TGS HOOPS...THE GREAT LAKER 33-GAME STREAK IS IN JEOPARDY
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Inexorably, the Golden State Warriors are marching toward one of the most enduring records in American sports. After Friday's win at Boston, the defending champs had won their first 24 games of the 2015-16 season, already the greatest-ever break from the gate in NBA history. Given that the win streak expands even further over two seasons, there are a handful of different interpretations of the streak thru December 10. It could be either be at 28 straight if including the four wins at the conclusion of the 2014-15 regular season, or at 27 in a row if including the three straight wins to close out the NBA Finals in June against LeBron James and the Cavs. Or just 24, if counting only the games to date in the 2015-16 campaign.
Whatever Golden State's current streak (after Friday's win at Boston, 28 seems to be the most-used, as it accounts for regular-season wins), the hallowed 33-game win streak of the 1971-72 LA Lakers is in its most-serious jeopardy, now even more that when the 2012-13 Miami Heat reeled off 27 wins in a row, the only other serious challenge to the Lakers' mark in almost 44 years. In the pantheon of NBA win skeins, the Warriors already have a secure place, as only the long-ago Lakers ever exceeded 27. The 2007-08 Houston Rockets reached 22 wins in a row, and the 1970-71 champion Milwaukee Bucks reached 20 in a row. In the modern era of the NBA, those along with the 71-72 Lakers, 2012-13 Heat, and the current version of the Warriors, are the only streaks to reach as much as 20; in the early days of the league, the old Washington Capitols won 20 straight in a streak that extended from the end of the 1947-48 season (five wins) into the 1948-49 campaign (15 more wins to start the season). Those Capitols played a long time ago, however, starting their win streak with a win over the St. Louis Bombers and ending it with a loss to the Indianapolis Jets!
But the assault by Steph Curry and the current Warrior edition also recalls the remarkable tale of the 1971-72 Lakers, known well by us at TGS as we, based in Los Angeles, would have a front-row seat to watch the unfolding action of 44 years ago.
Though coverage of sport in those days was not as comprehensive as it is today, the local media outlets accommodated the Lakers as much as possible. Many of the road games were televised locally on KTLA Channel 5, and all of the games could be heard on radio, as the inimitable Chick Hearn would coin the "simulcast" term, as his same rapid-fire play-by-play could be heard both on radio and TV (when the road games were televised). Former UCLA star Lynn Shackelford, just a year out of college where he was a starter on three straight Bruin NCAA title winners for HC John Wooden, would become Chick's color man in the 1970-71 season. The colorful Hearn had originally worked by himself on all Laker broadcasts and telecasts, joined for a very brief time (only a handful of games) by a very young Al Michaels in the 1966-67 season before colorful ex-West Virginia star and former Laker Hot Rod Hundley would become Chick's first full-time color man beginning in 1967-68. When Hundley left for Phoenix in 1969, veteran Dick Schad, the TV voice of the ABA Anaheim Amigos for their one season of existence in 1967-68, would join Hearn, to be replaced by Shackelford the following year.
Whatever, when the 1971-72 season commenced, no one was taking the Lakers very seriously as a title contender. After a succession of near misses throughout the 1960s into 1970, when LA would lose in the Finals a staggering seven times (six of those to the Celtics, and one to the Knicks) in nine seasons, the Lakers had relinquished the top spot in the Western Conference to the emerging Milwaukee Bucks, led by then-called C Lew Alcindor, in 1970-71. Alcindor would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the following year, but most anticipated a long run of dominance by the Bucks, who had surrounded the dominant Lew/Kareem with a solid supporting cast led by Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson. The aging Lakers, whose core of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain (who had dealt with a serious knee injury in the 1969-70 season) had failed to win the title the preceding three years and by this time having looked to lose contact with the Bucks, were not regarded as title threats entering the fall of 1971.
Moreover, the Lakers had once again changed coaches. After employing Fred Schaus, Butch Van Breda Kolff, and Joe Mullaney in the previous five seasons, crusty owner Jack Kent Cooke had enlisted USC product Bill Sharman, who had most recently won an ABA title with the Utah Stars after taking the same franchise, then based at the L.A. Sports Arena, to the previous year's finals, and had a track record of coaching success, having also won the only title in the old ABL with the Cleveland Pipers and having taken the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA Finals (against Wilt's great Philadelphia 76ers) in 1966-67. Sharman, a former NBA great in the 1950s as a guard with the Celtics after also having played briefly for the Brooklyn Dodgers (Sharman was on the Dodger bench when Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world" at the old Polo Grounds in 1951), would be tasked with reviving an aging roster as well as dealing with Chamberlain, whose relationships with most of his past coaches (save perhaps Frank Maguire with the old Philadelphia Warriors in 1961-62) had been rocky at best.
