When the Los Angeles Lakers got Wilt Chamberlain (see cover) in a trade last summer, the immediate popular supposition was that they had dealt themselves a wonder team. With Elgin Baylor and Jerry West playing, too, every game would be a thrilling All-Star show and every box office would do boffo, turnaway business. The only problem, it was suggested, was-that the big three superstars would be struggling with each other to see who could get the ball and shoot it the most.
Now, as the NBA season moves into its last two months, it has become apparent that the results are exactly the reverse of the assumptions. The Lakers are, first of all, only a pretty good team with about the same chance to win the championship as last year's Lakers—who did not. Moreover, far from providing raging effervescence, the Lakers are dull almost to the point of tedium, and the slow realization of that fact may soon be reflected in attendance at the Inglewood Forum.
The main problem on the court is not that Chamberlain, Baylor and West do not get the ball enough. It is that Chamberlain will not—or cannot—go to the basket when he does get it. In other words, the fantastic Laker juggernaut lacks a sufficient offense to carry it; the team has been reduced to depending on its defense.
Moreover, there is discontent, which was not altogether unexpected. The Lakers, for so long one of the most comfortable, relaxed teams in sport, have become critical of one another and confused. General Manager Fred Schaus had to call a secret meeting to urge the players to keep their disagreements to themselves. That was in December, when a controversy between Chamberlain and Coach Butch van Breda Kolff first raged publicly over where Wilt was to line up: low post or high post—or maybe even on the bench. "We are all much better off now," van Breda Kolff says, "and I would hate to see anything blow it up again. We're in a better frame of mind and we have a better outlook on playing the game."
Though the atmosphere may indeed be improved, the morale is still reminiscent of Christopher Robin's spelling. "It's good spelling," he told Pooh, "but it Wobbles and the letters get in the wrong places." In its transparency, van Breda Kolff's statement points up the Lakers' dilemma: Chamberlain or van Breda Kolff. Invariably, one or the other is blamed for everything. There is some justice in this, since it is their continued inability to compromise that is at the base of the team's problems, and there is some injustice. "The way we bitch about Wilt," says one Laker, "it would never occur to you that anyone else on the team ever even misses a foul shot."
For van Breda Kolff, the pendulum has really swung. When he came to the team from Princeton last year, he was an instant success. The players liked the way VBK gave them a freer reign off the court and the right to free-lance on it. He occasionally would get furious and call everybody "Dum-dum," but his outbreaks were quickly forgotten and the players genially called their coach "Fang" and " Crazy Horse." For the last half of the season the Lakers had the second-best record in the league.
This season, with the introduction of just one significant extraneous factor, Chamberlain—whom the Lakers sometimes call "Big Musty"—van Breda Kolff is being ripped for the same reasons he was drawing raves last year. The people who praised his style of play then as fluid and loose and just right for mature pros now criticize it as disorganized and undisciplined. By last week's All-Star break some printed speculation had already appeared suggesting that last year's resident genius might soon be getting the ax—although the Lakers were still leading the Western Division and were moving along 7� games ahead of last year's pace.
The point is, more was expected of the Lakers this season. Furthermore, nobody—least of all Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke—dares to consider that he might have traded himself into a weaker team. But Cooke may have done this when he gave up Center Darrall Imhoff, All-Star Guard Archie Clark and Forward Jerry Chambers (who is in the Army) to Philadelphia for a 33-year-old Chamberlain and his huge salary. Certainly, and most ironically, Cooke now has a worse attraction than he had, as the Lakers say, B.C. (before Chamberlain). The present A.D. (after Darrall) Lakers are drawing slightly better than they did last year, but there are signs that Southern California is getting bored. Some season-ticket seats are conspicuously unused. Inglewood City tax records indicate Forum attendance figures are being inflated anyway. The largest L.A. paper, the Times, has sent a correspondent on the road just once all year. (The Times is known to the players as "Butch's paper," the Herald-Examiner as "Wilt's paper.")
However, the gossip about dissension—no matter how harmful it may be at home—actually is increasing attendance on the road. Part of this success is certainly attributable to Chamberlain, who—as the only real villain for NBA fans—has always been a strong out-of-town attraction. After Baylor made a free throw a few days ago at Atlanta the game was stopped and it was announced that he had passed Bob Pettit to become the second-highest scorer in NBA history. Applause began, then swelled, and soon everyone in the building was standing and roaring for a man most of them probably had never seen play before this season. Chamberlain, very graciously, came out from under the basket and was the first to shake Baylor's hand. When at last the applause subsided, the P.A. went on: "...and now Baylor is second only to Wilt Chamberlain." Suddenly boos rang down, covering the cheers.
This lightning-rod quality is of no value to the Lakers, since the NBA still operates under the rule-or-ruin philosophy that permits the home team to keep all the revenues. Thus Cooke, like the San Francisco and Philadelphia owners before him, is now in the somewhat woeful position of helping to subsidize the league.