The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Los Angeles Lakers: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Los Angeles Lakers Historyby Steven Travers
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Presents all the best moments and personalities in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers. It also unmasks the bad, the regrettably awful, and the ugly.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Los Angeles Lakers
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Los Angeles Lakers History
By Steven Travers
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Steven Travers
All rights reserved.
IN THE CLUTCH
Jerry West was born in Chelyan, West Virginia, on May 28, 1938. West Virginia is coal country, a small state, poor. West, fighter ace Chuck Yeager, and legendary Southern California football coach John McKay are likely the three most famous personalities to emerge from this hardscrabble existence. All made their marks in — or in the skies above — California.
Chelyan is near a town called Cabin Creek, and while West was not actually from Cabin Creek, nevertheless his great teammate, Elgin Baylor, gave him the nickname "Zeke from Cabin Creek." That was his moniker in the 1960s, a time when he and Baylor were developing into pro basketball stars. But by the end of the decade, West's nickname, known far and wide, was "Mr. Clutch."
In the history of sports, there is nothing more revered than the ability to come through in the clutch. Some of the greatest athletes who ever lived have been derided for failing to do so; some rightly, some wrongly.
Ted Williams is thought to be the finest hitter in baseball history, but his lack of production in the 1946 World Series overshadowed his Triple Crowns and MVP awards for years.
Barry Bonds has been compared to Williams, but his postseason failures in Pittsburgh and the San Francisco Giants' inability to win the 2002 World Series — despite a superhuman effort by Bonds — dog his legacy.
On the other hand, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana is considered the greatest of all signal callers, ahead of players with gaudier statistics and natural abilities, because he won "the big one" and shined in "the clutch."
Reggie Jackson is by no means the best hitter ever, but in the mind's eye "Mr. October" is a New York and Oakland icon because he did it when it counted. West's teammate, Wilt Chamberlain, on the other hand, suffered from a reputation for "clutching up," which is the worst malady an athlete can have.
Chamberlain may be the greatest physical specimen the hoops game has ever known. He was a marvelous athlete, a collegiate high jumper with speed, agility, seven-foot height, size, and Herculean strength. His rival, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, was a relatively short man by comparison, thin, and lacking offensive prowess, but historians generally regard Russell as the greater of the two because of his star power when the game was on the line. Chamberlain, even though he won at Philadelphia a few years earlier, truly shed the monkey on his back when he and West won the 1972 championship.
When West retired in 1974, he was a 10-time First Team All-NBA selection. At that point, he and Oscar Robertson were unquestionably the two greatest guards in pro basketball history.
Since then, Michael Jordan and perhaps Magic Johnson are thought to be better, but despite the greatness of these two players, purists are resistant to the notion. West was simply so good, and so clutch, that it seems incongruous that anybody was ever better.
West and Robertson also represented a new wave of superstardom in the NBA. They were bigger and more athletic than their predecessors. Theirs was a jump-shot era, replacing the set-shot 1950s. West and Robertson ushered in a new age, changing the face of the game forever. Both were equally skilled in every facet of basketball. Their rivalry marks the game like that of the Chamberlain-Russell duels, or the Ted Williams–Joe DiMaggio baseball comparisons of an earlier time.
Had Jerry West been born much earlier, the world would not have known of him. His father was a poor coal mine electrician who struggled to meet the needs of his wife and five children. Jerry was the fourth child. When he was 12, his older brother David, serving in the armed forces, was killed in the Korean War.
"He was almost a perfect person," said West. "You would almost say to yourself, 'My goodness, why didn't it happen to me?' because this person was so good. ... It changed me from being extremely aggressive to unbelievably passive, and maybe more introverted than I should have been at that point in my life."
West's father nailed a hoop to a shed outside a neighbor's house. In the winter, spring, summer, and fall, West practiced on the dirt-covered court. When the weather got cold, he wore gloves. He played and played and played, missing meals, shooting until his fingers bled. He shot well into the night, practicing by the light of the moon. He became malnourished and required medical treatment.
His desire was spurred by his failure to make the junior high school team. In his junior year at East Bank High, West made varsity but played sporadically. In the summer between his junior and senior years, West grew to six feet in height. As a senior he blossomed, averaging 32 points per game. West was the best prep basketball player in the state, the first player in West Virginia history to score 900 points in a single season. East Bank claimed the 1956 state title. So great was West that East Bank was renamed West Bank for a day, a tradition carried on each March 24 (the anniversary of the championship game his senior year). While the town changed its name only once a year, the high school made it permanent: West Bank High School.
