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The Continuing Saga of Kobe, Phil, and the Los Angeles Lakers
By Mark Heisler
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Mark Heisler
All rights reserved.
There was really no attention at all. I'll never forget one night the Laker players went to a Dodger game at the Coliseum. Wally Moon was hitting his home runs over that little short fence in left field. We were there en masse, and they introduced us, and it was, like, no one even knows who in the heck we are.
— Jerry West
* * *
Before the Beverly Hillbillies, there were the Lakers, yokels from a little farther north.
In the fall of 1960, Bob Short, a Minneapolis trucking magnate — OK, a guy with a trucking company — moved his basketball team into the Sports Arena. Actually, it was more like he dropped them off on the doorstep. Short himself was going back home to his day job at the depot.
The moment, if not the Lakers' arrival, seemed auspicious. The Sports Arena, next door to the Coliseum, had just opened with the Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy after Eugene McCarthy's rousing speech in favor of Adlai Stevenson.
No one even knew the Lakers were coming when they decided to build the arena. The prime tenants were the USC and UCLA basketball teams. The Lakers were as welcome as any other business that just drove up; but when there were conflicts, they'd have to go elsewhere, like Cal State–L.A. or the Shrine Auditorium.
The new arena was ultramodern with new gimmicks like a crowd counter, a sign that flashed the attendance, going up every time someone went through a turnstile. To the Lakers, it was palatial. As Chick Hearn noted later, "They didn't need a 15,000-seat building for 200 people." Their opener on October 24, 1960, a 111–101 loss to the Knicks, drew a crowd announced at 4,044.
There's an old story of Short calling GM Lou Mohs after each game and asking what that night's attendance was.
"Can't you double it for the press?" Short is supposed to have asked.
"Again?" Mohs is supposed to have answered.
* * *
This was still an innocent time in basketball. The college game was primarily a regional phenomenon, big in the Northeast and rural hotbeds like North Carolina's Tobacco Road and Indiana. The NCAA Tournament wasn't nationally televised yet.
The pro game was a poor cousin to a regional phenomenon. Big-city columnists typically rose from the baseball beat and sneered at the NBA as a YMCA league. Outside its eight cities in the East and Midwest — down from the 11 that started the decade — the NBA was a rumor.
The Lakers had ruled this netherworld in the early '50s with 6'10" George Mikan. The league at that time bore as much resemblance to what would follow as the geeky Mikan, with his glasses held on by an elastic band, would bear to the sleek Wilt Chamberlain.
Years later, Mikan would have been termed a "project," but he happened in a big way, introducing the NBA, which until then was based on guys who cut and weaved, to notions like "domination," not to mention "ego" and "star."
The pro game that Mikan lumbered into in 1947 had a lane six feet across (it's now 16), crowned by the free throw circle called "the key." It would be widened even as Mikan played, in an attempt by the other owners to make it a little more fair (for them).
This established one of the standards for NBA superstars that would be seen over and over: they were so good, they changed the rules.
The word "superstar" didn't exist but if it had, baseball would have had them all. The NFL was an afterthought, to say nothing of the NBA, although professional basketball took a huge step the night the Lakers arrived at (the old) Madison Square Garden to see themselves on the marquee as:
geo mikan vs. knicks
Mikan's Lakers won five titles between 1949 and 1954, inspiring the first national interest. The Dumont Network paid the league $39,000 to televise a 13-game package, but dropped it after one season.
Mikan was an unlikely matinee idol. He had wavy hair, Coke-bottle glasses, and a gentle demeanor, having studied for the priesthood. When he first walked into the Laker dressing room in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, wearing a storm coat and a homburg, the team's star, Jim Pollard, said he was "the biggest-looking dumb character that I'd ever seen for a guy that was barely 23 years old."
Mikan was big, all right. He weighed 265 pounds and, once he got into the spirit of the thing, he was happy to use them all, leading with his off-elbow when he turned into the lane so that he usually wound up getting to where he intended to go.
An apt, if not a graceful student, he could hook with either hand and had a soft touch. His career free throw percentage was 77 percent, which would be impressive for a big man now.
This was no dinosaur. Mikan was the first giant NBA center to walk erect.
"He was one of a kind," says Cousy, describing Mikan's dominance. "I remember Ed Macauley [the 6'8", 220-pound Celtics center before Bill Russell], who had the unenviable task of guarding him when we played them. We'd walk through train stations and he'd walk by one of these huge columns. Macauley had a wry sense of humor and would bump into the column and say, 'Oh, excuse me, George.' ...
"He just had his way in those days. The Lakers ran no transition. It wasn't unlike what the Sixers did with Chamberlain after a while, the Lakers simply waited for Big George to get down the floor and then the offense started with him getting it. They'd run some splits and things, but basically, he would just overpower you.
"He wasn't clumsy. I say awkward and plodding and I suppose that implies clumsy, but he wasn't clumsy. But he wasn't agile either. It was somewhere in between that. He simply was able to go where he chose to go."
