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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Roland Lazenby Describes Jerry West's Triumphs and Torments, Part I

Jerry West is one of the most accomplished and yet paradoxical figures in basketball history. He is known as "Mr. Clutch" but his Lakers lost six times in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics and one time to the New York Knicks before winning the NBA Championship in 1972; West's Lakers then lost to the Knicks in the 1973 NBA Finals. In 1969, West won the NBA's first Finals MVP award after producing 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists while playing all 48 minutes in game seven versus the Celtics--but West's Lakers agonizingly lost that game by two points and West is still the only NBA Finals MVP who played for the losing team. It is bitterly ironic that when West won his first and only NBA title three years later he averaged 19.8 ppg, 8.8 apg and 4.0 rpg in the Finals while shooting just .325 from the field; after so many times that West put up dazzling numbers only to fall just short of the ultimate goal, West did not fully display all of his talents during the Lakers' triumph. West later remarked, "It didn't seem to be justice for me personally. I had contributed so much in years when we lost. And now when we win, I was just another piece of this machinery, so to speak."

Roland Lazenby's Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon (Ballantine Books/ESPN Books, 422 pages, $28.00) provides a fascinating, in depth look at one of the NBA's true icons--a Pantheon-level player and a shrewd executive who helped build two Lakers' championship dynasties (Showtime Lakers in the 1980s, Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the early 2000s). West was an important figure in Lazenby's life literally decades before Lazenby undertook the mammoth task of authoring the definitive biography of the "The Logo" (West's silhouette inspired the ubiquitous, world famous NBA logo). Like West, Lazenby was born in West Virginia and Lazenby notes that when he grew up there were only two pictures on the wall in his house: Jesus and Jerry West. Lazenby writes (p. XVI), "The picture of Jesus, I tell people, was hung higher than the picture of Jerry, but only by about an inch or two. That punchline was at least figuratively true."

This project was deeply informed with personal meaning for Lazenby on a number of levels but that did not prevent Lazenby from delivering a thorough and very objective examination not only of West's successes but also his shortcomings. West's personality is a unique mixture of confidence, self-doubt and perfectionism: On the one hand, West has nonchalantly brushed off praise about his numerous game-winning shots by saying that such shots are easier than some people may think because the defender is hesitant to play close enough to the shooter to be whistled for a foul; on the other hand, Lazenby reports (p. XVI) that after one of the practices prior to the 1960 Rome Olympics, West confided to Coach Pete Newell that he did not think that he was good enough to be on the team and he was contemplating quitting, to which Newell immediately replied, "Jerry, if you're not going to Rome, then I'm not going either." Newell eventually concluded that West's insecurity stemmed from his upbringing; Newell told Lazenby, "If you want to understand Jerry West, then you have to understand West Virginia."

Hardship, Tragedy Fuel West's Inner Fire

Lazenby took Newell's words to heart and conducted extensive research not only into West's family history--dating all the way back to the pre-Colonial era--but also into the political and cultural history of West Virginia; the first two chapters of the book are devoted almost entirely to retelling that history and thus placing Jerry West's life into a much larger context. Jerry West, who will turn 72 on May 28, was the fifth of six children born to Howard and Cecile West between 1925 and 1947. Jerry West's parents struggled through many financial problems and much marital discord. Howard West spent little time with his children because he was constantly working (or seeking work) and he was also quite involved in local politics, while Cecile West was a stern perfectionist who rarely delivered much praise or affection. Jerry West looked up to his older brother David and even though they were separated by nine years the younger West often tagged along when David West went fishing. David West also introduced Jerry to the game of basketball, though Jerry emphasizes that after his initial encounter with the game he sharpened his skills on his own: "When I look back on it, everything you learned, you learned by yourself" (p. 54). Lazenby writes that Jerry West devoted many hours to solitary practice sessions, adding, "The hard feelings between Cecile and Howard were palpable. Basketball became Jerry's retreat from this unpleasantness" (p. 65).

David West joined the army in 1949 and soon ended up fighting in the Korean War. He earned a Bronze Star for bravery after risking his life to save a soldier under fire in 1950; on June 6, 1951, West suffered a severe wound from a mortar shell explosion that instantly killed six of his comrades. Doctors amputated West's leg on June 7 and the next day he passed away, more than five months before his 21st birthday. The government provided the West family with a $10,000 death benefit, half of which the Wests used to purchase a house and the other half of which went into an annuity that paid Cecile West $75 a month after she turned 65. The money was no consolation for the immense grief felt by the entire family. Charles, the second oldest West sibling, told Lazenby, "We suspected afterward that my mother had had a nervous breakdown after David's death. The children, especially Jerry, were neglected" (p. 71). Cecile's psychological pain was compounded by physical pain; shortly after David's burial in December 1951, she suffered a severe bout of kidney stones that required surgical intervention. Jerry, who had idolized David, was deeply impacted by his brother's death. Years after the tragedy, he said, "He was loved by everyone. You would say to yourself, 'My goodness, why didn't it happen to me?' Because this person was so good, and it was a devastating thing. It really changed me a lot" (p. 71).

