On Christmas Day, at a moment when the rest of the country was opening presents, basting turkeys or saluting the holiday over steaming punchbowls of Tom and Jerrys, the members of the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team climbed onto a jet plane to fly to New York and thus begin the year's most exhausting road trip—six cities and six games in nine days. The temperature in Los Angeles was in the 80s when they left. The sun was shining brightly and the horizon was cloudless. Swimming pools winked in the distance. Nonetheless, each of the players boarded with a heavy overcoat across his arm. This was because the trip was to be in the zero Fahrenheit belt. Their goodby kisses to their wives—all but two of the 10 on the traveling squad are married—were perfunctory and preoccupied. There isn't much to say to a loved one from whom you must be separated over both Christmas and New Year's. A few moments later they were airborne—depressed, irritable, off on the longest nine days of their young lives. Here is their story of that trip:
New York, Dec.26. Dressing Room 34 at Madison Square Garden was a dingy, bare place with peeling plaster walls, a row of coat hooks above a line of splintery benches and a bath and shower room that afforded no privacy. A bare-bulb overhead light shone down on the rippling brown muscles of the powerful Elgin Baylor as he irritably wrenched his shirt over his head. "Damn Garden,"' he growled. "You'd think they could give you better quarters than this, all the money they make." Across the room, the blond, lanky Jim Krebs, a Texan from St. Louis, needled him. "How you know they make so much money? You seen their books?"
A roar from the crowd outside interrupted Baylor's retort. Between Krebs and Elgin Baylor the retorts are endless, an affectionate but relentless banter that the rest of the team only half listens to. "Who they cheering out there?" demanded Baylor. A teammate, Tom Hawkins, swiftly slipped out to find out. On the boards above stairs, the Harlem Globe Trotters were gyrating through their well-rehearsed routines, which only superficially resemble basketball. Hawkins reappeared. "Willie Mays, they were cheering Willie," he advised. Baylor grunted. "He's still something around here, New York, I guess.""He's nothing at all in San Francisco," said Jim Krebs. "They don't dig him up there."
Krebs surveyed Baylor critically. "Elgin," he demanded, "didn't you change those damn shorts? Those are the same damn shorts you had on yesterday." Baylor,a fastidious man, bristled. "How come you say that?" he shouted. "Those were red with a gray band, these are gray with a red band. You think I'm like you? I change 'em, man." Krebs grinned delightedly. The outraged outburst was precisely what he hoped for. Elgin angrily, or mock angrily, strode off in the direction of the duffel bag to yank his playing clothes from its center.
Elgin Baylor is, as it happens, the best player on the Lakers. He may be the best player in basketball. At 6 feet 5 he is not exceptionally tall by basketball's standards. But he is exceptionally strong by any standards. He scores points by bullying his way to the basket. When Baylor gets the ball, the opposition scatters like quail at the sight of the hunter, streaming backwards on the double for the deadly desperate business of stopping him. Their tactics seldom succeed. Few players around the league are physically equal to the chore of slowing Baylor down.
But Baylor was sluggish this night. So were the Lakers. The New York Knicks, at the moment the worst team in pro basketball, were leading at the half 66-36. It was a dismal start for the long trip east, and if the New York fans were happy in the mass, one chunky, swarthy character was not. He scrambled down the stairs on fat legs as the Lakers rushed for the dressing room. "Hey, Baylor, stay down there! Whyn't ya stay inna dressing room? Stay there, ya hear!"
The fan was not the only one mad at the Lakers. Coach Fred Schaus was white-lipped with rage, and the sounds of one-way battle poured out of the dressing room throughout the intermission. The Lakers silently hung their heads and absorbed it. "I never heard him name names before," marveled Krebs later. "We deserved it," was the comment of the rookie, Jerry West.
The abuse took effect. Baylor flashed through basket after basket. He scored 44 points for the night. The Lakers outscored the Knicks 76-53 in the second half as Baylor frequently outwrestled the whole New York squad under the offensive boards. It was not enough. The final horn found the Lakers still in arrears 119-112.
The Lakers dressed in silence after the game. Then the door flew open and the first autograph hounds bounded in. They held their programs to Baylor first. "Hey, Jimmy," Baylor leered wickedly at Krebs. "How do you spell Khrushchev?" "K-R-U-S-C-H-E-V," innocently advised Krebs. Baylor was overjoyed. "Naw, it's K-H-R-U-S-C-H-E-V. How come, here's a man, his name is in the papers every day, and you don't know how to spell it?" Happily he scribbled "Khruschev" on a boy's program, and then, because he was one up on Krebs, he scrawled "Elgin Baylor" under it.
