Roland Lazenby Describes Jerry West's Triumphs and Torments, Part II
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.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).Part I of this article focused on West's high school, collegiate and NBA careers up to 1971. Today, we will look at the conclusion of West's playing days and his emergence as one of the league's top executives.
The Long Awaited Championship Season
In a last ditch attempt to make a run at the title, the Lakers fired Joe Mullaney and hired Bill Sharman, the Hall of Fame guard who played on Boston's first four championship teams. Sharman had coached for two years in the NBA before jumping to the rival ABA and leading the Utah Stars to the 1971 ABA championship. Sharman decided that the Lakers should play much like his Celtic championship teams did: defend, rebound and run, run, run. Sharman had the right combination of credibility, toughness and charm to get the Lakers to buy into his system; he quickly discovered that the best way to persuade Wilt Chamberlain to do something was to let Chamberlain take ownership of the idea and portray it as his own, while West was so eager and desperate to win a title he likely would have agreed to do just about anything that seemed to have the remotest chance of working. Sharman convinced Chamberlain to voluntarily reduce his scoring in order to concentrate even more on rebounding and defense, while Sharman converted West from shooting guard to point guard; West was the team's best passer, while his backcourt mate Gail Goodrich was a shoot-first player, so this move made a lot of sense, but many stars in West's position might have chafed at making such a change. West thrived in his new role, reducing his scoring to 25.8 ppg (his lowest average since his rookie season but still good enough to rank seventh in the league), leading the league in assists (9.7 apg) and earning many honors, including All-Star Game MVP, First Team All-NBA, All-Defensive First Team and second place in the MVP voting. Goodrich ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.9 ppg), while Chamberlain made the All-Defensive First Team for the first time (the award was created in 1968-69) and he led the NBA in both rebounding (19.2 rpg) and field goal percentage (.649). The 35 year old center was still an iron man, finishing seventh in minutes played (42.3 mpg).
What about Elgin Baylor? The end of the Hall of Fame forward's career turned out to be a very delicate situation. The 37 year old's wrecked knees clearly left him unsuited to play Sharman's uptempo game and before the season began Sharman was seriously considering benching Baylor in favor of the younger and more mobile Jim McMillian. Then some injuries to other players--including West--bought Baylor a brief reprieve but during the season's first nine games Baylor was just a shell of his former self (averaging 11.8 ppg in 26.6 mpg) and after the team promised him a front office position he retired; that very night, the Lakers began their amazing 33 game winning streak, setting a record that has never been threatened and will likely never be broken. Lazenby mentions that injuries forced West to miss the three early games that the Lakers lost in 1971-72, so dating back to the previous season West played in 41 straight victories, an unofficial record that is simply incredible--half a season's games without a single defeat!
The Lakers rolled to a 69-13 record, the best single season winning percentage in league history until the Jordan-Pippen Bulls cranked out a 72-10 mark in 1995-96 (the Bulls then went 69-13 the following year). Although the season should have been joyous, the Lakers' numerous final round failures meant that there would be a certain tension in the air until the team won the title. Pat Riley--a reserve guard on that team who later became a Hall of Fame coach for the Lakers--recalled, "It was a storybook year. But even as we were winning the world championship, we were waiting for something to happen, something bad to happen again" (p. 322).
The Lakers swept the Chicago Bulls in the first round, pushed aside the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Western Conference Finals and met the New York Knicks in the Finals for the second time in three years. This time, though, the Lakers clearly had the better team: Willis Reed missed most of the season and the entire playoffs due to injury and the team had traded away some of its depth to acquire Earl Monroe, who did not fully blossom in New York until the following season. Even though the Knicks convincingly won the first game on the road the Lakers were undaunted, taking the next four games to end West's long chase for his first championship ring. West had won a postseason MVP in college and a postseason MVP in the NBA after playing for the team that lost in the championship round but when he finally reached the NBA summit he did not play up to his normal standards, shooting just .376 from the field during the playoffs. West was nagged by feelings that his poor shooting had somehow hurt the team during its playoff run--even though Sharman privately and publicly praised West's all-around game and willingness to do whatever the team needed for him to do. After the team's success despite his reduced numbers, West wondered if perhaps his scoring dominance in previous years had held the team back. Such thoughts are a reflection of West's perfectionist nature; this pattern of thinking not only made him miserable when the Lakers lost but it made it difficult for him to fully enjoy the team's long awaited success. "I don't know where I'm going to celebrate," West said shortly after the Lakers won. "The feelings I have now are private ones. I'm going to go home and lock the door" (p. 328).