Mikan also had the perquisite of stardom: ambition. He may not have been handsome or hip, but he wasn't bashful, either.
"They had a rookie from Tenneesse named Lefty Walther," recalls Pete Newell, the former Cal coach and Lakers GM. "The kid was a real good player. They're playing a game, and Mikan is in the post, and the guy drives right by Mikan, goes in for a layup. Mikan's got his hand up for the ball, he's the top dog. He gets mad and yells at him.
"The next time the kid gets the ball, he drives, and his man and Mikan's man go up to block the shot. The third time he drives, his guy, Mikan's man, and Mikan all go after the shot.
"Mikan's thing was, 'They're paying you $5,000 to play out there and they're paying me whatever to play in there so when I ask for the ball, darn it, give it to me.'
"The kid was gone in a few games."
Mikan was gone, too, by 1956, and the Lakers floundered. Elgin Baylor's arrival in 1958 revived them, but they didn't even rule their own little market, which cared more about U of M football and basketball. As if to confirm the local hierarchy, John Kundla, who coached all the Lakers champions, left them for a job at the University.
The Lakers played at the old Minneapolis Auditorium but sometimes had to use the Minneapolis Armory. (Adaptation being key, they took team photos of the players sitting on the National Guard's heavy equipment.) Once Baylor was late because he went to the Auditorium, only to find the game was at the Armory.
When Short sought approval to move to Los Angeles, his fellow owners could only think of the extra expense they'd incur to travel that far. A year after the Dodgers and Giants moved west and were received like kings, Short was voted down, 7–1.
Luckily for Short, Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, who was tired of propping up the NBA with his appearances, announced he was forming his own league with a team in Los Angeles. The NBA owners promptly took another vote. This one was 8–0 to let Short go, after he promised to pay the difference in their travel expenses.
Short offered one of his stars, Vern Mikkelsen, the coaching job, even throwing in a percentage of ownership. This wasn't that staggering since half the businessmen in Minneapolis already had pieces. Mikkelsen turned him down and spent the rest of his life listening to his kids ask him what their share would be worth now.
"I didn't think he'd get the thing to Sioux Falls, much less to L.A.," says Mikkelsen, "but he did."
* * *
Los Angeles was just beginning to come on line in sports as air travel improved. In this beautiful setting, with the ideal weather and stars of every other kind, the Rams and Dodgers were naturals, greeted as conquering heroes.
The Rams, coming from Cleveland in 1946, featured a high-scoring style and high-profile quarterback controversies (Norm Van Brocklin, Y.A. Tittle, Bob Waterfield). They were Hollywood-friendly, too, with a galaxy of hunks like Waterfield, who married Jane Russell, and Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, who played himself in the movie, Crazylegs, All American.
As popular as they were, the Rams were eclipsed by the Dodgers' arrival in 1958. Owner Walter O'Malley got lease rights for his new stadium on a hilltop overlooking downtown, which required the removal of the people living on it, and was approved in a hotly contested referendum.
The Dodgers then arose from seventh place in 1958 to win the 1959 World Series before horn-blowing, sun-splashed crowds of 90,000 in the Coliseum. O'Malley proceeded to build the beautiful Dodger Stadium, and the team won two more world championships in 1963 and 1965, locking the city's heart up for decades.
The Lakers arrived without the negotiations, the referendum, the wrangling, or any fanfare at all.
By the end of their Minneapolis days, the Lakers had begun rebuilding around Baylor, but they had a long way to go. In the meantime, they were so dependent on Baylor, when he had to serve time with his army reserve unit before his second season, they moved their training camp to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, so he could work out with them when he was off duty.
"Baylor flew in the night before the opening game in Minneapolis," says teammate Rudy LaRusso, a rookie that season. "He had practiced with us five or six days a month earlier. He suited up and got 52 opening night. ... I had never seen anything like this in my life."
They were Baylor's team, but few teams Baylor was on wouldn't have revolved around him. He dominated everything on court and off, basketball, card games, conversations.
"Elgin was a motor-mouth," said teammate Hot Rod Hundley. "Elgin never shut up. Elgin knew everything — what size a 747 plane was, what horse Willie Shoemaker should be riding. He was an authority on everything."
This was a tender moment in American race relations. The NBA was integrated, but there was still an unofficial quota system, sometimes expressed as, "One at home, two on the road, and three if we're losing." Still, Baylor transcended all social barriers, race included, even on a team with only two other black players.
"It became obvious real quick," says LaRusso. "Elgin Baylor wasn't black — he was Elgin Baylor. He had the respect and admiration of the veteran players that were on the team at that time. It was clear to me, he was the guy."
Of the Lakers superstars, Baylor may have received the least recognition, and may have been the most comfortable in his own skin. It was more than just the basketball. When the Lakers, barnstorming through Charleston, West Virginia, in the 1958 exhibition season, were refused rooms at the Daniel Boone Hotel, Baylor refused to play, turning the standard insult to African Americans into a national story. The game went on, but the Lakers stayed with Baylor in Edna's Rest Home. Baylor got a letter from the mayor demanding that he apologize, but the team and the league backed Baylor.