To Baylor, the public is just one vast army of Jimmy Krebses, something to needle and agitate. On the cab ride to the Garden from the Hotel Manhattan, the cabbie, not surprisingly, spotted Baylor and teammate Tommy Hawkins, a graceful, handsome Negro from Notre Dame, as athletes. "Hey, you guys playin' or somethin' in the Garden tonight?" he wanted to know. "Yeah," insolently answered Baylor, "we're fightin' the main event. I'm Elgin Baylor, the well-known heavyweight, and this here's Tom Hawkins, my opponent." "Oh, yeah?" The driver was happily impressed. "You're fightin' and you're in the same cab? That's a hot one. You ain't mad at each other?" "Course not," scorned Baylor. "We're the best of friends. I might let him win," he said as he debarked nonchalantly from the cab, leaving the driver open-mouthed and staring.
After the game the Lakers and the Knicks scrambled aboard the same charter bus for a trip to Newark, and ultimately to Syracuse by chartered plane. Frost festooned the windows as the players settled back for the ride under the Hudson. "What was it like in L.A. when you left?" the Knicks' Richie Guerin wanted to know. "Eighty degrees," Hot Rod Hundley told him smugly. "It's like that five days a week out there." From the back of the bus came a scornful" I'd get sick of that." Hundley looked out at the slush-ridden streets slipping past under the wheels. "I'd get sick of this," he growled.
Newark, Dec. 27. It was 1 a.m. and a gelid wind rattled off the Jersey wastelands as the Lakers and the Knicks straggled through the airport. A porter dispiritedly swabbed at a muddy floor with a sodden mop, from the entrails of which spirals of steam issued.
Suddenly, from an open door, a pert stewardess sashayed past the towering silhouettes. The Lakers went into an all-court stall. A low whistle emerged, and then, although none of them had ever seen the young lady before, someone told her loudly, "I love you very much." The Lakers nearly fell down laughing, helpless in their merriment. "Was that you, Rudy? That was you, I heard you," insisted Elgin Baylor. Rudy LaRusso, tall second-year forward, one of the few Ivy Leaguers (Dartmouth) in professional sports, looked hurt, "it was somebody else," he said.
As the Lakers made their way up the loading ramp of the Mohawk airliner, LaRusso dangled in his huge hand, in addition to his duffel, a gaudy Christmas package. It was a toaster given him by his family in Brooklyn for his bride in Los Angeles. As the trip went on, players forgot watches, books, rings, even shoes at one point. But Rudy never forgot his toaster. It became a sort of symbol of the whole trip—the very last Christmas present, melancholy reminder of their lost holiday.
Syracuse, Dec.27. It was 5° and snowing steadily when the plane landed at the Syracuse airport. It was also past 2 in the morning. The terminal was deserted, and Rudy LaRusso, striding in and surveying the emptiness, put his hand in his pocket and commanded, "All right, everybody, this is a stickup." Hundley, joining him, moaned, "Syracuse—this town is out to lunch."
In the all-night lunchroom a few bleary-eyed refugees from skid row, killing the empty hours until the bars would open again, regarded the entrance of the team with little interest. The tired counterwoman stared as the forest of players queued up."You must be with some team," she guessed. "Yeah," said Baylor, "the Los Angeles Mothers. We're midget wrestlers."
The next day snow flurries dashed across the face of downtown Syracuse, and the alternating temperature-time signs in front of a savings-and-loan building read a bare 19° as Hot Rod Hundley looked out the window of the room in the Onondaga Hotel he shared with Elgin Baylor.
Hot Rod Hundley is a man who has made only casual inroads into the domain of culture. The trouble is, he forgets books, leaves them in hotel rooms. This day he was bemoaning the loss of Robert Ruark's Poor No More in a hotel room in New York. "This guy's a real heel, see. He's making a play for his girl friend's old lady, is the kind of a guy he is. Only she's a nut and they keep putting her away and this guy is telling her she oughtn't to be in the nut house. This is because she's rich and this guy wants the dough. You wouldn't believe a guy could be so rotten.... Damn, I wish I hadn't of left that book in the hotel."
A few years ago Hot Rod similarly mislaid the biography of Clarence Darrow (For the Defense),and he never did find out how the Scopes trial came out. "Hot Rod," taunts Jim Krebs, "is a man who can tell you every word of every book he's ever read—'cause he's only read two."
The game in Syracuse was another discourager for the Lakers. With 37 seconds to go, the score was 113-113 when the home-team Nationals missed a layup basket. Krebs and Hundley came down with the ball. Either could have had it but together they wrestled it out of bounds. The Nats' Hal Greer grabbed it, shot again, missed, and Elgin Baylor came down with the ball. With 23 seconds to go and only 16 in which to take a shot, Baylor passed it over to Jerry West, the best jump shot on the team. West popped for the basket, missed. There were only four seconds to play when John Kerr, fully 25 feet from the basket, leaped and threw. It swished through the net for a Syracuse win.
