"Heck, when I played we never ran any plays," says West. "I didn't know anything."
What West did was install a structured system of "helping" defense and patterned offense in which the Lakers spread the court so that their outside shooters—the resurrected Cazzie Russell, veteran Guard Lucius Allen and rookie Earl Tatum—get picks and screens in their favorite spots. In Tatum's case, this sometimes includes the Santa Monica pier.
While these men have been filling it up and while 6'8" Kermit Washington—he of the longshoreman's muscles and the "Eagle Launcher" push shot—has been pounding the boards, Abdul-Jabbar has been relieved of the red-dogging defenses or, as he says, "the 101st Airborne on my back." He has added the turnaround "moon ball" jumper to his arsenal and is having his absolutely best season. Currently Abdul-Jabbar is first in the NBA in shooting percentage, second in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and obviously reinvigorated by the arrival of West, not to mention the emergence of Portland's Bill Walton.
The Lakers have defeated the Blazers in all three of their meetings—by three, four and five points—and the Abdul-Jabbar-Walton matchup has become the most spectacular entertainment in the game. Walton, whose inflamed Achilles is now in a cast, missed one of the L.A. games but in the other two the combined rival lines read: Kareem of Krop, 67 points, 30 rebounds; Mountain Man, 54 points, 47 rebounds.
Abdul-Jabbar is laughing and joking more this year, opening up and doing joyful things like slapping palms with West and heaving the ball to the rafters after his 40-point, 12-rebound number in an overtime win at Cleveland.
"I'm happy again," Abdul-Jabbar said last week over a lobster omelet. "Winning makes me happy. It's what made Milwaukee tolerable. Last year we never got anything done. I was not optimistic in the preseason. But Jerry came in and organized, which I could not anticipate. Without arrogance, he was frank in what he wanted to do. You look at our team and you're not impressed. We got the type of players...well, people go to sleep on us."
West has been assiduous in promoting that sort of image: "Lucky." "The bubble will burst any moment." "Mystery team." These are the public utterances with which the coach explains Los Angeles' sudden success. Everything is downplayed, nobody boasts. One would never suspect that, at heart, West firmly believes that he can win the NBA championship in his very first try.
A team publicist asked the coach for a quick quote on another of his reclamation projects, defensive specialist Don Chaney, and West said, "Sure, Chaney's terrific. He could have held me to maybe 58 if I was playing on one leg."
Though the remark was made in jest—Chaney has solved last year's Laker propensity for being destroyed by big guards—it exemplifies West's ultra-purist judgment that the NBA is in a down year with lots of borderline players making a living on lots of mediocre teams.
Though it might be easy to flaunt "the way I did it" or to use the unblemished name of Jerry West as an example of excellence, the coach's image has yet to intrude on the 38-year-old West's marvelous rapport with younger players. "I couldn't look him in the eye at first," says Tatum. "Now I got to."