In dire need of a big, brilliant center, the Knickerbockers found they had no chance of getting one this year and got the next best thing instead—a small, brilliant coach. Eddie Donovan comes to the Knicks from St. Bona-venture with a loathing for errors, devotion to hustle and thorough teaching technique. But New York will be some time rebuilding. The nucleus of the team today comprises Willie Naulls, who had his finest season Last year, and quick Johnny Green in the corners. The centers, who can't compete with the NBA's better ones, are Phil Jordan and Darrall Imhoff. All-Star Richie Guerin will be playing alongside a rookie in the backcourt, probably Whitey Martin, an ex-Bonnie whose ball handling and driving best suit the controlled offense Donovan wants. The Knicks will win games on enthusiasm alone, but not enough to escape the cellar.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The Lakers were the surprise of the NBA last year. Starting off slowly, partly because of a bad schedule break, they won 13 of their last 25 and nearly beat the Hawks in the playoffs. Now the schedule is better, and so is the team, led by Elgin Baylor, the best all-round player in the league, a resolute bull on defense and a fantastic scorer. Tom Hawkins and Rudy La Russo complete a good forecourt. Last year's fine rookie, Jerry West, is a surprising 25%, better this season, and Frank Selvy is shooting the way he did in college. Both are also excellent defensively. But Coach Fred Schaus must solve the huge problem at center. Awkward Ray Felix played a streak of good ball last season, but can't be expected to keep it up, nor is Jim Krebs likely to improve. Rookie Wayne Yates, an unhewn giant, may help, but has a leg injury. With even an average center the Lakers could win it all. But nobody is about to give them one.
The Royals passed up their opportunity to draft a good player with height, which they had to have, and went instead for 6-foot-4 Larry Siegfried, only to lose him to the new league. This leaves them essentially unchanged from a year ago and with little to do but wait for Jerry Lucas (if he turns pro) or Paul Hogue to graduate from college. The Royals' two stars, Forward Jack Twyman and Guard Oscar Robertson, will lead the team scoring again and conceivably the NBA as well. But earnest Wayne Embry at center and Hub Reed at the other forward spot do not give the Royals enough rebounding to allow them maximum use of their offensive assets. Guard Arlen Bockhorn, an adequate pro, will start, backed up by ex-Kentuckian Adrian Smith. Neither rookies Bob Nordmann (6 feet 10) or Bob Wiesenhahn will be much immediate help. In an improving league, the Royals are worse.
The Pistons have a new home ($18 million Cobo Hall) and new hopes. Two outstanding rookies make this the most improved team in the league. One is Ray Scott, a 6-foot-9 good-shooting corner man who played three seasons with Allentown, Pa. in the Eastern League. The other is miniscule (well, 6-foot) John Egan, a whirling guard who led Providence College to the NIT championship last spring and spent four summers being tutored by another fair playmaker, Bob Cousy. Either may break into a starting lineup that includes Bailey Howell and Bob Ferry up front, with All-Star Gene Shue and Don Ohl in the backcourt. Walter Dukes had three summer operations (foot, nose and appendix) and is still trying to operate more carefully at center himself, where he fouled out 16 times last year. He must get the rebounds that make Coach Dick McGuire's new fast-break offense possible.
No professional league stocks its new franchises with talent good enough to drub the older members, and the NBA is no exception. Thus the infant Chicago Packers may not be an outright lemon but for this year at least their performance is going to be a little sour. The Packers will play in the International Amphitheater, an 8,300-seat hall where Ike, Stevenson and Nixon were nominated in recent political conventions. The court has dead spots, and in spite of recent repairs may benefit the knowing home team as much as eight points. The Packers need the help. Coach Jim Pollard has a squad of too many rookies and too much overage talent, and understandably says, "The entire team will have to play as well as it can through the entire season just to make the playoffs." Starting at center is 6-foot 11-inch Walt Bellamy, the NBA's top draft choice from the colleges, who is a strong re-bounder but a relative innocent on offense. Horace Walker, another rookie, will start at forward, along with Barney Cable, a veteran of three years' pro experience whom Syracuse found expendable. Andy Johnson and John Turner, Louisville's star last year, will help in the forecourt. In the backcourt are two able but hardly stunning NBA performers, Bobby Leonard and Vern Hatton, with rookie York Larese also available. Without an outstanding scorer, the Packers hope for point production from the entire team through a fast-break offense that might suceed in spite of only average speed. This is understandably a building year for the Packers, and the building will be from the bottom.
AND A NEW LEAGUE OPENS TOO
Turnip-shaped Abe Saperstein, owner of the renowned Harlem Globetrotters and the most glittering of all basketball's extravert entrepreneurs, this week opens his own American Basketball League. Founded in pique—Saperstein wanted an NBA franchise but couldn't get one, so he set up the ABL, made himself commissioner and then awarded himself his own Chicago franchise—the new league faces nearly insurmountable problems. Its eight teams play 80 games from Washington, D.C. to Honolulu, Hawaii, an unparalleled travel burden. Few of its players could make NBA teams, and the financing of some of its franchises is weak. But it has assets too, most notably the bubbling mind of Commissioner Saperstein. Already he has brought a major innovation to the ABL, the counterpart of a home run, by scoring three points for any basket made from farther than about 25 feet out. He is considering a bold plan for pooling all team travel costs, and he is drawing on a reservoir of good will built up over 34 years by his Trotters. The Trotters themselves will be used as arena-filling attractions before some ABL games, thus introducing fans to the ABL's own top players. Among these are: Dick Barnett and Larry Siegfried with Cleveland; Jim Palmer and Connie Hawkins with Pittsburgh; Tony Jackson and Cal Ramsey with Washington; Mike Farmer and Ken Sears with San Francisco; Bill Sharman (player-coach), Hal Lear, Bill Spivey and George Yardley with Los Angeles; and Frank Burgess with Honolulu. "The NBA said we didn't have a chance in hell of getting started," says Saperstein, "but we did. How long will we last? Time will tell."