In the dressing room the Lakers were too stunned even to talk for a while. Hundley, sitting in a corner smoking and drying out, angrily asked the air, "Did you ever see such lousy officiating?" He spread his hands. "Kerr was that far out of bounds. And I was fouled on that shot of Jerry's. What the hell do you think [Referee] Duffy was looking at out there? This town," he concluded, "is out to lunch."
Philadelphia, Dec. 29. The flight from Syracuse was a hedgehop through barely allowable ceiling limits. "Can you see the ground?" Krebs demanded nervously from time to time. The flight passed over a scheduled stop at Wilkes-Barre, which could not be cleared for landing.
In Philadelphia rain poured down on ice-slicked streets. The shoeshine boys lining the terminal ramp were delighted. "There's ol' Tom Hawkins," grinned one. "Hawk, give 'em your autograph," urged Jim Krebs. "They don't want his autograph, they want Ivy Baker Priest's," cracked Baylor. "They're not basketball fans, they're money fans."
The lobby of the Bellevue-Stratford was a warm, glowing oasis in a drenched city. The rich aroma of winter cigar smoke and heady winter whisky hung in the air. A man bustled up to the Lakers' 6-foot-11 center, Ray Felix. "Are you Wilt the Stilt?" he demanded. "I'd like to tell my kids." Ray shook his head. "No,I'm not. But if you're looking to give Wilt some money, I'll take it for him." A lady huffed annoyedly by. "You'd think this was a gymnasium," she sniffed.
The driving rain pelted against the cab on the way to Convention Hall. Jim Krebs explained his basic philosophy vis-a-vis tipping. "I hate tipping," he said. "I give 'em a quarter. If they don't want it, they can just give it back."
The game was a happy one, for a change. The Lakers coasted to their first win 111-95.
Hot Rod felt good under the circumstances, and announced he would treat himself to a beer after the game. Hot Rod is a brown-eyed, blond headed ball-handling expert who hates basketball and road trips with equal passion. In Philadelphia's Latimer Club, a favorite hangout, he unenthusiastically poured a split of beer in a frosted glass and made a short speech. "You know something?" he began. "I hate basketball so much that I go up to the officials before every game and say, 'How many games we got left?' Know what I said tonight? I said, 'Smitty, just think, only 42 games left.' "
He took another swallow. A blonde came alongside. Her voice was soft. "Hello, Rod," she said. "Why, hello, honey, how've you been?" answered Rod. He turned to a friend. "Honey, I want to introduce you to my buddy here. Uh, what did you say your name was, honey?" The blonde batted her big eyes. "Desiree," she breathed huskily. Rod swallowed hard. "Oh, sure," he said, "Desiree. This is Desiree. Well, nice to see you, Desiree."
Desiree wandered back down to the other end of the bar. Hundley was struggling with laughter. "Used to see her a year ago. She's here every time I been here. Desiree—that's a hot one. Who in hell was Desiree?" "She was Napoleon's mistress," he was told. Hundley laughed. "If her real name's Desiree, mine's Tab Hunter." He jumped up. "C'mon, let's get outta here. Gotta go call home. It's only 9 o'clock out in Los Angeles."
St. Louis, Dec.30. The casual cruelty of the nickname is as prevalent in pro basketball as elsewhere in the world of sport. Frank Selvy, the Lakers' able, veteran playmaker, is Fab to his fellow players for the sardonic reason that he was usually referred to as Fabulous Frank in his collegiate days, when he set an alltime scoring record. The fact that he has never quite lived up to his advance promise—thanks in large part to a two-year Army stint—only heightens the zest with which the players roll his nickname off their tongues. When things are too quiet, Hot Rod Hundley frequently lapses into the stilted stentorian of the public-address announcer to introduce "Fabulous Frank Selvy, the pride of Furman, the player of the decade. Once scored a hundred points in one game." "Hey, Fab," he shouts, "didn't the horn blow before you got that last bucket in? You didn't really hit for a C note,did you?"
Selvy, poker-faced, unmindful, lets a bare trace of a grin circle the corners of his mouth. The quiet man of the Lakers, he also answers to the nicknames of Ish, Niffles, and Pops. Jerry West, the baby-faced rookie rapidly acquiring big-league stature in the NBA, is Zeke. "Ever hear him talk?" demands fellow West Virginian Hundley. "Man, he sounds like he's got two sweet potatoes in his mouth and a chaw of tobacco. That ain't even Dixie. That's hillbilly. If you can understand him, you get two free throws. It is English, isn't it, Zeke?"
