Coach Fred Schaus was flying into New York one day last season when the plane developed problems and was diverted to Boston for an emergency landing. "Just my luck." Schaus thought. "The plane has to go out of its way to crash with me in Boston." The plane made it, but in four of the last live seasons Schaus has led the Lakers to the playoff finals and disaster in Boston. The only championship trophies on display in the L.A. Sports Arena are those engraved "Minneapolis Lakers." This season is the last chance for L.A. Next year Owner Jack Kent Cooke is moving the Lakers to his own hall in Inglewood, where topless pizza joints are all the rage. The Lakers' own one-two punch, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West (right), should be set again, as soon as West's injured left heel recovers. Since the Lakers usually turn to these two late in the action, Los Angeles is the NBA's best fourth-quarter club. Despite Baylor's recovery, the Lakers will be hard put to hold off St. Louis. Schaus himself is the first to admit that his team is weaker, having lost much more in the expansion draft—Jim King and Bob Boozer—than any other club. At center the Lakers have their old problems. Darrall Imhoff will start—and finish, too, on those rare occasions when he does not foul out. For relief, of a sort, there is Henry Finkel, the 7-footer from Dayton, or Bad News Barnes—obtained for LeRoy Ellis, last year's best Laker center—who will move from the corner to the pivot against smaller rivals. Barnes is only 6 feet 8, and he reported at 259, 20 pounds overweight. He once ran the 100 yards in 10 seconds, but no longer, as the old song goes, does Bad News travel like wildfire. Still, Barnes provides muscle at forward opposite Rudy La Russo. Tom Hawkins, back in L.A. after four years in Cincinnati, adds agility. La Russo had an abscess removed from his digestive tract during the off season, and it is hoped the operation will correct his tendency to weaken late in the year. Walt Hazzard teams with West in the backcourt, while Gail Goodrich—with more confidence after his playoff performance—can give the Lakers a quick scoring pickup coming off the bench. It will be a tight race, but West and Baylor should carry Schaus back to one more playoff in Boston. The Lakers are getting to be as traditional in April there as the Marathon.
There are no stars on the Hawks anymore. Bob Pettit is gone, and Cliff Hagan and Richie Guerin—well, a funny swan song happened to Richie. The Guerin farewell has made Camille's look like a walk-on. He'll play again this year, after leading the team in scoring and assists during the playoffs last season. And he'll coach, too, of course—which means that Owner Ben Kerner will again be looking over both of Richie's shoulders (right). In the best tradition of great minds thinking alike, it undoubtedly has occurred to them that Coach Guerin should not let Player Guerin's talents wither on the bench. Not since Kerner took the Hawks' franchise out of his hat and moved it into swank offices has he been on such a hot streak, thinkingwise. First, last year, he floated eight home games down the river to Memphis. The Dixie Hawks outdrew the St. Louis Hawks by more than 20% in average attendance—which enabled Kerner to get off various hints about moving from cramped Kiel Auditorium to roomier quarters. Then he went carpetbagging north, and for a ball of string and some bottle caps he got two good ballplayers. Joe Caldwell and Rod Thorn. Finally, he made two excellent draft choices, Lou Hudson of Minnesota and Dick Snyder of Davidson. Hudson has already shown that he can easily replace last year's version of Hagan. Snyder must adjust to playing guard, but his defense makes him eligible for spot play immediately. For purists, the Hawks are the best team to watch in the West. They must get by on teamwork, and they do it beautifully. Boston's defense is supreme, of course, but it stands on the premise that Bill Russell can lick any man in the house. St. Louis plays defense like a bunch of mere mortals. With the ball, the Hawks are deliberate, despite the dictates of the 24-second clock. Depending on the opposition, they will attack with the guards or switch the concentration inside to Center Zelmo Beatty and the corner men. Forward Bill Bridges often shuffles underneath if the 6-foot-9 Beatty is playing one of the giants. Beatty will then draw his man outside and try to set Bridges up for a hook. If he hits a couple of early baskets Bridges shoots thereafter with much more confidence. At other times the Hawks often put a guard—even the 6-foot Lenny Wilkens—in the pivot. Underneath, they will try little man on little man, and the Hawks' little men play the inside game very well. This gambit almost beat the Lakers in the playoffs. Aside from Guerin, this is a young team and should make a race of it all the way.