More than 60 colleges courted West's services. The game was growing by leaps and bounds. It was a popular Olympic sport (dominated by the Americans) and considered a "city game" that blended white and African American players in seamless team play. Russell's University of San Francisco Dons were a dynasty of the collegiate game, but Southern California, UCLA, and California on the West Coast; Kentucky and North Carolina in the South; and Kansas in the Midwest had top programs.
West stayed local, choosing the West Virginia Mountaineers, where he was a two-time All-American, averaging almost 25 points per game. In a game against legendary coach Adolph Rupp and the Kentucky Wildcats, West broke his nose in the first half. Hardly able to breathe, he returned to the lineup in the second half with gauze stuffed in his bleeding nostrils. His 19 points spurred the Mountaineers to an upset over Kentucky.
In 1959 West led West Virginia to the NCAA championship game. He scored 28 points in a losing effort, 71–70 against California and their legendary coach, Pete Newell. Newell would later become an integral member of the Lakers organization.
In five 1959 NCAA playoff games, West led his team in scoring and rebounding, tying the tournament record with 160 points. Despite great accolades accorded West, showcasing his talents for the first time on a national basis, he was inconsolable after the one-point loss to the Golden Bears.
"He hated losing more than any man I've ever been around in my life," said Pat Riley, who later became a teammate and coach of the Lakers. West was utterly single-minded about victory, which meant that he was not able to enjoy his career nearly as much as other stars. Instead of looking forward to games, he was miserable, physically ill, a bundle of nerves. Defeats, of course, gnawed at him, removing any joy a normal player might otherwise derive from scoring 30 points a night. Victories were never enough — he wanted more. Another game to win, another challenge to meet, another mountain to climb.
His career, almost ironically, was filled with as much disappointment as any player of his era, if not ever. Over time, his angst became so publicly known that the fans, the entire country, agonized with Jerry. When ultimate victory finally did come his way in 1972, the look on his face and his demeanor more closely resembled a man let out of prison than the winner of a sporting event.
West was a total perfectionist. Lakers wins did not satisfy him unless he felt he had played perfectly. Games that pundits judged to be perfect were more often than not considered below the standards West set for himself.
In 1960, the two marquee college players were West and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson. Robertson was a confident player who relished the opportunity to display his considerable skills. West didn't think he was good enough to play in the National Basketball Association, but the Lakers did not share his doubts.
The Cincinnati Royals selected Robertson as a "territorial player." The league reserved the right for teams to pick players from their geographical region in order to build up a fan base, but the Royals already had the first overall pick and would have selected Robertson in any event. West was hoping to go to the New York Knickerbockers with the third pick, but the Minneapolis Lakers then selected him with the second pick. West was disappointed, but shortly after the draft Minneapolis announced that they were moving to Los Angeles, a move that seemed daunting and also exciting to the young West Virginian.
Before signing a $15,000 contract, however, West teamed up with Robertson to play for the U.S. Olympic team in the Rome Summer Games. The 1960 American team was considered for decades to be the finest amateur team ever assembled. Ten of its players went on to star in the NBA. The United States won eight Olympic games by an average of 42 points. West returned home with the gold medal.
The sights and sounds of burgeoning Los Angeles astounded the country boy. The Lakers helped ease the transition for him by bringing in his West Virginia coach, Fred Schaus, to take over the team. Schaus considered West the "perfect" guard, the "man that has everything. A fine shooting touch, speed, quickness, all the physical assets, including a tremendous dedication to the game."
Despite Schaus's fatherly presence, West considered the 1960–61 season at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to be "the worst year of my life in basketball." The Lakers were coming off a 25–50 record. The team failed to mesh in the first half of the season. In the second half of the year, West and Elgin Baylor, another young star recently drafted off the campus of Seattle University, began to display their great abilities in a way that turned Los Angeles around.
West averaged 17.6 points per game. Baylor flowered into a superstar, scoring almost 35 points per game. The West-Baylor combination became the greatest the game had ever seen. Los Angeles improved to a second- place finish in the NBA West, then extended a favored Hawks team to seven games in the Western Division Finals. The veteran Hawks pulled out the final two games by a total of three points to advance.
