1971-72 Lakers wonder if record 33-game win streak will weather Heat's challenge

Wilt Chamberlain, whose larger-than-life personality even exceeded his prodigious physical stature, once warned boxing legend Sonny Liston he could take over as heavyweight champion. He also boasted about sleeping with more than 20,000 women, so modesty was never one of Wilt's best traits.

Chamberlain liked to do everything big, including win. As the starting center for the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, he won an NBA-record 33 consecutive games – a streak now being challenged by the Miami Heat.

And what would Chamberlain think of the Heat – who will enter Monday's game in Orlando having won 26 in a row – making a run at the Lakers' historic mark?

"He would have cared," said Jim McMillian, a teammate of Chamberlain's and a starting forward on that '71-72 Lakers team. "He would have said they didn't deserve to win; things like the league is very watered down, they are not as good as we were and if we were to play them we would crush them.

"Wilt would have liked to play Miami because he knew they wouldn't have anyone to stop him."

Heat president Pat Riley was a member of that record-setting Lakers team. And while Chamberlain might not have wanted Miami to make history, McMillian and Hall of Famer Jerry West – another star on the '71-72 Lakers – said they won't be upset if the record falls.

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"If you say to me, 'Does it bother you?' Absolutely not," West said in a recent media conference call. "I think it's great for the league. I'm delighted for my friend, Pat Riley. If they break it, my gosh, it's a wonderful story. I would have no problem with that."

Said McMillian: "It might not get broken, but I didn't think anyone would get this close to it with today's athlete. Today's athlete is not as focused as when we played. They get so much money and notoriety."

With each victory, the Heat have attracted more attention and pressure. McMillian said the media spotlight became brighter and the road crowds grew bigger once the Lakers neared the then-reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks' record of 18 games set the previous season. Those Lakers broke the record with their 19th straight win during a 124-111 road victory against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 9, 1971.

"I don't remember who we played that night," McMillian said. "I was just enjoying the ride. Some of those games are blurred."

"Every game after that was just another notch on our belt," said Jim Cleamons, a guard on the '71-72 Lakers.

The Lakers' win streak record stretched to 33 games with a 134-90 road win over the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 7, 1972. It ended the following game against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and the Bucks. Abdul-Jabbar scored 39 points during a 120-104 victory for the Bucks.

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The Lakers' streak lasted from Nov. 5, 1971, to Jan. 7, 1972, with just 10 games decided by single digits.

"All of us went in the locker room and felt like we had lost our best friend," West said.

Said Cleamons, who rarely played that season: "It was like walking through hell with gasoline drawers on. They were certainly up for the task. They kicked our ass like we stole something. I even almost got in the game."

McMillian believes it was good the Lakers' streak ended in January, early in the season. He also thinks Miami's late-season streak could take its toll on reigning champions.

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"We had a chance to regroup emotionally, mentally, physically," McMillian said. "We said, 'OK, we had a good run on the streak and let's get ready for the championship run.' [The Heat] are pushing themselves to break this record and not lose. They are not going to have a chance to regroup because next thing you know the playoffs are here."

Some people think Miami's streak is already more impressive than the Lakers' record. The NBA only had 17 teams during the 1971-72 season. The rival American Basketball Association was also in existence with 11 teams, drawing away some top talent like Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel.

"I'm not going to knock somebod

y's opinion. There might be some validity to that, but you can only play the games that are in front of you," Cleamons said.

West, however, thinks there are "some very poor teams" in today's 30-franchise NBA. Miami also is in the weaker Eastern Conference and teams don't have to fly commercial as the old Lakers did.

"Expansion has diluted the talent," West said. "It hasn't made talent better. So it's harder to get a lot of good players on one team today."

Not long after the 33-game win steak ended, then-Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke rewarded the team with a gift. McMillian said then-Lakers general manager Fred Schaus came into the locker room with a box of pens for each player. Each set had an inscription commemorating the record win streak. Once Schaus left, Chamberlain took each pen set from his teammates' lockers and disposed of them.

"You know how people used to get those pen sets and put them on their desk," McMillian said. "Wilt got very upset, collected all of them and threw them away. He was like, 'What are we going to do with these pen sets?' "

The 1971-72 Lakers, however, were given rings commemorating the 40-year anniversary of their streak. With the Heat drawing closer and closer to those old Lakers, the gift might have arrived at just the right time.

"It's good we got the rings now," McMillian said.

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