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One night last winter in the Forum (not the Roman one nor the Montreal one but the Los Angeles one that looks as though it were made of XXXX sugar and will dissolve in the rainy season) a tall and handsome middle-aged man with something of a hangdog look around his jowls cupped his hands and shouted in a bullhorn voice at one of the bounding referees of professional basketball: "Holy gee whiz, Manny! Darn! What kind of a call was that?"
Manny Sokol, a friendly little guy from New York who tries to see the good in everyone, almost tripped over his shoelaces at this burst of uncharacteristically mild language from Los Angeles Laker Coach Willem Hendrik (Butch) van Breda Kolff. "What in the name of heaven do you call that if it isn't charging?" the coach went on. "Darn you anyway Manny!" Sokol and his fellow official, Norm Drucker, kept throwing querulous sideways glances at Van Breda Kolff until at last the coach finished a long string of "Holy mackerels!" and "Gee whizzes!" with a pungent, short-stroke word that is the main underpinning of his vocabulary, and everybody within earshot knew that the evening was back to normal. The nicely nicely Van Breda Kolff was gone; the ex-Marine drill instructor had returned to the Forum.
Butch van Breda Kolff of The Hill School, Princeton, the Los Angeles Lakers and the nearest steam room and saloon is not all that much different from his fellow man. But where the average 20th century American is busy tailoring his own personality to fit the role he is playing, Van Breda Kolff goes his merry way being himself. His brief and unnatural attempt to launder his courtside language (after several complaints) was exactly that: brief and unnatural. His ordinary lexicon is what might be termed Parris Island heliotrope. He never uses a dainty word when a more colorful one will suffice. He salts the air around him and peppers it, and any honest description of his spoken prose must contain many blanks to protect those who have never been in the Marines or in the company of Leo Durocher.
And what kind of heart lies underneath that gruff exterior? "A heart of whipped cream," says his wife Florence, also an ex-Marine but one who seems to have traveled in different circles in the corps. "He might hurt a fly, but he'd worry about it for weeks. He went hunting once in his life, and he shot a squirrel, and then he practically broke a leg rushing it to the vet!"
Butch van Breda Kolff, all 6'3" and 200 pounds of him, is a man continuously in and out of hot water, and not for the usual reasons. Last year, his first as a professional basketball coach, he ran around saying all the things that other coaches had been saying for years: that the game was poorly officiated, that the grace and finesse was being lost and that most pro players had forgotten grade-school fundamentals of play. The only trouble was, Van Breda Kolff said these things in his normal manner: at the top of his lungs and to anyone who would listen. Some of his comments brought him technical fouls (30 in all, at $25 each), and one brought a $250 fine from the commissioner's office.
They also brought Butch van Breda Kolff success. He took what was essentially a two-man team ( Elgin Baylor and Jerry West), taught it how to play five-man all-court basketball and whipped and cursed and praised it into second place in the NBA Western Division, an eminence to which the Los Angeles Lakers had no right whatever to aspire at the beginning of the season. The word at the outset was that the Lakers might barely manage to squeak into the playoffs provided that West and Baylor got through unhurt. Neither did, and Baylor lost precious time in a holdout, and still the team finished second in the NBA finals. How did Van Breda Kolff accomplish this card trick? Partly by letting his players have it right between the eyes when they played badly. Listen to Van Breda Kolff in a time-out huddle during a tough game:
"Do we want to win this game? Do you listen when I say before the game that each man has to check his man? This looks like high school!" He grabs one of the players by both arms. "You were standing here and Clyde Lee was standing next to you and the ball comes and he taps it in and you're not even in front of him. What the hell do you want me to do? You guys! Do I have to look like an idiot? You guys been playing seven, eight, nine years in the league and you don't even know how to check a man out? Chrissakes! I got freshmen in college that know more than this. Now, damn it, let's start playing a little ball!"
And what is the team reaction to these outbursts that can be heard in the fifth row? Do the Lakers threaten to quit en masse, to take their complaints to the shop steward, to demand the respect to which their salaries and their skills entitle them? No. They simply pull up their socks. As team captain Elgin Baylor says, "He's sitting on the bench. He can judge our play and we can't. And he'll never use one guy as a whipping boy. He's on the whole team. He figures when we lose a ball game we all lose the ball game. And man, we'll go through walls for the guy!"
Says the team's other superstar, Jerry West: "He has a way with people I've never seen before. He can call you a son of a bitch and threaten to belt you during a game, and after the game he's completely forgotten about it. He's the kind of guy I want to play for. Early in the season I just wasn't ready to play, and he got on me, but after the game was over he held no grudge. You've got to like somebody who speaks his mind. In sports, the guys who speak their minds are very few."
One who does is Wilt Chamberlain, who joins the Lakers this season. What happens when he and Van Breda Kolff begin exchanging pieces of mind could, in the view of many, decide the outcome of the NBA championship this season. An educated guess is that neither will change his forceful ways but that an accommodation will be made. Both have been known to be tractable—in times of stress.