In the wake of David's death, Jerry West often refused to eat and as a result he developed scurvy. His father tried to force him to eat and this conflict resulted in what Jerry later described as "physical abuse." Lazenby reports (p. 73) that this formed "the basis of a lifetime of resentment" that Jerry felt toward his father, part of Jerry's "quiet fury" that spurred him on to greatness but also "robbed him of any great joy in his accomplishments" (p. 74). Lazenby adds that West stoked those competitive fires with "self disapproval," "his own self criticism or the perceived slights of others--anything, really, that would push his quiet fury and competitive indignation" (pp. 74-75).

In an interview with USA TODAY's Tom Weir, Lazenby notes that Jerry West has always felt disrespected and underrated:

Like the truly great competitors he manages to internalize those things or imagine it. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, all these truly great competitors take sometimes what seem to be small slights and really pump those things up in their minds. When they are truly slighted that is an atomic powering of their competitive nature. These are very rare people.

Lazenby also tells Weir that West has the combustible, edgy personality that many high achievers share:

All of these truly great competitors, as Phil Jackson has pointed out, from Larry Bird and other people, are very difficult to be around. I was doing this radio interview in Memphis and the host paused about five minutes in. He obviously was a broadcaster who worked with the Grizzlies where Jerry was an executive. And he said "let me ask you, do you like Jerry West?" It is a fair question. I said I respect Jerry West and he has this gentlemanly nature... But on the other hand Jerry studies this edge he has, he has worked to keep that edge. It is not an easy thing, they are very complex people and very difficult.

Later in that same interview, Lazenby expands on that point:

I guess its pathological. A lot of competitors blow these things up in their minds and use them to motivate themselves. Now to what degree are they aware they are doing that? These competitors are sort of scorched earth in that regard. They will use it because they have to have that edge. Superstars are that way. I do admire Jerry West but there are things that are disturbing. My goal is not to tell them the things they want to hear (fans.)

The Transformation from "The Blade" to High School Champion

As a young man, Jerry West hardly looked the part of a future NBA superstar: he was just 6-3 and weighed a little more than 150 pounds when he first attracted the attention of college scouts and he checked in at just 172 pounds at the start of his rookie season in the NBA. He was so skinny that during his junior high days he became known as "The Blade." Looks can be deceiving, though: West's slight frame housed deceptively powerful legs and hands and he was able to move with surprising quickness, athletic attributes that West used to great advantage on the basketball court. What really set West apart, though, was his relentless quest to improve his skills, what Lazenby calls West's "self-taught comprehensive understanding...of even the most nuanced detail of every skill required to play" (p. 81).

During his sophomore year in high school, West suffered a setback that he turned into a blessing in disguise. West attempted to block a shot during one of his first games on the varsity team and broke his foot after landing awkwardly. The doctors put West's foot in a cast that essentially covered his whole leg. West was not able to play for the rest of the season but he was still determined to practice, so he spent many hours in his backyard, planting himself in one spot and meticulously working on his one handed shot. Then he would move to a different spot and go through the same routine. His sister Barbara believes that this period of time is when West really honed his trademark shooting touch.

West had an outstanding season as a high school junior but his team lost 50-47 in the regional playoffs after squandering a 15 point halftime lead by reverting to stalling tactics. Even at that tender age West quickly realized that not everyone took competition as seriously as he did. Lazenby writes, "He learned that some people didn't hate losing the way he did. It was a trait he came to despise in teammates, especially as he made his way through the ranks of the game and came to recognize the condition. Some people just don't care as much, or even care at all sometimes, he realized. He could not abide that. West decided then that he absolutely hated people who didn't understand what it meant to compete, who didn't hate to lose, who put the focus on themselves and not on the team" (p. 90).

Lazenby repeatedly refers to the potent brew of psychological factors that converged within West to create such determination and rage. George Mumford, who once served as the Lakers' team psychologist, observes that a major part of the warrior mentality is transcending the fear of death; David West's premature demise inspired Jerry West to, in Lazenby's words, pursue "glory as a victory over death" (p. 93). Mumford acknowledges that a teenaged Jerry West would not have expressed his motivation in those terms but Mumford nevertheless believes that David's death had a significant impact on Jerry West.

