Assessing the Los Angeles Lakers—the new, improved, fairy-tale Lakers—is like assessing the proverbial water glass. Is it half full or half empty? Is Jerry West, who coaches the Lakers or hypnotizes them or something, really a turtlenecked genius or merely a run-of-the-mill legend who got lucky on a sabbatical from his Bel Air golf games? Is the team a legitimate contender or only another Rocky with a one-way ticket to Palookaville?
On the one hand, the Lakers are made up of men who collectively have helped win five NBA championships, one ABA championship, six NCAA titles and won a raft of individual-type awards. Winners, right? On the other hand, it is a team that West looked over not long ago and decided he would cheerfully trade practically en masse if only there were any takers.
The Lakers are the ultimate tribute to the era of the sports specialist, a team composed of the Defensive-Stopper Guard, the High-Scoring Cornerman, the Power Forward, the Backcourt Playmaker and, to be sure, the Dominating, Sky-Hooking, Goggle-Wearing, Second-in-the-Voting Superstar Center. The Lakers also include a few gems who can't drop a ball into a canyon much less a basket, who can't guard anything that breathes, who take a powder at the end of close games and who are kept around basically to satisfy the beachboy-loving, Birchite segment of their wonderful, front-running California community. No need to raise your hands—you know who you are.
Yet everybody here contributes his own particular talent. Because of this and because nothing really bad ever did happen to All-Pro, all-swell Jerry West except maybe too many Farrah Fawcett-Majors lookalike contest winners interrupting his postgame beers, here the Lakers were last week, 50 games into the season and leading pro basketball's toughest division, the Pacific, with a 33-17 record. "It's a mystery, all right," says West, pulling on one more bionic turtleneck.
Before it embarked last week on a hazardous road trip through the frozen East, Los Angeles was enjoying a numbers game that had the whole league shivering. Since mid-November the Lakers had won 28 of 39 games, including 10 by five points or fewer. They had won 20 straight at home in the Fabulous Forum, a club record not matched by even the 1971-72, 33-in-a-row Lakers. And they had won nine games on the road, a miracle.
The other day somebody even thought he saw a Laker actually dive for a ball and threaten to be exciting, for goodness sakes. Wonders never cease in Hollywood.
But last Friday night in Boston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed a game-tying free throw in the last few seconds and the Lakers lost a 99-98 contest to the struggling Celtics that should have been put away long before. It was the first time in a long while they had failed to play with intelligence down the stretch, a characteristic West has instilled. Then on Sunday smarts didn't seem to matter over a whole 48 minutes as the Philadelphia 76ers took out the Lakers 102-97.
When Los Angeles owner Jack Kent Cooke traded his estate plus the better part of downtown Inglewood to get Abdul-Jabbar before last season began, nobody expected Los Angeles to lose a game, much less a division. When Cooke hired West last summer nobody expected the team to win. The change was a result of a disastrous season in which there were 17 different starting lineups and an abundance of overcoaching, notably by one assistant, high up in the seats, whom the disgusted players called "Eye in the Sky."
Organization, then, was West's priority. From a plethora of applicants for assistant coach—including one then unemployed analyst of jive named Sonny Hill—West hired Jack McCloskey, a former head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Stan Albeck, an assistant at Kentucky in the ABA. Then, as he had promised, West shared the load, leaning on McCloskey for defense and scouting and on Albeck for offense and clipboard statistics.
"At other places you're a shill for the head guy," says Albeck. "But from the start this was never an ego trip for Jerry. I had never met him, but he made everybody feel comfortable and he was sincere. Jerry West really wanted help."
"Heck, when I played we never ran any plays," says West. "I didn't know anything."
What West did was install a structured system of "helping" defense and patterned offense in which the Lakers spread the court so that their outside shooters—the resurrected Cazzie Russell, veteran Guard Lucius Allen and rookie Earl Tatum—get picks and screens in their favorite spots. In Tatum's case, this sometimes includes the Santa Monica pier.
While these men have been filling it up and while 6'8" Kermit Washington—he of the longshoreman's muscles and the "Eagle Launcher" push shot—has been pounding the boards, Abdul-Jabbar has been relieved of the red-dogging defenses or, as he says, "the 101st Airborne on my back." He has added the turnaround "moon ball" jumper to his arsenal and is having his absolutely best season. Currently Abdul-Jabbar is first in the NBA in shooting percentage, second in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and obviously reinvigorated by the arrival of West, not to mention the emergence of Portland's Bill Walton.
