I guess we have to pay attention to the Lakers now

With the excitement of the Olympics over and the promise of the baseball season yet to begin, it seems that we have no choice but to return our attention to the dispiriting nature of the Lakers' season, and of the coverage of it in the media.

This depressing prospect makes me wonder if a period of benign neglect might not be in order. There is, I should point out, historical precedent for this, which might prove instructive in these difficult times.

wilt-si-cover.jpgAs hard as it might be to credit in this all-Lakers-all-the-time era, there was a period in the 70s when the LA Times did not cover the team's road games. This lasted for a number of seasons, good ones and bad, despite the fact that Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain were all on the team then. Nor did the fact that the Herald-Examiner did cover the Lakers on the road move the paper to assign a reporter to travel with them.

Those of us working in the Times' sport department were never really sure why the Lakers were treated this way--I can't remember us ever abandoning the Dodgers--though some suspected the fact that the sports editor was a southerner who occasionally proclaimed his antipathy toward the assertive black athletes like those entering the NBA in increasing numbers might have had something to do with it.

This unbending policy received its greatest test during the 1971-72 season, when the Lakers won their first NBA title since moving to Los Angeles, winning a record 69 games during the regular season and beating the New York Knicks in five games in the finals.
But the Lakers' most remarkable accomplishment that season was their 33-game win streak. It was an astonishing achievement, one that more than 40 years later remains unequalled not only in the NBA but in all professional team sports.

As the victories piled up, the Times did get into the spirit of the thing to some extent. I recall doing a story on consecutive victories in other sports that dug up the New York Giants' 26-game win streak in 1916, a major-league baseball record that still stands. But not until the Lakers' streak reached 20 games did the paper finally succumb and send the team's beat writer, Mal Florence, on the road.

I will pause here to note that Florence was beloved by just about everybody who ever worked with him. A self-described "grunge"--a straight-ahead writer who described the game, quoted the players and left the fancy rhetorical footwork to the Red Smith wannabees--he was famous for his one-liners, many of which are lovingly retold to this day, and a master of the put-on.

Once, when Lakers' owner Jack Kent Cooke asked why he was limping, Florence convinced him that an old wound he had suffered on the Bataan Death March had flared up. Asked if he had ever been to Dusseldorf, the site of an important upcoming international track meet, Florence said, "No, but I've been over it."

While covering a Lakers game from his perch high up in the Forum stands, he astonished a young woman who had recently joined the Times sports staff with the amount of running copy he was turning out while the game was going on. How did he find time to watch the game? she asked.

"Oh," Florence said, almost as a reflex, "when I fall too far behind, I just signal Bill Sharman like this to call a timeout so I can catch up." He waved his hand to demonstrate and, just his luck, the Lakers' coach did signal for a timeout at exactly that moment.

Though Florence meant to let her in on the gag before the game ended, he became too caught up in his work and forgot. For days, she went around repeating the story until somebody finally took pity and told her not to believe everything Florence said.

Florence was in his element traveling with the Lakers, reporting on each successive victory with growing enthusiasm. But finally in a game in Milwaukee in January, they lost by 16 points to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks and the longest winning streak in the history of American professional sports came to an end.

It was still a great story, of course. Would the Lakers shake it off and continue as if they had encountered a mere annoyance? Would they go on an extended losing streak? Were their chances for a championship in jeopardy?

The next day, Sharman and a few of the players were standing around chatting in the ornate lobby of Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel, waiting until it was time to go to the airport and fly to Detroit, when the elevator door opened and Florence marched out carrying his suitcase and typewriter and headed for the door.

"Mal," Sharman called out. "Where are you going?"

"Sorry, Bill," Florence replied. "I don't cover losers." And he walked out the door, took a cab to the airport and flew home.

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