Jerry West also claimed that he overheard neighbors saying that he never would amount to anything. Lazenby writes, "That comment, real or imagined, made West furious and he would hold on to that memory as a driving force in his competitive ferocity" (p. 93). That is no different than Michael Jordan using real or imagined slights as motivation or Kobe Bryant declaring to a mouthy opponent, "Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out." Considering West's psychological makeup, it is not surprising that as a Lakers executive he traded away top level veteran center Vlade Divac to acquire the rights to draft high schooler Bryant at a time when such a move was avoided by many teams because it was considered too risky (Bryant was just the 13th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft). Although West is an adored figure while public opinion about Bryant is much more polarized, the truth is that their personalities and competitive outlooks are stunningly similar. Perhaps they are perceived differently because in many instances West hid his anger beneath what Lazenby calls a "mask of stoicism" (p. 93) while Bryant's every utterance and facial expression is subjected to intense scrutiny; fierce anger and burning competitiveness were easier to conceal in an era that did not have cable TV, the internet and a voracious 24 hour a day news cycle.

As a senior, West led East Bank to the 1956 West Virginia high school state championship. He established a new West Virginia high school single-season scoring record by pouring in over 33 ppg and then broke the state tournament record by grabbing 56 rebounds in three games. West scored 39 points in the championship game before fouling out and being serenaded with a standing ovation that brought him to tears. Little could West have suspected at the time that--other than winning an Olympic gold medal in 1960--it would be 16 years before he played on another championship team.

College Stardom and the Beginning of Championship Frustration

West was highly recruited by dozens of major colleges but there never was much of a chance that he would go anywhere other than West Virginia; the shy, somewhat withdrawn West felt most comfortable remaining in his native state, though Morgantown was actually several hours away from the West's family residence in Chelyan (the Wests received their mail at the post office in nearby Cabin Creek and Lazenby explains that the listing in West Virginia game programs of Cabin Creek as Jerry West's hometown is the genesis for a nickname that West understandably dislikes, "Zeke from Cabin Creek").

West averaged 19 ppg and 17 rpg in the 1956-57 season while leading West Virginia's freshman team to an undefeated record (freshmen could not play varsity NCAA sports at that time); during practices against the varsity--then ranked in the top ten in the country--West gained valuable experience and confidence from his matchups with star guard "Hot Rod" Hundley, who later became his teammate with the Lakers and is best known to younger fans as the longtime broadcaster for the Utah Jazz.

As a sophomore, West averaged 17.8 ppg and 11.1 rpg as West Virginia cruised to a 26-1 regular season record and the top ranking in the national polls but Don Vincent--the team's second leading scorer--broke his leg during the Southern Conference championship and the Mountaineers were then upset by Manhattan in their first game in the NCAA Tournament. West scored just 10 points and later lamented that he and his teammates had been overconfident. Kentucky, a team that West Virginia beat on the road earlier in the season, went on to win the NCAA title.

During the offseason, West relentlessly attacked his skill set weaknesses--most notably his ability to handle the ball with his left hand--and he began to transform himself from an undersized forward best known for rebounding and defense into a complete player. Lazenby draws a parallel between how West strove to be the best college basketball player in the country in the late 1950s and how Bryant worked to become the best player in the NBA four decades later. "It's no accident that Bryant became West's greatest protege," writes Lazenby (p.146). Lazenby suggests that Bryant, Jordan, West and Oscar Robertson--West's main rival--each are what Phil Jackson calls "alpha males." Lazenby provides an insightful Jackson quote on this subject: "That attitude, that tremendous competitiveness, sometimes makes it tough to be a teammate, because you see that tremendous competitiveness is going to eat you up everywhere. It's gonna eat you up playing golf with him next week, playing cards with him next month. That attitude of arrogance is going to be there. It's not always the best for personal connections and friendship. But it certainly makes for greatness" (p. 147).

Although an "alpha male" has a demanding personality, I think that it is only difficult to be his teammate if winning is not your top priority; playing with Jordan brought out the best in an all-time great like Scottie Pippen and a role player like Steve Kerr because they both demonstrated to Jordan that they were fully committed to maximizing their individual potential as part of the process of making the Chicago Bulls a championship team. Players who were not fully committed in that fashion certainly found it difficult to play with Jordan (and as a consequence such players did not stay on the roster for very long); as Jordan put it years after he retired, "If Someone Interpreted Me as a Tyrant, I'm Pretty Sure They're Appreciative Now". Similarly, Bryant is a demanding teammate but is it really difficult for his teammates to strive to be their best and then be rewarded by winning a championship? Pau Gasol played in relative anonymity in Memphis, earned tens of millions of dollars and never sniffed a championship but now he plays alongside an all-time great who insists that Gasol maintain a certain level of mental and physical toughness. Gasol might not love every single aspect of that process while he is going through it but, much like Jordan's teammates, when he looks back at his career he will appreciate what a blessing it was to play with Bryant.

