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On Christmas Day, at a moment when the rest of the country was opening presents, basting turkeys or saluting the holiday over steaming punchbowls of Tom and Jerrys, the members of the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team climbed onto a jet plane to fly to New York and thus begin the year's most exhausting road trip—six cities and six games in nine days. The temperature in Los Angeles was in the 80s when they left. The sun was shining brightly and the horizon was cloudless. Swimming pools winked in the distance. Nonetheless, each of the players boarded with a heavy overcoat across his arm. This was because the trip was to be in the zero Fahrenheit belt. Their goodby kisses to their wives—all but two of the 10 on the traveling squad are married—were perfunctory and preoccupied. There isn't much to say to a loved one from whom you must be separated over both Christmas and New Year's. A few moments later they were airborne—depressed, irritable, off on the longest nine days of their young lives. Here is their story of that trip:
New York, Dec. 26. Dressing Room 34 at Madison Square Garden was a dingy, bare place with peeling plaster walls, a row of coat hooks above a line of splintery benches and a bath and shower room that afforded no privacy. A bare-bulb overhead light shone down on the rippling brown muscles of the powerful Elgin Baylor as he irritably wrenched his shirt over his head. "Damn Garden,"' he growled. "You'd think they could give you better quarters than this, all the money they make." Across the room, the blond, lanky Jim Krebs, a Texan from St. Louis, needled him. "How you know they make so much money? You seen their books?"
A roar from the crowd outside interrupted Baylor's retort. Between Krebs and Elgin Baylor the retorts are endless, an affectionate but relentless banter that the rest of the team only half listens to. "Who they cheering out there?" demanded Baylor. A teammate, Tom Hawkins, swiftly slipped out to find out. On the boards above stairs, the Harlem Globe Trotters were gyrating through their well-rehearsed routines, which only superficially resemble basketball. Hawkins reappeared. " Willie Mays, they were cheering Willie," he advised. Baylor grunted. "He's still something around here, New York, I guess." "He's nothing at all in San Francisco," said Jim Krebs. "They don't dig him up there."
Krebs surveyed Baylor critically. " Elgin," he demanded, "didn't you change those damn shorts? Those are the same damn shorts you had on yesterday." Baylor, a fastidious man, bristled. "How come you say that?" he shouted. "Those were red with a gray band, these are gray with a red band. You think I'm like you? I change 'em, man." Krebs grinned delightedly. The outraged outburst was precisely what he hoped for. Elgin angrily, or mock angrily, strode off in the direction of the duffel bag to yank his playing clothes from its center.
Elgin Baylor is, as it happens, the best player on the Lakers. He may be the best player in basketball. At 6 feet 5 he is not exceptionally tall by basketball's standards. But he is exceptionally strong by any standards. He scores points by bullying his way to the basket. When Baylor gets the ball, the opposition scatters like quail at the sight of the hunter, streaming backwards on the double for the deadly desperate business of stopping him. Their tactics seldom succeed. Few players around the league are physically equal to the chore of slowing Baylor down.
But Baylor was sluggish this night. So were the Lakers. The New York Knicks, at the moment the worst team in pro basketball, were leading at the half 66-36. It was a dismal start for the long trip east, and if the New York fans were happy in the mass, one chunky, swarthy character was not. He scrambled down the stairs on fat legs as the Lakers rushed for the dressing room. "Hey, Baylor, stay down there! Whyn't ya stay inna dressing room? Stay there, ya hear!"
The fan was not the only one mad at the Lakers. Coach Fred Schaus was white-lipped with rage, and the sounds of one-way battle poured out of the dressing room throughout the intermission. The Lakers silently hung their heads and absorbed it. "I never heard him name names before," marveled Krebs later. "We deserved it," was the comment of the rookie, Jerry West.
The abuse took effect. Baylor flashed through basket after basket. He scored 44 points for the night. The Lakers outscored the Knicks 76-53 in the second half as Baylor frequently outwrestled the whole New York squad under the offensive boards. It was not enough. The final horn found the Lakers still in arrears 119-112.
The Lakers dressed in silence after the game. Then the door flew open and the first autograph hounds bounded in. They held their programs to Baylor first. "Hey, Jimmy," Baylor leered wickedly at Krebs. "How do you spell Khrushchev?" "K-R-U-S-C-H-E-V," innocently advised Krebs. Baylor was overjoyed. "Naw, it's K-H-R-U-S-C-H-E-V. How come, here's a man, his name is in the papers every day, and you don't know how to spell it?" Happily he scribbled "Khruschev" on a boy's program, and then, because he was one up on Krebs, he scrawled " Elgin Baylor" under it.
To Baylor, the public is just one vast army of Jimmy Krebses, something to needle and agitate. On the cab ride to the Garden from the Hotel Manhattan, the cabbie, not surprisingly, spotted Baylor and teammate Tommy Hawkins, a graceful, handsome Negro from Notre Dame, as athletes. "Hey, you guys playin' or somethin' in the Garden tonight?" he wanted to know. "Yeah," insolently answered Baylor, "we're fightin' the main event. I'm Elgin Baylor, the well-known heavyweight, and this here's Tom Hawkins, my opponent." "Oh, yeah?" The driver was happily impressed. "You're fightin' and you're in the same cab? That's a hot one. You ain't mad at each other?" "Course not," scorned Baylor. "We're the best of friends. I might let him win," he said as he debarked nonchalantly from the cab, leaving the driver open-mouthed and staring.