It was raining, even pouring, when America's favorite pro basketball road show reached Boston last week. Not that the storm could dampen the high spirits and low humor of the Los Angeles Lakers as they boarded their bus at the airport. Up front, the nation's biggest tour guide took his accustomed seats in the first row, the outpost from which he barks orders at his fellow travelers, referees debates on the subjects of his choice and instructs bus drivers and stewardesses as they complete their appointed tasks. Behind Wilt Chamberlain, separated from him by a buffer zone of coaches, journalists, a trainer and a scout, the needlers were waiting, Zeke from Cabin Creek, Floyd Butterball and all the others.
"Hey, now listen here," Wilt yelled as he folded himself across two seats and held up a pair of black, horn-rimmed sunglasses. "Who was sittin' in 5A on the plane? That's where I found these." "They don't seem to belong to anyone," replied Zeke West. "I can see you want them, Wilt. Go ahead and try 'em on." "Try 'em on, Wilt," chimed in Jim (Floyd, the Fat Kid from the Ivy League) McMillian.
"Yeah, well," said Chamberlain as he slipped on the glasses, the lenses barely covering his eye sockets.
"That's just great, Wilt," said West. "They change your whole personality. You could get up from here right now and walk all around the entire terminal and nobody, not a soul, would recognize you."
"I'll tell you, my man," Wilt said, loudly but to no one in particular as he looked out at the rain, "I signed too soon. I mean, I could do without that Jerry West and this trip. I could've had four more days at Manhattan Beach, and instead I got this."
As it turned out, by the time the trip was over. Chamberlain and the rest of the Lakers, who thought they were off on another juicy foray accosting NBA teams all across the country, had endured far more than a rainstorm and a little good-natured ribbing. They began their defense of the NBA world title by taking a couple of shots right in the old sunglasses.
Before arriving in Boston, Los Angeles had won all six of its preseason games and then traveled as far east as Nebraska to begin the regular schedule by blasting the Kansas City-Omaha Kings (formerly the Cincinnati Royals) into the Missouri River 129-94. As usual the Lakers attracted a fine crowd (8,598), and they were to follow that up with record turnouts for the succeeding games in Boston (15,316) and New York (19,694). But that was all that went as usual.
With an unbeaten record and masses of fans coming out to behold them, it seemed logical when none of the Lakers evinced concern as they prepared to meet the East's two best teams. None, that is, except ever-worried Coach Bill Sharman. "My main belief as a coach is to get into top condition before the season starts and use that to get off to a faster start than other teams," he said. "A good team should never put itself in a position of playing catch-up in its division, particularly in a division as tough as ours. We were ready from the start last year, and I think that's why we were able to win 33 games in a row early in the season and why we lost only 13 all through the year.
"But our training camp was not good this year, despite our exhibition record. Four of my top six players were missing some or all of the time. Keith Erickson was injured for a while, Hap Hairston missed the first two weeks because of a contract dispute and our top scorer, Gail Goodrich, pulled a muscle so badly he'll miss all of this road trip. And Wilt only rejoined us the afternoon before we left for Omaha."
Chamberlain's contractual problems were less financial and more a clash between the game's two most unbending egos, Wilt and Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke. The question was who would call whom first. Neither side claims victory, and Chamberlain's lawyer, Seymour Goldberg, is widely credited for playing the role of Gunnar Jarring in this tight little drama. It reportedly required only 48 hours to iron out the contractual difficulties once that crucial first contact was made.