It was raining, even pouring, when America's favorite pro basketball road show reached Boston last week. Not that the storm could dampen the high spirits and low humor of the Los Angeles Lakers as they boarded their bus at the airport. Up front, the nation's biggest tour guide took his accustomed seats in the first row, the outpost from which he barks orders at his fellow travelers, referees debates on the subjects of his choice and instructs bus drivers and stewardesses as they complete their appointed tasks. Behind Wilt Chamberlain, separated from him by a buffer zone of coaches, journalists, a trainer and a scout, the needlers were waiting, Zeke from Cabin Creek, Floyd Butterball and all the others.
"Hey, now listen here," Wilt yelled as he folded himself across two seats and held up a pair of black, horn-rimmed sunglasses. "Who was sittin' in 5A on the plane? That's where I found these." "They don't seem to belong to anyone," replied Zeke West. "I can see you want them, Wilt. Go ahead and try 'em on." "Try 'em on, Wilt," chimed in Jim (Floyd, the Fat Kid from the Ivy League) McMillian.
"Yeah, well," said Chamberlain as he slipped on the glasses, the lenses barely covering his eye sockets.
"That's just great, Wilt," said West. "They change your whole personality. You could get up from here right now and walk all around the entire terminal and nobody, not a soul, would recognize you."
"I'll tell you, my man," Wilt said, loudly but to no one in particular as he looked out at the rain, "I signed too soon. I mean, I could do without that Jerry West and this trip. I could've had four more days at Manhattan Beach, and instead I got this."
As it turned out, by the time the trip was over. Chamberlain and the rest of the Lakers, who thought they were off on another juicy foray accosting NBA teams all across the country, had endured far more than a rainstorm and a little good-natured ribbing. They began their defense of the NBA world title by taking a couple of shots right in the old sunglasses.
Before arriving in Boston, Los Angeles had won all six of its preseason games and then traveled as far east as Nebraska to begin the regular schedule by blasting the Kansas City-Omaha Kings (formerly the Cincinnati Royals) into the Missouri River 129-94. As usual the Lakers attracted a fine crowd (8,598), and they were to follow that up with record turnouts for the succeeding games in Boston (15,316) and New York (19,694). But that was all that went as usual.
With an unbeaten record and masses of fans coming out to behold them, it seemed logical when none of the Lakers evinced concern as they prepared to meet the East's two best teams. None, that is, except ever-worried Coach Bill Sharman. "My main belief as a coach is to get into top condition before the season starts and use that to get off to a faster start than other teams," he said. "A good team should never put itself in a position of playing catch-up in its division, particularly in a division as tough as ours. We were ready from the start last year, and I think that's why we were able to win 33 games in a row early in the season and why we lost only 13 all through the year.
"But our training camp was not good this year, despite our exhibition record. Four of my top six players were missing some or all of the time. Keith Erickson was injured for a while, Hap Hairston missed the first two weeks because of a contract dispute and our top scorer, Gail Goodrich, pulled a muscle so badly he'll miss all of this road trip. And Wilt only rejoined us the afternoon before we left for Omaha."
Chamberlain's contractual problems were less financial and more a clash between the game's two most unbending egos, Wilt and Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke. The question was who would call whom first. Neither side claims victory, and Chamberlain's lawyer, Seymour Goldberg, is widely credited for playing the role of Gunnar Jarring in this tight little drama. It reportedly required only 48 hours to iron out the contractual difficulties once that crucial first contact was made.
It may take longer than that to unravel the Laker problems on the floor. In one sense, Los Angeles was well pre-pared to face the Celtics and Knicks. Sharman has added Scout Bill Bertka to his staff, and Bertka will hold a briefing before the team's initial game with each opponent this year. As the players filed into a conference room in the Sheraton-Boston Hotel to hear the scout's assessment of the Celts, each was handed a five-page report covered with closely typed text and 46 diagrams.
"When you gonna give us the speed-reading course to go along with this?" asked Wilt.
West quickly came to the part on how to stop Boston's fast break. "Hey, it says here we should molest their re-bounder," he announced. "Who gets to do that? Who wants to do that?"
A chalk talk was followed by a film showing the Celtics at their best: Boston's opponents scored one basket while the few Celtic misses were followed by crashing offensive rebounds. "Hey, my man, I don't know if I'm quite ready for this stuff," said Chamberlain.
Wilt and his teammates were not. There are already three hockey teams playing at Boston Garden this winter, and Celt Coach Tom Heinsohn seems to be trying to make it four. His players hardly could have moved any faster on skates. The Boston running game, which the Lakers like to say is second only to their own, produced 18 points as the Celtics opened a 25-point lead during the first half. Los Angeles scored only six fast-break points.
While the addition of Paul Silas and the versatility of John Havlicek allowed Heinsohn the depth and flexibility to substitute as freely as the Boston Bruins do, the Lakers clearly missed the pullup jump shots of Goodrich. They also missed Wilt's presence as the dominator of a game, even though he played 44 minutes. He was outscored 26-15 by Boston's mobile Dave Cowens, outrebounded 24-12 and outmaneuvered as he pursued Cowens outside while other lively Celts drove inside. Boston won 112-104, with West's 17-point fourth quarter making the score far closer than the game ever was.
"I'm in good shape," said Wilt. "I played volleyball almost every day this summer, some days two or three times. But it's not the same as basketball. We're missing two things. I haven't played with our guys, so we miss togetherness on defense, and my timing's off, way off. I'm not getting up for rebounds quick enough and when I'm out a bit trying to guard someone like Cowens. I'm not able to shift back fast enough to cut off the drive by other guys. Cowens and Jerry Lucas are the worst two centers for me to play against until I get my sense of timing back."
The next night in New York, Lucas proved Chamberlain right. Starting as pivotman once again while Willis Reed remains on the disabled list with his still-injured leg, Lucas outscored Wilt 26-16 with his long, shotput jumpers. When Chamberlain came out to guard Lucas, the quick-passing Knicks found open shots near the basket. Many of those shots came from Bill Bradley, who scored 29 points and, surprisingly, led New York scorers after three games with a 25.3 average.
"Concentration is what we lack," said West after the 125-100 rout. "Our training was disjointed: it was too easy and now the other teams are sky-high trying to knock off the champs."
The huge crowds in Boston and New York found the one-sided victories against last season's champions so encouraging that both groups broke into that irksome new tradition of yelling, "We're No. 1," as the home teams ran out their easy wins. Those chants and counter-chants should make for interesting debates in the Atlantic Division all season long, but for Laker fans there figures to be something of a letdown. Until Wilt recovers his timing and Goodrich returns to the lineup, Los Angelenos may only be able to cry, "We're No. 3." Which is exactly where the disguised Lakers stood in the Pacific Division after getting doused in the East.