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Jim Murray, the prize-winning syndicated columnist of the Los Angeles Times, was at the Derby in Louisville last week, telling his readers of the horrors of another city ("This crummy old bawd of a river town") and its famous spring event ("It's like holding the heavyweight championship on a barge"). He really should have been home, for the annual championship futility of the Los Angeles Lakers is at least as reliable a part of the sporting calendar as the Derby, and, by now, very nearly as rich in tradition.
This is the seventh time in the last nine years that the Lakers have reached the NBA finals, a prodigious record of consistency that only the most royal of sporting families—people like the Yankees, Canadiens and Celtics—have ever approximated. Of course, any resemblance between them and the Lakers ends there, since the other teams win, and so the New York Knickerbockers came to town last week determined to do their part to see that the Lakers kept losing.
What a pity for the devoted Angelenos that Murray wasn't on hand to assess their city and their sporting highlight. It doesn't seem fair. So, with apologies to Murray:
All right, sports fans, here we are in Los Angeles for the NBA finals, They Shoot Lakers, Don't They? The league has taken the rule books away from the refs and given them copies of Silent Spring. The Lakers have finished second so many times that in this town Avis employees wear Laker buttons. They say, "We Try Often." The fans still come out to see the Lakers only because they have a lot of local flavor. The Lakers remind them of Grauman's Chinese Theater since they always play the finals with their hands in cement.
Of course, the fans are used to second-best here. Anybody who can get out of L.A. does. Hollywood is on location in Europe. The mayor is away so much he makes Judge Crater look like the man who came to dinner.
This is the town that first gave us smog, under its maiden name, Pasadena. Saint Bernards patrol the freeways, carrying stale tacos around their necks for the stranded. Los Angeles is the only city in the world where the suburbs are so tacky the slums won't let them near for fear it will lower their property values. If the Santa Barbara oil slick drifted south, Los Angeles would put a rope around it and call it a public park.
Jerry West made a 63-foot shot at the buzzer, and the Lakers still lost. This is like surrendering after Hiroshima—to the Japanese. The team has finished second so often that Tom Dewey and William Jennings Bryan could open in the backcourt. The last time Floyd Patterson fought, he came prepared to leave disguised as a Laker. Not even Doris Day has come as close as the Lakers so many times.
The team's arena is located next to a racetrack, so the fans at least used to be able to get even at night. But the bookies here are smart and after six years stopped taking place bets on the Lakers. If the Lakers lose in the NBA finals one more time, they win permanent possession of a new trophy presented by the management—the Los Angeles Kings.
The New York-Los Angeles series was developing along the usual Laker lines—perverse. The players were winning games they seemed destined to lose, and losing those that must surely be theirs. As usual, the Lakers were the underdogs; as usual, just as everything was going great, West bruised his left thumb in the third game and woke up the next morning with a painful, misshapen, nearly grotesque hand. Naturally, in the best Laker tradition, he played his finest game the next night. "What could we do?" said Knick Coach Red Holzman. "We didn't have thumb practice."
Even after six straight championship defeats (seven, counting one in '59 when the team was in Minneapolis), no one—least of all the Boston Celtics, who beat them in all those series—has ever suggested that the Lakers have caved in to pressure or been guilty of anything except not being quite good enough.