Before the Magic

Patrick J. Garrity

February 1, 2007

’Tis the season for streaks. Tiger Woods (7) is now within distant view of Byron Nelson’s all time record of 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories (with asterisks for both men). The Phoenix Suns ran up 17 straight games before losing to Minnesota. The Suns put together a 15 game streak earlier in the season. Dallas had a 13-game run. The Celtics have lost 11 in a row, but that’s another category entirely.

These latest streaks, however impressive, pale before what is arguably the most spectacular professional regular season accomplishment of all time, the 33 consecutive wins put together by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. (I would say that the other candidate would be the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, 14-0. There is, of course, the off-the-chart 88-game college basketball win streak by UCLA.) The Lakers’ run remains the longest in professional sports; the NBA record at the time was 20.

The streak began on November 5 (my birthday—as a Lakers’ fan I remember it well) and ended on January 9, when LA lost on the road to the next best team in the league, Milwaukee. The Bucks had a pretty decent young center by the name of Abdul-Jabbar. There were no fluke bounces or fortunate officiating calls that saved the streak along the way. Most of the games were not even close. The Lakers were dominant and great fun to watch, show time before Magic Johnson’s Show Time. They averaged 120 points per game. LA went on to win 69 regular season games (then a record) and dominate the playoffs, to earn Los Angeles’ first NBA championship after so many frustrating defeats at the hands of Bill Russell’s Celtics.

How to account for such unexpected perfection? This particular LA team was supposed to be good but was by no means favored to win the championship. It had three legitimate superstars, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West, but those three together had failed to win the title. Each man seemed to be well on the downhill side of his career.

The streak began, perhaps not coincidentally, the game after Baylor unexpectedly announced his retirement. Baylor, a 10-time All NBA selection and the grandfather of spectacular athletic forward play (think Connie Hawkins, Dr. J, etc.), gave it up because of a bad knee. This opened the starting lineup to second year player Jim McMillan, a highly proficient mid-range jump shooter who didn’t need to handle the ball constantly to be effective. The other forward, Happy Hairston, a solid veteran, blossomed with the additional space inside. With additional playing time now available, the Lakers displayed a deep and versatile bench that included journeyman guard/forward, Pat Riley, who later went on to have some modest coaching success.

More to the point, Baylor’s game had never really meshed with that of Wilt. Both of them needed the ball down low and needed it a lot. As a Philadelphia Warrior, Wilt had averaged an incredible 50 points a game in 1961-62, the same year he scored 100 points in a single game. His scoring statistics were the stuff of legend (no elaboration necessary). But now Wilt turned himself into a mirror image of his old rival, Bill Russell—a concession to age and circumstances as much as to wisdom, perhaps, but a concession nonetheless. Wilt averaged only 14.8 points per game for these Lakers, fifth best on the team. But he dominated the boards and controlled the paint defensively. Wilt had always put up showy rebounding numbers and blocked numerous shots, but somehow these seemed more impressive on paper than in determining the outcome of big games. This season, no one doubted that Wilt’s presence in the paint was dominant.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the new coach of the Lakers was Bill Sharman, out of the Auerbach-Russell’s old Celtic line of champions. Sharman seemed to command Wilt’s respect in a way that previous coaches, at least in Los Angeles, had not. Sharman’s coaching innovations included the invention, or popularization, of the morning of the game shoot-around, now a staple of college and pro basketball teams. When Sharman first announced the idea to the team, someone asked what they would do after the shoot-around. Gail Goodrich, the Lakers’ guard, laughed. “Go back to the hotel and wake up Wilt.” But Wilt, a notorious night-owl, showed up at the shoot-arounds without complaint.

Wilt, at least, had already won a championship with the 1967-68 76ers, a team that had established the old record of 68 wins. (Wilt said that he thought that this Philadelphia team was better than this Lakers’ squad.) Jerry West, today best known as “Mr. Logo,” was that era’s Michael Jordan, in terms of spectacular all-court play (sans dunks) and clutch shooting. But West’s teams, in college and the pros, always came up a game short despite his consistent brilliance in those games. In 1971-72 West had perhaps his best all-around season, in part by deferring offensively to Goodrich, who is often left out of the discussion of the game’s best little men. West led the league in assists. He still averaged nearly 26 points a game while he worked constantly to involve other players. The need for teamwork was hardly a revelation to West but he now had confidence in his teammates that was lacking in previous years. None of the Lakers guards (West, Goodrich and reserve Flynn Robinson) were true point guards—which is perhaps suggestive. The Jordan/Jackson Bulls, who later established the all-time win record (72), also played without a point guard.

Why this stroll down memory lane (at the risk that Wilt will block my shot, from the great Court in the Sky)? I don’t mean to say that the Lakers’ streak and eventual championship was due solely to Baylor’s absence. Baylor was a great player and not abnormally selfish. Tom Heinsohn once said that guarding Baylor was like trying to nail jello to a wall. Of course, Elgin did desert my alma mater, the College of Idaho, after one season playing in Caldwell, Idaho, but I don’t hold that against him. In any case the basketball gods got even by making him General Manager of the Clippers.

Athletic brilliance sometimes just happens when excellence meets unusual opportunity, as with a perfect game in baseball. Tiger is brilliant like clockwork but he is the exception rather than the rule. Another reason why we watch, and watch from the beginning. You never know.

Patrick Garrity is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.