During their college careers, Robertson was much more developed physically than West and Robertson had a more complete, well rounded skill set; West put a lot of pressure on himself to match Robertson's skills and to equal Robertson's statistics. West made the All-America First Team in 1958-59 after averaging 26.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 2.5 apg but Robertson earned the second of three straight Player of the Year awards by posting these fantastic numbers: 32.6 ppg, 16.3 rpg, 6.9 apg. Many people hoped that Robertson's Cincinnati team would face West's West Virginia squad in the national championship game.

Kansas State--coached by Tex Winter, whose Triangle Offense later helped Phil Jackson set an NBA record by coaching 10 championship teams--was ranked number one after rolling through the season with a 25-1 record but Robertson's Bearcats defeated the Wildcats to earn a trip to the Final Four (though that event did not officially receive that title until the 1970s). However, Cincinnati's championship dreams were dashed by Pete Newell's California Golden Bears. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket West Virginia cruised by Dartmouth and then battled back from a 67-49 second half deficit to beat a St. Joseph's team coached by Dr. Jack Ramsay. West finished with 36 points, including 21 points in a key nine minute stretch when the Mountaineers took over the game. West then had 33 points and 17 rebounds in an 86-82 victory over Boston University before producing 38 points and 15 rebounds in a 94-79 win over Louisville.

Lazenby notes that the championship game was billed as "racehorse West Virginia versus plowhorse California" (p. 167); West Virginia was the second highest scoring team in the nation, while Newell's Golden Bears were a tremendous defensive team. As often happens in such matchups, defense ultimately prevailed as California won 71-70. West led both teams in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (11), capturing the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award in a landslide decision (45 media votes to seven) over California's Darrall Imhoff, who was later West's teammate with the Lakers. Imhoff's right handed putback proved to be the game-winning basket, a play that frustrated West since Imhoff was left handed. "He wanted a perfect game," Lazenby writes of West's thoughts after the loss. "This had nothing to do with perfect. This was dumb luck" (p. 168). The game ended with West near the midcourt area, unable to get off a last second shot before the final buzzer sounded. "Those are the things, frankly, that stay with you more than the wins," West lamented years later. "My basketball career has sort of been on the tragic side of everything. It hasn't been on the positive side. It was so close, yet so far away" (p. 169).

West significantly improved his statistics across the board as a senior, averaging 29.3 ppg, 16.5 rpg and 4.3 apg. He again made the All-America First Team alongside Player of the Year Robertson, who averaged 33.7 ppg, 14.1 rpg and 7.3 apg. West Virginia and Cincinnati were once again both serious title contenders but the much anticipated Robertson-West championship battle never materialized; West's Mountaineers lost to an New York University squad led by future Boston Celtic Satch Sanders and Robertson's Bearcats fell to Newell's Golden Bears.

Although West and Robertson's collegiate careers were over they still had one more opportunity to play basketball as amateurs--and they did so as teammates, leading Team USA to the 1960 Olympic gold medal. That team also included Hall of Famers Walt Bellamy and Jerry Lucas and is widely considered the best amateur team the United States ever sent into international play.

Individual Accolades Accompanied by Bitter Defeats

Robertson was an instant sensation in the NBA: in 1960-61, he was the All-Star Game MVP, the Rookie of the Year, an All-NBA First Team member and the fifth place finisher in regular season MVP balloting behind Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. Robertson ranked third in the league in scoring (2165 points; 30.5 ppg) and first in assists (690; 9.7 apg) while also averaging 10.1 rpg. West put up solid numbers (17.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.2 apg) as a rookie but unlike Robertson it took him some time to comfortably make the transition from college forward to pro guard. Robertson handled the ball out front as a collegian a lot more than West, who was used to receiving the ball in scoring position relatively close to the hoop; in the NBA, West more often had to bring the ball up the court and therefore he started his moves further away from the paint. At that time, Robertson's Cincinnati Royals and West's L.A. Lakers were members of the NBA's four team Western Division. Both teams finished well below .500 but three teams from each division qualified for the playoffs; the 36-43 Lakers narrowly made the cut, while the 33-46 Royals just missed out.

Fred Schaus, West's coach throughout his Mountaineer days, joined the Lakers the same season that West did. However, this unique situation did not give West a leg up on the other Laker guards; in fact, West later recalled that he felt that Schaus applied a higher standard for him than Schaus did for the other Lakers. West initially did not start for his own team even though the Lakers were hardly a powerhouse and despite the fact that West was productive enough to make the All-Star team as a rookie, a rare accomplishment.

