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The Latest Star in the Laker Constellation

Dave Randall

Posted on July 9, 2018 13:01

3 users

Securing the greatest player in the game has become a Los Angeles basketball rite.

It's been years since I've had more than a passing interest in the NBA, specifically the Los Angeles Lakers. Some of that has to do with the Lakers being absent from over-the-air television, and their exclusive cable station being unavailable at the outset (unlike the Dodgers, their absence didn't last long).

Maybe it's the fact their back-to-back championships were eight years ago, or that Kobe couldn't carry the team alone in his waning days, or that their mealy radio play-by-play announcer is unlistenable. Growing up on Chick Hearn made southern Californians expect the best behind the mike, not what they're getting now.

It's all that, I suppose, but mostly it's been the team's mediocrity. Now, the world's greatest, most recognizable basketball player has signed on the line that is dotted, and a moribund franchise has been revived. 

LeBron James is not the first towering name to become a Los Angeles Laker at a crucial point for both the player and the team. Twenty-two years ago, then-General Manager Jerry West exhausted himself signing Shaquille O'Neal. Two decades before, in 1975, they secured Kareem Abdul Jabbar in a trade with Milwaukee. The first and biggest blockbuster get, however, is the least referenced, today, because it happened a half-century ago. 

Wilt Chamberlain was a 7-foot-2 phenomenon at Overbrook High in Philadelphia, the University of Kansas, the Harlem Globetrotters, then the NBA. He was the most dominant scoring and shot-blocking machine the game had ever seen, pouring in 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors against the Knicks in one 1962 game.

For all his dominance, Wilt had managed only one NBA title in his first seven years-in 1967. To that point, neither Wilt (as a Philly/SF Warrior and 76er) or the Lakers had been able to get past Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. The Celts had downed Los Angeles in the 1962-63-65-66 and 1968 finals.

Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were having Hall of Fame seasons, all of them ending in heartbreak. The obvious remedy to the monotony of Boston's dynasty would be Chamberlain joining forces with West and Baylor in L.A. Rumors were, the then 32-year-old Wilt forced the trade. Whatever the reason, it looked devastating on paper, and the Lakers, with the best big man ever at center, would be ready to quash the Celtics at last. 

Sure enough, at the 1968-69 season's end, Boston and L.A. fought through the first six games of the finals, with game seven set for L.A. The Laker coach was a short-sighted martinet, Butch Van Breda Kolf. Wilt hurt his knee with five minutes left. Able to return at two minutes remaining, Van Breda Kolf refused to put him back in. Boston won again. 

The Lakers and Wilt finally got their championship, against the Knicks, after a tremendous 1971-72 season. The lesson history teaches, then, is patience — for LeBron, and the Lakers.

Dave Randall

Posted on July 9, 2018 13:01

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