In the NBA, the season of 1971-1972 is historic, and changed the balance of power in the league.
When the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960, they were a good team, but not good enough to beat their rival, the Boston Celtics. They had the great Elgin Baylor, and had drafted “Zeke from Cabin Creek”, Jerry West, who would become a Hall of Famer. But they lacked an ingredient to make them a championship team.
In 1968 they acquired Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain. At 7 feet 1/8 inches tall, and built like a prizefighter at over 300 pounds, Chamberlain was the most intimidating center in the game. He once scored 100 points in a single game. He led the league in every category at one time, including assists. The Lakers won their division, and were now a force in the NBA.
Before the 71-72 season, the Lakers hired Bill Sharman as their head coach. He was faced with the benefits and challenge of having two superstars. His starting line-up was intimidating. At center was Chamberlain. The forwards were Jim McMillan and Happy Hairston. At guard were Gail Goodrich and Jerry West. Elgin Baylor played only 9 games in 1971, age and injury finally doing what players in the league could not. He retired early in the season.
Sharman succeeded in creating an unselfish team that demolished their opponents. His Lakers went on to win 69 games only losing 13 in the regular season, and winning the NBA Championship over the New York Knicks in 5 games.
During their incredible season, they had a streak of 33 games without a loss. A record that still stands.
2013 began with the world champion Miami Heat dominating the league. When their winning streak neared 20, comparison to the 71-72 Lakers was inevitable. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade expressed a deep desire to achieve an undefeated 34 game streak.
They got to 27, the best in modern day basketball. It ended last night in Chicago at the hands of the Bulls 101-97.
James said his team had nothing to be ashamed of. “It’s one of the best that this league has ever seen,” James said, referring to the streak that began on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3. “We recognized that and rightfully so.”
As it is with most records, it is entirely impossible to compare teams in different eras. The Lakers had an unbeatable combination, including their head coach.
During the regular season Chamberlain averaged nearly 20 rebounds per game, and 15 points. Both West and Goodrich averaged almost 26 points per game, and Goodrich added 10 assists. Hairston contributed over 13 points each contest, and McMillan nearly 19.
I’m not sure that type of balance will ever be witnessed again. I doubt we’ll see an individual average 20 rebounds a game, and having two guards who together were averaging over 50 points a game seems entirely unreasonable.
Much of the credit had to go to Bill Sharman. A great player for the Celtics, he learned his craft as a coach while being one of the most intelligent players on the court. It was his influence that transformed the Lakers from a very good team to an excellent and historic team.
I am fortunate to have watched them play. I was 25 in 1971. As I and my fellow Los Angeleans watched them play, we began to doubt they’d ever lose a game. When it ended on January 9, 1972 against the Milwaukee Bucks, we were in awe, and I think the team was almost happy about its end. The pressure must have been unbelievable.
The Heat appear to be on their way to another championship. Barring injury, they seem to be able to defeat their opponents at will.
Columnist-The Guardian Express