For a night and part of the following day it looked as if it might be almost too easy for Los Angeles. After 11 seasons of succumbing to fate and their opponents' heroics, the Lakers last Friday seemed to have their first NBA championship locked up. In their steamy dressing room at Madison Square Garden they celebrated the gritty overtime defeat of the New York Knickerbockers which gave them a 3-1 lead in the final round. It was the Lakers' third straight win, each one of them a show of power and proficiency. And Los Angeles' prospects could not have looked brighter. The only important in jury victim of the series, New York wheelhorse Dave Debusschere, was still hampered by a pulled muscle in his right side, and the teams were heading West the next morning to get ready for what even the Knicks appeared to believe would be the finale at The Forum. "The patient is critical and about to die," conceded New York's Walt Frazier.
But only minutes after they arrived in Los Angeles the Knicks were given one last flicker of hope, and the Lakers, whose mood had been so buoyant, were wondering if that old playoff voodoo had struck again. Wilt Chamberlain was hurt and might not be able to play the next game or, perhaps, any more in the series.
Chamberlain, who brilliantly led Los Angeles to the brink of success (see cover), had complained mildly of soreness in his right wrist after the Lakers' third win. During the plane ride home he participated, as usual, in a raucous hearts game. He was in fine fettle, even though he mentioned that his now-swollen wrist, injured in a first-quarter fall, ached whenever he dealt. After the plane landed, Wilt left with team physician Robert K. Kerlan for Centinela Valley Community Hospital in Inglewood, where X rays were taken. Dr. Kerlan announced that there was no fracture, but the sprain was severe—so severe that it was "very, very doubtful" Wilt would play the next game.
He played. Did he play! He added insult to injury. Following a shot of Celestone, an anti-inflammatory agent, and a night of treating his wrist alternately with ice packs and baths in the whirlpool built into his new $1.5 million Bel Air showplace, Chamberlain arrived at The Forum for Sunday's game with the swelling significantly reduced. "We brought a ball into the locker room," said Dr. Kerlan, "and as soon as I saw him palm it, catch it and throw it, I knew enough flexibility had been restored so he could play. But, believe me, this was a serious injury and an unexpectedly fast recovery. We weren't trying to fool anybody. If we had been, we would've held Wilt in the dressing room instead of sending him out with the rest of the team to warm up."
Wearing the padded hand wraps interior linemen use, Chamberlain played his best game of a super series. He scored 24 points. He had 29 rebounds. On defense, he harassed Knick shooters far outside, yet still scrambled back to block inside shots. In the end, he shut up—perhaps forever—those critics who for years claimed that he was a quitter, that he could not win important games. He was, padded hands down, the most valuable player as Los Angeles took its first championship by winning the fifth game 114-100.
It was a title destined to belong to Los Angeles from the outset. Even in their first-game victory, the Knicks' unenviable position was evident. New York won 114-92 by making 72% of its first-half shots, many of them 20-footers or longer. The smaller Knicks were forced to operate almost exclusively from way outside due to Chamberlain's towering presence in the middle. There is a basketball axiom that says no team can win consistently when it relies on outside shots. In New York's case it is not so much that long shots are harder to make—the Knick starters hit 20-foot bombs as easily as most other players put in layups—but that outside shooting detracts from other aspects of the game. Players shooting from behind screens far from the basket are rarely fouled and are not usually in position for offensive rebounds. New York was decisively out-rebounded in this series, and the Lakers' edge in foul shots made was large enough to account for the total point margin of their four victories.
The Knicks' dilemma was not eased by DeBusschere's injury. He hurt his side late in the second period of the second game, which the Lakers won 106-92, and spent the last half sitting on the bench as Los Angeles turned a one-point halftime lead into a 20-point bulge in the third period. During the spurt, DeBusschere's man, Happy Hairston, scored 12 points. When the series shifted to New York three days later, DeBusschere started and played strongly enough in the first half to keep Hairston in check and to pull down nine rebounds. However, he missed all six of his shots, and the Lakers led by five points. DeBusschere declined to play in the second half. "I didn't feel I was helping the team," he said. His replacement, Phil Jackson, did not help much either as Los Angeles ran off to a 22-point lead, eventually winning 107-96.
DeBusschere's absence in the third period—the one which turned the series in Los Angeles' favor—infected New York with an odd malaise that even the usually poised Frazier could not cure. All teams go into cold shooting streaks, but during the Lakers' surge the Knicks succumbed to what may have been a playoff first. They went cold passing. And when they were not throwing passes directly into eager Los Angeles hands, they were shooting rushed, unfamiliar shots or watching helplessly as their field-goal tries came zooming right back at them, courtesy of smashing blocks by Chamberlain.
Wilt's most important block came in the fourth game, the series' best, which Los Angeles won in overtime 116-111. Chamberlain, who has yet to foul out of a game in 13 NBA seasons, committed his fifth personal near the end of regulation time. The Lakers scored the first overtime basket after Wilt controlled the tip-off (Los Angeles won all but four of the 21 quarter-opening taps during the series, another edge it had on New York). Knick Center Jerry Lucas then drove past Chamberlain and lofted a short pop from the middle of the foul lane. Risking his sixth foul, Wilt spun and reached over Lucas' back, gently flicking the ball down. The Knicks recovered the ball, but in the next few seconds it was tipped loose by Jerry West, recaptured by the Knicks, and then Chamberlain blocked another shot. By the time New York could reorganize its offense, the 24-second clock had run out. The Lakers took possession, and Jim McMillian scored to give Los Angeles a four-point lead. New York's Bill Bradley hit a couple of jumpers to tie it up, but the Knicks were goners.
The futility of New York's position was not lost on the Lakers. After their second win, McMillian agreed to a tennis match in Los Angeles scheduled for the day when a less confident man might have figured he would be in New York preparing for the sixth game. West, meanwhile, was relaxing in his Manhattan hotel room, assuring callers that his team would certainly win in five games and explaining that he had suffered insomnia after the second Laker victory. He had lain awake trying to figure out how he should act when he finally won a championship after so many near misses, "I don't yell much, and I'm not much of a drinker," he said. "Really, I can't figure out much that I'll be able to do except maybe smile a lot." When they did win, the Lakers were subdued. They drank their victory champagne out of wine glasses instead of pouring it over each other, while West smiled as predicted and delivered what were in effect a couple of toasts.
"When we went to training camp last fall," said West, "I thought we'd win our division, but never get past Chicago or Milwaukee into the finals. We were a team with a lot of lacks, but [Coach Bill] Sharman fit us together perfectly. He told us he thought that if we played the way he wanted us to that we could beat anyone. He got us to believe that right away, and he did it without raising his voice once all year. The most violent thing I remember he did was one time he threw down a pile of towels. As for Wilt, he was simply the guy that got us here."
He certainly did. At last.
For a while Jerry West's hand was cold, but at the finish Mr. Clutch grasped the title.