Selvy and West were roommates on the Christmas week trip. Lakers Coach Fred Schaus is insistent that no cliques form on his team, and rotates roommates without regard to race, personal preference or player friendships.
The game in St.Louis was another disheartener for the Lakers. The Hawks' front line of Clyde Lovellette, Cliff Hagan and Bob Pettit, basketball's best, was hard put to contain the Lakers until Coach Paul Seymour reached into his reserves for Woody Sauldsberry, an erratic shooter but a physical powerhouse. Elgin Baylor's 34-point average, which usually takes a tumble at the hands of the skilled Hawks anyway, thudded to 23 points. He whipped in five quick field goals against Hagan in the first quarter, but when Sauldsberry was substituted Baylor flicked off only one for 12 in the second half. The final score was 107-99.
In the dressing room the officials, as usual, bore the brunt of the blame. The officials in the NBA, for some reason, are mostly pint-sized men, holdovers from the days when players' pituitaries were less active, and frequently they stretch only a little above the players' navels. There is hardly a basketball player in the league who does not believe this disqualifies most referees from even seeing what goes on at the heights.
Outside in the St. Louis night it was balmy by Syracuse standards. But by the time the late-showering Hundley had emerged, cabs had gone. Hot Rod calibrated the three-block walk to the hotel with no enthusiasm. "There'll be one along," he said hopefully. "Let's walk," said the restless Selvy. Hundley sighed.
At the hotel Hundley suggested, "Let's go out to Charlie Share's place. Everybody'll be there. He says he'll pay the cab fare if we come." Selvy was reluctant."I'm hungry. Besides, nobody will be there. It's off limits for the Hawks." "We'll eat," promised Hundley. "Let's go."
Charlie's place was not off limits for the Syracuse Nats or Cincinnati Royals, who had played in the first game of the night's double-header. The small road-house was a bulge with basketball players.
The talk ran to shoptalk and the beverage was beer. No one criticized anyone's play—only the officiating. Night's end found Selvy contentedly eating antipasto and spaghetti and meatballs, in the company of Hundley, a sportswriter and Alex Hannum,Syracuse coach.
Detroit, Dec. 31. Ray Felix, the Lakers' 6-foot-11, 220-pound Negro center, is the oldest and tallest man on the team. His life between games seems a lonely, endless vigil at bridge games. He never plays, just watches. He sleeps often. On plane trips he frequently seeks out the single seat in the rear of a Constellation, where he can sprawl his incredibly long legs without pre-empting the space of several passengers ahead. He never reads.
Nearly every time the Lakers play, fans laugh at Felix. Which is sad because Ray does not try to be funny. He is in deadly earnest on the basketball floor. In pursuit of the ball, he gallops down-court like a startled egret, arms flapping, eyes blinking, feet pounding. He plays with such furious dedication that he is apt to burst into tears of frustration when he can't get the ball, which is most of the time. He averages more fouls a game than any player on the team and almost all of them are unintentional.
Ray means well.Offcourt, he is a kindly but confused human being who has known the heartache of being a near freak all his life. "Ray," says a teammate carefully,"is always afraid you are laughing at him. And this is understandable,because usually you are."
In Detroit it was suddenly New Year's Eve. Low gray clouds and dirty gray weather held the city in thrall. Somewhere, somehow, the citizens of America were celebrating the advent of the new year. But not in downtown Detroit. The Caprice Room of the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel was ready for a crowd of celebrators. But at 11:30p.m., only one customer sat at the tables. Hot Rod Hundley had a party hat on,a noisemaker in hand, a horn in his mouth—and a bottle of beer on the table. "Where is everybody? Have they evacuated Detroit? What's going on?" he demanded. The maitre-d' shrugged. "I wish I knew," he admitted, proffering a hat and horn to a new customer joining Hundley.
Hot Rod sighed. "Ain't this the fits? This town is out to lunch. Let's get up to the room.Coach is going to put through phone calls to all the guys' wives. I'm going to talk to my wife first on his phone at midnight here and then I'm going to call her at 3 when it's midnight in California."
Upstairs, the Lakers, some of them in sweat suits, preparing for early retirement, were watching collegiate playoffs on television. They were watching apathetically.At midnight the coach hauled out a jeroboam of champagne and a platter of sandwiches. The sandwiches disappeared first. Then there was a toast to the new year.
Tomorrow would be another game, another loss. Then Philadelphia again. Then—home.
Glasses were raised. Outside, in the city, a few horns blew. Cries of "Happy New Ye-e-e-a-r" sounded drunkenly through the hotel corridors. The Lakers drank quietly.
"Hot damn," said Hundley. "Just 40 more games and it's all over."