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Assessing the Los Angeles Lakers—the new, improved, fairy-tale Lakers—is like assessing the proverbial water glass. Is it half full or half empty? Is Jerry West, who coaches the Lakers or hypnotizes them or something, really a turtlenecked genius or merely a run-of-the-mill legend who got lucky on a sabbatical from his Bel Air golf games? Is the team a legitimate contender or only another Rocky with a one-way ticket to Palookaville?
On the one hand, the Lakers are made up of men who collectively have helped win five NBA championships, one ABA championship, six NCAA titles and won a raft of individual-type awards. Winners, right? On the other hand, it is a team that West looked over not long ago and decided he would cheerfully trade practically en masse if only there were any takers.
The Lakers are the ultimate tribute to the era of the sports specialist, a team composed of the Defensive-Stopper Guard, the High-Scoring Cornerman, the Power Forward, the Backcourt Playmaker and, to be sure, the Dominating, Sky-Hooking, Goggle-Wearing, Second-in-the-Voting Superstar Center. The Lakers also include a few gems who can't drop a ball into a canyon much less a basket, who can't guard anything that breathes, who take a powder at the end of close games and who are kept around basically to satisfy the beachboy-loving, Birchite segment of their wonderful, front-running California community. No need to raise your hands—you know who you are.
Yet everybody here contributes his own particular talent. Because of this and because nothing really bad ever did happen to All-Pro, all-swell Jerry West except maybe too many Farrah Fawcett-Majors lookalike contest winners interrupting his postgame beers, here the Lakers were last week, 50 games into the season and leading pro basketball's toughest division, the Pacific, with a 33-17 record. "It's a mystery, all right," says West, pulling on one more bionic turtleneck.
Before it embarked last week on a hazardous road trip through the frozen East, Los Angeles was enjoying a numbers game that had the whole league shivering. Since mid-November the Lakers had won 28 of 39 games, including 10 by five points or fewer. They had won 20 straight at home in the Fabulous Forum, a club record not matched by even the 1971-72, 33-in-a-row Lakers. And they had won nine games on the road, a miracle.
The other day somebody even thought he saw a Laker actually dive for a ball and threaten to be exciting, for goodness sakes. Wonders never cease in Hollywood.
But last Friday night in Boston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed a game-tying free throw in the last few seconds and the Lakers lost a 99-98 contest to the struggling Celtics that should have been put away long before. It was the first time in a long while they had failed to play with intelligence down the stretch, a characteristic West has instilled. Then on Sunday smarts didn't seem to matter over a whole 48 minutes as the Philadelphia 76ers took out the Lakers 102-97.
When Los Angeles owner Jack Kent Cooke traded his estate plus the better part of downtown Inglewood to get Abdul-Jabbar before last season began, nobody expected Los Angeles to lose a game, much less a division. When Cooke hired West last summer nobody expected the team to win. The change was a result of a disastrous season in which there were 17 different starting lineups and an abundance of overcoaching, notably by one assistant, high up in the seats, whom the disgusted players called "Eye in the Sky."
Organization, then, was West's priority. From a plethora of applicants for assistant coach—including one then unemployed analyst of jive named Sonny Hill—West hired Jack McCloskey, a former head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Stan Albeck, an assistant at Kentucky in the ABA. Then, as he had promised, West shared the load, leaning on McCloskey for defense and scouting and on Albeck for offense and clipboard statistics.
"At other places you're a shill for the head guy," says Albeck. "But from the start this was never an ego trip for Jerry. I had never met him, but he made everybody feel comfortable and he was sincere. Jerry West really wanted help."