SI Vault
Jack Olsen
September 23, 1968
Bill van Breda Kolff, who will be coaching Wilt Chamberlain this year, loves his beer and a good time, but he is a mighty serious fellow when it comes to pro basketball
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September 23, 1968

Hedonist Prophet Of The Spartan Game

Bill van Breda Kolff, who will be coaching Wilt Chamberlain this year, loves his beer and a good time, but he is a mighty serious fellow when it comes to pro basketball

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The transition from previous Coach Fred Schaus (now general manager) to Van Breda Kolff was abrupt for the players. West had played under Schaus since leaving high school. Baylor had known other coaches, but not in the last seven years. Schaus was the obverse of Van Breda Kolff. His most demonstrative act was a stomp of the foot. "Maybe Fred got a little too easygoing in the last few years," an insider says. "He knew all the players so well, and he relaxed on 'em a little too much. But then in comes this loudmouth college coach who hasn't had a thing to do with the pros in 15 years, and everybody's waiting for the players to gobble him up and spit him out. And what happens? He works their butts off and makes 'em like it. I heard Elgin say under his breath one day, 'If my man keeps pushing me like this I won't last the first game!' And on top of that what does he do? He starts chewing them out! Elgin Baylor! Jerry West! All-Pro players! He calls 'em everything in the book, and they not only take it, they respond to it."

From the beginning, Van Breda Kolff brought a peculiar sort of tight looseness or loose tightness to the basketball team. On fundamentals and team discipline, he was an absolute martinet, but off the court he was relaxed and friendly, the opposite of Schaus, who did not fraternize with his players. "All I really care about in the world is, first, my family, and second, being with the guys: jerking around, kidding, arguing, laughing," Van Breda Kolff says. "Who cares about anything else? You have a few beers and go home and that's it."

Before a game he keeps a steady torrent of chatter and banter going in the dressing room, not as a calculated way of relaxing his team but simply because he enjoys a steady torrent of chatter and banter. He kids, rags, jokes and takes as good as he gives. The walls reverberate to a blend of Halls of Montezuma English intermingled with the lower Mississippi valley constructions that have been brought into the game by Negroes, and Van Breda Kolff is fluent in either tongue.

Thirty minutes before the tap, his whole attitude changes. The opponent is Cincinnati, and there is some doubt that Oscar Robertson will play. "All right!" the coach snaps. "Let's get ready. Let's sit down! Let's go! Let's go! Elgin! Archie [Clark]! Come on, Darrall [Imhoff]! I don't know who the hell they're gonna play. Archie, if Oscar plays we'll let Jerry start off on him, and then you take Smitty [Adrian Smith]. Elg, you've got [Jerry] Lucas. If [John] Tresvant starts, then Hawk has him. If [Tom] Van Arsdale plays forward Hawk'll [Tom Hawkins] have him; if he plays guard Jerry'll have him."

Not a word is said. The room is silent except for Van Breda Kolff's booming voice. The players lean forward to hear, vying with one another to see who can pay the sharpest attention. "If Van Arsdale and Oscar are in, well, we'll worry about that when the time comes. I don't really care if Oscar is in. In a way I'd rather have him play, because I think when Oscar plays the rest of you guys get a little more up for the game. And when a guy like Oscar doesn't play everybody figures, aw, [word deleted], Oscar isn't playing and we'll win it easy. And then Smitty gets hot and Lucas starts dropping them and the first thing you know we're losing. One thing: if [Guy] Rodgers plays, they're gonna run, and that means we've got to run with them. You know [Connie] Dierking can run. He's in a whole lot better shape, so you got to come down, you've got to run with them all the time.

"Lucas? Hell, you've played Lucas 100 times anyway, but remember: maybe he'll try and score a little bit more if Oscar doesn't play. Darrall, now you know Dierking's got that little one-hander, so don't go jumping all over the place but really play him fairly tight and he's gonna go to his right anyway if he wants to drive. We gotta keep Dierking down, we gotta keep Smitty down, we gotta keep every guy a little bit below his average, especially if Oscar plays. If Oscar doesn't play, then we play defense anyway. The more we think of defense the better ball club we're gonna be. All right? Here we go!" The players rush out of the dressing room with a yell.

Van Breda Kolff's control of the team is absolute. From the outset of his tenure with the Lakers, he has treated Baylor and West exactly as he has treated the humpties, which is to say sometimes nicely and sometimes with all the antic gentleness of a guard at the Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas. One night when Baylor threw a bad pass, Van Breda Kolff chased him into the dressing room hollering at the top of his capacious lungs. "Ten years All-Pro!" he cried, "and you make the dumbest play I've ever seen in my life! You're a—You're a—You're a dum-dum!"

Everyone waited to see what would happen. At last the shoot-down had arrived. High Noon in the dressing room. But there was only silence. Baylor dressed quietly, and Van Breda Kolff left in high dudgeon. The next day the team flew back to Los Angeles, and the coach was waiting for his luggage when he saw the 6'5" Baylor sidle alongside him. "Hey, coach," Baylor said in a half whisper. "Would you mind not calling me dum-dum in front of my teammates? I'm captain, you know."

Van Breda Kolff turned to see if Baylor was serious, and he could see that the big forward was trying to act angry but a smile was forcing its way up from the corners of his mouth, and the two of them laughed out loud at the silliness of it all. Later Baylor said, "Anything that man does, he's right! Why, one night he finds out after a game that I'm a little upset about some things, so he gets into his car and comes out to my house at midnight and we fix some shrimp and talk till 5 in the morning. The next night we play and win, so I guess he knew what he was doing."

The first half against Cincinnati had not gone well, even though the Lakers were slightly ahead. But Oscar Robertson wasn't playing for the Royals, and Van Breda Kolff thought the team should have put the game away already. He sat quietly in the dressing room for a few minutes, and then began talking in a soft voice. "I'm trying to figure out how to describe that first half. Workmanlike isn't quite correct. We weren't sharp, that's about the best way I can think of it. We weren't moving quite well enough, especially in that second quarter. Stumpy [ Gail Goodrich], try to stay more in the backcourt and then we can get our movement started. If you cut yourself through when Archie has the ball, then there's no court balance left. Now if Archie wants to throw it to a forward and follow, we have no one in the backcourt and who knows? After you've swept through when you come out you might come right back out into the play again.... That's just one of the things we were doing wrong in the first half, and it bothers movement. Now I keep saying it till I'm blue in the face, but we have to learn from mistakes! I've already told Darrall about his pass upcourt in between two Cincinnati guys to Hawk. Now if we're gonna throw to Hawk, he'd better be out ahead of everybody. Right?"

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