Sharman's tactics were laid out in summer as the team prepared for training camp. Talking to G Gail Goodrich, Sharman explained his system of game-day workouts (as noted by Sports Illustrated).
"On the road," said Sharman, "I like to take the team out to the arena about 10:30 in the morning and just run through some of the things we plan to do that night. Then about 10:45 we'll loosen up with a few exercises and shoot some baskets."
"Nothing wrong with that," replied Goodrich.
"What do you do at 11?," inquired a bystander.
Goodrich beat his coach to the answer. "I know." he said. "Then we all go back to the hotel and wake up Wilt."
The old/new Lakers would be re-made into the running team that had won for Sharman with the ABA Stars and NBA Warriors. But the experts were not buying the transformation. In its 1971-72 preview, Sports Illustrated was not expecting much.
"The Lakers have suddenly become a running team, too--at least in practice," began the SI preview. "With strict disciplinarian Bill Sharman now coaching, Los Angeles ran drills on drills during training camp, and even Wilt Chamberlain loped into shape.
"It was another Laker superstar who presented a problem: Elgin Baylor simply should not be playing anymore. Lest this sound shockingly heretical, one cannot but note that, at 37, Baylor's scarred legs no longer provide the thrust needed to shoot his jumper or the agility that playing defense requires. But if Elgin holds to his promise to wait until next season to retire, Sharman will be forced to start him. The Lakers are deep at guard behind Jerry West and Gail Goodrich but thin at forward. Baylor's presence will take important playing and learning time away from Jim McMillian, who must contribute significantly if Los Angeles hopes to put up a strong defense of its Pacific title."
Indeed, many were predicting that the Lakers, who already looked a bit worn from old age and injuries, might even fail to make the playoffs for the first time since they moved to So Cal in 1960. There was a method, however, to Sharman's madness, and by seeking the input of vets West, Baylor, and even Chamberlain, he was able to form a healthy working environment, and even got Wilt, who would notoriously march to his own drummer, on board.
Enlisting Chamberlain's support was crucial. Wilt was assumed by many to be uncoachable, and it was said that by this stage of his career he was resisting coaching more intractably than ever. Moreover, many suspected Wilt was already over the hill--yet pacing himself so gently that it appeared he intended to play until he turned 45. There was a popular assumption that the 1971-72 Lakers were too old, too scarred by injuries, and that they simply did not have the proper personnel to play a fast-break offense.
Skepticism was understandable. Three years earlier, when Wilt joined West and Baylor in Los Angeles, the Lakers were immediately declared invincible. Once they began playing together they proved decidedly otherwise, twice losing in the playoff finals and then losing in the aforementioned Western finals the previous season to Milwaukee. Although West and Baylor, not Chamberlain, were the superstars who had never won a championship during their careers, Wilt received most of the blame for the team's shortcomings. Rumors suggested Wilt could soon be traded, and then other rumors claimed that no team wanted to deal for him. Still, during his first three seasons with Los Angeles, Chamberlain twice led the league in rebounding, and as mentioned earlier had made a remarkable recovery from a knee injury early in the 1969-70 season only to heroically return in time for the playoffs.
Sharman, however, envisioned a different role for Wilt that would not include him as the main option on the attack end. By this stage of his career, Chamberlain's offensive skills had diminished, but he could still dominate off the glass and play defense. So those roles, at the near-exclusion of all others, are what Sharman asked Wilt to do.
Thus, Wilt would only score at a bit more than a third of his career average and barely take nine shots per game, while his FT % hovered in the 30-40% range all season (he ended up at 42% that year). But Chamberlain would end up as the most important player in the Laker revival, easily leading the NBA in rebounding and continuing to dominate on defense, in one stretch blocking 28 shots over a three-game midseason span against the Sonics, Celtics, and 76ers.
Interestingly, it was as if Wilt had finally caught up with his old nemesis, Bill Russell. Never before had he played more in the Russell style and, because of it, never before had the Lakers executed the fast break as well as they did for Sharman in 1971-72. This was no mere happenstance, as Sharman had played with Russell and also with two of the finest runners and gunners the Celtics ever had, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones.
Another long-held assumption was that Chamberlain could not provide the maneuver so essential to a fast break--a good outlet pass. The quick release of defensive rebounds is mandatory in that style of offense, but it had rarely been part of Wilt's game. Coaches previous to Sharman had resisted the fast break, preferring to move slowly enough so that Chamberlain could set up in the post where patterns would evolve around him. "The outlet pass was something I had to be very conscious of earlier this season," Wilt said at the time. "It was a change of style for us then, but it has become second nature now."
