Among his many talents, Captain Elgin Baylor has the gift of bestowing nicknames that stick. For years, the Laker cast has moved in its own world with Baylor-inspired monikers—Zeke, Beefer, Mouldy, Pops, Hog. Enter Rookie Gail Goodrich, the little bundle of southern California sunshine, all 6 feet 1 of him. At UCLA, where All-America Goodrich played on two successive national championship teams, he was "Twig." Baylor took a look. "Around here," he said, "you're a stump." Now, to match the status of a nickname by Baylor, Stumpy Goodrich has made the team—on the basis of his play in exhibition games.
Goodrich is a lean 175 pounds, positively baby-faced and with long arms and huge hands that belie his size, much as Cousy's did. He will be the most watched rookie in the league, as he performs the last act in the drama that asks the question: Is Gail Goodrich big enough to play here? At 5 feet 8, they said he was too small for high school ball; at 5 feet 11, too small for college. On the Lakers, at any rate, there are no more skeptics. "Goodrich has a chance to become a great one," Coach Fred Schaus says flatly. In the exhibitions he scored, passed, worked himself open, played tough defense, and in one game against Boston not only led the Lakers with nine rebounds, but also blocked three shots and tipped in two rebounds. "Goodrich has a tough fadeaway jump," says 6-foot-10 teammate LeRoy Ellis, "that you just can't get at, I don't care how big you are." The only place where his size may really hurt Goodrich is on defense, if some of the league's taller guards are able to work him inside. But Goodrich has fine defensive instincts and muscling him will not be so easy. Just as his height is deceiving, so is his strength.
If Goodrich lives up to his promise, L.A. will have a fabulous backcourt. Jerry West is the "other" guard. (West may spend more time in the forecourt against smaller rivals this season.) Schaus had so many guards last year that he had trouble finding playing time for them all. It was a beautiful deal for L.A., then, when the team picked up Bob Boozer from the Knicks in exchange for Dick Barnett. Goodrich's shooting made Barnett expendable. Rudy La-Russo has long needed someone like Boozer to help on the boards—besides, of course, the ever-present Baylor who, though only 6 feet 5, still leads the team in rebounding each year. Elgin is in fine shape now; in the exhibitions he suddenly began making the wonderful Baylor rocking moves that supposedly had vanished as he struggled with bad knees. If he has indeed regained his old form, the Lakers not only should coast to a Western title, but could finally win their first NBA championship. They bear the stigma of perennial runners-up. West and Baylor both played on college teams that were national runners-up too. Schaus coached one. Stumpy, however, was a winner. He brings that, too.
In its four years of existence the Bullet franchise has experienced as much intrigue and confusion as a wobbly banana republic. The Bullets have been in two cities ( Chicago before Baltimore), have had three nicknames, two litters of out-of-town owners, four general managers, five—count 'em, five—coaches and a grand total of 48 different players. Of what remains—name, players, stationery, owners, everything—only huge Walt Bellamy dates back to the Chicago era. For that matter only Bellamy, Forward Gus Johnson and Guard Kevin Loughery have been with the Bullets for as long as two seasons. Like guerrilla warriors, the Bullets do not believe in taking prisoners.
Nor, like guerrillas, have they been much concerned with defense or supply lines. Last year the Bullets comfortably led the league in giving up points, which negated the fact that they themselves were the second-highest scoring team. On offense, it was a scramble to see who got the shot. The defense was poorest in the backcourt. Never has a team so needed a big nonshooting playmaker who can cut it on defense. This is a very nearly extinct species, so Baltimore has been drooling over 6-foot-5� Jerry Sloan of Evansville. The Bullets drafted him two years in a row before finally snaring him. New coach No. 5, Paul Seymour, who was a gritty playmaker type himself at Syracuse, is bringing Sloan along slowly because he is a quiet, retiring sort. However, if Sloan has not taken charge of the Bullet offense by midseason it will be time for Baltimore to break up that gang of shoot-'em-ups and start rebuilding some other way. So far, the shooters are all for Sloan. "That man fires the ball," said Gus Johnson (18.6) the other day, taking a Sloan needle pass for an easy practice bucket. Sloan could do wonders for Bellamy (24.8), the giant who traditionally leads the league in fines (for not hustling) and in pouting (for getting fined and because he thinks he doesn't get the ball often enough). Sloan is not much of a shot himself, but either Don Ohl (18.4) or Kevin Loughery (12.8) can handle the scoring from outside and the big men—Bellamy, Johnson and Bailey Howell (19.2)—are all good gunners.
Seymour figures Sloan can stir up a whole new defensive attitude, too: "He's the type that could get the old pros hustling. It's just great to see a player who wants to play defense. If we can get one or two guys going like Jerry, it can spread like measles. He does it the hard way, by grinding you," Seymour adds. "Jerry's not a villain. He just doesn't seem to realize that he hits so hard." Last year the Bullet guards were afraid to foul, and the opponents knew it.
While Sloan adjusts to the pros, Seymour will have other concerns—a weak bench, Bellamy and the effort to keep the Bullets within striking distance of the Lakers while Johnson recovers from last week's injury to his wrist.