There was more than just a subtle hint of pro basketball's shifting fortunes in Los Angeles' smoggy air when the NBA superstars gathered there last week, for the annual All-Star Game. Everywhere there were chauvinistic claims that the Los Angeles Lakers, the pride of the West, were to replace the Boston Celtics as basketball's No. 1 team.
The host Lakers themselves had set the tone with their flashy All-Star Game program which carried the words LOS ANGELES, BASKETBALL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD emblazoned in large print on its cover. Some enthusiastic local experts were predicting that Laker Coach Fred Schaus's West squad, with such superb shooters as Los Angeles' own Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to lead them, might score more than 200 points against the Boston-dominated East. Pro basketball is fairly new to Los Angeles, and perhaps such naive enthusiasm is forgivable. But the Celtics' volatile Red Auerbach, in to coach the East and already smarting from two straight All-Star defeats, is not a forgiving man in the best of times, which these aren't. "What do they think this city is," demanded Auerbach. Then, with much help from Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, three of his Celtics' prideful old pros, Auerbach and his team put the brash Westerners in their place.
Using a fine fast break, the East never let the West in the game. Russell, treating San Francisco's Wilt Chamberlain with the disdain usually reserved for lesser members of the NBA, picked off rebounds like a giant octopus to set the fast break in motion. Cousy, slick as ever with his hand fakes and behind-the-back passes, and Cincinnati's marvelous Oscar Robertson led a furious charge downcourt that the West could not stop. The East defense, meanwhile, hounded Baylor and West so closely they made only nine out of 30 shots. The final score was a respectable 115-108, but the contest had been a romp. Auerbach gloated happily, "I never had an easier game." Fred Schaus had a different view: "Worst All-Star Game ever played."
Pleasant as it was to give LA the Red raspberry, Auerbach had only won a prestige skirmish in a war that wasn't going too well at all. With the season half over some NBA owners and coaches were openly saying that the young Los Angeles Lakers are indeed ready to break up the Boston dynasty and start one of their own. "They've got it now and they'll have it for many years," said Coach Dick McGuire of the Pistons. In Baylor, who is averaging 33.7 points a game, and the graceful West, the Lakers have a most menacing twosome. Dick Barnett, acquired from Syracuse, has strengthened an already affluent backcourt and rookies LeRoy Ellis and Gene Wiley, the latter an outstanding rebounder and defender, have given Schaus the corner and pivot depth he lacked last year. "Now, when we're coming down to the wire trading hoops," says Schaus, "they can't just go hound the big man, Baylor." All of which shows in the statistics. The Lakers lost only 12 of their first 47 games and lead second-place St. Louis by five in the Western Division.
Boston, on the other hand, although still by far the best in the East (the Celtics lead Syracuse by five games), is finding the wins coming harder, the losses occurring oftener. Russell's aching back, injuries to Cousy (pulled groin muscle) and Sam Jones (knee trouble) and Heinsohn's sudden scoring slump have all contributed to a gentle Celtic backslide. Fortunately, Clyde Lovellette, one of the best outside shooting big men in the game, and rookie John Havlicek, who can play both backcourt and the corner, have filled in admirably. But the team's age (average 28 years) is showing.
The real issue will be joined, of course, if Boston and Los Angeles meet, as they are likely to, in the championship playoffs in April. Meanwhile, the fans seem to like what is happening, even in Boston, where attendance is up, apparently because the games are much closer than they used to be. Total NBA attendance has increased 31% in a single season, led by Los Angeles, where boisterous crowds of 10,000 are going to add up to a million-dollar gross. Even Red Auerbach agrees that something is going on in L.A.—and never mind where "The Basketball Capital of the World" really is. That can be settled in April.
In the East, LaSalle Coach Dudey Moore knew he had a problem on his hands with Seton Hall's Nick Werkman, the nation's leading scorer (32.8 average). Three days earlier Werkman had scored 40 points, including the winning two, as Seton Hall beat Fairfield 93-91. Moore also knew that Werkman liked to work inside the foul lane, where he uses his twisting layups to draw fouls. Moore decided to have his team clog the middle. His Explorers moved in and out of a variety of zone defenses and still Werkman got 36 points, 14 on free throws. But La Salle's Frank Corace and Bill Raftery scored 45 between them, and Moore's better-balanced team won 89-80, its sixth straight.
Villanova, inconsistent this season, led Temple by nine points with nine minutes to go, but the Owls slipped away, scoring 13 points in a row and winning 50-49 on Elmer Snethen's foul shot with 17 seconds left. St. Joseph's survived a roughhouse brawl to beat Delaware 64-57, then easily defeated Muhlenberg 76-53.
Once-beaten Canisius hardly figured to get a tussle from weakened St. Bonaventure, but the Bonnies hustled all night and upset Canisius 71-69 when Fred Crawford sunk a 15-foot jump shot at the buzzer. Pitt, like most visiting teams, found Army tough to handle at West Point. The Panthers needed two overtime periods and eight straight free throws by Clyde Sheffield to put down the pesky Cadets 79-53.