By Kenneth Shouler
Special to Page 2

You can erase one of the sports world's favorite clichés. Just wipe it right out. At least one record is not meant to be broken.

What's more, no one has even come close.

On Nov. 5, 1971, the Lakers began a winning streak that didn't end until 65 days later, on Jan. 9, 1972. They won 33 straight games. The average margin of victory was 17 points.

Bill Sharman
Wen Roberts / Getty Images
Bill Sharman's plaid jacket never looked so good as during the Lakers' unfathomable 33-game winning streak.

As unrepeatable as the streak was, it somehow remains vastly undersold.

The record is immune to wear and tear, time and circumstance, skill and will. It's like some cathedral in London that stands more impressively than when you first laid eyes on it decades ago. When the run was over, Lakers forward Jim McMillian waxed prophetic.

"We just finished a streak that I don't believe any other team is going to break," McMillian told the Los Angeles Times after the run ended in Milwaukee.

If prescience is the ability to tell the future, McMillian's gentle boast was doubly prescient. Since January 1972, only two teams have gotten halfway to 33. The Celtics won 18 straight in 1982, and Chicago ran off 18 during its rush to 72 wins and a title in 1996.

But did McMillian imply that no team in any sport would break it?

If so, he was right again.

In our four major sports, no team ever ran with the purple and gold of '72. Not one.

The previous record holder was baseball's New York Giants, who tallied 26 straight (but did have a tie game during the streak) in 1916. Aside from Christy Mathewson and company, no other team is even a speck in the Lakers' rearview mirror.

On Oct. 31, 1971, Elgin Baylor, arguably the greatest forward ever to that point, played his last game – a loss to Golden State in which he scored just eight points. Four days later he announced his retirement, saying, "I was depriving Jim McMillian of playing time." The previous season, major surgery for a severed Achilles tendon had limited Baylor to only two games.

HISTORICAL WINNING STREAKS

151: De La Salle High football (Concord, Calif.), 1992-2004
88: UCLA basketball, 1971-74
74: Martina Navratilova, women's tennis, 1984
49: Rocky Marciano, boxing, 1947-55
47: Oklahoma football, 1953-57
33: Los Angeles Lakers, NBA, 1971-72
21: New England Patriots, NFL, 2003-04 (including postseason)
21: Chicago Cubs, MLB, 1935
17: Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL, 1993
17: Babe Zaharias, women's golf, 1946-47
11: Byron Nelson, men's golf, 1945
10: Richard Petty, NASCAR, 1967

McMillian moved into the starting lineup in place of Baylor, whose retirement led to another significant move. Just before the game on Nov. 5, coach Bill Sharman named Wilt Chamberlain captain in Baylor's place. West was offered a co-captaincy but declined.

Later that night, the Lakers squeaked by Baltimore, 110-106, as Gail Goodrich scored 31 points and Chamberlain grabbed 25 rebounds. The team's record was 7-3, but it came after a 4-0 start. If the Lakers kept playing without effort, Sharman threatened, there would be fines for everyone.

"Me, too," he told the Times. "If I can't get the message across, I'm failing, too." The year before, Sharman had fined himself $100 while coaching the ABA's Utah Stars.

Though the streak began on a nondescript November evening, Sharman says its foundation was established the previous summer when he decided he wanted to initiate a morning shootaround.

"Management told me that Wilt might not go for it," Sharman recalls. "So before the season began I took him to lunch and he said, 'Bill, I've known you a long time. I don't like getting up early in the morning, but if you think it'll help the team, then I'll do it.'"

The shootaround had worked wonders for Sharman. As a player with the Celtics, Sharman had noticed his free-throw percentage jump after he began practicing in the mornings. He won seven NBA free-throw titles, but only after he began morning workouts did he shoot 90 percent for a season – which he did three times. He thought early practices increased his muscle memory and confidence for each evening's game (Sharman employed the same routine in coaching the American Basketball League's Cleveland Pipers, a team owned by George Steinbrenner, to the ABL championship in 1962).

Jerry West
Associated Press
Jerry West, shown against Houston in the Lakers' 28th consecutive win on Dec. 27, 1971, led the NBA with 9.7 assists per game in 1971-72.

The Lakers' starting five averaged 98.4 points per game during that 1971-72 season, thanks to the one-two punch of West and Goodrich. The two combined for 51.7 points per game, the most ever by a backcourt tandem. The split was essentially democratic – 25.9 points per game for Goodrich and 25.8 for West.

"It was easy to play with Gail," West explains. "I knew where he was going to be. He was very clever. He knew how to get open and how to make people foul him. He knew how to make jump shots and get in the lane."

Playing with a high-scoring guard for the first time, West won the assists title with 9.7 per game.

