SI Vault
 
GROWING TO GREATNESS
William Leggett
October 29, 1962
FORECAST FOR A NEW PRO SEASONA thorough look at the National Basketball Association, with some predictions on who will finish where and an examination of the strong, young team that may start the sport's next dynasty.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 29, 1962

Growing To Greatness

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Consequently, the Lakers already have sold $283,000 worth of $5 seats for the season. It is no longer possible to buy a season ticket in a prime location—all 1,700 of them are gone. The management of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, duly impressed with the popularity of a tenant that it viewed without enthusiasm just two years ago, has cleared prime Saturday night dates so the Lakers can have them. On six of these the home team will play the Coast's new entry in the western march of basketball, the San Francisco Warriors. The games could well be 14,871-seat sellouts.

The Laker team was shifted from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in July of 1960 because it was $250,000 in debt and was cultivating about as much Minnesota excitement as a YWCA canasta tournament. Owner Robert Shore had had his fill of losing campaigns while running for Congress as a Democrat and boosting Estes Kefauver in 1956. He had also made a tidy amount in the trucking business and saw no reason to donate it all to the NBA. Or, as he puts it, rather more discreetly, "I felt it was expedient and convenient to take a flyer in what everyone said was the sports capital of the world rather than staying in Minneapolis where we had mediocre artistic achievement [144 wins and 219 defeats from 1955-59] and anything but financial success."

Short ordered his general manager, 62-year-old Lou Mohs, out to Los Angeles to begin building a franchise. "I'll never forget leaving for the West," says Mohs. "It was a hot day and when I jumped into my maroon Buick I had no team, no coach and only one player, Elgin Baylor, under contract. I knew that the baseball Dodgers had found immediate success in Los Angeles, but I didn't know how basketball would be accepted. After all, the high school championships were played as early as January, just to get them out of the way. No one seemed to care a hoot about them; why should they love us?

"When I arrived, the Los Angeles Chargers of the new American Football League were promoting like the devil. They were spending money left and right. Now Bob Short had given me three specific instructions: 'Go out there and don't let me hear from you; if you have any money left send it back to me; if you need any money forget where you came from.' So I couldn't very well spend us into prosperity. In the first 10 days I drew up a mailing list of potential season-ticket buyers. Then I sent them a mimeographed order blank. It didn't look too good, but we were so poor we didn't even have any office furniture. The Los Angeles Sports Arena let us borrow chairs to sit down on. Luckily, we got season-ticket orders totaling $150,000. If that money hadn't come in we would have been through."

On the night of October 24, 1960 the Lakers opened their season against the New York Knicks. Only 4,008 people showed up and, to make things worse, the Lakers promptly lost. The next evening the Knicks were again the opponents and 3,100 went to the game. But this time the Lakers won.

This started a long season of good promotion—and good team building. The Lakers finished a surprising second in the Western Division, then beat the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs before carrying St. Louis to a seventh game in the semifinal playoffs, which they lost by only two points.

The reason for the good basketball was Frederick Appleton Schaus, who seemed bent on peopling both his basketball court and the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard with the population of the state of West Virginia. Schaus had left an excellent record (146-37 with six Southern Conference championships in six seasons) and a couple of country fair ballplayers behind when Mohs got him to give up coaching at the University of West Virginia and bring his collegiate techniques to the pros. Jerry West, LA's first draft choice, joined him that fall from West Virginia and Hot Rod Hundley, whom Schaus had developed into an All-America in college, was happy to be reunited with his old coach after three rather desperate seasons in Minneapolis.

Schaus was big enough (6 feet 5) and respected enough (a former NBA All-Star with Fort Wayne) to get out on the court and show his team what he wanted.

He also injected some of his old West Virginia flair for crowd pleasing into the Laker franchise. He made sure that they were the best-dressed and the neatest-looking team, both on and off the court. (He didn't, however, have them shave their armpits, a fastidious move he undertook at West Virginia.)

His West Virginia teams were among the most colorful in the history of college basketball. They would warm up with a ball painted gold and blue. Their flashy guard of that era, Hundley, would stand in the center of the foul circle twirling the dazzling ball on his index finger or whipping passes through his legs as the team ran patterns around him. To give his 1959 Mountaineers an extra feeling of exultation Schaus convinced the Wunda Weve carpet company that it should make a rug 90 feet long and 40 inches wide with West Virginia spelled out in big block letters. The rug arrived at Morgantown and Schaus kept it a close secret. As his team left the dressing room he had janitors unroll the rug down the middle of the court and under the basket. When Jerry West dribbled over the rug and dunked the ball the crowd roared. This was Schaus's way of opening West Virginia's 1959 season.

Continue Story
1 2 3