The Lakers' best player was Baylor, a wondrous third year forward who ranked in the top ten in the league in scoring, rebounds and assists. Baylor and West soon developed into the league's top tandem but during West's rookie year he very much felt like an eager apprentice: "It was an honor to play with him. I never considered Elgin Baylor as someone I competed against. He is without a doubt one of the truly great players to play this game...I learned from him, from watching him. I was young, wanting to learn" (p. 204).

West's game took a quantum leap in his second season; his usual offseason routine enabled him to continue to refine and expand his skill set plus his role on the team greatly increased because Baylor missed 32 games due to military service. Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg and 18.6 rpg in the 48 games that he played, while West contributed 30.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 5.4 apg in 75 games. Both players finished in the top five in MVP voting and made the All-NBA First Team. The Lakers finished first in the Western Division with their best record since George Mikan led the franchise to the 1953 title. Baylor was able to play in the entire postseason and the dynamic Baylor-West duo carried the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they faced the Boston Celtics, three-time defending champions and winners of four of the previous five championships. The Celtics were led by league MVP Russell, an energetic, athletic force in the paint who keyed Boston's defense with his blocked (and altered) shots and ignited the team's fast break offense with his rebounds/outlet passes. The young Lakers extended the veteran Celtics to overtime in the seventh game before Boston prevailed; Laker guard Frank Selvy missed a short jumper at the end of regulation that could have delivered the championship to L.A. This turned out to be just the first of many heartbreaking championship losses suffered by Baylor, West and the L.A. Lakers (prior to West's arrival, the then-Minneapolis Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 1959 Finals during Baylor's rookie year).

While the Celtics' roster was stacked with Hall of Famers, the Lakers relied very heavily on their two superstars (Baylor averaged 38.6 ppg in 13 playoff games, while West scored 31.5 ppg). Lazenby explores the question of whether the Lakers should have divided the load more evenly or whether it made the most sense to have the two best players taking the bulk of the shots. He cites some interesting quotes from Tommy Heinsohn, Boston's Hall of Fame forward: "Those two guys were going to beat you...They just never trusted their team members, just never trusted them. They were going to go and win it by themselves and our approach was completely different" (p. 216). However, Heinsohn also added, "They had two great players and we had eight great players. It's tough to beat. In the early years, Baylor would have 60 (points), West would have 30 and we'd still win the game" (p. 217).

Lazenby provides some important historical context: "Actually, most NBA teams approached the game the same way the Lakers did. It's just the Lakers seemed to take the matter to extremes and they did so with great intent" (p. 215). Lazenby points out that modern day "alpha males" Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have at times been labeled "selfish" for playing much the way that Baylor and West did; of course, that criticism of Jordan disappeared after he won six championships and Bryant seemed to reach a new level of respect in 2009 when he led the Lakers to a championship without Shaquille O'Neal.

West offered his succinct take on this issue in Mr. Clutch, his 1969 autobiography: "Would it have been smarter basketball to let others who can't shoot as well shoot more?" Two decades later when Tex Winter chided Jordan that there is no "I" in team Jordan retorted that there is an "I" in win.

Despite all of Boston's talent, the Celtics survived many close calls en route to winning 11 championships in 13 seasons; if Selvy--who once scored 100 points in a collegiate game--had just made that fateful short jumper then Baylor and West may have gone down in history as the two young stars who brought down a powerhouse instead of as the star-crossed duo that could never quite get over the hump versus the Celtics. Since Boston's margin of victory was frequently so slight it seems a bit presumptuous to make grand sweeping declarations about how much the Lakers relied on Baylor and West; if the Lakers' formula was so fatally flawed it would not have resulted in nearly annual trips to the Finals to battle the great Celtics, including three series that lasted the full seven games.

The Lakers fell to the Celtics in six games in the 1963 Finals. In the 1964 season, injuries to Baylor caused the Lakers to slump to 42-38 and the Lakers failed to return to the Finals. The Lakers bounced back to 49-31 in 1965 but Baylor suffered a very serious knee injury in the team's first playoff game. West responded to the challenge by averaging 46.3 ppg--a single series record that still stands more than four decades later--as the Lakers defeated Baltimore four games to two. Naturally, that one man gang approach had no chance of success versus Boston in the Finals and the Celtics cruised to a five game victory. Although Baylor never regained his old explosiveness, he returned to action in the 1966 season and the Lakers pushed the Celtics to seven games before dropping a 95-93 heartbreaker in the final contest. Injuries to both Baylor and West sent the Lakers' record plummeting to 36-45 in 1967 and they were swept by the San Francisco Warriors in the playoffs. Coach Schaus left the bench to become the team's general manager and he brought in Butch van Breda Kolff as his replacement. The Lakers went 52-30 in 1968 but the Celtics triumphed in six games in the Finals.

