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Thursday, September 09, 2010

The NBA in the 1970's: Mr. Clutch Finally Gets A Championship Ring

I wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the 2005 anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. This is the third of 12 installments reprinting that chapter in its entirety.

I have removed the footnotes that accompanied the original text; direct quotations are now acknowledged in the body of the work and I will post a bibliography at the end of the final installment. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.

Mr. Clutch Finally Gets A Championship Ring

The 1971-1972 NBA season saw numerous changes. The San Diego Rockets moved to Houston and the San Francisco Warriors became known as the Golden State Warriors. Lew Alcindor publicly adopted his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In March, Charlie Scott clinched the ABA scoring title, claimed a breach of contract by the Virginia Squires and jumped to the NBA. The Celtics owned his NBA draft rights, but allowed the Phoenix Suns to sign him in exchange for future considerations. Next season those considerations came in the form of rebounder deluxe Paul Silas, who would make significant contributions to Celtics' championship teams in 1974 and 1976. The Lakers changed coaches for the fourth time in six seasons, replacing Joe Mullaney with former Celtics' All-Star Bill Sharman.

Many observers scoffed at the idea that any coach could get the aging Lakers over the hump after so many years of near-misses. Sharman embraced the challenge and pioneered many innovations that are widely used today, including game-day shootarounds and the use of game film to discern opponents' tendencies. Sharman faced a delicate situation early in the season when Elgin Baylor struggled to regain his form after missing all but two games the previous season due to a knee injury. The Lakers started the season with six wins in the first nine games but it was clear that they played better with rookie Jim McMillian on the court than with Baylor, who could not keep up with the fast breaking style that Sharman was teaching the team. Sharman told Baylor that he valued his contributions to the team, but that it was in the best interests of the squad that he come off the bench. It was an awkward message to deliver to one of the game’s all-time greats. Baylor chose to retire rather than continue playing so far below his accustomed level.

After Baylor retired, Sharman named Chamberlain team captain. On November 5, 1971, the Lakers held a ceremony to honor Baylor; that night the Lakers also began a 33-game winning streak, shattering the record of 20 just set the year before by the Bucks. Ironically, the defending champion Bucks ended the streak with a 120-104 decision in early January.

The Lakers finished the season with a best ever 69-13 record (since broken by the 1995-1996 Bulls and tied by the 1996-1997 Bulls), winning the Pacific Division by 18 games. Gail Goodrich led the team in scoring (25.9 points per game), with Jerry West just behind him (25.8 points per game). McMillian chipped in with 18.8 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 14.8 points per game while leading the league in field goal percentage (64.9 percent) and rebounding (19.2 rebounds per game). Abdul-Jabbar repeated as scoring champion (34.8 points per game) and MVP, again leading Milwaukee (63-19) to the Midwest Division title. In the Eastern Conference, veteran John Havlicek teamed with youngsters Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White to guide the Celtics to the Atlantic Division title with 56 wins. The Knicks fell to second place (48-34), mainly because Willis Reed only played in 11 games due to injuries. Early in the season the Knicks traded Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth to the Bullets for Earl Monroe, but he was plagued by nagging injuries and struggled to adjust to his new surroundings, averaging only 11.9 points per game after scoring over 20 points per game in each of his first four seasons. The Bullets did not seem to benefit immediately from the deal either, falling to 38-44, although they did repeat as Central Division champions.