The way his team is outfitted, it will be easy for New Coach Bill Sharman to ship a player back to San Francisco this year. All he has to do is paste a stamp on the man's forehead, write "Wish you were here" across his face and mail him. The Warriors are not yet officially the Postcards, but it may be significant that they opened the season during National Zip Code Week. Their new uniforms are bright gold, and they feature, in blue: 1) the Golden Gate Bridge, full across the chest; 2) the words "The City" over the bridge; 3) a cable car climbing up each player's backbone; and 4) stars scattered all about. ("Little cable cars...halfway to the stars....") The uniforms are the design of Owner Franklin Mieuli, who says: "They laughed when the Yankees first wore pinstripes." Before rivals laugh this season, the Warriors will try to run away from them. Last year, under Alex Hannum, they played slow-down-and-set-up. Sharman traded Guy Rodgers to Chicago for two bigger guards. Jim King and Jeff Mullins. That leaves the Warriors without a first-class playmaker, but the newcomers and Paul Neumann, Al Attles and rookie Joe Ellis all can move. Sharman worked many of the Warriors all summer to get them in shape for a fast-break style. Second-guessing him, some observers speculated that the absence of Rodgers would particularly hurt rookie All-Star Rick Barry and lower his scoring (25.7 ppg). Actually, the ones who will miss Rodgers most are those, like Center Nate Thurmond, who depended on Guy to get the ball in to them. Barry is the kind of player who finds the ball, wherever it is. Often, it seems, the ball finds him. Either way he picks up a lot of garbage—loose balls—for easy shots (left). On defense, if he has slight chance for a rebound, he cheats downcourt, looking for a sneak if Thurmond or the other forward, Tom Meschery, can get the ball. Barry's style is readymade for Sharman's fast break. Since getting the ball on the defensive board is essential, Thurmond is the real key to the team with a view. Dr. Robert Kerlan discovered this summer that one of Nate's legs is half an inch longer than the other, and this condition presumably has caused Thurmond's annual backaches. Nate has been fitted with special shoes and a girdle-type brace to correct his balance and provide extra back support. He averaged 18 rebounds a game last year, though he often had to leave the action in pain, and the Warriors must rely on him completely this season. Their front-line reserves—Bud Olsen, Fred Hetzel and rookie Clyde Lee—are either unreliable or untested. Thurmond must get the rebounds to make the fast break go. If not—oh, well, it could always be worse. It could be Alcatraz on the back of those uniforms.
Fred Zollner's piston business has trebled since he moved the basketball Pistons to Detroit eight years ago. Zollner uses the club as his only business promotion and writes off $200,000 a year for advertising. The Pistons themselves, however, are all red ink and fluctuate from bad to worse—sometimes to worst of all, which is what they were in the NBA last year. This season Detroit should soar all the way up to "bad," and in the weak West they may even beat the Warriors for third place. A good exhibition-game showing sent a frenzied wave of enthusiasm through usually blasé Detroit. "A guy called this morning and ordered a season ticket," General Manager Ed Coil reported. "That makes only 8,999 to go." Dave DeBusschere, the optimistic boy-wonder coach, is making the players stick to six basic plays, though he also plans to have Dave Bing—best bet for NBA Rookie of the Year—get the team running more. Previously, the Pistons played praise the Lord, pass the ammunition and bomb, bomb, bomb, so it is not surprising that their shooting percentage was much the poorest in the league. Bing now steers them like an old pro. He will work in the backcourt with Chico Vaughan when DeBusschere wants to run, but more often with either Tom Van Arsdale or Eddie Miles, The Man with the Golden Arm (below). Already, Miles and Bing run the Pistons' favorite G play well. Bing tosses to DeBusschere in the corner and moves to the free-throw line. DeBusschere throws to the center and breaks to join Bing for a double screen. Then Miles dashes behind them, takes the pass and unleashes the Golden Arm. Ray Scott will be in the corner opposite DeBusschere, with Ron Reed as top bench forward. At center the Pistons have their usual mixed bag of heroes, led once more by intrepid Reggie Harding, who spent last year on suspension—"in the pines, man, I was in the pines"—for a wondrously varied set of misdeeds. Since Walter Kennedy okayed his return, Reggie has been a dear heart. "He looked bad in one exhibition," DeBusschere says, "and when I came in to chew him out, he was sitting there crying. Can you imagine that?" We'll try hard.
