He goes on for another five minutes, telling each player individually what he is doing wrong. Then he slips in a few compliments, but compliments at half time are not his style, so quickly he says: "But we're not sharp! Now we've gotta pick ourselves up and be ready to fly in this third quarter. Come on! COME ON!" The Lakers won by 30 points.
It was 15 or 16 years ago at Lafayette that Van Breda Kolff discovered that riding his players produced certain beneficial results, and coincidentally began a successful college coaching career. "I started out with the real gentle attitude," he recalls. "I tried to encourage my players, pat them on the back, tell them not to worry when they made a mistake. Man, they started making the same mistakes over and over. So one day during practice the ball rolled to me and I got so mad I kicked it all the way to the top of the gym. It was rattling around the girders for about five minutes. And then the ball club started to move. Later a player came to me and said, 'Coach, that's one of the best things you've done since you got here. The guys were beginning to wonder about you.'
"But people still say to me, 'If a ballplayer makes a mistake, don't you think he knows he made a mistake? Do you think a pro player needs somebody yelling at him when he does something wrong?' And I say yes, they do need somebody yelling at them. Even in pros. If you don't climb all over them, they'll make the same mistakes over and over."
At least once in every game Van Breda Kolff will begin a long monologue on the bench, partly for his own benefit, partly for the team's. "Nobody cares," he will say. "Nobody tries. Nobody works together. Nobody looks for the other guy. I don't care. If they don't care, I don't care." Sometimes he calls the team together at half time and says something like, "Look, let me know the next time you guys are gonna play like this. Let me know ahead of time, and then I can sit and relax and we'll all understand that it's a night off for everybody.... Let me see the bottom of your shoes! Hmmmm. Where are the nails? Well, what else is holding you down out there? O.K., the hell with you guys! If you want to play that way, I'm gonna relax. I'll just enjoy the game."
Butch van Breda Kolff is not the first new coach to come into the league roaring about gunners and superstars and lack of team play and poor fundamentals, nor will he be the last. The problem is not in recognizing that the star system produces poorer team results but in doing something about it. "These guys are trained to get points and assists, points and assists, and that's what they base next year's salary on," the coach says. "You can explain to them that team play, the five-man offense, will pick them up a little playoff money, but they know where their basic income comes from, and it's the paycheck, and the paycheck varies according to their statistics. That's something I'm trying to do my best to change, but some nights it's right back to the old habits. Elgin'll get the ball and won't give it up. The ball goes up and down in that yo-yo dribble till he gets a chance to score or pass off for a basket. That sets the tone, and Jerry starts the same routine. It was different when we just had the two shooters, but now we've got some other guys and they can shoot, too. One of them says, O.K., and he gets the ball and the defense is all packed in there and he's shuffling back and forth trying to find his way in and maybe he forces a shot and misses, and in the meantime guys like Tom Hawkins never even touch the ball!
"Now, don't misunderstand. I'm not singling out our guys as the worst offenders, because they're anything but. They're the least selfish professional ballplayers around. Why, I saw New York and it was unbelievable all the superstar, one-on-one ball they played. Dick Barnett is a one-on-one ballplayer from the word go, and then it's Cazzie Russell's turn and he forces one up, and then Willis Reed is upset and he's gonna go one-on-one, and then Bellamy gets upset and it's his turn and you have it right down the line. Nobody's gonna pass off except for a basket, because that goes in the stats.
"That's the attitude I'm resisting. I tell the boys, 'Look for each other out there! The only way you can win this game is to play together.' Tom Hawkins is very valuable to us, even though he's not one of our high scorers. He sets more picks than anybody, more than the rest of the club put together. He's a completely unselfish player, although once in a while he gets a wild hair and wants to get points. But not too often."
When Van Breda Kolff's admonitions about passing off and looking for one another and playing a five-man offense are followed to the letter, as they are in perhaps one game out of 10, it can be an awesome sight indeed. One time last year Van Breda Kolff's teachings dropped into place neatly in a game against the Celtics, and the nationally televised game almost became an embarrassment to watch. The Lakers, moving up and down the court like Peggy Fleming, led 70-40 at half time, extended their lead to 40 points, and finally won by 37. It was the Celtics' worst defeat in two years, and it happened at home, much to the discomfiture of Coach Bill Russell, himself renowned for defense. Later Jack Twyman attributed the rout to "pressure defense," and said it was the first time in his own long career in basketball that he had seen the Boston Celtics unnerved.
But no coach who stresses defense is ever going to find peace and contentment in the National Basketball Association, where offense has become a way of life and scoring proceeds at an average pace of six points per minute, or about two points per yawn. It is not scoring per se that disturbs Van Breda Kolff and many of the other NBA coaches, but the manner of scoring. "You should have seen him in our first 15 games," says Jerry West. "He was beside himself. He just could not accept the fact that the big bulls, as he calls them, would grunt and groan in there and run over our poor little boys and score. He was unbelievable. I asked for combat pay for sitting next to him!"
Van Breda Kolff explains, "I love this game: the movement, the good passing, the movement without the ball, the finesse, cleverness, whatever you want to call it. This is the game I like to teach: the fluid game. And this is the game the fans like to see, too. Fans are sophisticated enough to deserve something more than just pure scoring and bulling around. When do you hear the loudest cheers? It's always over one of two things: a little extra hustle or that real good passing play. Bulling your way in for a layup doesn't impress anybody. People want to see movement, the nice passes underneath, stuff like that. And these pro players are capable of doing all of it, too. They have a rhythm, almost a poetry, some of them. Why, when the pro game is played right, it makes the college game look downright dull.