In his first full NBA season Spencer Haywood ranked fourth in scoring (26.2 points per game) and was selected to the All-NBA First Team. Seattle's 47-35 record was the best in the franchise's brief history but not good enough to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. Similarly, Connie Hawkins (21.0 points per game) and the Suns missed the playoffs despite a 49-33 record that would have been second only to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference. The first round of the playoffs went according to form, with each of the division champions advancing. In the Western Conference Finals the Bucks seized the home court advantage with a stunning 93-72 win in Los Angeles but the Lakers rallied to win in six games. The experienced Knicks triumphed over the up and coming Celtics four to one in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Knicks trounced the Lakers 114-92 in Los Angeles in game one of the Finals, but the Lakers won the next four games to claim the title. West, known as "Mr. Clutch" for his many game winning shots over the years, finally had his first championship ring. Ironically, he was hampered by injuries throughout the 1972 playoffs and he shot only 37.6 percent from the field, by far his worst postseason performance ever. West recalled the 1972 playoffs with mixed feelings: "I played terrible basketball in the Finals and we won. And that didn't seem to be justice for me personally, because I had contributed so much in other years when we lost. And now, when we won, I was just another piece of the machinery. It was particularly frustrating because I was playing so poorly that the team overcame me. Maybe that’s what the team is all about."

Chamberlain was without question the hero of the Lakers' playoff run. He played the fifth game of the Finals with a hairline fracture in his right hand and a sprained left hand. He came up with a huge performance in that game with 24 points and 29 rebounds, winning the Finals MVP. Interestingly, he did not receive the lasting acclaim for playing hurt that Reed did after his performance two years earlier, even though Chamberlain posted much better numbers than Reed did.

Chamberlain bristled at the suggestion that the Lakers won the title because he had somehow changed his game. "I have been shooting less for years now. I led the league in assists years ago. Where have you been?" He elaborated, "When I did not have shooters on my side and it was my job to shoot, I shot. Now we have shooters, so I don’t have to shoot. The things I have been doing, I been doing a long time--playing defense, blocking shots, rebounding, passing off…" Sharman had nothing but praise for his center: "He's always had a bad rap. Whatever they ask of him, he’s done. He's just doing more things better now that he is not mainly a scorer. He must block a zillion shots a game. And he scares guys out of other shots or makes them take bad shots. And when he gets the rebound, he gets rid of it fast to get our fast break going." Looking back on the 1972 season, one writer commented, "Wilt was the biggest thing in basketball last season, and not just because of his physical size. Though he gives away a few inches to Jabbar, he remains the most awesome specimen in the sport."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM



At Friday, September 10, 2010 3:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I feel like one person who you don't mention that played on that Lakers team was Happy Hairston (RIP). He was an amazing player, and a great person.

I was introduced to him when I was younger by a family friend, and he actually took the time out of his day to talk basketball to some 11 year old kid who wasn't born until years after he'd retired (I think he was just impressed that someone under the age of 30 knew exactly who he was). He even took a 1968 Topps basketball card out of his own collection and signed it for me, which I've kept and treasured for over 10 years. I was deeply saddened when I heard that he passed away about two years after I met him.

He was an underrated scorer, and stands as the only player to average double figures in rebounding while playing with Wilt Chamberlain.

Either way, this is an excellent read, David. I was born and raised a 15 minute drive from the Great Western Forum, and my grandfather watched the West/Baylor/Chamberlain Lakers religiously. I've had the pleasure of meeting Elgin Baylor, and it has always saddened me that he retired just months before the Lakers finally made it over the hump in 72. West used to live in the same neighborhood which I grew up in, and the long time residents have had nothing but kind words about him.

At Saturday, September 11, 2010 12:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Hairston averaged 13.1 ppg and 13.1 rpg in the 1971-72 regular season; he contributed 13.5 ppg and 13.1 ppg during the 1972 playoffs. You are correct that he played a key role on that championship team.

The challenge of distilling a decade's worth of NBA/ABA action into one chapter necessitates that the coverage of any one particular subject cannot be comprehensive. Entire books can--and have--been written just about the 1972 Lakers. My chapter is twice as long as any other chapter in Basketball in America but as much as I would have liked to give Hairston and others their due it simply was not possible to provide that kind of exhaustive coverage in this format. The key theme of the 1972 season is that Jerry West--one of the sport's all-time greats and a player who had agonizingly fallen short of a championship on several occasions--finally captured an NBA title.

I am glad that overall you have enjoyed reading the chapter so far, even though Hairston's worthy exploits did not receive coverage.


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