"At that time guards shared one and two," Goodrich says. "I would go 7-for-10 and then go 1-for-8 and [assistant coach] K.C. Jones would say, 'Keep shooting.' It was the saturation method – just keep firing.

"Also, we viewed film, and I had never looked at film before. We were concerned about who we were going to play – our execution. … We were putting the ball in Jerry's hands a lot. In crunch time he was the best. I wasn't fighting him for the ball. He was such a great team player. If I got open he would get me the ball. He helped me out defensively."

Says West: "We knew where everyone was, and if someone made a mistake everyone was there to help you. On defense, we would not let teams reverse the ball, and we would keep it on the sideline, and we had Wilt back there so people weren't going to get any layups."

Close games were the exception.

"We just started killing people," West says.

Substitutes Flynn Robinson, Pat Riley, John Q. Trapp and LeRoy Ellis could expect increased minutes during blowouts. The team played Sharman's up-tempo style, averaging 123.3 points during the streak.

"That team emitted so much confidence, man," said former Knicks guard Walt Frazier, who guarded West. "They methodically overwhelmed you. Chamberlain was doing his thing. The backcourt was dynamic. As time went on, it was uncanny just how easily they were winning games."

Los Angeles chalked up New York as victim No. 3, 103-96. The streak climbed to five in Philadelphia, 143-103. Seattle was 12th on the list, 139-115. The 13th in a row came against Detroit, 132-113, as Chamberlain contributed 31 points, 31 rebounds and six blocks.

"The players are taking pride in the winning streak," Sharman told the Times afterward. "Wilt is saying, 'C'mon, let's keep it going.'"

Gail Goodrich
Associated Press
Gail Goodrich played in all 82 games in 1971-72 and led the Lakers with 25.9 points per game.

The first gut check came against Phoenix while going for 20 straight to tie Milwaukee's record, set the previous season. It was L.A.'s third game in three nights. The game went to overtime, but "Stumpy," – a name given to the 6-foot-1 Goodrich by Baylor – sealed the deal, racking up seven of the Lakers' 15 points in overtime in a 126-117 win.

"We had a very tiring travel day yesterday," Sharman explained afterward, noting a bad plane connection from Houston to Oakland. "We had to go almost an entire game with our regulars because it was so close."

The record breaker came two nights later on Dec. 12 against Atlanta. It was the Lakers' fourth game in five nights. They led 96-95 with 61 seconds left. Shortly after that, with the 24-second clock winding down, Goodrich couldn't find a shot. Then he whipped a pass to Chamberlain for a dunk with 39 seconds left. They ended up winning 104-95.

The game bore an imprint of Laker versatility. Wilt had 24 boards – 11 in the fourth quarter – as the Hawks led 77-75 entering the last period. Goodrich scored 32 points, and West added 26. Atlanta's Walt Bellamy battled Chamberlain – with each playing all 48 minutes – and posted 22 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

"The players really wanted it badly," Sharman told the Times, "and that's why they were so tight in their shooting. As a consequence, we never got our running game going. So we had to grind it out the hard way. All the teams we've played lately have been loose, and they've been up for us. … A lot of teams have won championships in the history of the NBA, but nobody has done this."

But without a title in the end, the streak would be all for naught.

Wilt Chamberlain
Associated Press
Wilt Chamberlain sacrificed his offensive game in 1971-72, but he led the Lakers by playing 42.3 minutes per game at age 35.

Los Angeles reeled off 12 more to reach 33 in a row. The team's record loomed at 39-3 when the Lakers traveled to Milwaukee. The Bucks were the defending champions, having won 66 regular-season games the previous season.

"They could match up pretty well with us," Goodrich remembered. "Kareem was the MVP. We were seeing the changing of the guard. They had Oscar [Robertson] and Lucius Allen."

Before 10,746 fans at Milwaukee Arena, the Bucks coldcocked the Lakers, 120-104. Jabbar had a terrific game with 39 points, 20 rebounds and five assists. The Lakers were cold, as Goodrich, West and McMillian shot a combined 17-for-55. West had been injured early in the season and hadn't played in the three previous losses, so it was his first loss of the season after 39 wins.

"The idea was to have Kareem pressing their outlet pass so they couldn't run and to always have one of our forwards crashing the boards," said Milwaukee forward John Block.

Said McMillian: "We lost it. Milwaukee didn't win it."

With the streak over at 33, the Los Angeles Times stopped sending a beat reporter on the road, declaring "Why should we cover losers?"

But there was another record to break. After a loss to Cleveland, the Lakers were 67-13. The NBA record for victories was 68, set by the 76ers in 1966-67, when Wilt won the MVP and led them to the NBA title. The Lakers would beat Phoenix and Seattle at home to finish 69-13 for a mark that would stand until the Bulls won 72 in 1995-96.