Prior to the 1969 season, the Lakers sent three players to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Wilt Chamberlain, the most physically and statistically dominant player in league history. With Chamberlain manning the pivot the Lakers at last had someone who could contend with Russell; Chamberlain's 76ers defeated the Celtics in the 1967 playoffs en route to winning that year's championship. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Chamberlain and van Breda Kolff were immediately at odds. The Lakers' coach told the media that he "could handle" the team's new center, an extremely poor choice of words and a marked contrast to the attitude of Boston's legendary Red Auerbach, who always said that you "handle animals but you deal with people." Naturally, the media ate up the public feuding between Chamberlain and van Breda Kolff, with some journalists siding with the player and others favoring the coach.

Despite the internal strife, the Lakers easily won the Western Division as Chamberlain, Baylor and West each averaged at least 20 ppg. The Lakers advanced to the Finals and were very confident about their chances; near the end of the season, the Lakers routed the Celtics 108-73 and it seemed as if Boston's reign at the top of the league had ended. The Celtics limped to a 48-34 record to claim the fourth and final playoff spot in the East but they found a second wind during the postseason and once again made it to the Finals. West scored a playoff-career high 53 points and dished off 10 assists as the Lakers won game one, 120-118. The Lakers also took game two and privately began relishing the thought of sweeping their hated rivals but the Celtics rallied to take both games in Boston, winning game four on a last second jumper by Sam Jones. Right after that narrow escape, Jones told reporters that he had purposely put a lot of arc on the shot so that if it missed Russell would have a chance to tip it in--apparently not realizing that Russell was not even in the game for the last play. Boston's Larry Siegfried quipped, "What the hell. You hit a shot like that, you're entitled to blow a little smoke about arc and backspin and things like that" (p. 274).

The teams split the next two games to set up a classic game seven full of tension and subplots. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, sure that his team would finally vanquish the Celtics, made elaborate plans for the postgame celebration, including having balloons descend from the rafters in the Forum and a band playing "Happy Days Are Here Again." Player-coach Russell famously got wind of Cooke's shenanigans and he had a simple message for his teammates: a lot of things could happen in this game but what could not happen is for the Celtics to lose--and they would have a lot of fun watching the Lakers take those balloons down one by one.

West, who was so good at motivating himself with real (and imagined) slights, was furious that Cooke provided the Celtics with such a psychological boost. The Celtics raced out to an early double digit lead but the Lakers cut the margin to three by halftime. The Celtics again built a double digit advantage in the second half and then disaster struck for the Lakers: Chamberlain injured his knee and had to leave the game with 5:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. A couple minutes later, with Boston clinging to a 103-102 lead, Chamberlain was ready to return to action but van Breda Kolff told him, "We're doing well enough without you." Chamberlain fumed on the bench as the Celtics escaped with a 108-106 victory--and Russell later poured fuel on the fire by publicly saying that only a broken leg should have kept Chamberlain out of such an important game, a remark that created a huge rift between the formerly cordial rivals (they eventually mended fences).

Based on some of the quotes cited by Lazenby, it is very obvious who beat writer Doug Krikorian sympathized with in the Chamberlain-van Breda Kolff feud. Krikorian declared that Chamberlain "deserved" to be benched because "he was playing horribly...Russell was scurrying around the court in his final game and Wilt was doing nothing" (p.277). Chamberlain scored 18 points on 7-8 field goal shooting (though the notoriously poor free throw shooter shot just 4-13 from the free throw line), grabbed a game-high 27 rebounds and had three assists in 43 minutes; Russell finished with six points on 2-7 field goal shooting and 2-4 free throw shooting while claiming 21 rebounds and dishing off a team-high six assists. Considering that Baylor shot just 8-22 from the field and the four Lakers not named Chamberlain, Baylor or West combined to shoot 10-38 from the field it is extremely bizarre for Krikorian to suggest that Chamberlain did "nothing" and that the Lakers were better off without him.

West had a much different take on matters than Krikorian. In the heat of battle, West was unaware that Chamberlain could have come back--and West was none too pleased to learn that a petty feud may have robbed him of a chance to win a championship ring: "If people thought we were better off with Wilt Chamberlain sitting on the bench, that's a bunch of bull. We were better off with him on the court. It's just another annoying thing with something that's already very annoying" (p. 276). West's amazing triple double performance in game seven (42 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) earned him the Finals MVP and much praise delivered by the rival Celtics but the award and the gracious words still left West feeling completely empty: "I didn't want to ever play basketball again. I didn't want to ever see another basketball game again" (p. 278). Although West felt burned out, the league considered him to be the perfect symbol for the sport--literally. A few months after the 1969 Finals, the NBA unveiled its now-world famous official logo, a silhouette based on an action photo of West.

