The Los Angeles Lakers honored their 1971-1972 NBA Championship team at halftime of the Houston Rockets game on April 6, 2012. Known for their 33-game win streak and a record setting 69-13 season, this Lakers’ team averaged 121 points a game, while giving up only 108.7 points, a startling 12.3 difference.
While watching the halftime introductions of Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Elgin Baylor and Marge Hearn, I found myself drifting back to another time when not all games were televised and Chick Hearn’s "words-eye view" was to basketball what Billy Graham was to a revivalist meeting.
Lakers’ fans looked forward to the 1972 season because of the addition of Bill Sharman as coach. Fans had suffered through years of frustration with coaches like Joe Mullaney and Butch van Breda Kolff.
Van Breda Kolff’s quarrels with Wilt Chamberlain are now legendary. But to Lakers’ fans during that time period, the quarrels were viewed as causing the loss of at least one NBA title. For teams to have so much talent and be so poorly coached was the bane of most of Lakers’ fans.
Sharman was a college star at USC in 1947 with Alex Hannum, winner of two NBA titles as a coach, and Tex Winter, winner of nine NBA titles with Phil Jackson, was a renowned disciple of Red Auerbach who had won titles in every league imaginable except the NBA.
Sharman is best known for creating the "morning shoot around." Now the standard for every NBA team. Many regard Sharman as one of the top four coaches in the history of the NBA. He is the only coach to win titles in all of the professional leagues. Anyone who watched his teams play would certainly agree.
Sharman ran a high low post offense similar to the triangle offense Winter, Hannum and he learned from Sam Barry at USC. Most fans do not know that the triangle offense was the brainchild of Barry, although Winter generally gets credit as its architect.
The team had three outstanding passers in Chamberlain, West and Goodrich. And two outstanding rebounders in Chamberlain and Hairston.
Goodrich and West were both point guards. So each could bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. Goodrich averaged 4.5 assists and West 9.7. They averaged 25.9 and 25.8 per game, respectively. Together they averaged 51.7 points, 14.2 assists and 7.8 rebounds. Outstanding in any era.
Chamberlain and Hairston averaged 19.8 rebounds and 13.1 rebounds, respectively. They were both shot blockers and outstanding at starting the fast break. When Chamberlain was motivated, he was still one of the best defensive centers in the history of the game at the age of 35.
Keith Erickson, Pat Riley and Flynn Robinson provided defense and points off the bench. It seemed like whenever the team suffered an injury, another bench player would step up and take over without missing a beat. It was first and foremost a well-oiled machine and a team in the truest sense.
But it was the 33-game win streak that set this team apart. The streak started the game after Elgin Baylor retired. The games were thrilling and the "words-eye" view of Chick Hearn was arguably the best series of games ever broadcast. You could close your eyes and see Goodrich "yo-yoing the ball" down the court and feel West put someone in the popcorn machine.
I have not seen a game on TV that was more vivid than the games I saw in my mind while listening to Chick.
One of the most memorable games occurred on December 19, 1971 when a road-weary Lakers’ team arrived in Philadelphia on a cold night to play the second of a back to back set against the 76ers. The Lakers were slow and sluggish according to Hearn before they went on one of their patented streaks and won154-132, a margin of 22 points.
Instead of the streak stopping at 25, it went on until January 9, 1972, when the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Buck’s beat them in a nationally televised game on a Sunday morning. When the dust settled, the Lakers had gone undefeated for the months of November and December 1971, an accomplishment that will likely never be repeated.
Old-time Lakers’ fans have always seen the irony in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stopping the Lakers’ 33-game win streak. At the time, no Lakers’ fan could envision Kareem becoming the next great Lakers’ center.
Later that season, the Lakers beat the second place Golden State Warriors (51-31) by a score of 162-99 to set an NBA record for margin of victory that stood for nearly 30 years.
A late season, disputed goal-tending call against Chamberlain on a drive to the basket by Connie Hawkins in the final seconds of a game prevented the Lakers from being the first team to win seventy games. Any fan who saw that game is still complaining about the call.
In those days, most playoff games were not televised. Fans had to go to small arenas or movie theaters to watch the games in blurry black and white on closed circuit TV. The fans were loud, cheering after every made basket. The thrilling six game series against the Bucks was one of the most entertaining series of its time.
It was a golden era with "Golden Throat" at the mike. Chick Hearn’s performance calling those games was as exceptional and memorable as the team’s play. Anyone who heard those games still marvels at his eloquence and style.
About twenty years ago, while attending a Women in Film event honoring the legendary Susan Stratton, long-time Lakers’ producer, I bumped into Chick and Marge going down an escalator at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
I said to Chick, "1972 was my favorite year." I commented on how he was able to broadcast not only the Lakers’ NBA title, but also the 1972 USC football games. The 1972 USC football team has been called the greatest team in college football history by Keith Jackson, among others.
Chick turned to me and said, "It was my favorite year too." We both smiled as we walked into the banquet and took our seats.
I think Jerry West described the 1972 team best at its 40th Anniversary event in Manhattan Beach, when he said, "Forget personalities. We had a lot of different ones. But when you watch this team on the floor, it was like one mind thinking alike."
Lakers’ fans could feel this camaraderie in their seats whether they were sitting in the arena, in their cars or at home on their couches. It was a very good year. Lakers’ fans who watched the once in a lifetime season unfold cherish the memories to this day.