When Chamberlain would release the ball after a defensive rebound, he would almost never touch it again, as when the Laker fast break succeeded, Wilt usually remained standing in the defensive area of the court. Even when Sharman's LA would settle into a half-court offense, Wilt handled the ball far less frequently than in previous few years, when the Laker offense consisted mainly of throwing the ball into the post, letting Chamberlain wave it around in one hand for five or 10 tedious seconds and then throw it back outside for West to take a jump shot.
The Lakers' new scrambling style also took shots away from West, who was out with a sprained ankle during the team's three losses that preceded the 33-game win streak. West (who also missed late October wins over the Rockets and Royals) would thus have a personal 37-game win streak to start 1971-72! West would rank among the league assist leaders for the first time in his career, but no longer headed the scoring. That would instead go to fellow guard Goodrich, endearingly referred to as "Stumpy" by play-by-play man Hearn and the other Lakers. By sneaking away for quick lay-ups and by taking deft feeds from West to pop in his strange-looking, left-handed jump shot--Goodrich would hold the ball far over his head before he fired--"Stumpy" scored a team-best 25.9 ppg during 1971-72.
Still, for the first couple of weeks of the season, while the Lakers looked good, nothing was suggesting a 33-game win streak on the horizon, especially when the team stood at 6-3. That's when Baylor, whose legs had lost their spring and quickness, was nudged into retirement by Laker management. Wilt would take over the captaincy of the team, but it would be young F Jim McMillian, in his second year out of Columbia, that would prove the real revelation, as he took Baylor's place in the starting lineup and would contribute nearly 20 ppg for the season. Vet F Happy Hairston was also asked to curtail his shooting and focus on defense and especially rebounding, where he would rank among the league leaders all season while hauling in 13.2 caroms pg, and creating an imposing rebound force with Wilt and his 19.2 boards pg.
And, in an era when competition from the ABA and expansion in the NBA had weakened most benches, LA GM Fred Schaus put together a strong one. All of the substitutes, except first-round draftee Jim Cleamons, had been NBA starters in the past and most were obtained in waiver deals or through transactions in which Los Angeles gave second-round draft choices and cash to teams hard-pressed for money, something the Lakers had plenty of in those days. One of the key subs was none other than Pat Riley, whose brawling style added intensity off the bench. Sharman could get instant offense from G Flynn Robinson, by that stage donning a toupee' that would belie his ability as a rapid-fire scorer. Journeyman C Leroy Ellis, who had played for the Lakers earlier in his career, provided size and depth in the paint. Versatile Keith Erickson, injured for much of the season, would provide another quality option for Sharman when available.
The last loss before the streak began would come on Halloween night at the Forum against the Warriors in what would be Baylor's last game. With newly-minted starter McMillian in the lineup for the next game, the streak would begin with a 110-106 win over the Baltimore Bullets at the Forum, with Goodrich scoring a game-high 31 and McMillian adding 22 in his debut as a starter. West, back from an ankle injury, would add 19.
And the Lakers were off to the races!
The Lakers would never score fewer than 103 points during the win streak (indeed, they failed to crack the century mark just once during the entire regular season!) and were rarely even challenged as the wins began to mount during the streak. One of the few hard-fought games was a 103-96 victory over the Knicks in the third game of the streak, then a 128-115 win over the improved Celtics pushed the win streak to eight. The league was beginning to sense something special when the streak reached 11 with a 112-105 win over the Bucks on November 21, overcoming a 39-point onslaught by Abdul-Jabbar. Into December and suddenly there was talk of matching and exceeding the Bucks' league-record 20 straight wins, set the previous year before. Inexorably the Lakers pushed the streak to 19 in a row before almost stumbling as they were about to match the Bucks' record mark of 20. On December 10 at the Forum, pesky Phoenix, led by Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Arsdale, as well as C Otto Moore and ex-Laker Mel Counts, rallied from a 12-point deficit entering the 4th Q to force OT, narrowly missing a win in regulation when a last-second shot would rim out. In OT, however, the Lakers would gain control and pull away to a 126-117 win. The Bucks' record would fall two nights later on Sunday against the visiting Hawks, who led by 3 entering the 4th Q but would succumb 104-95.
Having displayed a few jitters when having trouble in those two games to tie and set the record, the Lakers would suddenly relax and start winning comfortably as the streak extended through the holiday season and the Lakers would complete their second straight calendar month without a defeat. The streak would reach a staggering 33 when the Lakers trekked to Milwaukee for the first time that season to face the defending champion Bucks on January 9, for a Sunday afternoon game televised nationally by ABC.
