FORECAST FOR A NEW PRO SEASON
A 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.
In its 64 frantic, erratic years professional basketball has produced but two dynasties. The first was the Celtics of New York—the original Celtics. They played anyone, anytime, anywhere and finally disbanded in noteworthy disgust in 1928, victims of their own ability. They couldn't find anybody worth competing against. The second was—some will say is—the Boston Celtics. They came imperiously to the top in 1956 and proceeded to win five National Basketball Association championships in the next six seasons. Now, partly because the league's best all-round player, Elgin Baylor, is back from the Army, but even more because a wiry, playmaking guard, Jerry West, has matured so swiftly, a third great basketball dynasty is a building, the Los Angeles Lakers. This is the season it should take over, and with its solid combination of youth and talent it could prevail as effectively as both its powerful Celtic predecessors did.
Last week the NBA season opened and the first team to take the court was these same Lakers. Their average age was 25. Their coach, Fred Schaus, was a mere 36. Their rookies were impressive and their improvement over last year (when they were a strong second to Boston) was marked. With a burst of youthful exuberance and a game full of West to Baylor, Baylor to West, they dismembered Detroit, 122-106, thus beginning the big bid to oust Boston.
The apparent arrival of the Lakers is the most significant development in a very important season for the ever-unsettled NBA. Of all the leagues in professional sport, none is more abused by its players and followers, or more confused by its owners and officers than this one.
Thirty-one times since it was formed in 1946, the NBA has added, subtracted or shifted franchises; seven times over the past 13 seasons it has lengthened its schedule. Currently on the drawing (critics say doodling) board of the league are plans for future franchise shifts to Cleveland and Baltimore. When the turtle sticks its neck out it usually makes progress, but when the NBA sticks its neck out it often doesn't.
Going into this season four NBA franchises—Cincinnati, Chicago, Syracuse and Detroit—appear certain to lose money and a fifth, San Francisco, probably will. Boston, New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles likely will show a profit, but not as much as they should—in part at least because of two bad moves by the league's owners and its officers.
Lost to each franchise this season is $30,000 in television revenue, which came in so terribly handy last year in defraying expenses. (The Lakers, for instance, paid $126,000 last season for travel, hotels and food.) Not present is the biggest new gate attraction in basketball, Ohio State's Jerry Lucas.
The television money was lost because the National Broadcasting Company refused to renew its seven-year-old contract with the NBA after ratings for Saturday afternoon games dipped to 4.8 (or nine million viewers) as compared to the Sunday afternoon National Football League ratings of 10.4 (or 15 million viewers). One big reason why the ratings slipped was simple and silly. By planning its TV schedule before the season began the NBA planted its three weakest, dullest teams—Chicago, Syracuse and Detroit—in the television garden a total of 14 times. Three of the league's most colorful teams—Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis—appeared only seven times.
Lucas is not performing in the NBA because he steadfastly refused to play for the Cincinnati Royals, who own territorial rights to him. Tom Grace, the executive vice-president of the Royals, will not yield those rights so that other clubs can negotiate with Lucas. Not getting Lucas will cost the NBA untold attendance money this season.
Thus the West Coast—where big league baseball found the heartening gold glitter of financial success—may well provide the salvation of the troubled NBA. What has happened in Los Angeles looks good. The Lakers have captured the city's imagination with a zestful, versatile team that performs with collegiate verve, instead of the tall, tired look of too many pro clubs. There is Baylor, who averaged 38.2 points per game last year and was lost for half the season by being called into the Army. He has power, fine finger-tip control and a perfect knowledge of how to spin a basketball off the backboards. He twists and turns in mid-air and, although only 6 feet 5, constantly exerts that precious second effort that enables him to out-rebound many of the league's taller men. And there is West, who brings to the basketball court the shiny, clean look that girls always expected, but never quite saw, in the boy next door.