Before any NBA players griped about the back-to-back-to-back games in this year’s lockout-compressed schedule they should have talked to the 1971-72 Lakers, who won games on three consecutive nights four times during their 33-game winning streak. That’s a hidden attribute of the team’s legacy.
Their 69 regular-season victories were surpassed by the Chicago Bulls. Their championship, the Lakers’ first in Los Angeles, was eventually followed by 10 more. The 33-game streak, which began against the Baltimore Bullets on Nov. 5, 1971, and was ended by Milwaukee on Jan. 9, 1972, endures as the longest winning streak in American pro sports.
The surviving members of the team gathered in Los Angeles this week, for a reception in Manhattan Beach Thursday night and an appearance at halftime of the Lakers game in Staples Center Friday night.
In talking with some members of the team, one common theme emerged: respect for the job done by coach Bill Sharman. It’s similar to the constant credit to John Wooden I’ve heard at gatherings of former UCLA players.
Sharman's wife, Joyce, was the impetus for the reunion and team member Keith Erickson did a great job of arranging media access to the players. Here are the recollections of some of the participants of that historic run.
PAT RILEY (Fifth season, averaged 6.7 points and 1.9 rebounds per game)
“Four sets of back to back to backs? I’ve got to remember that. We took it like it was nothing. It was like doing business. It was what you did. You play the game, you go out after the game, whatever. You get up at 5 a.m., you get on the plane, you sleep a little bit on the plane. You get into the hotel and you go to bed, have lunch, go play the game. Wash your own uniform.
“What I used to do, I’d go right into the shower. If I played, I’d go right into the shower, in uniform, I’d take it off in the shower, I’d rinse it out, wring it out real hard, put it in my bag, then go home and put it on the radiator. In the morning, it would be dry.
“Some guys never did it. Some guys played a lot of minutes, take it right off, put it in the bag. The next night, open the bag…whoooh. I remember Walt Bellamy one time would not get next to Wilt.”
JIM CLEAMONS (Rookie, 2.6 points, 1 rebound per game)
“One of my duties as a rookie, [coach] always wanted his own balls. I always had six balls. Whether we used them or not, I always had the balls. Exhibition season, I had the balls and the hydroculators. I got them to the bus. On the bus, somebody else took them. That was part of a rookie’s duties.”
GAIL GOODRICH (Seventh season, 25.9 points, 4.5 assists per game)
“I played in all 82 games. I was in great shape going in. I was in shape and I was ready to play. I could run all day and I never thought about it.
“The truth of the matter is, we were really just having fun. I don’t think at the time we really realized what we were doing. We gained that confidence game after game after game. And I played for John Wooden, and that’s the same kind of feeling he had. We were a very confident team. We probably bordered on being a little cocky.
“If you look at the 33, very few games were we even challenged. Very few games were close. We had a dominant team.”
FLYNN ROBINSON (Sixth season, 9.9 points per game)
“The last game that got real close was Houston, right? [A five-point victory in the 18th game of the streak.] We just had an unbelievable stretch. We could have won more games, but just to get an opportunity to play on the 72 team and win the championship, that was real beautiful.
“I remember game No. 16. We were down to the Philadelphia 76ers. We were down 15 or 16 points. We wound up beating ‘em by .”
“We never thought we were going to win 33. You win 10, okay. You’re at 17. There were about three or four benchmarks that sort of kept us going. I think the Knicks had 18 in a row. We thought about maybe doing that. Then there was another milestone at about 25 or 26 games [the American pro sports record of 26 that was set by baseball’s New York Giants in 1916]. Then after that it’s just how many more were we going to win?”
JERRY WEST (12th season, 25.8 points per game)
“It’s rare to have a team that everyone seems to know their roles. We could win any kind of game. We certainly could win a game where we scored a lot of points. We could win a slowdown game, a physical game, We could win any kind of game.
“With that team, there weren’t any missing ingredients, really. It was a magical year for all of us.”