Unlike a subsequent all-time win streak, UCLA's 88 that would end in dramatic fashion at Notre Dame in 1974, there was nothing dramatic about the end of the Lakers' streak. Milwaukee's 120-104 victory was cinched with a 12-0 spurt late in the fourth quarter, but the balance had swung to the Bucks much earlier when their defense--played with all the finesse of a Bears vs. Packers football game--destroyed the Lakers' poise.
"Sometimes you get into games like this," said Sharman afterward. "The tempo becomes rough, and there's a lot of climbing over each other under the backboards and a lot of grabbing on defense. When you see that the refs are going to allow that, you've got to come back with the same style yourself. I'm not blaming the officials or the Bucks, only my players and myself. We talked about playing harder, but we didn't."
The Milwaukee style of infighting around the boards and constant pressure of the most physical sort all over the court disrupted the sparkling Laker running game. The Bucks prevented the clean rebounds and outlet passes Los Angeles needed to function, and the Lakers rarely scored easy baskets. And as if that were not enough, the harassment yielded 24 Laker turnovers--many of them leading to breakaway field goals.
The great win streak had indeed finally ended, but it was still the most-joyous stretch of basketball we ever recall in the NBA. The Lakers seemed unencumbered by any stress over the streak and appeared imbued with a mild gleefulness over such lengthy good fortune.
After the loss in Milwaukee, Sharman's team would not surprisingly go flat the next night and lose to the lowly Royals, who entered the game 12-31, by a 108-107 count in Cincinnati, and subsequent defeats within the next week to the Knicks and Suns meant LA would lose four times in a six-game span. But that was the only wobble of the entire season, as the team quickly regained its equilibrium and would rattle off a pair of 8-game win streaks before finishing the regular season at 69-13, at that time bettering the 68-13 mark of Wilt's 1966-67 Sixers for the league's best-ever mark.
The January loss to Milwaukee, however, set up a very anticipated playoff showdown in the West finals that April. The Bucks would throttle the Lakers 93-72 in Game One at the Forum and were close to taking complete command of the series before LA held on for a 135-134 win in Game Two. The series was on a teeter-totter and seemed destined for seven games as late as the fourth quarter of Game Six, when the Bucks held a 10-point lead at the old Milwaukee Arena and seemed ready to force a Game Seven for all of the marbles at the Forum. But the Bucks suddenly went cold and the Lakers would collar them in the last minute to steal a 104-100 win and a place in the Finals, where their opponent would be the Knicks, who had surprised the Celtics in the East title series.
LA fans who wondered if the Lakers were ever going to win a title could sense the drought about to end, especially since the Knicks were minus injured C Willis Reed. New York, however, would romp 114-92 in Game One, and LA fans were ready to experience another case of déjà vu before the series would turn in the Lakers' favor when another key Knick, Dave DeBusschere, would be slowed by injury for the middle games of the series. The Knicks, already shorthanded, fought valiantly with G Walt Frazier leading the way, and none other than Phil Jackson filling in for Reed in the post. But after a gallant OT loss in Game Four, New York faced elimination at the Forum in Game Five, and would lose 114-100, completing the Lakers' unforgettable year. Chamberlain would play through a painful hand injury and score 24 in the clinching win, with Goodrich leading the way with 25 points, West adding another 20, and McMillian 20 more.
About all the Lakers lost that season was the voice of Sharman, whose case of laryngitis at playoff time was so severe that his vocal chords would become permanently damaged, preceding the complete loss of his voice years later.
The Lakers' hurrah for Sharman was short-lived, lasting only two seasons, as the team would return to the Finals the next year and lose to the Knicks, before the squad would disassemble, as Chamberlain would leave for the ABA and an odd coaching gig with the San Diego Conquistadors (Wilt was barred from playing by court order). West was then near the end of the line as well and would retire after the following injury-plagued 1973-74 season. After the '73 Finals loss to the Knicks, Sharman would not coach another title contender during his tenure that would last thru the 1975-76 season and the arrival of Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee. Thereafter, Sharman moved into the Laker front office and assumed GM duties from the retiring Pete Newell, with West becoming the head coach in 1976-77.
But for a few glorious months in the 1971-72 season, the Lakers played with the sort of joie de vivre we have rarely seen in pro sport. Their 33-game win streak has endured for a couple of generations. The record grew to such proportions that no other team was likely to surpass it any time soon.
Almost 44 years later, we're still waiting...but maybe not much longer.
Return To Home Page