When the 1971-’72 Lakers went to training camp not much was expected of them.
Wilt Chamberlain had joined the team in 1968 but no championships were won with Butch van Breda Kolff or Joe Mullaney as coach. So even the arrival of Bill Sharman, who had guided the Utah Stars to the American Basketball championship the previous season, didn’t stir the imagination of forecasters.
After all, all-time National Basketball Association great Elgin Baylor was close to retiring.
But the Lakers won 33 consecutive games, a record that still stands. Their overall record was 69-13 and they won the NBA title by defeating the New York Knicks, four games to one, in the playoff finals.
Remarkably, the winning streak has never received the attention it deserved. There wasn’t ESPN in those days, no Internet, few national writers who’d jump in on a major story, no sideline television reporters such as John Ireland, in recent years a fixture on local Laker telecasts.
The media coverage in the Lakers’ traveling party all season consisted of announcer Chick Hearn, color broadcaster Lynn Shackelford and sportswriter Mitch Chortkoff.
Yes, me. I worked for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Our rival, the LA Times, used its budget in other ways most of the time.
The Times’ Laker writer, a superb journalist named Mal Florence, kept telling his bosses he should be on the trips, but they refused.
When the winning streak reached 25 the Times’ sports editor reluctantly told Florence he could go on the next one but only because of the streak. If the Lakers lost he had to come home.
The streak reached 33 and then the Lakers lost to the Bucks in Milwaukee. As the players headed to their next game Sharman saw Florence checking out of the hotel and waiting for a cab.
“What are you doing,” Sharman asked. “Where are you going?”
Florence, who could pull this off so perfectly, replied:
“Well, Bill, here’s how it is. I don’t travel with losers.”
That story and dozens of others soon will become known to a large audience.
Elliott Haimoff of Global Productions in Beverly Hills is preparing a documentary on the winning streak, that Laker team and the work of Coach Sharman, who previously teamed with Bob Cousy on Boston Celtic teams, Cousy and Sharman rank with the greatest backcourts of all time and Sharman still holds the NBA record with 56 consecutive made free throws in the playoffs. Today, Sharman, who later became the Lakers’ general manager, remains on the Laker payroll as a consultant.
Interviews for the documentary have been conducted with Cousy, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Phil Jackson, Jerry Buss and most players on that Laker team, including Gail Goodrich, Keith Erickson and Jom McMillan, who replaced Baylor Chamberlain and Happy Hairston have died.
Last Thursday I was invited to join other LA media members who provided some coverage of that team.
Our group consisted of Bill Dwyre and Larry Stewart of the LA Times, retired columnist John Hall, myself and from the broadcast media Doug Krikorian, Joe McDonnel and Dave Stone.
We were filmed at Phil Trani’s restaurant in Long Beach for a segment in the documentary.
The stories flowed.
Sharman and his wife Joyce were among a group of interested spectators. Several stories were told about Sharman, the gentleman and fierce competitor as well as Sharman, the coach who convinced Chamberlain to sacrifice scoring to concentrate on defense and rebounding.
“Wilt wanted to win and was ready to work with a coach who had a reputation for success,” said Krikorian.
I recalled that following a scrimmage in training camp where the losing team had to run laps Chamberlin’s team won but he ran anyway.
I’m told that Cousy told a story about Sharman helping an old lady across the street in front of the Boston Garden, then getting into three fights during the game.
Because of the NBA lockout production of the documentary has been delayed and might not be ready by January, the 40th anniversary of the winning streak. But when it is ready a Hollywood premiere is scheduled.
Long overdue, the 1971-72 Lakers will receive the recognition they deserve.