“On that particular team, Jerry and Gail and Wilt [Chamberlain] and Jim McMillian, those guys were playing at the top of their game, all at the same time.
“Playing on that team, there were some games, we were just hot. And I know that all of the younger guys are going to say it wasn’t that many teams [the NBA consisted of 17 teams at the time], it wasn’t that much competition, but you still have to play the games. In basketball, anybody can win. So you just had to be on top of the game.”
“West Coast rivalries were the best. Phoenix was always tough, Golden State was tough. Seattle was tough.
“They know you. You play them in exhibition….We played 12 exhibition games that year.”
“Certainly the game today, the players are quicker and faster. I think they’re even smarter. How did the game change? We averaged 121 points a game. You can’t average that [today] because the defense is back. Everything now is all pick-and-roll. Throw it into the post, kick it out. We had more motion, more ball movement.”
“It’s more entertainment now. It’s more entertainment and with the collective bargaining agreement, they can only do back-to-back [in normal years]…and with charter [flights]. We took the first thing smoking.”
“Uniform was all wrinkled. There was all of that kind of stuff. Eight dollars a day per diem. Cabs -- no buses. No security people. No entourage. No brands – nobody had a brand to worry about.”
MITCH CHORTKOFF (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner)
“I was the only reporter who traveled with the team full time.”
“The scouting reports in those days, you went around the locker room and you talked to the starters and the sixth and seventh guys, and it was verbal. ‘This is how I’m going to play so-and-so. I’m going to force him left. I’m going to force him right. He’s a good shooter, so I’m going to press up on him. He’s not a good shooter, so I’m going to back off of him.’ You gave your own individual scouting report.”
“One of the things I’ve always said is the Lakers were really an isolation team. And [Bill Sharman] came and changed that. We played like Boston did. We moved the ball. We were a great fast-breaking team.”
“It just came together. When it happens, when those two worlds collide, of conflict and voluntary cooperation, there was never any of that. I think Bill had a lot to do with that. He brought something to the team from Boston. You’d have to talk to Jerry about this, about how he felt about that. I know when we talked about it in the summertime and there was a rumor [Sharman] was coming he said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play for him.’ He had played against him six times and lost.”
“That’s way overstated. I always had great respect for Bill. I never had a coach I didn’t like.
“Everyone seemed to have their own niche. Bill was very consistent about when people where going to play. He made sure that these people were going to play at a prescribed time. It was just one of those years when everything seemed to go right for us.”
“Wilt’s game, he had really slowed down. But he was still powerful. And I think Coach Sharman got Wilt to be more. He was telling Wilt, ‘You don’t have to win the scoring championship, but you can rebound.’ Wilt wanted to be the top rebounder, the top field goal percentage…everything that he did, he wanted to be No. 1 at.”
“He convinced Wilt that if we played fast he didn’t have to come past halfcourt, so he could extend his career.”
“Bill wanted to have a team that was upbeat and could run up and down the court. Even though we were older, we were capable of doing it because we knew when to run, when not to run. Gail averaged 26 a game, I averaged close to 26 a game, led the league in assists. And this was when I thought my career was really on the decline. I wasn’t close to the same player, really, because of the knee injury. Bill’s way of playing probably enhanced all of our abilities.
“Wilt turned into a rebounder/shot blocker. You were not going to fake him, okay? It was not going to happen. He was going to block a shot or alter a shot.”
“Bill brought a real genuine integrity to the franchise. He was very honest with all of us. He communicated extremely well. Any time he sensed there was some kind of tension or somebody was unhappy he would take you aside and talk to you. And we bought in.
“When you start winning like we’re winning and you buy in, ‘This guy knows what he’s talking about, he knows how to coach.’ The wheels never came off.”
“The streak was about consistency. Night after night after night, you’ve got to be able to come to play. I’ve always said records are meant to be broken. This one, I’m not so sure.”
“I don’t think it will ever happen. It’s almost illogical, today, in team sports.”