Chamberlain and van Breda Kolff clearly could not function together effectively moving forward, so van Breda Kolff resigned and became the coach of the Detroit Pistons. He finished his 10 year NBA/ABA coaching career with a sub-.500 record, though he did very well as a collegiate coach both prior to and after his stint in the professional ranks. The Lakers replaced van Breda Kolff with the much more easygoing Joe Mullaney but just nine games into the 1970 season Chamberlain tore up his knee. The doctors said that Chamberlain would be out for the whole year but Chamberlain vowed to return and he rehabilitated so vigorously that he made it back for the final three regular season games. Meanwhile, with Chamberlain gone and Baylor hobbling through an injury marred campaign West authored one of the finest seasons of his career, leading the NBA in scoring (31.2 ppg) and ranking fourth in assists (7.5 apg). The Lakers survived a tough seven game first round series versus the Phoenix Suns before sweeping the Atlanta Hawks to return to the NBA Finals. The Celtics were in rebuilding mode in the wake of the retirements of Bill Russell and Sam Jones but another team stocked with future Hall of Famers emerged from the East: the New York Knicks.

The 1970 NBA Finals will forever be remembered for Willis Reed's dramatic return for game seven but years of mythology have clouded the truth about that series; in the popular mind, the Lakers are now remembered as a powerhouse team that was defeated by an underdog thanks to Reed's courage but reality is a lot more complicated. Lazenby points out (p. 292) that the oddsmakers actually favored the Knicks prior to the series and when one considers the matchup objectively it is easy to understand why this was the case. The Knicks were a young and very talented team that had finished with the best record in the league, while the Lakers were an old, beaten down squad: Baylor was literally on his last legs, while Chamberlain still had not fully recovered from his serious knee injury and West was worn down after carrying the team all season long.

The Knicks won game one at home and then the teams alternated victories the rest of the way. Reed tore a muscle in his leg during game five but the Knicks rallied from an 18 point deficit to win; it could rightly be said that the Lakers lost the championship during that game, because history shows that the fifth game is a pivotal encounter in an NBA playoff series. The Lakers committed 30 turnovers, many of them when they tried to force the ball into Chamberlain after Reed got hurt; West did not make a field goal in the second half and Chamberlain scored just four second half points despite all of the efforts to feature him. Chamberlain then erupted for 45 points and 27 rebounds to lead the Lakers to a game six win but game seven would be played in New York and the Knicks owned the best home record in the NBA.

Both teams seemed mesmerized when Reed emerged from the tunnel prior to game seven but he only contributed four points and three rebounds in 27 minutes while Chamberlain had 21 points on 10-16 field goal shooting (and 1-11 free throw shooting), a game-high 24 rebounds and four assists. Reed was given the Finals MVP based on how he inspired his team--and how well he played prior to being hurt--but Walt Frazier had one of the great performances in Finals history: 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds. Once again, Lakers not named Chamberlain, Baylor or West came up very small, shooting a combined 10-31 from the field. Like Chamberlain, West played all 48 minutes, finishing with 28 points, six rebounds and five assists.

By the end of the 1970 playoffs, West, Baylor and Chamberlain were the top three playoff scorers in NBA history--but even though that looked good on paper what it really meant was that all three players had accumulated a lot of mileage. During the 1971 season it truly seemed as if the Lakers' championship window had slammed shut: Baylor played in just two games, West battled nagging injuries and even though the Lakers won the newly formed Pacific Division four teams finished with better records, including a dominant 66-16 Milwaukee team that won the championship after routing the Lakers 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals; the Bucks had paired young MVP center Lew Alcindor (who soon changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) with Robertson, who won his only NBA title in his first trip to the NBA Finals. The 1971 Western Conference Finals was the first playoff meeting between West and Robertson but it seemed like it might be the last word in their long rivalry.

Part II of this article will describe how West's Lakers finally won an NBA championship, look at his brief coaching career and detail how he became a highly successful general manager.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:01 AM

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8 Comments:

At Tuesday, March 23, 2010 9:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the eye-popping numbers of that era. The players played at a much faster pace, but they didn't seem to get injured that much more despite playing really heavy minutes compared to today's standards.

What particular rule/philosophy changes slowed the game down? I don't think it's injury prevention. The Suns don't suffer any more injuries than an average team. Are teams getting much too cautious?


Also, why does having a permanent scowl on one's face often positively interpreted as "competitive fire"?
Looking angry doesn't help anybody at all. Duncan and Nash seem to be well adjusted individuals. Durant seems like a very nice person.