Baylor missed most of the 1961–62 season due to military service, so West, fully developed by now, raised his game and his scoring average to new levels (30.8 per game). On January 17, playing with a bandage on his nose, he scored 63 points against the Knickerbockers, then the record for a guard. He powered 31.5 points per game in the postseason, elevating Los Angeles to the NBA Finals before succumbing to the mighty Boston Celtics.
In the third game of the Finals, West sank two jump shots in the last minute of the game to tie it up. With three seconds on the clock, "Mr. Clutch" intercepted a pass from Boston's Sam Jones and scored the winning layup in L.A.'s 117–115 victory.
"I've never forgotten it," said West. "Everyone wants to hit a home run in the ninth inning to win the big game. That was my home run."
Despite his heroics, the 1962 series with Boston was a portent of great 1960s frustration for West, the man who despised losing but did not know how to enjoy winning. Los Angeles forged a three games to two lead, but the great Celtics tied it up with a Game 6 win. In the penultimate game, the game was tied at an excruciating 100–100. Lakers guard Frank Selvy shot one from 15 feet with time running out, but it bounced off the rim. In overtime, Boston earned their fourth straight NBA title by outscoring the Lakers 10–7 to win the game, 110–107. West was a gentleman in defeat, but the loss was a source of "unbelievable frustration" to him.
The following year an injury sidelined West for 27 games, but when he returned he was able to spur his team to another Western Division championship. The road to West's destiny as a champion again led through Boston. This time, it was even closer. While Boston won it in six games instead of seven, their four wins were by an average of only four points.
It was always something for the Lakers in this star-crossed decade. They were the toasts of Los Angeles, a glamour team in Hollywood. However, just as West's 1962–63 season was marred by his leg injury, in 1964–65 the Lakers — the most talented team in the NBA — were set back by Baylor's severe leg injury in Game 1 of the Western Division finals versus the Bullets.
With Baylor on the sidelines, West took the team on his shoulders like the heroic character in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. West scored 49 points to key the 121–115 win over the Bullets and followed that up with a 52-point effort in the Game 2 victory. The Bullets won the next two games to even the series at two, but West scored 44 and 48 points in those two defeats. In Games 5 and 6, West scored 43 and 42 points, respectively, keying two wins and sending Los Angeles back to Boston.
In the Bullets series, West averaged an incredible 46.3 points per game, a playoff series record that has never been topped. He scored 40 points or more in a record six straight playoff games.
But the loss of Baylor was too much against the healthy, veteran, champion Celtics. West scored 34 points a game versus Boston, but it was not enough. The Celtics won it in five. West's playoff scoring average was 40.6. In 1965–66, Boston dashed Los Angeles's hopes again, squeaking out a two-point win in a seventh game that left West exasperated beyond belief.
In 1966–67, Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers fashioned a monster season, featuring an NBA-record 68 regular-season wins and the world championship, but in 1967–68 it was again Boston versus Los Angeles. By this time, the Lakers were playing at the "Fabulous Forum." They were a team of stars while the Celtics appeared old, but West's team could not get over the hump. Boston knocked them off in six games. The next year, Chamberlain was brought over from Philadelphia.
Surely their time had come. Chamberlain was the most dominant basketball player ever, and possibly the most dominant athlete since Babe Ruth. Baylor was healthy, a star at the height of his game, as was West. Nothing could stop such a team, except for the fact that the term team had to be applied loosely to these Lakers. Egos, salaries, and L.A. star power seemed to overshadow their on-court chemistry. In 1969, Bill Russell, now operating as player-coach of the aging Celtics, was able to take a team that finished fourth in their division during the regular season to the NBA title. In the seventh and final game, Boston eked out a two-point win over the Lakers. West enjoyed zero consolation over becoming the only player to win the Most Valuable Player award in a losing Finals.
Of all of West's disappointing seasons, however, the 1969–70 campaign may have been his most frustrating. Under Coach Joe Mullaney, who took over from Butch van Breda Kolff, the superstar Lakers struggled to a 46-win regular season but entered the playoffs with high hopes. With Russell retired, Boston was a complete nonfactor in 1970. However, the vacuum of power was filled by the Knickerbockers.
For years an also-ran in the NBA, the 1969–70 Knicks under coach Red Holzman thrilled crowds at Madison Square Garden with a magical season. Led by center Willis Reed, guard Walt Frazier, and forward "Dollar Bill" Bradley, they were the toasts of the Big Apple.