The Lakers have defeated the Blazers in all three of their meetings—by three, four and five points—and the Abdul-Jabbar-Walton matchup has become the most spectacular entertainment in the game. Walton, whose inflamed Achilles is now in a cast, missed one of the L.A. games but in the other two the combined rival lines read: Kareem of Krop, 67 points, 30 rebounds; Mountain Man, 54 points, 47 rebounds.
Abdul-Jabbar is laughing and joking more this year, opening up and doing joyful things like slapping palms with West and heaving the ball to the rafters after his 40-point, 12-rebound number in an overtime win at Cleveland.
"I'm happy again," Abdul-Jabbar said last week over a lobster omelet. "Winning makes me happy. It's what made Milwaukee tolerable. Last year we never got anything done. I was not optimistic in the preseason. But Jerry came in and organized, which I could not anticipate. Without arrogance, he was frank in what he wanted to do. You look at our team and you're not impressed. We got the type of players...well, people go to sleep on us."
West has been assiduous in promoting that sort of image: "Lucky." "The bubble will burst any moment." "Mystery team." These are the public utterances with which the coach explains Los Angeles' sudden success. Everything is downplayed, nobody boasts. One would never suspect that, at heart, West firmly believes that he can win the NBA championship in his very first try.
A team publicist asked the coach for a quick quote on another of his reclamation projects, defensive specialist Don Chaney, and West said, "Sure, Chaney's terrific. He could have held me to maybe 58 if I was playing on one leg."
Though the remark was made in jest—Chaney has solved last year's Laker propensity for being destroyed by big guards—it exemplifies West's ultra-purist judgment that the NBA is in a down year with lots of borderline players making a living on lots of mediocre teams.
Though it might be easy to flaunt "the way I did it" or to use the unblemished name of Jerry West as an example of excellence, the coach's image has yet to intrude on the 38-year-old West's marvelous rapport with younger players. "I couldn't look him in the eye at first," says Tatum. "Now I got to."
West has endured Tatum's wild rookie mistakes, the kind he himself never made in 14 years as "Mr. Clutch," without screaming or throwing Tatum off the nearest Disneyland ride. In addition, he is the only coach in the league to get past midseason without a technical foul.
"Can you believe this?" Albeck says. "Jerry believes the refs aren't out to get us. What a dreamer." Says West, "My patience has really surprised me."
In like manner, the L.A. depth has stunned the NBA. Washington is a terror as a sixth man. Backup Center C. J. Kupec has turned a brilliant shooting touch into Laker insurance when Abdul-Jabbar takes a break. Then there is Johnny (Be Good) Neumann, another Laker who was rescued from the scrap heap and who impressed right away with his irreverent manner.
After an errant ball hit Abdul-Jabbar on the head in practice, Neumann shattered the eerie silence with, "Maybe that'll wake him up."
Waking up is something West wishes he could do more of. An insomniac, he appears to have aged several years since training camp. Large circles under the eyes and hands glistening with sweat in airline terminals partly justify friends' opinions that West is worn down and unable to enjoy his new life.
Of Bossman Cooke's infamous, Finleyesque meddling, West simply says, "If you know me, you know I'm stubborn. I am the Laker coach. No problems." Yet it is known that Cooke had promised West expensive new personnel and that West was livid when all those high-priced forwards changed teams early in the season and Los Angeles didn't get one.
The two haven't spoken in weeks, but from his absentee headquarters in Vegas, Cooke recently came up with a solution to Neumann's weight problems. Cooke suggested to the front office that the Lakers tie a six-pound roast beef to Neumann's waist during practice. When the workout was over and Neumann untied the roast, he would know what losing six pounds felt like. Naturally, Cooke also suggested the Lakers keep the meat and have dinner on him.
"This is a silly business," West says. "The travel exhausts me more than when I played. The pressure is no fun. I won't stay in it for long. It's a kids' game and all a coach does is organize, condition and communicate. Other than that, you're at the mercy of your players. If a coach takes himself seriously, he's a fool. I don't take myself seriously."
But if the rest of the NBA doesn't take Los Angeles seriously, they too will be at the mercy of the Lakers. And, of course, the biggest fools of all.