Chamberlain--despite being limited by a fractured right hand and a sprained left hand--averaged 19.4 ppg and 23.2 rpg (including 24 points and 29 rebounds in the clinching game) to earn the 1972 NBA Finals MVP. "Wilt was simply the one who got us here," West said after game five (p. 327). Although Bill Russell's Celtics--stacked with Hall of Famers--rolled to 11 titles, when Chamberlain had the requisite talent around him he produced some impressive results, including a then-record 68-13 won-loss mark with Philadelphia in 1966-67; those 76ers dethroned Russell's Celtics and went on to win the title. The 1972 Lakers were not nearly as talented as the 1967 76ers but the West-Chamberlain-Goodrich trio--ably supported by some very solid role players--meshed together extremely well, guided by Sharman's superb leadership. Sadly, Sharman suffered a great deal due to the exertion of that season; he strained his vocal cords and ignored his doctor's pleas to rest his voice, resulting in permanent damage that ultimately forced him to retire from the coaching profession.Builder of Two Lakers Dynasties
Even though the Lakers enjoyed great success in 1972, their organization was filled with acrimony. West was not on speaking terms with General Manager Fred Schaus; West felt that his former coach had treated him poorly when West was a rookie and West was also convinced that Schaus later tried to trade him, though Lazenby reports that everyone who has knowledge of that situation denies that the Lakers made an offer to deal West. Soon after the 1972 season ended, Schaus resigned to become Purdue's basketball coach. Pete Newell replaced Schaus.
The players were insulted and very upset when owner Jack Kent Cooke paid them a playoff bonus of $1500 each, significantly less than the $5000 each player had received in 1971 when the Lakers did not even make it to the Finals. Cooke also refused to give Sharman a playoff bonus, insisting that the players should compensate Sharman on their own. West believes that Cooke also convinced a local writer to publish a story saying that the players were trying to deny Sharman a playoff share. The team's end of season banquet turned into a disaster, with none of the players willing to even speak with Cooke. Lazenby declares, "For years, West had done a remarkable job of keeping his anger and resentment out of the public eye in Los Angeles, but this incident changed all that. His dislike for Jack Kent Cooke would first smolder and then burn in a fire so white hot that it ultimately consumed his playing career" (p. 330).
Despite the bad feelings, Sharman's voice problems and a rash of injuries, the Lakers went 60-22 in 1972-73, tying Milwaukee for the best record in the Western Conference (the league used a coin flip to award Milwaukee home court advantage in the Western playoffs). West missed 13 games and slumped to 22.8 ppg but he still averaged 8.8 apg, which would have ranked second in the NBA if he had played enough games to qualify for the leaderboard. West had no complaints about his reduced scoring, explaining, "As you get older, you have to compensate and do other things. One of the reasons I've been able to play so long is that Sharman hasn't made me shoot and has let me pass the ball. If I were in another role as a scorer, I don't know if I could handle it every night" (p. 337). That is an intriguing observation about just how difficult it is to be an elite scorer in the NBA as opposed to being an elite playmaker--and West's perspective should be kept in mind during contemporary debates about the value of a 30 ppg scorer compared to the value of a top notch playmaker: West has filled both roles and he clearly believes that it is tougher to put up big scoring numbers on a consistent basis.