Los Angeles seemed to fight themselves as much as the opposition, struggling to make it past the expansion Phoenix Suns in seven games before winning four straight from Atlanta. A dream matchup between teams from L.A. and New York was on when the Knicks survived Lew Alcindor and Milwaukee in the East.
The teams split the first two, setting up a memorable Game 3 that captured the essence of West's career. The score was 100–100 at the Fabulous Forum when Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere hit what looked to be the winning shot with three seconds left. Chamberlain threw the in-bounds pass to West, who heaved a desperation 60-footer that sailed through the net with air to spare, sending the game into overtime.
It may have been West's greatest moment. It certainly sealed his Mr. Clutch reputation. At the time it was worth only two points, instead of the winning three that it would be today.
"The man's crazy," Knicks guard Walt Frazier recalled thinking when he saw West eyeing the long shot. "He looks determined. He thinks it's really going in."
West's melancholy career was marked by the fact that, despite one of the best — if not the best — clutch shots in league history occurring with everything on the line in a venerable New York setting, his team failed to capitalize on it. They lost in overtime, 111–108. West had 34 points and nine assists. The press crowded around his locker afterward, but he had no desire to accept the slightest glory.
"It doesn't really matter, does it?" he said. "Because we lost."
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Los Angeles Lakers by Steven Travers. Copyright © 2007 Steven Travers. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Meet the Author
Steven Travers is a sports historian and sportswriter who is the bestselling author of numerous books—including One Night, Two Teams and Barry Bonds—and has also written for StreetZebra magazine, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Los Angeles Times. He is a former professional baseball player with Major League Baseball teams the St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland Athletics. He lives in San Anselmo, California. Art Spander is an award-winning sportswriter, author, and a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and RealClearSports.com. He was awarded the McCann Award, earning him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame "Writer's Wing," and he has also been honored with the Masters Major Achievement Award and the PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives in Oakland, California.
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This book was okay. I learned a lot about the Lakers that I never knew. But believe it or not, the author spent more time talking about baseball and football then the actual Lakers. Most of the chapters all seemed to repeatedly talk about the same players and the same games over and over again. The author's descriptions of things gets very annoying, almost as if he made the comparisons up. He also badmouths many coaches and players. This author is obviously a wanna-be coach. You'll learn quite a bit from this book, but I don't recommend it.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Los Angeles Lakers is about the history of the Los Angeles Lakers. Like many of the sports teams today, the Lakers did not start in Los Angeles. After buying the team in 1965, Jack Kent Cooke moved the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles and built the Los Angles Forum (otherwise known as the Fabulous Forum). Although they had a mediocre stay in Minneapolis, their start in Los Angeles wasn¿t has great either. It was until 1972 when they won their first NBA title. The sad thing is that Laker great, Elgin Baylor, had to retire early that season due to injury; boy, he sure missed out: an NBA championship and a record 33 straight wins. After a dry spell, the Lakers went back on top and renewed a familiar rivalry. Starting in 1984, for three years in the 1980s, the Lakers and hated rival Boston Celtics met in the NBA Finals. They would lose that series 4 games to 3, as they did in the `50s and `60s. But they would change the trend. Led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers finally defeated the Celtics 4-2 in 1985. ¿It was sweet redemption.¿ They would repeat their success against the Celtics the very next time they faced each other in 1987. After another dry spell, the Lakers were able to get two dynamic players with a lot of potential: Shaquille O¿Neal and rookie Kobe Bryant, along with 6 time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson. In their first year in their new stadium, STAPLES Center, they won the NBA championship. Year after that, they did it again, and again after, making it a three-peat. ¿It was almost too easy, especially for old-time Lakers fans who had suffered through so much disappointment.¿ Although the Shaq-Kobe era has ended, Kobe and Phil are trying to return the old Laker pride back into the city of Los Angeles, and we should all believe they will do us proud.
Even though this was a great book, it did have its flaws. I might be being a little biased but I was expecting a little bit more stories of what the Lakers have recently done. The thing I liked most about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Los Angeles Lakers was, of course, the history of the Lakers. As big as a fan as I am, I really learned much of what I know today from reading this book. I learned of the great things they did, and the adversity they had to battle to get to get to the top. What is also pretty amazing is the little side notes almost all the pages contain. Overall, this book was a great book that any Laker fan would enjoy. ¿I was hooked. The Lakers became my team. And they have always remained my team.¿