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The Lakers have attained this sudden eminence by scuttling some assumptions that have been held about them in recent seasons. Many of them involve Chamberlain. It was said that he resisted coaching more intractably than ever and that he was already over the hill—yet pacing himself so gently that it appeared he intended to play until he turned 45. Another assumption was that the Lakers were too old, too scarred by injuries and that they simply did not have the proper personnel to play a fast-break offense.
When Chamberlain joined Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in Los Angeles three years ago, the Lakers were immediately declared invincible. Once they began playing together they proved decidedly otherwise, twice losing in the playoff finals and last year falling 4-1 to Milwaukee in the conference finals. Although West and Baylor, not Chamberlain, were the superstars who had never won a championship during their careers, Wilt received most of the blame for the team's shortcomings. Members of the fakers gave him harsh nicknames such as Big Musty and The Load and he was accused of being everything from lethargic to lame-brained. Rumors said Wilt would soon be traded and then other rumors claimed that no team wanted to deal for him. Still, during his three seasons with Los Angeles, Chamberlain twice led the league in rebounding and once returned from a serious knee injury far faster than expected in order to perform in the playoffs.
Over his 12-year career Chamberlain has been caught in more different poses than Twiggy. There has been the Shooting, 50-Points-a-Game Will and the Passing, Assists Champion Wilt. There has been the High-Post Wilt and the Low-Post Wilt, not to mention numerous New Wilts and always the Old Wilt. There have been Coachable Wilts and Stubborn Wilts. Few men have been as frequently analyzed in public by amateur psychologists. But no matter how many times he has been peeled like a grape, there has remained one constant Chamberlain: the Strong, Rebounding and Defense Wilt. That role, to the almost complete exclusion of all others, is the one Chamberlain now performs for Los Angeles. He is sixth in scoring on the Lakers with 12.6 points a game, barely over a third of his career average. He has taken only nine shots a game and ranks third on the team in assists. Even his foul shooting is worse than ever, as unlikely as that may sound-he has converted but 31% of his free throws. Despite all this, Chamberlain is the most important player in the Laker revival. He easily leads the NBA in rebounding and he blocked 28 shots in three recent victories over Seattle, Boston and Philadelphia.
It is as if Wilt has finally caught up with his old nemesis, Bill Russell. Never before has he played more in the Russell style and, because of it, never before have the Lakers executed the fast break as well as they have this season.
This, of course, is no mere happenstance. Sharman played with Russell and also with two of the finest runners and gunners the Celtics ever had, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones. Sharman was quite a gunner himself and his assistant, K. C. Jones, was Boston's best defensive guard. Since first becoming a pro coach in 1961, Sharman has directed a succession of successful running teams. His Cleveland Pipers in the defunct American Basketball League won the only championship the ABL ever awarded. He later led the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA playoff finals and then moved to the ABA where he built the Utah Stars into league champions.
The fast break is Sharman's favorite mode of attack, but his deepest obsession is with pregame preparation. In addition to what he likes to call "the morning meeting" on game days, there are chalk-talks and calisthenics in the locker room immediately before games and strenuous two-hour practices on days when no game is scheduled. Sharman will rearrange travel plans, blow reveille at odd hours of the morning and even call a workout in an antiquated gym and unlit arena as he did in Philadelphia last week in order to give his players practice enough to suit him.
It is that morning meeting, however, that has proven so nettlesome to some players. This is particularly true for starters like Rick Barry, when he was with San Francisco, who figured if he was to play 40 minutes that night he should be resting during the day. Yet the game-day drills arc neither tiring nor very time consuming. In a 20-to 30-minute period Sharman's team does calisthenics—mostly loosening and stretching exercises—runs several leisurely laps, weaves through a few full-court layup drills and then shoots jumpers and free throws.
Sharman, who imposed the same regimen on himself when he was a player, insists that the drills stimulate his team rather than tiring it out before the game. "When guys doze off or mope around their room or the lobby, they get so logy they may not get sharp until after the game is lost," he says. "What I want them to do is develop a game-day routine. I want them to eat at the same time, shoot at the same time and take a nap for less than an hour and a half in the afternoon. If you sleep more than that, it will slow you down. The morning meeting also serves as a reminder, it gets the players thinking about the game. It also familiarizes them with the conditions they will be playing under, what the floor is like and how it feels to shoot into the background at the arena.
"I feel I've been exposed to a lot of basketball as a pro. I've tried to pick out the points that will be effective. I explain to the players that I don't intend to do things that aren't very important. I don't want to do it for my own sake. I've got too much else to do. I've been on both sides and I tell the players that I've got much less free time than they have and I think they believe me."
There is good reason to doubt that the coach really has much sympathy for player complaints about overwork. Sharman drives himself as hard as anyone, a trademark of his extraordinary sports career. As a schoolboy he worked his way up to the national junior tennis tournament and at USC he starred in both basketball and baseball. He was a rookie on the Brooklyn Dodger bench the day Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run in the 1951 National League playoff. Sharman gave up baseball to join the Celtics and became one of the most dangerous shooters in pro history—and was named one of the 10 best players of the NBA's first 25 years. Like many men who feel their success is largely self-made, he expects similar effort from his players. "These guys are basically employed to play basketball," he says. "They are going to put in a lot of time on it."