammates. Robertson again stymied West, who scored on only nine of 23 shots and, more surprisingly, turned in a sloppy floor game. "I'm tired of shooting, I'm tired of doing everything," West had complained earlier. "I'm supposed to score, and then I'm supposed to defend against the other team's high-scoring guard. I played too many minutes again this year. When there are 17,000 people in The Forum, for example, I have to play 40 minutes whether the game is close or not."
Slender Bob Dandridge outmuscled McMillian, scoring 24 points, pulling in 15 rebounds and holding the bigger man to 18 points. Although he was the only Laker regular shooting accurately, McMillian only took four shots in the second half as Dandridge, with ample help from Jabbar, screened him from the ball. Still, McMillian was occasionally left wide open while other Lakers were taking difficult shots.
"Don't ask me how it happened," he shrugged. And then he pointed at West and Goodrich sitting in front of adjacent lockers. "Ask them. They're the guys with the ball."
Thus, after splitting the first four games, the Lakers headed back to the Coast and its theoretic edge, the home-court advantage. But perhaps Milwaukee held a bigger one. In the composite of those games, the Bucks had outshot, out-rebounded and outscored Los Angeles. Twice they had defeated the Lakers embarrassingly. "They really haven't proved they can beat us yet," said Costello. "They've won by one point and three; we've won by 21 and 26." If the Lakers can keep the games close, they should win. But the Milwaukee Bucks may not stand still long enough for that to happen.