Harvey Marlatt of Eastern Michigan University was the 16th and final choice of the Detroit Pistons in last spring's college draft, and he has turned out to be something of a sleeper. Unlike most low draft picks, he was not cut after the rookie tryout camp in June but was invited to join the Piston regulars in preseason training. With one move in an early practice session, Marlatt put himself in line to be remembered as the player who made it possible for Detroit to enjoy its first winning season ever. He unintentionally positioned himself so that Bob Lanier, Detroit's million-dollar rookie center, could fall over him.
Until he tripped over Marlatt, Lanier was still hobbled by adhesions that formed as his right knee healed following an operation last March. He would not have been ready to play effectively until all those adhesions disappeared, and Marlatt provided a total, if painful, solution to the problem. "We were watching practice, and suddenly Bob fell and let out a tremendous scream," remembers Piston General Manager Ed Coil. "Then everything went absolutely quiet. Bob knew what had happened—it hurt, but he wasn't worried. I was scared stiff."
Lanier, 20 pounds overweight and apparently reluctant to test his still tender knee, has shown only brief glimpses so far of the power he is expected to supply at both ends of the court. Fortunately for Detroit, two other young players, Terry Driscoll and Steve Mix, are eager scramblers and rebounders. They can get the ball to Dave Bing and Jimmy Walker, who know what to do with it.
The length of time it requires Lanier to push himself into top playing condition may determine which of three teams—Detroit, Phoenix or Chicago—wins the second playoff spot in the Midwest. The Milwaukee Bucks must be considered heavy favorites to take first place and should win the playoffs as well. Without Oscar Robertson and Lucius Allen, and in Lew Alcindor's rookie season, the Bucks won 56 games last year, a total equaled or surpassed only 11 times in the past 10 seasons (the Celtics did it six times). Alcindor's improvement is going to amaze those who thought last season that he could hardly be better. Oscar's presence as playmaker and scorer strengthens the team immeasurably, and Allen's versatility at slipping through defenses and working without the ball will hardly be a surprise to those who saw him play with Lew at UCLA. A dynasty is in the making here.
Over the past two seasons only Milwaukee has improved more rapidly than Phoenix. The Suns, who lost the coin flip for the right to draft Alcindor two years ago, ended up with the finest consolation prize ever handed out: Connie Hawkins. Usually an amenable sort, Hawkins was upset this summer when he heard that Cotton Fitzsimmons of Kansas State would be the Suns' new coach. "Connie called me," said General Manager Jerry Colangelo, "and he asked, 'Hey, what is this? I've been reading Eldridge Cleaver all summer and you go out and hire a coach named Cotton!' " Fitzsimmons was equally concerned about his relationship with Hawkins, but Connie played in the exhibition games with all the untroubled abandon his remarkable talents allow, and Cotton seemed to enjoy every minute of it. Fitzsimmons is obliged to stop smiling when his eyes wander to center. There, 7-foot Mel Counts, a natural forward obtained in a trade with the Lakers, and second-year man Neal Walk will try to contend, almost surely ineffectively, with the league's better pivotmen.
Chicago, lacking the talent of Phoenix and Detroit, still tied the Suns for third place in last season's Western Division race. The Bulls will again be waiting for Chet Walker to wiggle in for a winning basket or for Jerry Sloan to pull a decisive steal. Coach Dick Motta has done an extraordinary job with a very ordinary team. He came up with a surprise a year ago in Forward Bob Love, who scored 20 points a game, is quick (unlike most of his teammates) and slips in for many of his baskets off offensive rebounds. This year there will also be slender John Baum, who led Temple to the NIT championship in 1969. After a year in the Army, Baum is still an amazing leaper, a fine shooter and very fast.