The tallest Bull is 6 feet 9. He's Johnny Kerr, the coach. The biggest Bull weighs 270. He's Dick Klein, the owner, and some Chicagoans think he must have a death wish. In that city only bulls and gangsters are killed more often than pro basketball teams. Last August, Klein made the suggestion that because the team is really the Chicago culls, a good strategy would be for all his ex-substitutes to beat up the opposition's starters and get things down to a common denominator. This notion did not sit well with the league office, which helped Klein to a record of sorts by fining him even before his team hit the practice floor. Klein maintains he only meant that the Bulls should play as hard as they did in the good old days when he was in the NBA. The little Bulls are going to have enough trouble winning games without picking fights with the big boys, too. But it is remarkable how much Kerr and Assistant Coach Al Bianchi have already done with their collection of other team's choice cuts. Johnny started out with the name and a bunch of guys named Joe (left). Now the Bulls are hustling, learning the old Syracuse weave offense—but without any pivot plays, because Kerr has had no real center since Nate Bowman broke his ankle. He will go with Len Chappell, rookie Irwin Mueller or Bob Boozer, all 6 feet 8, in the middle; Chappell is slow, Boozer is quick but a natural forward. Getting a first-line player like Guy Rodgers from San Francisco was a big help. He will start in the backcourt with Jerry Sloan, who is recovering the confidence that was shattered in Baltimore last year. Gerry Ward is a good defensive guard, and Keith Erickson has shown some scoring potential now that he has been given the chance to play. This could be a surprisingly good backcourt. For the corners Kerr has Boozer (he will play there mostly) and a choice among McCoy McLemore, Don Kojis, Barry Clemens and Jim Washington, who are all young, anyway, and should learn. The top rookie, college high scorer Dave Schellhase, has been switched to the backcourt and is being brought along slowly. Unfortunately, he moves even more slowly. Kerr was about to retire when the Chicago coaching job was offered to him. It is nice to know that his wit will be brightening the pro circuit again; he is always good for a laugh, even if the little Bulls make Klein want to cry.
Bill Russell sat out an exhibition game, and the fans were, naturally, displeased. "I'm not here to pacify the fans," Russell said. "I'm here to try to coach this team." You said it first, Bill. Of course, the job has compensations. Center Russell will play awfully hard for Coach Russell. But it does remain to be seen whether Russell—elbow-fencing in the pivot, sweat dripping from his eyebrows and beard—can be as cool and quick in his judgments as Red Auerbach was while securely seated, clear-eyed, expending no more energy than it takes to squeeze a program. Would Russell, on court, have spotted Mel Counts so effectively as Auerbach did against Philadelphia last year? Would he have known when to bench Willie Naulls, when to rest Sam Jones? Of course, player-coaches are hardly exceptional in the NBA, and some have had fair success. Richie Guerin played full playoff games last year and led the Hawks to victory in them. Buddy Jeannette led Baltimore to the title in 1947. Significantly, both were guards. But more significantly, take the case of Al Cervi, who never won a championship at Syracuse until he became a bench coach. It is, simply, a great challenge that Russell faces, which is probably why he accepted the job. On the other hand, Auerbach already leads the league in general managing. He cajoled Chicago into letting the Celtics protect eight men in the new-team draft, instead of the seven everyone else was allowed. He chose a fine guard, Jim Barnett of Oregon, in the regular draft. He talked Center-Forward Toby Kimball out of a lucrative contract to play in Italy. He acquired rights to Wayne Embry when the Royals became penny-wise and 250-pounds-foolish. And, in a deal that shatters all comprehension, he got Bailey Howell for Counts. Howell is exactly what the Celtics needed—the deadeye shooting forward who crashes the boards—and he will start so that John Havlicek can return to fireman status. Tom Sanders, the defensive forward, will be in the other corner, with Don Nelson and Embry also available. There is some vulnerability in the backcourt, where Sam Jones occasionally showed his age (33) last year. This is definitely K.C.'s last season. Under Auerbach's expert handling, Larry Siegfried became a dependable asset, and if the Joneses do not keep up with their past performances Russell can send Havlicek to the backcourt more often. The Celtics will play the same game—shoot and run and let Coach get the ball. Funnel the opponents toward the basket, because Coach will be there (right), awesome as ever, lean and hungry. And thinking. Such men are dangerous.
