Late in the opening period of their game last week at Cleveland, the Atlanta Hawks ran the trusty old Laurel and Hardy play to perfection. At midcourt, playing Stan (seen for the first time anywhere without his hat), was devil-may-care Don May. Looming nearby was large, lovable Ollie—in the guise of large, lovable Walt Bellamy. Suddenly, little Cavalier Guard Bobby Washington bolted between them in reckless pursuit of a pass. As the ball fell, Washington snatched it and continued unmolested downcourt. In the finest tradition of the old screen, Stan and Ollie boldly lurched into the space left by Washington's hasty departure—and crashed head on. As Ollie reeled one way, Stan flew off in the other, landing in a supine position, from which he had a fine view of Washington scoring an easy layup.
Pure slapstick, indeed, but merely routine since the season began on that great vaudeville circuit called the NBA Central Division. Like the reclining Don May, the Central teams have all flopped on their backsides and left the rest of the league laughing.
The biggest yuk came two weeks into the schedule when the Cavaliers, previously celebrated as the Five Stooges, actually occupied first place for three heady days. The Cavs staggered all the way to the top on the basis of their inept playing during a 111-93 loss to Philadelphia. The defeat gave them a 2-5 record and a .286 percentage—.036 points above then second-place Cincinnati. And it proved that in the Central Division it barely makes a difference if a team loses. After all, the other clubs have shown they can find ways to play worse and lose more.
One of the division's general managers has even described the race as a Polish beauty contest, a bad rap which is apt to evoke righteous protests from those Baltic blondes. One might even turn some of that worn ethnic humor into Central Division jokes. Question: Tell me, why can't a Cincinnati Royal commit suicide? Answer: Because you can't kill yourself jumping out a basement window.
All four of the division's coaches are about ready to jump, but from a higher station. Each has a star player—or players—out of action. Cincy's talented rookie forward, Ken Durrett, went through knee surgery two weeks ago, and Atlanta's Pete Maravich has been sidelined with mononucleosis since the season opened. Pistol Pete's weight fell from 205 to 179 pounds during his illness, and he has been slow to regain it. After reaching 189 last week he was allowed to resume half-court workouts, but is not scheduled to appear in a game before Nov. 17.
The Hawks, preseason favorites in the division, lost their first four games before finally showing signs of adjusting to Maravich's absence. They won three of their five most recent games and tied with Baltimore for first place with an astronomical .333 percentage.
Austin Carr was supposed to be the hottest thing to hit Cleveland since the oily Cuyahoga River—believed to be the only body of U.S. water listed as a fire hazard. Instead, the rookie guard has been busy breaking metatarsal bones; he broke the one in his left foot twice as a Notre Dame sophomore and has fractured the right metatarsal twice since signing with the Cavaliers last spring. He too worked out last week, but is not likely to make his pro debut until late this month.
Carr's fractures were merely two more unfortunate breaks for the Cleveland franchise, which has been on a bad trip ever since joining the NBA a year ago. Last season was a voyage to oblivion; the team lost its first 15 games and finished with a 15-67 record. Its only award went to Coach Bill Fitch, the NBA's most valuable stand-up comic. Fitch has tried to subdue his wit this year, but now that everybody seems to be after the Cavs—including the transportation industry—he finds it hard to keep a straight face.
"We've even had engines conk out on planes," Fitch says. "We were flying in a two-engine job a week or so ago and my assistant tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'I hate to say this, but the one on my side's not working.' They got out the fire trucks and everything at the airport, but we made it in. It gives you a great feeling when the guy driving the ambulance snaps his fingers and complains, 'Darn, we missed another one.' "
A few days later, after another loss to the 76ers ended Cleveland's brief stay in first place, word filtered back to the dressing room at Philadelphia's Spectrum that the Cavalier bus would not start. Fitch went out to take a look and found the driver emptying a beer bottle into what appeared to be the gas tank. "That's the first one I've ever seen that runs on Budweiser," Fitch said. It turned out that the driver was attempting to fill the empty cooling system with water from a seven-ounce Falstaff bottle. It took a long, long time. Then, after the job was completed, the vehicle still would not start. There was a long wait, another bus arrived, the team piled on and the transmission froze. Standing in a fine cold mist watching for long overdue cabs to arrive, Fitch's frustrations finally took hold. "This bus won't start, that bus won't start. When the hell is it gonna end? When?" he asked.