The Lakers returned to the Finals for a rubber match with their New York nemesis but this time it was no contest: hamstring injuries limited West's effectiveness and the Knicks won the series in five games. West, Chamberlain, Jim McMillian and reserve guard Keith Erickson held out of the 1973 training camp in order to pressure Cooke to renegotiate their contracts. Cooke held firm, fined West $200 a day and eventually West returned without getting a new deal--but the Lakers traded McMillian and Erickson, while Chamberlain became a player-coach for the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors. Injuries limited West to just 31 games in 1973-74 and the Lakers bowed out in the opening round of the playoffs, with West playing just 14 minutes and only scoring four points. Meanwhile, Cooke had some health problems, Sharman's voice continued to deteriorate and Sharman's wife Dorothy died of cancer. It seemed likely that West would retire but during the offseason he reached a tentative agreement with Cooke to play for two more years--but then West made a discovery that poisoned his relationship with Cooke: West had been told by Cooke that he and Chamberlain had always been paid the same salary but it turned out that Chamberlain had been making at least $400,000 a year, much more than the $250,000 that West had thought they each were being paid. As a matter of principle, West now insisted that Cooke upgrade the deal to meet those terms. "I have always viewed trust as an important issue," West said. "Trust in a coach, trust in the people you've got around you. And I lost that trust with Jack Cooke. I just felt I wasn't compensated correctly" (p. 324). Not surprisingly, Cooke has a different version of those events, insisting that he only promised West that his salary would be equal to Baylor's--not Chamberlain's. Either way, West felt that Cooke was playing "mind games" with him and he decided that he would never play for the Lakers again as long as Cooke owned the team but he also did not want to start over somewhere else. That left West no choice but to retire. In 1975, West filed a $6 million lawsuit against Cooke, contending that the owner owed him back wages and had reneged on a deal to retain him in the Lakers' front office for at least five years after his playing career ended. Cooke responded with a countersuit.
West was also going through turmoil in his personal life; he separated from his first wife, asked her for a divorce and moved out of the family home to an apartment in Brentwood. He soon became involved with a Pepperdine University cheerleader who he eventually married. West paid a heavy price in the divorce proceedings, signing over to his first wife a house valued at more than $1 million plus custody of their three children. He struggled to figure out what to do now that he no longer played in the NBA. West spent a lot of time on the golf course but his perfectionist nature and his desire to play quickly meant that he was not temperamentally suited for that sport even though his skill level was so high that some people speculated that he might take a shot at the PGA Tour.
The Lakers became an NBA afterthought without West and Chamberlain. Cooke maneuvered to acquire Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but it cost the Lakers so much talent to get him that even though he won his fourth MVP in 1975-76 the Lakers missed the playoffs with a 40-42 record. That proved to be Sharman's final campaign on the bench; Newell retired and Sharman replaced him as the GM. The Lakers needed a coach, West needed a job after his costly divorce and Cooke understood that for p.r. reasons it would be a good idea for the team to reconcile with its former star. Cooke hired West and both sides dropped their lawsuits; Cooke insisted that the timing of those events was a "coincidence," while West has consistently refused to discuss the matter.
West had no coaching experience at any level, so in an era when NBA teams typically only had one assistant coach he brought in two coaching veterans: Stan Albeck served as the de facto offensive coordinator, while Jack McCloskey ran the defense. West possessed all the necessary talents to be a good coach in terms of his understanding of the game but his perfectionism made it very difficult for the players to relate to him--or for him to relate to them. Also, the Lakers--like many teams in the mid to late 1970s--had a significant drug problem that the organization did not know how to effectively handle.
One of West's conditions for taking the coaching job was that Cooke would provide the resources to upgrade the team's overall talent level--and it did not take West long to figure out exactly who he wanted to acquire. The NBA had just added four new teams by merging with the ABA. The 1976 ABA champion New York Nets were struggling to come up with enough money to survive and they were willing to trade three-time ABA MVP Julius Erving in exchange for cash. West knew that pairing Abdul-Jabbar with Erving could be a championship combination much like the one that Abdul-Jabbar later formed with Magic Johnson or the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant duo of the early 2000s. According to West, Cooke refused to foot the bill (the 76ers eventually paid $6 million to obtain Erving--with roughly half that amount going to the Nets and the balance funding a six year deal with the sport's most exciting player). West claims that instead of spending the necessary money to bring in a second star Cooke kept signing cheap "retreads." West later said, "When you're letting people who don't know a damn thing about basketball make your decisions, you're going to have a problem eventually" (p. 353). Cooke denies West's version of events, citing as proof that he previously had spent big money to acquire Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers started out 4-6 in 1976-77 but West guided them to the best record in the NBA, 53-29. Abdul-Jabbar won the MVP award again and the players seemed energized by West's enthusiastic leadership. The team won 28 out of 38 games in one stretch and looked like a legitimate championship contender but then two key players--Kermit Washington and Lucius Allen--suffered season-ending injuries; the Lakers were never the same and they lost in the playoffs to eventual champion Portland, a team that the Lakers had been able to handle when Washington and Allen were healthy.
