'72 Lakers were as good as it got

Updated: April 17, 2004, 4:00 PM ET
By Bill Walton | Special to ESPN.com

As the Los Angeles Lakers alternate between surging toward their fourth NBA championship in five years and spiraling ever downward as one of the most perplexing and disappointing teams in the history of the NBA, it is not an outrageous leap of faith to compare this current squad of once and former greats to a team that really did have it all and actually knew what to do with it.

I'm old enough to remember the 1972 Lakers as a squad that current basketball fans can only hope this present-day Lakers team someday begins to emulate. Way back when, I was a sophomore in college at UCLA when a truly remarkable aggregation of professional talent actually exceeded the hype and hope of a world searching desperately for authenticity.

The parallels are uncanny. A brash and dynamic owner that did and does things his own way ('72 Lakers: Jack Kent Cooke; '04 Lakers: Dr. Jerry Buss).

An innovative Hall of Fame coach that far too many people think was relatively unimportant ('72: Bill Sharman; '04: Phil Jackson). The huge and powerful anchor in the middle who later in his career built his game around defense, rebounding and passing ('72: Wilt Chamberlain; '04: Shaquille O'Neal).

Exquisite guards who were on top of their offensive games ('72: Jerry West and Gail Goodrich; '04: Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton).

A powerful and dynamic big forward who always had everybody's back while willingly doing all the dirty work ('72: Happy Hairston; '04 Karl Malone). A crafty, cerebral small forward who could score, run the floor, feed the post and defend ('72: Jim McMillian; '04: Rick Fox).

Fabulous assistant coaches who had historical impacts of their own ('72: K.C. Jones; '04: Tex Winter, Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis). A complementary bench that could carry on or change things around if necessary ('72: Pat Riley, Flynn Robinson, Keith Erickson; '04: Derek Fisher and Horace Grant).

Nice guys and underappreciated general managers ('72: Fred Schaus; '04: Mitch Kupchak). Unique personalities as longtime trainers who set a tone of happiness and joy through health and hard work ('72: Frank O'Neill; '04: Gary Vitti). A state-of-the-art building that was and is the envy of the entertainment world ('72: the Fabulous Forum; '04: Staples Center). An overwhelmingly huge fan base that has seen the best and will forever settle for nothing less.

The '70s was a decade of unmatched brilliance and balance throughout the NBA. It was the only decade in league history in which there were no repeat champions. Only two of the league's 17 franchises of that day were able to win more than one title (Knicks and Celtics), and to accentuate just how long ago this really was, the Baltimore/Washington Bullets made four Final appearances in the '70s yet were able to win it all only once.

This was a league with so many powerhouses and real stars. Milwaukee with Kareem, Oscar, Bob Dandridge and Lucius Allen. New York with Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Dick Barnett. The Celtics with Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Don Nelson, Paul Silas, Jo Jo White and Don Chaney. Baltimore with Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson. San Francisco with Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond. Chicago with Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker and Bob Love. Hall of Fame level coaches sat atop nearly every professional basketball franchise: Red Holzman, Jack Ramsay, Tommy Heinsohn, Lenny Wilkens, Alex Hannum, Al Attles, Larry Costello, Hubie Brown, Dick Motta, Bill Fitch, Gene Shue, Slick Leonard, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Lou Carnesecca.

But oh that '72 Lakers squad. Oh my! That team really didn't take off until nine games into the season when Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor was forced to give it up because his leg would no longer carry him. Jim McMillian stepped in seamlessly and the team went on a record-setting 33-game win streak. Those '72 Lakers went on to set so many all-time records, chronicled daily by the wit and wisdom of Chick Hearn: Best record in league history (69-13), best road record in league history (31-7), longest winning streak in league history (33), longest road winning streak in league history (16).

Those Lakers topped the NBA in scoring (121.0 points per game), rebounding (56.4 per game), assists (27.2 per game) and point differential (plus 12.3 points per game). And that is only the beginning of the story.

Bill Sharman, only the third person to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens are the others), was ridiculously ahead of his time. He not only invented the morning "shootaround", but he also got Wilt to accept it. Sadly, he gave his voice and ultimately his career to that perfect season. Sharman was assisted in those days by just one coach, K.C. Jones, who I later came to learn was the closest thing to John Wooden I ever experienced.

Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt and the '72 Lakers completed their dream season with a Finals win over New York.
Wilt was everything anybody could ever ask for. Already the game's most accomplished record holder, he turned his concentration to the team. Opponents could not even think about approaching the rim when Wilt defended, rebounded and ignited fastbreaks with phenomenal ferocity and consistency. I even remember Wilt taking the ball out of bounds on the rare occasion the other team actually scored. On the offensive end, Wilt was the pivot -- the hub of the wheel offense -- finding cutters with the wraparound, behind-the-back bounce passes, creating wide-open shots for teammates with dribble handoffs and drawing double teams with his mere existence. Wilt didn't look to score much in those sacred days except when members of the media would occasionally criticize him for having lost it. Wilt would promptly restore order in the universe by delivering 50 on some poor soul.

And then the guards: Jerry and Gail. Each averaged more than 25 points per game that season. Goodrich, getting lots of points early, generally carried the team in the first half, then stepped aside to let West finish the job. And what defenders they were, funneling everything into Wilt.

McMillian was the newcomer from Columbia, but what an addition he was. The spacing, the running of the floor, the swing passes, the pull-up jumpers on the break ... Laker fans had basked in the unparalleled majesty of Elgin Baylor for so long that there was real concern about Jimmy Mac. But he instantly showed his game was along the lines of the great small forwards of the day -- with Havlicek, Bradley, Billy Cunningham, Dandridge -- and that the Lakers were literally unbeatable. He was then quickly accepted.

Happy Hairston, the unsung hero, was the man without the fanfare much like Karl Malone today -- the guy who made it all work. Happy would guard anybody and everybody. Wilt didn't want to leave the basket area, so Happy covered all the skilled big men that tried to lure Wilt from his domain. Happy often started the fastbreak with tremendous rebounding and relentless pounding up and down the court. Happy was very much the skilled player who allowed Wilt and all the other stars to do their thing. He was a truly gifted passer as well, although Chick was convinced Happy was colorblind what with all the passes to the wrong team. Happy is sadly no longer with us having passed in 2001, finally succumbing to the ravages of cancer at the tender age of 58.

The bench was eclectic and extremely productive with gunners, runners, defenders and spirit. Sharman and K.C. had it all at their disposal. Nobody else really had a chance. The '72 Lakers mowed down their opposition so methodically that the real suspense was not the outcome but rather the crushing level of excellence. Once the playoffs began, L.A. swept the Bulls before eliminating the defending champion Bucks on Milwaukee's home court. In the end, they dispatched a great Knicks team 4-1 in the Finals.

It remains to be seen whether this current Laker squad has what it takes. The supposed-to-be-perfect season has already been derailed by injuries and self-inflicted wounds of nonsensical proportions. We know full well what the Lakers did 32 years ago. We also know that team was not beset by inconsistency, apathy, selfishness and out of control egos driven by self promotion. Though I was so very young back then, I don't recall that team having to tell anybody how good they were -- they let their game do their talking for them. There was no whining, complaining or excuse-making. And certainly no one shooting impossible-to-describe shots while fully guarded by the entire opposition. This was a team in the greatest sense of the word. This was the kind of team that made young boys want to dedicate their lives to the NBA.

The standard has been set. Does anyone dare to match?

Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.