I don't think that the Celtics would think less of KG if he didn't thump his chest so often. I don't think David West would miss his 17-footers if Chris Paul stopped scowling. Yao's foot won't suddenly get better if he starts huffing and puffing. Does anybody actually think that Jordan's punch help Steve Kerr make that game-winning jumper against the Jazz?

The book sounds totally fascinating, but I completely disagree that being a complete jerk equates to being a winner. You don't have to be "unlikeable" to reach the top of your chosen field. Not shaking hands when you lose in the conference finals doesn't make you competitive.

Too many writers and talking heads associate desire and passion with extra-curricular, insecure and immature actions.

Do you write about Dr. J with a scowl on your face, thump your chest every time you write the word "dunk" and kick a stationary bike when you mis-spell something? Or do you do it with smile?

 
At Wednesday, March 24, 2010 1:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

One thing that has changed since the 1960s is the nature of medical care and the development of advanced diagnostic tools. Back then MRIs did not exist so players played with injuries that if properly diagnosed would probably have forced them out of the lineup. Also, there were fewer teams (and thus fewer jobs), so players felt pressure to keep playing so as not to possibly lose their roster spots.

I don't make a big deal about players' scowls/facial expressions but Kobe's facial expressions received a lot of coverage during last year's playoffs. I also don't think that a person's facial expressions alone tell us whether or not he is "well adjusted."

As for MJ punching Kerr, I don't think that anyone is suggesting that this particular action was a good thing. The point is that someone like MJ is so competitive that this attitude can be expressed in a lot of ways, some positive and some negative. Being punched did not "make" Kerr hit game-winning shots but the fact that he would stand up to MJ in practice increased MJ's respect for Kerr. In Sam Smith's book "The Jordan Rules" there is a quote from Horace Grant to the effect that MJ tested all of his teammates and he would essentially run out of town anyone who did not stand up to him because he figured that if you could not take a little pressure during practice then you would fold during games.

Neither I nor Lazenby are suggesting that you have to be a "jerk" to be a winner. The point is that highly competitive, highly successful people often have very strong personalities and that there are positive and negative aspects that go along with this. An episode in the original Star Trek illustrated this by having Captain Kirk split into two people by a transporter device malfunction--one "good" Kirk and one "bad" Kirk. The "good" Kirk was well intentioned but did not have a strong enough will to make command decisions that could potentially put some lives at risk; the "bad" Kirk was simply an id gone wild running around the ship chasing women and causing trouble. Only by recombining both traits in one person could Kirk be a strong, effective leader. That is a good analogy for the "alpha male" traits that Lazenby is talking about with MJ, Kobe, Robertson and West.

 
At Wednesday, March 24, 2010 9:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Krikorian was know as Wilt's guy when he worked for the LA Examiner.

 
At Wednesday, March 24, 2010 11:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

He sure does not sound like "Wilt's guy" in Lazenby's book and I don't see how any objective person could contend that Wilt did nothing in a game in which he scored 18 points and grabbed 27 rebounds. Numbers sometimes do not tell the whole story but Wilt was more productive than Russell in that game seven; the other Lakers (except for West, of course) did not contribute much.

 
At Sunday, April 04, 2010 5:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Madmen's Ball by Mark Heisler, he notes how the LA Times was known as Butch's paper and the Examiner which Krikorian wrote at was Wilt's paper. If you've heard Krikorian on interviews he always speaks of Wilt affectionately.

 
At Sunday, April 04, 2010 7:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

What difference does any of that make? The Krikorian quotes in Lazenby's Jerry West book about Wilt's performance in game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals are biased against Wilt--and, as I noted, are contradicted by West, who scoffed at the notion that the Lakers were better off with Wilt on the bench.

 
At Monday, April 05, 2010 1:39:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Interesting post, David.

It's about time someone wrote a biography of West. He's one of my favorite basketball figures. I'm still somewhat bitter about the way the Lakers let him leave. Lazenby had some interesting details about his departure in an earlier book about the Lakers, and it will be interesting for me to see if there is more on that in this book.



I've seen the following quote before:

"It didn't seem to be justice for me personally. I had contributed so much in years when we lost. And now when we win, I was just another piece of this machinery, so to speak."


I think it goes to show how big a role the media has in shaping the image of a player. Imagine of Wilt Chamberlain, rather than West, had made that comment. People would cite it as proof that Chamberlain only cared about his stats, and didn't value winning, and wasn't a great competitor. On the other hand, West could make such comments and rarely be portrayed as anything other than a noble player who cared about winning and nothing else.

 
At Monday, April 05, 2010 2:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

You are correct about the large--and not always accurate--influence that the media has in shaping how things are perceived by the general public; that is one of the major points that I hope is very clear to any reader of this two part review of Lazenby's book.

 

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