This was the week the NBA planned to give us the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks in that long-awaited smash thriller, the Western Conference championship playoffs. The show would star Jerry West, everybody's alltime playoff favorite, plus a huge cast of big-name players who would amaze us with their soaring choreography, leave us agape at their virtuosity and grip us with their dramatic intensity.
Indeed, there were glimpses of all those things. Yet somehow the production, intended as high suspense, often dropped to the level of simple farce. Perhaps it was the bad lighting or the comic score in the first act, or possibly it was the squat little referee who made an unexpected cameo appearance in the second. The bomb scare that sent the audience scurrying after the third act didn't exactly help. But fortunately there were some unexpectedly good performances to uplift the entire show. Wilt Chamberlain, never noted for extraordinary postseason success, was often spectacular in his whirling duels with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And one of the least-known Lakers, a self-acknowledged spear carrier known among his teammates as Floyd Butterball, suddenly became a bright new Los Angeles celebrity.
Retired star forward and official team nicknamer Elgin Baylor gave that title to his successor, Jim McMillian (No. 5 on cover), when he decided that McMillian looked like a rotund facsimile of Floyd Patterson. McMillian is, indeed, a heavyweight—last summer he ballooned to 235 pounds—but still he hit the Bucks for his pro high of 42 points just when it seemed that Milwaukee had the Lakers on the ropes. After his team stumbled off to a horrendous start, McMillian's shooting evened the series, and then, joined by Gail Goodrich on offense and Chamberlain on defense, he kept firing while Los Angeles won the third game.
At least the comedy overtones were gone when the Lakers faced Milwaukee for the fourth session Sunday evening. When the series had started, it seemed that the Bucks would get all the laughs. In the opener at Los Angeles, Milwaukee's defense, overplaying and double-teaming the Lakers, pushed them away from their favorite shooting spots. Thus, a number of off-target attempts by the Lakers—even when men were open—resulted in a dismal 27% shooting average. Los Angeles managed merely eight points in the third period and lost by the high school total of 93-72.
On the day before that first game, several Lakers, led by Goodrich, complained during practice about the extra lights ABC television had installed in The Forum. Although an identical lighting setup had been used to televise the 1970 playoffs, the Los Angeles front office asked ABC to change it. Network technicians worked until midnight to make the modifications, but when Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke arrived at The Forum on the next morning he said the lighting was still unacceptable and told ABC to remove even more globes. Out they came.
After the game and the stunning Laker loss, both Cooke and some members of the Los Angeles press seemed convinced that the only reason the Lakers could have dropped 50 points below their usual scoring average was the lighting—even though the Bucks played under the same conditions. Cooke called in the heads of the ABC crew for further lighting conferences, initially demanding that only The Forum lights be used for the second game, then eventually agreeing to a configuration only minimally different from the one ABC had intended to use in the first place. Meanwhile, the
Los Angeles Herald-Examiner seemed ready to call technical fouls on everyone from the network to Thomas Edison. The dispute ended abruptly after the second game, which the Lakers won 135-134.
"The change in the lights did take away some of our home-court advantage in the first game; it changed the environment somewhat," whispered Laker Coach Bill Sharman, who is suffering through his second month with strained vocal cords and sounds these days like Walter Brennan with a strep infection. "If we had lost by one point, I might have said the lights could have had something to do with it. But when you lose by 19, it's not the lights. It was simply that our good shooters were all way off. Gail made two of 14, Jimmy hit three of 20 and Jerry four of 19."
McMillian and Goodrich broke their slumps in the second game, but West did not. He hit merely 10 of 30 shots and said afterward, "I know what I'm doing wrong. I'm turning my hand over too much, and I've got a slice like in golf. I can't get it stopped; it's just got to go away by itself." Something which would not go away by itself was Oscar Robertson, who guarded West tightly, harassing him with firm hand checks and his superior size and strength despite a deep muscle pull in his stomach which restricted his normal quickness. Since Robertson arrived in Milwaukee in 1970, West has not played well against the Bucks: last season he hit only 32% of his shots, and by the fourth game of this year's playoffs he was still under 40% for the series. In the third game West scored on nearly half his attempts, but he tried only 19 shots and generally took only wide open ones.
In the first Laker win, McMillian, shooting mostly long jumpers from the corner, outscored Jabbar, who threw up a mixed bag of precise hooks and jump shots, by 42-40. "I can't really tell you how I fit into this team," McMillian said. "I'm just the fat, little dude wearing No. 5. To tell you the truth, I was thinking the other night when I was in bed that after we win it all I ought to go to Sharman and ask him how my play measured up this year to what he had in mind for me. He's really never defined what he expects of me. But that's not too important in my case. With Jerry, Wilt and Gail it is, but I'm not as important to the core of the team as they are."
He was too modest. In the next game, McMillian's pinpoint bombing (16 of 25 shots) led the Lakers to a victory they could hardly have expected, since the Bucks shot an extraordinary 61%. Milwaukee actually outscored Los Angeles by 10 points from the field, but the Lakers were awarded 21 more free throws and made 11 of them. In fact, in all the games, Los Angeles got many more foul shots than the Bucks, a circumstance that sent Milwaukee, particularly Coach Larry Costello, into continual tirades against the officials. And no official action infuriated the Bucks more than the incident involving Referee Manny Sokol in the crucial final moments of that second game.