One of Aesop's fables, The Bald Man and the Fly, concerns the poor soul who tries to clout a fly that lands on his naked crown. He misses, of course, and succeeds only in cuffing his defenseless skull. Moral: You will only injure yourself if you take notice of despicable injuries. The 76ers now are run by bald men—Jack Ramsay, the general manager, and Alex Hannum, the coach. They are two of the finest brains, unprotected or otherwise, in basketball. It is doubtful that any franchise ever improved its top management so spectacularly as the 76ers did this year. The team was already excellent. Now it remains to be seen if the 76ers can go about their business without becoming obsessed by the despicable enemies at hand, the Boston Celtics. If they don't, they can beat Boston. Philly gets Larry Costello back, and the 76ers are younger than Boston and have a full-time coach. Besides, Hannum handled Wilt Chamberlain, at San Francisco, better than any man ever did. Who else but Hannum could say that he plans to use Luke Jackson in the pivot for up to 10 minutes a game and add, "Wilt will be agreeable if it's right for the team." This is not psychological skirmishing, either; Wilt and Alex respect each other. Chamberlain did not enhance the relationship by reporting late, but Ramsay promptly fined him $1,050, and all the special considerations that Wilt had been given last year—private suites, travel arrangements—seemed far away indeed. Jackson, 6 feet 9, will be at one forward, still trying to realize fully the potential he showed in college. Chet Walker, at the other, is a fine, versatile player; at 6 feet 6 he can bring the ball upcourt to break a press. Billy Cunningham had an outstanding rookie year (14.3 ppg) that was overshadowed only by Rick Barry's fantastic show in San Francisco. Dave Gambee adds to the mobility of the forecourt and would play more on any other team. In the backcourt, Hal Greer is just short of the greatness of Robertson and West. Wally Jones came along last year, and Costello's return gives Hannum the depth he needed. At 35, Costello is still one of the fastest players in NBA history and a master at drifting back from his guard position to suddenly double-team an opponent underneath with the ball (left). Larry is also the last of the natural two-hand set-shot artists, whenever he overcomes his reluctance to fire. Local boys Matt Guokas—Ramsay's play-making star at St. Joseph's—and high-scoring Bill Melchionni of Villanova are two good, skinny rookies in reserve. With the guards, Walker and Cunningham filling the lanes, Hannum has the makings of a marvelous fast break. He may introduce a full-court press like the one he used to such advantage in San Francisco with lesser talent. Hannum has never had as good a team before. Like Paul Richards in baseball, he has made a career out of improving mediocre players, and this is a new kind of challenge for him. If the 76ers do not become too frantic about chasing the fly, they may very well splatter it at last.
The pick-and-roll is a simple play, even used by the kids at the YMCA in half-court games. With somewhat better personnel, the Royals dare you to stop it. Oscar Robertson gets the pick, and Jerry Lucas takes the roll (right). Lucas, guarded by a big forward, picks Oscar's man, or slows him down, to make the forward commit himself. If the big man switches to Robertson, Lucas has a smaller defender and rolls for the basket and a pass from Oscar. If there is no switch. Robertson zips past with at least a half-step advantage and a one-on-one situation with a guard down near the baseline. "If I can get him to that spot," says Coach Jack McMahon, "he's unstoppable." Blessed with such a pair, any team ought to win at least an occasional title, but in the East the Celtics are the real royalty and Philadelphia is the chief pretender. Staffing the middle is Cincy's big headache. As a result of an unhappy season, Wayne Embry quit to work for Pepsi-Cola, then was dealt to the Celtics. That left McMahon with 6-foot-11 Walt Wesley from Kansas, his No. 1 draft choice, and 6-foot-10 Connie Dierking. Wesley is quick and has a fair touch for a man his size, but he lacks drive. Dierking, a better player than most people realize, nevertheless is no All-Star candidate. Guard Adrian Smith averaged 18.4 points last season, his finest as a pro, and drove off with a new car as Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. Jon McGlocklin should be an improved sub at either forward or guard (he is 6 feet 5), and so-called "Supersub" Happy Hairston is a good rebounder and one of the most accurate shooters in the league. Two rookie guards have looked promising, but six-footer Freddie Lewis from Arizona State may be too small and Flynn Robinson of Wyoming has trouble on defense. Cincy's five rookies are part of their biggest turnover in personnel since 1958. The Royals will again score lots of points, but it is hard to see how they can help giving up almost as many as they hit, as happened last year.