To a man, Lakers felt confident entering the playoffs. But their coach was afraid. The year before the Bucks had swept Baltimore in the NBA Finals.

"A big magazine article came out before the 1971-72 season saying how Milwaukee was the greatest team of all-time," said Sharman. "The Lakers had won only 48 games (in 1971), and we weren't even favored to win our division."

1971-72 LAKERS STATISTICS
Player Pts Reb Ast
Gail Goodrich 25.9 3.6 4.5
Jerry West 25.8 4.2 9.7
Jim McMillian 18.8 6.5 2.6
Wilt Chamberlain 14.8 19.2 4.0
Happy Hairston 13.1 13.1 2.4
Flynn Robinson 9.9 1.8 2.2
Pat Riley 6.7 1.9 1.1
John Trapp 5.7 3.1 0.7
LeRoy Ellis 4.6 4.2 0.6

The Lakers hadn't won an NBA championship since they left Minneapolis. What would be said if they didn't finally win now?

After beating Chicago four straight, the Lakers lost their Western Conference finals opener against Milwaukee, 93-72 at the Forum. They couldn't buy a shot as West, Goodrich, Chamberlain, McMillian and Trapp shot a combined 14-for-75 (19 percent). They set a team record for fewest playoff points. Home-court advantage was lost, and Sharman was plenty worried. After Milwaukee won Game 4, 114-88, to tie the series, a Chicago columnist wrote that the Lakers "played like Anarene High, the team from the 'Last Picture Show' that got dumped by scores like 121-16."

But Chamberlain turned the series. Jabbar averaged 34 points and 18 rebounds, but Wilt held him to 46-percent shooting, well off his season mark of 57 percent. Over the last four games, three of which were Los Angeles victories, Jabbar shot just 41 percent. Robertson had an abdominal strain and was never a factor in the series.

In the NBA Finals, the Knicks opened with a blowout win on the Lakers floor, shooting 72 percent in the first half en route to a 114-92 victory.

"After game one, our confidence was soaring," said Frazier. "We thought we could take it."

Then Los Angeles turned the tide with – what else? – a four-game streak. Only Game 4, an overtime contest in New York, was decided by less than 10 points.

"We stopped executing," Frazier said. "We were stagnant on offense. Every night it was another Laker – West, Chamberlain, or Goodrich having a big game. They had it on both ends. They were a pulverizing team."

Chamberlain was named Finals MVP after averaging 15 points and 21 rebounds in 15 postseason games.

West still gets frequent queries about the team.

"People say, 'Everyone must have loved each other on that team,' West said. That wasn't the case at all. People went their own ways."

They were separate, "but not anymore than normal," Goodrich recalls. "We didn't hang out together. Wilt was single and there were a couple other single guys. Someone players are obviously closer than others."

On the floor, where it counted, they were a unit.

"All the players sacrificed for the team, but Wilt sacrificed more than anyone else," Goodrich recalls. "His role really changed, obviously. He was the fourth option. Joe Mullaney coached (the previous season) and he and Wilt never got along. That led to the demise of Mullaney. He got the blame for everything before. He had talent around him. … Wilt had a lot of respect for Sharman because of the Boston teams and the record of winning."

Wilt Chamberlain
Associated Press
Chamberlain led the NBA with 19.2 rebounds per game in the Lakers' first championship season in Los Angeles.

Says Sharman: "Wilt was passing, rebounding; he was such a good teammate."

"[The year] was so ironic because of Baylor's retirement," said West. "You lose a player of his caliber – it was sad to see him retire and that point in time because all of the frustrations of having great seasons and losing every year in the playoffs and not being able to do what every athlete wants to do. But that team changed overnight. It was one of those unique things that sometimes happens in sports. There was no rhyme or reason. With Jim McMillian, there was one less person who dribbled the ball, so that was left to Gail and myself.

"I just think that people did what they were asked to do by Bill, and then we had an incredible confidence."

Sharman never has been one to take too much credit for the streak.

"We were lucky," Sharman said. "We had things go our way and there weren't many injuries. But you know, we scored under 100 only once [a 108-94 loss to Baltimore on March 5]. I think the morning shootarounds helped the team win 33 in a row. You know, a guy told me that the following year almost every team in the league was doing morning shootarounds."

Said Goodrich: "I am very proud of that team. I won on the high school level, and then at UCLA, and then at the pro level, and there aren't a lot of players who can say that. I was a part of a championship team. I filled a role with each of those teams.

"I'm proud of that '72 season," Chamberlain told the Chicago Tribune. "That's a record I don't think anyone will come close to breaking."

Amen. Etch it in stone.

Kenneth Shouler was the managing editor for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.