This isn’t a completely done deal
Ready for a little “What-if’’?
What if I told you there once was an NBA team that assembled a Big Three that was even better than either one on display last night in TD Garden? And that the team didn’t win it all?
Well, it happened.
Remember, there are two parts to the Miami Heat story. The first is how the triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh came to be members of the same team. The second is the actual playing part. Thus far, the first part has overwhelmed the second part. But as far as opponents are concerned, the first part is irrelevant. Let the purists and analysts moralize about how this all came about. They pulled it off, and the rest of the league now has to deal with it.
But with history as my guide, I urge the rest of the NBA not to panic. The eternal truth of competitive athletics is that championships are won not on paper, not in theory, but in head-to-head matchups with rivals. And things don’t always turn out as planned.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 1968-70 Los Angeles Lakers.
For a decade, the Lakers had been carried by two men. The first was Elgin Baylor, their first draft choice in 1959, their last season in Minneapolis. The second was Jerry West, their first draft choice in 1960. It was the best 1-2 punch in the league, but they never had been surrounded with enough auxiliary talent to win a title.
They couldn’t beat the Celtics in a 1962 series when Baylor scored 61 points in a game and they couldn’t beat the Celtics when West averaged 40 points a game in the 1965 Finals (yes, 40). They lost to the Celtics in 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, and 1968. Baylor and West were magnificent throughout, but they never could overcome the Celtics’ biggest advantage, which was the presence of Bill Russell.
The Celtics were built around Russell, the greatest team sport winner in the history of North American sport. When it came to their own center, however, the Lakers had no ready response. They kept searching. Jim Krebs, Gene Wiley, LeRoy Ellis, and, finally, Darrall Imhoff all did their best, but the four of them put together barely equaled half a Bill Russell. Conventional wisdom held that the Lakers never would defeat the Celtics until they came up with a center who could hold his own against the great Bill Russell.
And so the Lakers did the only logical thing. They traded for Wilt Chamberlain.
Wilt was, well, Wilt. He was in what I like to call the middle phase of his three-part career, the one in which he perfectly balanced his game. In 1966-67, he averaged 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds, and 7.8 assists, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the championship (wiping out the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Division finals). The following year, he averaged 24.3 points, 23.8 rebounds, and 8.6 assists, making him the only center to win the assist title.
So why was he available? Again, because he was Wilt. He already had been traded once. He was a very strong personality. There were issues. The Lakers didn’t care. On July 9, 1968, they traded Imhoff, Archie Clark, and Jerry Chambers to get him.
The world took note, of course, but it was a different world. The hype mechanisms we now take for granted didn’t exist. No ESPN. No talk radio. No Internet. No 24/7/365 dissemination of news and analysis. The only things that mattered were newspapers and magazines. Today, Wilt joining forces with Elgin and Jerry would have sent the hype machine into super overdrive.
Baylor was 34 and always had been injury-prone. But he was coming off a 26/12 year, and clearly had something left. West was 30 and at the peak of his game. He had averaged between 26.3 and 31.3 for the past seven seasons. Wilt was 32 and was still a terrifying physical force.
There would have been no TV shows to mock, but if this group had been assembled today, there would be extraordinary interest. We are talking about a center many people still feel was the best ever, a forward who had more influence on how the game of basketball is played than anyone in the past 60 years, and a guard whose combination of skill, heart, toughness, intelligence, and personal class made him the model for the NBA’s official logo. The least you can say about these gentlemen is that they are three of the top 10 players of all-time. And here they were, on the same team.
The supporting cast was not exactly dazzling. I’ll give you that. But with the likes of Mel Counts, Johnny Egan, Fred Crawford, (Cambridge’s own) Bill Hewitt, and, most notably Keith Erickson, it wasn’t dog meat, either.
Did they have the right coach? Butch Van Breda Kolff was a real character, a brash guy who was almost fated to clash with Wilt, who had his established M.O. and sometimes thought coaches were supposed to be his servants. Their animosity would play out before the world when VBK refused to put Wilt back into Game 7 against the Celtics in ’69 after Wilt had left with a minor injury. The Heat are unlikely to have this problem with Erik Spoelstra.
Chamberlain (20.5/21.1), Baylor (24.8), and West (25.9) all had fine years in 1968-69. But the Lakers didn’t win 60 or threaten any records. They won a respectable 55 before dispatching the Warriors and Hawks to reach the Finals, where, naturally, the Celtics were waiting for them.
It was supposed to be a mismatch. The aging Celtics had finished fourth in the East. Their day was supposed to be done. But they knocked off the 76ers and Knicks to reach the Finals. When the Lakers won Games 1 and 2, however (West scoring 53 in the opener), they were considered to be a lock since no team had come from 0-2 to win an NBA playoff series.
They were one defensive stand away from going back to LA with a 3-1 lead when Sam Jones hit a game-winning roll-around-the-rim jumper at the buzzer in Game 4. LA won Game 5 at home. The Celtics won Game 6 in their place.
Game 7 was the famous “Balloon Game.’’ The Fabulous Forum was prepared for a victory party that would last into the night. Instead, the Celtics got up by 17, lost just about all the lead, then got the basket they needed when Don Nelson picked up a loose ball and hit the foul line jumper, the ball bouncing about 10 feet in the air before falling through. Wilt stayed on the bench and the balloons stayed attached to the ceiling.
The Lakers’ Big 3 didn’t win the next year (losing Game 7 to the Knicks) or the year after that. They did win in 1972, but only after Baylor retired and Jim McMillian had replaced him in the lineup.
Somehow, I don’t think the Heat fandom would like waiting until 2014 to win a title. But they should be made aware that things don’t always work out the way you plan them. Hype is hype. You still have to play the game.