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It’s been 50 years since Lakers’ first L.A. title – Daily News


Fifty years ago Saturday, the Lakers won L.A.’s first NBA title. Given all that has happened with the franchise since then, it’s almost a forgotten championship.

It’s an outlier, first of all, for a team that more often than not has won titles in bunches. The Lakers won five in six seasons in Minneapolis (1949, ’50, ’52, ’53, 54), five in the ’80s Showtime era (1980, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’88), and five in the 2000s (Shaq and Kobe and Phil in 2000-02, and just Kobe and Phil in 2009 and ’10). It remains to be seen if the 2020 championship in the Orlando bubble is a similar outlier, but that’s another conversation altogether.

But each and every Lakers season has its drama, championship or not. That’s partly why the team has such a stranglehold on the emotions of this region, in good times and bad.

The first decade-plus of the Lakers’ L.A. existence set the tone. And when the Lakers knocked off the New York Knicks, 114-100, on May 7, 1972, to wrap up the NBA Finals in five games, it erased a stigma. Long before Lakers Exceptionalism became an article of faith among its fan base, the team’s reputation was for not being able to win the big one.

The Lakers lost in the NBA Finals seven times from 1962 through 1970, six of them to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. There was the Frank Selvy missed jumper at the end of Game 7 in Boston in ’62, their second season here, that would have snapped that ugly streak before it began. There was Red Auerbach lighting up his victory cigar, and Russell and teammates dashing the Lakers’ hopes again in ’63, ’65, ’66, ’68 and ’69, and the Knicks using the inspiration of an injured Willis Reed to win Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in 1970.

And maybe the direct path to the first championship in ’72 actually begins with 1969 and the balloons. (Or, as Laker fans of long standing might say, those damn balloons.)

Desperate to find an antidote for Russell following the ’68 Finals, owner Jack Kent Cooke engineered a trade for Wilt Chamberlain that summer, the first recorded attempt to throw together three superstars and create a superteam. With Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, the Lakers couldn’t be stopped, right?

Um, well …

To start, there was instant friction between Wilt and Coach Bill van Breda Kolff, two stubborn men whose relationship turned from wariness to tension to distrust to dislike to outright hatred fairly quickly. It wasn’t hidden, either. A post-game argument between the two after a loss at Seattle in February quickly went public, after which players were threatened with $1,000 fines for disclosing such matters to the press.

“Worst coach I’ve ever had,” Chamberlain said in his 1973 autobiography.

Additionally, Chamberlain and Baylor, the incumbent captain, were dueling alphas. Still, the Lakers won their division and got back to the Finals, with home-court advantage against a veteran Boston team seemingly running on fumes.

It went to a Game 7, and the imperious Cooke was so sure of victory that he ordered balloons to be dropped from the rafters and had the USC marching band on hand to play “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The printed schedule, detailing what would happen “when, not if” the Lakers won, found its way into the Boston locker room, and you can guess what happened next.

After the Celtics won, again, much of the controversy afterward involved van Breda Kolff’s refusal to put Chamberlain back into the game in the fourth quarter. Wilt had twisted his knee earlier in the quarter and came out, but when he said he was ready to return the coach waved him off. “We were going good, so why change,” van Breda Kolff said afterward, as quoted by the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Doug Ives.

(Celtics player/coach Russell, playing his final game that night and apparently unaware of the tension on the Lakers’ bench, noted afterward that nothing short of a broken leg should have kept Wilt off the floor.)

Soon van Breda Kolff was gone and Joe Mullaney, hired off the Providence campus, got his shot. That lasted two seasons, the ’70 Finals loss to the Knicks and a ’71 loss in the Western Conference finals to the emerging dynasty in Milwaukee, featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

And then Mullaney was thanked and excused and the Lakers brought in (gasp!) a former Celtic, but Bill Sharman was also a USC alumnus, had won an ABA championship with the Utah Stars the previous season, and before that had coached the then-San Francisco Warriors to the 1967 Finals, where they ran into Wilt and the 68-win Philadelphia 76ers and lost in six games.

The first thing Sharman did in L.A. was to get the 35-year-old Chamberlain in his corner, a delicate tightrope act considering Sharman (a) wanted his team to get out and run consistently, and (b) had come up with the idea of the day-of-game shootaround. Wilt being a night owl, his reported (but probably apocryphal) response was along the lines of, “You can have me in the morning, or you can have me at game time. Pick one.”

The trick turned out to be diplomacy and some salesmanship. Sharman, his voice down to a whisper by the playoffs because of the stress he’d put it through that season, told the Press-Telegram’s Rich Roberts before the series against the Bucks that the biggest issue with Chamberlain was the morning sessions but added: “We talked about it and he said, ‘Bill, I don’t think it’ll help me too much, but if it’ll help the team win games I’ll go along with it.’ He hasn’t missed one practice and he hasn’t been late to any by more than one or two minutes all year.”

Another bit of diplomacy involved Baylor, who was at the end of his career and slowed the running game when he was on the floor. Some have speculated Baylor was pushed into retirement. Sharman insisted in the interview with Roberts that it was Elgin’s idea but “he wouldn’t have played quite as much under the running game I installed and therefore not as well, and I would have felt bad to see his reputation dwindle.”

Baylor retired on Nov. 4. Jim McMillian, a rookie from Columbia, took his place in the lineup, and the next night the Lakers beat the Bullets to begin a 33-game winning streak, the longest in professional sports history and one that wasn’t snapped until a 120-104 loss on Jan. 9 at Milwaukee. Legend has it that after that game L.A. Times beat writer Mal Florence was checking out of the team hotel when Sharman saw him in the lobby and asked where he was going.

“I only cover winners,” Florence supposedly quipped. It may or may not be accurate, but it’s a great story.

The winning streak remains a record. The Lakers’ 69-13 regular season was also a record that lasted for 24 seasons, surpassed by the 1995-96 Bulls (72-10) and the 2015-16 Warriors (73-9).

Yet the payoff was still to come, and given the Lakers’ history there was hope but surely no certainty. Their fans feared the worst after Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Bucks and again after Game 1 of the Finals against the Knicks, both at the Forum and both lopsided losses.



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