That first season turned out to be the high point of West's short coaching career. In 1977-78, Abdul-Jabbar missed 20 games after breaking his hand by hitting Milwaukee center Kent Benson in response to a cheap shot from Benson. Then, in one of the most infamous incidents in NBA history, Washington nearly killed Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich with a powerful punch to Tomjanovich's face as Tomjanovich ran in from behind Washington to break up a fight between Washington and Kevin Kunnert. Washington received the largest suspension in NBA history (a record later broken by Ron Artest after the infamous "Malice at the Palace" brawl) and the Lakers soon traded him away, leaving the team without a credible power forward. West lasted just one more season on the bench, finishing his NBA coaching career with a respectable 145-101 record (.589). Cooke was forced to sell the team as part of a huge divorce settlement and new owner Jerry Buss wanted West to remain the coach but West had been through enough to realize that coaching was not for him.
West became intrigued by the challenge of being a member of the front office. Unlike many executives, West did not just sit at a desk and read reports--he loved to go to games and see players for himself. He had exactly the same work ethic as a talent evaluator that he had as a player and in short time West became a highly respected figure among executives and scouts. In 1982, Buss made West the Lakers' General Manager. The team had won the championship in two of the previous three years based on the greatness of the Abdul-Jabbar-Johnson duo (with plenty of help from players like Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper and Bob McAdoo) but West made several acquisitions and deals that enabled the Lakers to capture three more titles from 1985-88. His first big move was selecting James Worthy over Dominique Wilkins in the 1982 draft. West understood that both players would be very good in the NBA but he felt that Worthy's style would fit in better with the Lakers because Worthy would not constantly demand the ball. Next, West traded the popular Nixon in exchange for Byron Scott, another choice based more on chemistry than talent; Johnson and Nixon had overlapping roles because they were both point guards but Scott was strictly a scorer, making him a perfect complement to Johnson.
West's first two years at the helm ended in painful Finals losses, first a sweep at the hands of the 76ers in 1983 and then a seven game defeat administered by the hated Celtics in 1984; the Lakers made several embarrassing gaffes during the latter series and Buss strongly felt that Worthy should be traded but West argued that dealing Worthy would break up a nucleus that was destined to win multiple titles. West finally convinced Buss and the rest is history: the Lakers beat the Celtics in Boston Garden to capture the 1985 title and then won back to back crowns in 1987 and 1988, becoming the first repeat champions in the NBA since Russell's Celtics in 1969. West's acquisition of veteran big man Mychal Thompson proved to be a key move for the 1987 and 1988 teams.
West suffered so much misery as a player during the Finals but as an executive he had many moments of great success. Unfortunately, his personality often made it difficult for him to fully enjoy his triumphs; he is such a perfectionist that he simply cannot stand to see his players make any mistakes, so West developed a habit of not even watching his teams play. This quirk began with West standing in the tunnel and sneaking peeks at the action but by the end of his career as an executive West would often leave the arena until the game was over.
The "Showtime" era ended with Magic Johnson's shocking announcement that he had tested positive for HIV and would have to retire immediately. West spent the next several years trying to put together another duo like Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, even though such a goal sounds improbable if not crazy. Finally, in 1996, West seized two special, unique opportunities and in one summer laid the foundation for the Lakers to win three more championships. First, West watched a 17 year old kid named Kobe Bryant work out against Cooper, a former Defensive Player of the Year who had been retired for a few seasons but was still in good shape. West immediately saw that Bryant not only had amazing athletic gifts but that his skill set was very polished, an indication that Bryant possessed a work ethic much like West's. Bryant was jumping to the NBA straight out of high school and it appeared that he would be one of the first 15 players selected, well above where the Lakers were slotted in the draft. West traded veteran center Vlade Divac, an All-Star caliber player, to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the 13th pick. Meanwhile, West was also working on an even bolder deal; Orlando's superstar center Shaquille O'Neal was a free agent and West literally bet more than half of his roster in order to get far enough under the salary cap to sign him: in addition to trading Divac, West renounced the rights to seven players. West was playing basketball poker for the highest stakes and the Lakers were definitely "all in"; they would either sign O'Neal and draft Bryant or they would be left with virtually nothing to show for their efforts. Of course, West's gambles paid off and during one wild summer the Lakers obtained arguably the two best players of the next decade.