Baylor was in the forefront, too, when the players, led by Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn, threatened to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston unless they got a pension plan. When Short came pounding on the locker-room door demanding to see Baylor and Jerry West, Baylor came out and talked to him. Short went back the way he had come, the owners gave in, and labor peace lasted for decades while baseball and the NFL took strike after strike.
In 1960, Baylor was at his height, averaging 35 points and 19 rebounds in the first season in Los Angeles. At 6'5", 225, he played what today would be called power forward, but he was more like Magic Johnson — he transcended positions. Baylor brought the ball up against presses and challenged Bill Russell at every opportunity, freezing him with fakes — it was said he could hang in the air, which would now be called a hesitation move — and shooting over him.
He posted scoring averages of 25, 30, 35, 38, and 34 in his first five seasons before his knees began deteriorating under him. He began experiencing pain in his sixth season, long before techniques like arthroscopic surgery, or even applying ice for inflammation, had come around. Baylor got heat, which made his knees worse, tried the Mayo Clinic, and even underwent cobalt treatment. He had to be driven to home games because sitting behind the wheel was so painful. Finally in the 1965 playoffs, he went up to shoot, tore his left patellar tendon, and split the kneecap.
He played seven more seasons, but although his numbers were good, he wasn't what he'd been. This was before TV came around, so relatively few fans saw Baylor in his prime. But Chick Hearn used to say Baylor was the original Julius Erving. For some players, everything breaks right, but Baylor wasn't one of those.
* * *
There was one significant newcomer, a skinny 6'3" rookie from West Virginia named, providentially enough, Jerry West.
A high-jumping, All-American forward at West Virginia, he had just surprised everyone by moving to guard and becoming one of the stars of the 1960 Olympic team that would be remembered for years as the greatest ever put together, including more famous players like Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas.
West had been the second player taken in the draft, after the Cincinnati Royals claimed Robertson as a territorial choice. Jerry arrived in Los Angeles, fresh from his triumph in Rome. He could only stop over in West Virginia briefly before getting on another plane, flying to Los Angeles, and going straight to practice.
"The old Pepperdine [University], over at Inglewood," says West. "I remember it very well 'cause I had just gotten off an airplane at noon and didn't even go to the hotel and went to practice. ...
"I was whipped. I was so tired. And to get there and have this smog, I wondered what the heck it was. I mean, it hurt so bad to run up and down the court....
"Coming here was an incredible adjustment for me, personally. I probably wasn't as confident as most people I played with."
So, appropriately enough, began the saga of Jerry West, the least confident, most driven great player who ever lived.
"Even to this day," said his Olympic coach, Pete Newell, decades later, "I don't believe Jerry really believes he's as good as he is. He was that way when I had him in Rome and at the trials."
West wasn't simple. He had a raging insecurity, but he also knew he could play this game. He just went back and forth between the two extremes.
He wore his heart on his sleeve, pouring out his emotions to the press, which loved him, and to people he barely knew. However, when he wasn't miserable, tortured, or blaming himself for whatever had gone wrong, he was upbeat, nice as you please, and fun to be around.
John Black, who would become close to West as the team's publicist in the '90s, was once asked if West was the happiest or the most miserable man alive.
"Both," said Black.
In the fall of 1960, West was leaning more toward his insecure persona. Baylor, who took it upon himself to name all the rookies, called him "Zeke from Cabin Creek" and "Tweety," because of his high-pitched voice. West didn't really like being called a hillbilly and, in later years, would pointedly note he wasn't from Cabin Creek but nearby Chelyan, West Virginia, which was even smaller but didn't rhyme with anything. At the time, he was just happy to be acknowledged by The Great Elgin.
As great as West would become, basketball would never just be a game for him but a life's struggle. Born in humble circumstances to a coal-mine electrician, his home was a shack, his first court packed dirt with a hoop nailed to a pole. The youngest child by nine years, he was painfully shy and loved basketball, he noted in his autobiography, because it was a game "a boy could play by himself."
The older he got, the less it seemed like "play" and the more it seemed like "life." He carved his pro career out of body and soul, and he didn't so much retire as collapse from physical and emotional exhaustion.
Every game would leave West spent and wondering how he could summon enough to do this again. By mid-career, the injuries began piling up. He specialized in breaking his nose, after which he'd wear a mask, or pulling hamstrings, so his thighs had to be wrapped like a mummy's, sometimes obliging him to get shot up like a horse, according to the medical practice of the day.
By then, he was wondering how long he could survive and how long he wanted to.
He was popular from the get-go and soon a star with his boy-next-door looks and manners — and it certainly didn't hurt that he was white, either. By the end, he was widely adored, constantly wondering how long he could keep doing this ... as he would in his three-year coaching career and his 20 years in the front office.
Excerpted from Madmen's Ball by Mark Heisler. Copyright © 2008 Mark Heisler. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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