It hurts when they aren't the best

When they are healthy the Lakers are a superb team—regardless of what record Chamberlain happens to be trying for. But with both West and Hairston injured, they can run into trouble, as they did last week
March 05, 1973

You all remember the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. They were last year's team, the one that zapped everybody and ran off 33 consecutive wins back when folks were busy reading up on the fine points of acupuncture, when Marlon Brando could make an irresistible offer without taking his clothes off, when people thought Le Due Tho was a takeout restaurant. The Lakers were a tough new item then, like steel-belted radials. Yeah, who could forget those guys?

Until last week a lot of people apparently could—and did. The Lakers were cruising along through the downhill days of a very good season, creating no waves and attracting no particular attention when—beset by injuries—they lost four games in a row before beating the Bucks 91-82. Now suddenly they are in the public eye again. Perverse, perhaps, but that is the way it has been for the Lakers this year.

The Los Angeles slide toward semi-obscurity began on the night of Oct. 14, 1972 at Madison Square Garden and set a pattern for the season. The Lakers—hampered by an injury to Gail Goodrich—were positively bombed by the Knicks, the team they had mauled in the playoff finals five months earlier. It was their second resounding loss in their first three games of the season. Meanwhile, revived Boston had started on the 10-game winning streak that began its year. Enter Celts. Exit Lakers. "It was that simple," says Los Angeles reserve Pat Riley. "People came right out and started telling us, 'Ah, you guys were nothing but a flash in the pan.' "

In their next 58 games the Lakers lost only 11 times, making a shambles of what was expected to be a tight Pacific Division race. Until they went into their stumble of last week—attributable largely to Jerry West's being out of the lineup with a pulled hamstring—they owned the second-best record in the whole NBA. Yet they still seemed to attract no more national attention than the Atlanta Hawks or the Detroit Pistons. And most of their meager fame has been centered on Wilt Chamberlain's pursuit of another of those arcane records he has made a career-long specialty. If Wilt continues at his present pace, he will finish the season with a 72% shooting average from the floor, 15 percentage points above what any other NBA player is currently shooting and 4% above the all-time league accuracy record for a season set by guess who in 1966-67.

Obscured, somehow, by Wilt's assault on the record book is the all-round excellence of the '72-'73 Lakers; not only members of the team but many of their opponents believe that Los Angeles this year is even better than it was last year. Better, that is, when and if the whole squad ever gets together minus its various casts, wraps, pads and braces.

Los Angeles has improved by adding two strong new alternates to the standard lineup of West, Chamberlain. Goodrich, Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston. One of them is Keith Erickson, a five-year Laker who returned as the third guard after undergoing two knee operations and missing most of last season. The other is Bill Bridges, obtained in a trade with Philadelphia in the hope he could become the team's primary substitute at forward.

From the date of Bridges' arrival in early November until Dec. 12, Coach Bill Sharman used those seven men almost exclusively and Los Angeles won 17 of 18 games, several of them by 30-point margins. "We were playing so well it was almost scary. It was beautiful," says Riley. "It was the best team we've ever had," added West last week as he worked out gingerly on his sore leg.

But injuries have laid a very heavy hand on the Lakers. Only Chamberlain has appeared in every game. Hairston, who had 1,045 rebounds for the Lakers last season, has not played since undergoing an operation in December on a knee he injured while rebounding in Chicago and he is not really expected to appear in the playoffs. His absence will cost the team speed, outside shooting and also depth, since Bridges has left the bench to replace him.

Bridges, on the other hand, has been one of the few constant bright lights in a blinking picture. Only a few months ago he had given up hope of ever being a winner again. He has long been one of the league's strongest rebounding forwards, and his current average of 11 a game almost equals Hairston's at the time of his injury. But when Bridges was traded to the 76ers last season after eight years as a starter for the Hawks, he began to doubt his ability. Then when Philly streaked off to an 0-10 start this season, he almost decided to quit.

"Who wants the memories you'd get from that team?" he says. "I asked to be traded and I came to L.A. unhesitatingly. But I wanted to contribute something. I didn't want to sit there and watch, even though that might have been cool economically."

Bridges had barely said hello to Sharman before he was up and running for the Lakers. He played 26 minutes, scored nine points and had 16 rebounds his first night, and Sharman told him he would use him extensively as the third forward. Following Hairston's injury, the Lakers needed a dozen games to adjust to the absence of Happy's speed and to Bridges' stronger inside play. They lost six of those games—and swam briefly into the national consciousness again as a result—but have played solidly ever since, at least until last week.

Bridges also quickly found that his new teammates expected him to contribute in unaccustomed ways. On the night Hairston was injured the Lakers led the Bulls by a point as time was running out. "I'm not much of an outside shooter and I've never been the player who takes the crucial shot," said Bridges one day last week. "Suddenly there I was open in the corner and the ball came to me. I shot and hit the rim.

"Afterward I asked Erickson why I had been given the shot and he said, 'That's the way we play here. If you're open, you get it.' It was even Goodrich who passed it to me and that's highly unusual."

"Most unusual," laughed Riley, who overheard the line and repeated it for the benefit of Goodrich, who was standing nearby.

That is typical Laker humor—personal and direct. There had been more of the same early that morning as the team waited to start a bus ride into Detroit and the subject of Chamberlain's coat came up. Wilt's latest creation is of supple, bright yellow leather with leopardskin cuffs and collar. It has no buttons and ties around the middle like a bathrobe.

"I don't know exactly what the stuff is that Wilt's coat is made out of," said a Laker. "I think it is one of those animals they don't shoot anymore and after seeing it on Wilt I can understand why."

"I don't know what it is either," said a teammate. "All I know is I wash my car with one every Saturday."

Chamberlain's taste in shots is considerably more conservative these days than his taste in overcoats. He rarely tries his fallaway one-hander or his underhanded finger roll anymore. He limits himself mostly to dunks, tips and lay-ins, and even these are shot sparingly. To rank among the best shooters in the NBA listings this week, Chamberlain needed at least 440 field-goal attempts. He had 460. He will need 560 shots by the end of the season to win the accuracy title and possibly set a new record. He should make it—just barely.

"As it is now, I feel I've only got to shoot enough to keep guys honest," says Wilt, who spends most of his time rebounding and is averaging only seven shots and 12.9 points per game. "I think it's made guys a little complacent when they guard me, and I find dunks are sometimes easier for me to get than they ever were. Otherwise, I really don't know if I'm as good a shooter as I used to be. I'd guess I'm not as accurate with my fallaway as I was five years ago, but I'll never know because I don't take it much anymore. This team doesn't need me to do that.

"Sure, I'm careful how I shoot. I'm not about to throw the ball away. But it's not like Bill Russell says on TV, that I'm not willing to shoot as much because I'm worried about my percentage."

If there were such a thing as an NBA record for number of alltime records held, Chamberlain would hold it. He spread-eagles the record book in virtually every category, including, of course, all five of those dealing with missed free throws. So his current campaign is a sideline, something to make the time go by until the day comes to face the real question about the Lakers: in what physical shape will the defending champions be for the playoffs? Sound, with West and everybody except Hairston healthy again? Or crippled up, as they were last week? With one team they have been winning all season. With the other they have been losing. The difference is enough to attract attention.