There is a marvelous scene in the Oscar-winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in which Jack Nicholson and a giant Indian he calls Chief lead the patients at an insane asylum to victory over their attendants in a basketball game. With the exception of Golden State and Portland—the former serene in victory, the latter resigned in last place—the NBA's Pacific Division is kind of manic itself nowadays, and Nicholson is a frequent spectator of the frenzied action from his courtside seat at Los Angeles Laker home games.
Last week, as the season drew to a close, the Lakers, the Phoenix Suns and the Seattle SuperSonics were in a tight, dog-eat-dog scramble for the two remaining playoff slots. One night Laker Guard Gail Goodrich paused by Nicholson's seat before the game.
"We really need Chief now," he said.
"Nah," said Nicholson, "he can only get this high off the floor." He didn't point very high.
In Portland on another night last week, Phoenix Guard Paul Westphal sat in the stands watching his teammates warm up and compared the two coaches he's played for in the pros—John MacLeod of the Suns and Tom Heinsohn of the Boston Celtics.
"MacLeod would have made a fantastic preacher," he said. "He sees a crippled guy and he comes in and uses it in his pregame talk. He says, 'He didn't have one of these,' and he slaps his arm, 'but he was still smiling.' I counted 72 bleeps in Heinsohn's halftime talk in a Christmas Day game. Seventy-two! I was sitting in back keeping count."
MacLeod's sermons must have some effect, because Phoenix, which has struggled into the playoffs only once since it joined the league in 1968, was the nearly unanimous pick to finish last in the division this season. Instead, at the end of last weekend, the Suns were in third place, just behind Seattle but ahead of the Lakers, a team blessed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and four other men who have played on championship teams.
The Suns are much better on hardwood than on paper. In two important road wins last week, 100-97 over L.A. and 113-97 over New York, and in all their other recent games, the Suns started two rookies, Center Alvan Adams and Guard Ricky Sobers, two forwards who have bounced around the league a bit, Curtis Perry and Garfield Heard, and Westphal, who was a substitute for three seasons with Boston.
The Phoenix surge dates from Heard's arrival from Buffalo just after the All-Star break. Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo gave up John Shumate, the team's first-round draft choice in 1974, to get Heard, and Phoenix fans were not happy about it. But in his first game in a Phoenix uniform, Heard scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and the Suns beat Golden State.
"All of a sudden he went from villain to hero," says Colangelo.
Shortly after Heard arrived, Guard Dick Van Arsdale broke his left arm and was replaced by Sobers, who had starred at Nevada, Las Vegas. Sobers has turned out to be much steadier as a starter than coming off the bench, and Van Arsdale, 33, will have a difficult time getting his job back.
Sobers brings the ball up most of the time, and defends against the smaller, quicker guards like Nate Archibald and Calvin Murphy, freeing Westphal to do what he does best—steal passes, move without the ball, shoot and entertain the fans with some of the most acrobatic moves in the NBA. Since the All-Star break Westphal has averaged better than 23 points a game and shot comfortably over .500. In the win over L.A., the game that may have killed the Lakers' playoff chances, he scored 27.
Last Friday night, at home against Portland and its now-healthy-again center, Bill Walton, Phoenix ran up a robust 19-point lead before almost blowing the game. As usual, it was Westphal who made the clutch play. The winning basket came when he blocked Barry Clemens' shot, recovered the ball and passed to Adams, who hit Perry for a lay-up with 14 seconds left.
Westphal gives the credit to Adams, the 6'9" would-be doctor who would be finishing his senior year at Oklahoma if he hadn't decided to turn pro.
"Before, he'd explode for big scoring games more often," says Westphal. "But now he's more consistent. He's the backbone of the team. We wouldn't be anywhere near the playoffs without him."
By a quirk of scheduling, the NBA Pacific teams were playing each other last week in a cutthroat game of musical chairs. Phoenix, which is battling Seattle for the home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, was in second place Monday morning, in third on Thursday, back to second Saturday and in third again after losing Sunday night. Meanwhile, L.A. stewed in fourth place, hoping for a miracle.
The sad truth in L.A. is that Coach Bill Sharman's days seem to be numbered. The Lakers have not sold out a regular-season home game in two years and their road record for the same period is a dismal 18-62. When Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke traded half the team for Abdul-Jabbar last summer, it was believed that he had acquired for himself the NBA title, or at least a contending team.
Nobody thought that L.A. might fail to make the playoffs for a second straight year, but the Lakers were on the brink of that calamity last week.
Speculation on who might succeed Sharman, who has coached championship teams in three different pro leagues, involved Indiana Coach Bobby Knight, ex-Laker Jerry West and Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch. The gossip intensified Wednesday night when L.A. turned in a weak performance in losing at Seattle 120-109. The defeat was the Lakers' ninth in their last 10 televised-back-to-L.A. games, in which the average margin of defeat has been almost 10 points. Not a great stimulus for the box office.
Whether any of this was Sharman's fault, or the players' or the ballboys', it was the Lakers' lack of fire that drew the greater criticism. Faced with imminent disaster, the Lakers should have been diving after loose balls and leaping like demons for rebounds. Against Seattle most of them appeared to be drained of emotion.
But Seattle has been a solid club all season long. In fact, the Sonics have been on a tear almost as impressive as Phoenix'. The Wednesday victory over L.A. was their 12th straight at home and their seventh win in their last eight games. The Sonics are exceptionally strong in the backcourt, with Slick Watts averaging 13 points a game and going for an unprecedented NBA double, the season leadership in both steals and assists. Fred Brown, the fifth-year man out of Iowa, is the fifth-leading scorer in the league even though he doesn't start (Herm Gilliam opens with Watts).
"Fred has the potential to be one of the alltime great guards because he can do so many things," declares Coach Bill Russell.
Seattle also gets fine, spirited performances from Center Tom Burleson, who couldn't stop Abdul-Jabbar but did score 20 points and collect 12 rebounds.
At the end of the game Sharman said he was tired of hearing about L.A.'s poor road record. "Who is winning on the road?" he said. "The league has great balance this year. A few years ago, when you had new expansion teams, you could count on beating them 90% of the time. That's no longer true. Everybody except Golden State and Boston is losing on the road."
His point was upheld Friday night at the Forum when the Lakers looked pretty good in reversing the away decision against Seattle, 113-105. Goodrich, who had scored a season-low two points up north, tied his season high of 37 (no doubt pleasing courtsider Nicholson, resplendent in white pants but without his Academy Award sunglasses). Lucius Allen, in disfavor, came off the bench to score 21 points, Connie Warner had 16 rebounds and the placid-appearing Abdul-Jabbar had a typically placid 23 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots.
The Lakers were still breathing ("This one was the vital one," said Sharman) and continued to hang on Saturday night when Phoenix lost at Portland and Seattle got smashed at Golden State.
And then on Sunday, while the Lakers kept alive by beating Golden State 118-111, Seattle and Phoenix went head to head and the whole wild scramble got a notch tighter. On their home court the Sonics flew past the Suns 117-89 and into second. And there was more clawing to come in the final days.
"Like I tell my guys," said Russell with a chuckle, "nobody gets out of this alive."