50 Years of Lakers Memories – My Early Years
• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
This is the first in a series of articles reflecting back on my experiences growing up with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The first time I fell in love with the Los Angeles Lakers came in an era before Showtime, in fact it was when they weren’t very good, but nonetheless I fell in head-over-heels and cheered for them with all of the fervor and passion that I could muster. There weren’t many NBA games televised back in the mid-70s and there wasn’t any cable coverage either, in fact, cable wasn’t even born yet. So I had to rely on my trusty AM radio and listen to the games propped up in my bed, staring intently into the radio dial as I tried in vain to hear the thump-thump of the bouncing ball and the high-pitched squeaks emitted from the Chuck Taylors.
Games were played in Inglewood at the Fabulous Forum (before it’s name changed to the Great Western Forum), in a smoke-filled arena with orange colored seats. The food was horrible fare, dry and hard from sitting under heat lamps, the only soda they served was RC Cola, and the men’s urinal was a huge, community trough that often splashed onto an unlucky aimer. There weren’t any Laker Girls or Lakers Band. There was no Dancing Barry or Kiss-Cam and for that matter, the NBA wasn’t quite FANtastic just yet. But there was basketball, performed by talented, high soaring, and very tall, professionals.
It was 1974 and my home team didn’t have many superstars on their roster, (not that I would have recognized one back then anyway), so I was relegated to rooting for dudes named Zelmo, or Stan, or a guy with a smashed, flattened nose called Stu Lantz. But I followed them reverently, listening late into the night with Chick Hearn on the play-by-play. His sidekick was a fellow named Lynn Shackelford, and I used to cringe whenever Chick would cut him off in mid-sentence. You could almost see Shackelford rolling his eyes and hear him exhaling heavily each time Chick did this to him. And it was often.
The leader of the team was none other than a diminutive guard, Gail Goodrich. He could shoot, pass, play point and score at will, but I always felt that he was one hard foul away from heading to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. He was constantly knocked down, tripped up, and trampled upon. The lefty had a sweet shot that left his hands so quickly that you were amazed each time it wasn’t swatted back into his face. The 31-yr old, 10-season veteran averaged 22.6 points per game that season and was three years removed from the ’71-’72 championship team with Wilt and Jerry. And after that ’74-’75 season, he would play only one more year with the Lakers before signing with the New Orleans Jazz for a pair of future first round draft picks, one of which would later become Earvin Magic Johnson.
There was a powerful forward on the team named Kermit Washington, who hailed from somewhere called American University, and he was the type of player you always pulled for, because he wasn’t as naturally gifted as the others, but he played hard and he hustled. If only he could learn to harness his energy, and his propensity to get into immediate foul trouble. I learned to love each one of my Lakers, no matter how insignificant or minute their contribution was to each game, and that season, Kermit saw very limited action. In following seasons, Kermit finally lived up to his enormous potential but would forever be remembered in sports infamy for a much more heinous act.
Although we were short on superstars, we weren’t short on former superstars. Perhaps a little long in the tooth, nonetheless, these guys were once crowd pleasers themselves. I never got the chance to actually see Connie Hawkins play, because for one reason or another, he was always hurt. Chick would fondly recall how amazing some of the “Hawk’s” moves were, but I could only imagine how great he actually once was. It wasn’t until much later that I truly began to appreciate what his style and grace brought to the game. But at that time, he was just another player who unfortunately, was hurt and unable to play.
Cazzie Russell, was a sharpshooter that hailed from Michigan and had the great ability of knocking down a string of jumpers only to miss the one you needed the most. He would score 25-points in three quarters, then miss 7 straight shots. You would always wait with baited breath for fear of being disappointed again.
Lucius Allen, who played on the storied teams at UCLA, was a fan favorite, yet there was always this strange cloud that loomed over him, like he carried some sort of heavy burden on his shoulders. Chick would sometimes make reference that something had happened in the past, but he would never just come out and say it. I guess back then, drug use was more taboo than the disease/addiction it is known as today, so it was easier for Chick to bury it under the carpet.
Happy Hairston was a fierce rebounder, who managed to grab every ball in sight, but couldn’t throw a pea into the ocean. There was rookie, Brian Winters, who was a hustle-guy and showed tremendous promise as the future shooting guard of the Lakers when Goodrich retired. And Corky Calhoun was just a player you loved to watch as his huge afro bounced in unison with his smooth and ballet-like moves to the basket.
There was shot blocker extraordinaire Elmore Smith, a brute of a man who seemed more rhinoceros than human. He rarely smiled and it seemed like he didn’t enjoy playing basketball like the other players did. But if you needed someone to do the dirty work, like set screens, box out, inbounds the ball and play ferocious defense, then Elmore was your guy.
Pat Riley played little and I never got the sense that he mattered much. His playing time was relegated to short bursts of action, where he often came in for Goodrich, only to leave the floor a short few seconds later. I also thought his bushy mustache made him look like a bartender in a saloon, like the guy you saw on Gunsmoke.
Z-e-l-m-o Beaty was a name that I loved to say over and over. And it soon became a moniker that my friends and I used whenever someone made a bonehead play. I didn’t know much about Zelmo the player, nor did I care, all I knew was that he seldom scored and when he did, it was a surprise to all. 35-years old Beaty, the 3rd pick of the 1962 draft, had actually been a solid player having averaged 20+ points per game for St. Louis/Atlanta, then set a career high mark of 23.6 with the Utah Stars of the ABA. Beaty was on the last leg of his career that season, and unbeknownst to him, his name would forever be implanted into my memory banks.
Stan Love (father of Kevin of the Minnesota Timberwolves), was a curly-haired, Love, American Style-type with the open collared shirts, huge sideburns and Riley-like bushy mustache. He would play two abbreviated seasons with the Lakers before ending his career (after four short years), with the ABA’s San Antonio Spurs. His playing time was limited as were his skills when compared to the much more athletic players that surrounded him.
It was guys like Stan and Zelmo and Kermit and Happy that I enjoyed pulling for… Chick made listening to basketball fun and he was able to portray the action beautifully, poetically transforming stumbling feet into feats of near astonishment. It wasn’t until I went to my first Lakers game at the Fabulous Forum that I realized just how bad these guys were. I found it somewhat more interesting listening to Chick’s commentary being piped into the men’s restroom than watching the game in near silence from our baseline seats. They went 30-52 that season under hall-of-famer, Bill Sharman. Sharman would go on to coach only one more season with the Lakers, then mysteriously retire just when it looked like they were on the verge for another run at the title.
But that first inaugural season for me, listening and watching the Los Angeles Lakers, was my first step on the road to uncontrolled fanaticism. I never dreamed that I would be so intoxicated with passion that I would plan my day around their schedule. I would make sure that I was done with my homework, done with my chores, and somewhat tucked in and presumed asleep before I listened to Chick on the radio. And on those rare, special weekends, when my uncle would take us to a game at the Forum, I sat intent and motionless, unable to blink my eyes for fear of missing something. I would watch the entire game in a state of amazement and idealistic adornment for my newfound heroes as my stinging eyes were barely able to focus from all of the cigarette smoke that filled the air. But I loved it all and from that inaugural season of Lakers basketball, the rest of my life would follow suit in similar fashion.