The new Russell in the NBA, New York's Cazzie, is—in more ways than one—no relation to Boston's Bill. For one thing, Bill helped the Celtics to a championship in his first season 10 years ago. The Knicks of 1966 are merely hoping Cazzie will help enough to enable them to finish ahead of Baltimore and thus make the Eastern Division playoffs for the first time in nine years. Rookie Russell is a good shooter and passer and has the height (6 feet 5½), brawn and moves to swing between guard and forward, as he did at Michigan. The trouble is that right now Cazzie—again, unlike Bill—would have problems stopping a mailman from putting a letter in the slot, never mind defending against the likes of Jerry West or Oscar Robertson. Still, few people doubt that Cazzie, an articulate young man with the right attitude, will eventually learn what he needs to learn to be a good pro. For Willis Reed, another of Coach Dick McGuire's fine physical specimens, the painful-lesson period should be just about over. Reed had to move to forward when Walt Bellamy arrived from Baltimore last year, and the adjustment was not always painless, especially when the two got in each other's way under the basket (right). But Reed spent the off season playing the corner in any kind of playground pickup game he could find. He should be able to synchronize more smoothly with Bellamy and play tougher defense against agile forwards. Dave Stallworth—"Rave" to his teammates—averaged 12.6 points a game last season as a novice. He improved through the campaign and looked devilishly quick in exhibition games. He does not have the muscle to rebound like Bellamy and Reed, but he thinks, probably correctly, that with those two brutes at work all he has to do is screen his man out. Scout Red Holzman turned up a genuine sleeper in 6-foot-10,230-pound Henry Akin of Morehead. Akin, who has grown an inch and put on 50 pounds in the last year, is a fine corner shot, and Holzman's report sold the Knicks on taking him second, after Cazzie. The Knicks have other good young players—Guards Howard Komives and Emmette Bryant and Guard-Forward Dick Van Arsdale—in addition to veteran Guard Dick Barnett. At times last season the team seemed at its best when games got out of hand—when everyone was playing helter-skelter, shoot-'em-up basketball. With this as a clue, one pro scout thinks McGuire's chief job is to keep the team loose and try a KISS offense (Keep It Simple, Stupid). This would take advantage of the wealth of individual ability without imposing the demands of precision teamwork.
The Bullets have been an inspiration to expansion teams everywhere, for they have risen, in only five years, from 18 wins and last place to 38 wins and second place. And this was accomplished despite turnovers in ownership, management, coaches (exactly one per year) and players that might well have destroyed all continuity. Now Baltimore is being switched to the tougher Eastern Division, which is nice geographically but hard on the team. The move may cause the Bullets to drop three places in the standings back to the cellar. What happened? Well, of their last four top draft choices, two are now with other teams and two could not even make the NBA. The Bullet stars have disappeared just as fast. Gus Johnson was the only one left until holdout Don Ohl (20.6 ppg) finally signed to join Kevin Loughery and Johnny Egan in the backcourt. By then the team had gone 2-10 in exhibitions, was disgruntled and disorganized. Problems began last spring. When Johnny Kerr left to coach Chicago, only 6-foot-8 Bob Ferry remained at pivot. So the Bullets sent Bailey Howell to Boston for Mel Counts, a 7-foot forward, who preferred the corner even in college. Baltimore also traded with L.A. for LeRoy Ellis, who, at 26, is still growing (three-quarters of an inch in the last year, to 6 feet 11). Counts and Ellis will alternate at center with Ferry. Other times they can play at forward along with Johnson, Jumpin' Johnny Green, "Spain" ' Hightower or Jack Marin, this year's first draft choice. Luckily, Johnson is still in Baltimore. He is truly an exciting player—dunking from the free-throw line, jumping, shooting, smashing backboards (left), even playing defense. Gus invariably takes the best rival corner man. "I like it," he says. "I just wish that the coach and owners would realize that killing myself on defense has to cut down on my scoring and rebounding." The team, however, gave up more points than any other for the last two years. Perhaps Coach-This-Year Mike Farmer can make some improvements in that area, for he was an assistant at St. Louis, where defense is stressed. The Bullet players have not warmed to Farmer yet, and the fans do not even acknowledge the existence of the team until the Colts leave town. The average audience was 3,100 before December 18 last year, 6,000 after that date. If the Bullets continue to show as poorly as they have done in exhibitions, there may be no football fallout at all this year, and no Bullets in Baltimore next year.