Although the championship foundation was now in place, the Lakers still needed the right coach and the right supporting cast. After several playoff failures, West tweaked the roster and brought in Phil Jackson, the man who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in eight seasons. West did not have a great personal relationship with Jackson but West knew that Jackson was the right man to lead the Lakers to the championship--and Jackson indeed took the Lakers to three titles in his first three years with the team, though West was only a member of the organization for the first of those championships. Lazenby writes that during his tenure in Chicago Jackson became "adept at corporate in-fighting" (p. 383) and Lazenby indicates that Jackson made some subtle moves--and some not so subtle moves--that resulted in West deciding to leave the organization. West eventually resurfaced in Memphis, where he hired Hubie Brown to be the coach and helped transform a moribund franchise into a playoff team.Errata
The book is put together very attractively and has a nice photo section in the middle, though the only color images are on the dust jacket. I found only two mistakes in 387 pages of text:
1) Oscar Robertson is credited for winning "the 1968 scoring title at 29.2 points per game" (p. 317). Robertson did in fact lead the NBA in scoring average that season but he did not win the scoring title because until 1969-70 the scoring title was based on total points, not average. Dave Bing won the 1968 scoring title with 2142 points, while Robertson missed 17 games due to injury and finished sixth with 1896 points.
2) Chamberlain's 1972 Finals MVP is described as his "second" (p. 327). Chamberlain surely would have won the award in 1967 if it had existed but the NBA did not recognize a Finals MVP (an honor which initially was called "Playoff MVP") until 1969.Jerry West's Lasting Legacy
The 1960s produced three epic NBA rivalries: Celtics-Lakers, Chamberlain-Russell and West-Robertson. Jerry West and Oscar Robertson will always be linked together; for six straight seasons they comprised the All-NBA First Team backcourt and for the better part of two decades--until the emergence of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan in the 1980s--they were almost universally considered the two greatest guards in NBA history (some people still rank Robertson as the greatest all-around player in basketball history and many of their contemporaries insist that West was just as good as Robertson was). They did not direct overt animosity toward one another but they were keenly aware of the comparisons: West always measured himself against Robertson--who routinely posted bigger numbers--while Robertson often felt that the predominantly white media did not give him a fair shake not just regarding West but in other ways as well.
Despite the great individual success that both players enjoyed throughout their careers, they each won their sole NBA title only after being paired with a dominant big man who won the Finals MVP. It is interesting to speculate about how Robertson and West would be perceived if their careers had played out in similar fashion under the glare of the modern day media spotlight: before turning him into a transcendent icon, the media spent years branding Michael Jordan as a selfish scorer who would never lead a team to a championship, while two decades later the media insisted that Kobe Bryant's first three NBA championships meant nothing (!) until he won a title without Shaquille O'Neal (a requirement that curiously never seems to be brought up regarding Dwyane Wade). Even though West certainly earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch," it is very easy to picture modern media members brutally mocking that sobriquet if the player in question lost in the NBA Finals seven times in a nine year period before winning a championship.
The dust jacket to Lazenby's book boldly calls West "a man who has done more to shape basketball than anyone on the planet." When I first read that line I was inclined to dismiss it as typical hyperbole penned by some publicist but upon further reflection--and after reading Lazenby's tremendous account of West's life and career--that statement cannot be lightly disregarded. Lazenby is not arguing that West is the greatest player of all-time but rather that the sum total of West's accomplishments had an unparalleled impact on the sport. West is not only literally the symbol of the NBA game but he had a major role--first as a player, then as an executive--in transforming the Lakers from a financially troubled organization into one of the league's premier franchises
Labels: Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Roland Lazenby, Wilt Chamberlain
posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM
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.
Labels: Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Roland Lazenby, Wilt Chamberlain
posted by David Friedman @ 6:01 AM