They averaged 121 points a game. Right there, you know it was a very different NBA.
They had three Hall of Famers in the starting lineup. They actually started the season with four, but that story is coming.
They would win a then-NBA-record 69 games, 33 of which came in succession.
They were, of course, the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
That’s the team the Miami Heat have been chasing since they launched their great streak, which reached 25 with Friday night’s conquest of Detroit. The Heat are being followed with serious interest in Los Angeles, especially since most of the principals are still very much with us.
It was the second year following the expansion that had spawned franchises in Cleveland, Portland, and Buffalo (now the Los Angeles Clippers). So, yes, the Lakers feasted on these have-nots, going 7-0 over the three bottom-feeders during the 33-game streak. But that didn’t distinguish them among the top-tier teams. That’s just the way it was.
No one was quite prepared for the Laker dominance. They had gone 48-34 the previous year, winning the Pacific Division before losing the Western Conference finals in five games to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. Their big offseason personnel acquisitions were bench guys Flynn Robinson, John Q. Trapp, and 31-year old Leroy Ellis, back for a second stint with the team following a four-year exile to Baltimore.
But there was one very significant change. There was a new coach. Joe Mullaney was out after two years and Bill Sharman was in. Sharman had just coached the Utah Stars to the ABA championship, and he arrived in LA with some interesting plans, the most startling of which was a radical concept about how a team should spend its game day.
The one and only way it had ever been done was for players to sleep late, eat a midday meal, or go to a movie (there were such things as downtown movie theaters in those days), maybe take a nap, and then get on the bus at the appointed hour.
Sharman thought this M.O. made players sluggish. He decided they would assemble on the morning of a game for a no-heavy-lifting session in which they would shoot and go over the rival scouting report. Thus was born the hallowed shootaround.
He had one problem: Wilt Chamberlain.
The Big Fella was rather set in his ways by this time. He was a notorious nocturnal creature who could relate to all those jazz musicians who looked at you in wonder when informed there were really two 10 o’clocks.
Sharman persuaded Wilt that it was OK if he chose not to participate as long as he showed up. Lord knows what else he promised him, but Wilt said OK.
The Lakers started off 6-3, but there was a serious problem. The great Elgin Baylor, injury-plagued for a decade and able to play in only two games the previous season, was still struggling, and that’s being polite. On the afternoon of Nov. 4, a day in advance of a game with Baltimore, he said “No mas. I’m done.” In his announcement, Baylor said that he was “depriving Jim McMillian of playing time.”
McMillian was a second-year forward from Columbia. He was a cerebral, move-without-the-ball player with a sound jumper. He moved into the starting lineup for that Baltimore game, submitting 22 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists as the Lakers won, 110-106. It would be a tick more than two months before he would lose a game as a starter.
As I said, the game was different. I mean, the starting backcourt of future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Gail Goodrich combined to score 51.7 points a game. The team took 103.8 shots a game. The Heat take 78.
Keep in mind the Lakers scored 121 points a game without any threes, that shot being eight seasons down the road. They ran and ran, and one reason was the presence of Wilt, who was in the process of his second, and final, total reinvention.
In Phase I, he averaged 37.6, 38.4, 50.4, 44.8, 36.9, 34.7, and 33.5 points per game, all of which netted him zero rings.
In Phase II, he shot less and passed more, with back-to-back seasons in Philly of 24.1 ppg/24.2 rpg/7.8 apg and 24.3 ppg/23.8 rpg/8.6 apg, winning his first title in 1967.
By 1971, he was 35 and somewhat amenable to even more change. Scoring no longer interested him, and it was an easy sell when Sharman suggested he concentrate on defense, rebounding, and passing, specifically outlet passing (an almost unknown concept today).
On offense, he only attempted tips and dunks, which led to a .649 shooting percentage (escalating to a ridiculous .727 in his farewell season of ’72-73). So Wilt averaged a tepid 14.8 ppg.
The fifth starter was an interesting chap. Harold “Happy” Hairston was a tough 6-7 dude out of NYU and the answer to the following trivia question: Who is the only man ever to grab 1,000 rebounds while playing alongside Wilt? The Hap Man hauled in 1,045 rebounds in this season. He also held his own on offense, averaging 13.1.
The bench was strictly filler stuff. Robinson was a fairly explosive scorer. The 6-11 Ellis was a savvy veteran and the forerunner of the 7-foot jump shooters we see everywhere today. Trapp was an athletic forward. Oh, and Pat Riley provided some grit and hustle in his 14 minutes a game.
The caravan rolled into a sold-out Milwaukee Arena on Sunday, Jan. 9, 1972. The Lakers were 39-3. The defending champs were 35-8. The ABC cameras were on hand. It was pretty big stuff for the time.
It was tied at 77-77 when the Bucks ran off an 8-0 run and said goodbye. Wilt had just gone to the bench with four fouls, to which I say, “So what?” since he never fouled out of a game in his career.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took advantage to score 23 of his game-high 39 (to go with 20 rebounds) from the moment of Wilt’s departure. Milwaukee got a big lift from sub forward John Block (a future coach at our own Gordon College), who had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
The final score was Milwaukee 120, Los Angeles 104. Streak over.
“I hate to have it end when we played the way we did,” sighed Goodrich. He had a point. The Lakers shot 39 percent and had 24 turnovers.
“I’m glad we were the ones to end it,” said Milwaukee coach Larry Costello. “We should have been the ones to break it.”
Milwaukee guard Lucius Allen had this observation: “We hope the other teams can pick up the slack now that they know they are not invincible.”
Nice thought, that. But the Lakers kept right on rolling, winning the 1972 championship, including a six-game dispatch of the Bucks.
Who’d win a Lakers-Heat series? Well, I don’t know who would guard LeBron, but I do think Wilt would have reverted to his Phase I self after sizing up the Miami post people. I’ll let it go at that.