On this date: A most painful Game 7 Finals loss for the Lakers
This season, the Los Angeles Lakers were unsuccessful in their attempt to build a “superteam.”
It wasn’t exactly the first time the franchise attempted to win the NBA championship with such a squad.
In the early and mid-1960s, the Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor reached the NBA Finals five times, only to lose each time to the Boston Celtics, twice in a hotly contested Game 7.
Tired of not being able to match up with Bill Russell, the Celtics’ fire-breathing center, L.A. went out and traded for an even bigger fire-breather in the summer of 1968: Wilt Chamberlain.
In Chamberlain, West and Baylor, the Lakers had perhaps the best collection of talent in league history to that point.
But it wasn’t easy, as Chamberlain was stubborn and hard to coach. He often feuded with head coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who himself wasn’t the easiest man to get along with.
Still, L.A. won 55 games and returned to the championship series for one last tango with the Celtics.
Difference place, same result
The Lakers were favored this time, and after West led them to a 2-0 series lead, it looked like they were about to get revenge.
But as they always seemed to do, the Celtics took advantage of the luck of the Irish and fought back to force a Game 7.
Unlike in past years, this Game 7 would be held at The Forum in Inglewood, and Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so absolutely sure his team would win that he planned an elaborate celebration.
He hung thousands of balloons in the rafters that would be released at the final horn, and he had the University of Southern California band on hand to play “Happy Days are Here Again.”
According to legend, Cooke put a memo on every seat in the arena describing this victory celebration, and Russell took a copy into the Celtics’ locker room.
He told his teammates that those balloons wouldn’t be released, that the band wouldn’t play and that all these cases of champagne the Lakers had on ice would be really, really old by the time they drank it.
West loathed the idea of such a grandiose victory celebration being planned in advance, but he also wanted this win as much as anyone else.
He would play one of the greatest Game 7s in history, putting up 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. However, the Celtics, as always, were more of a team.
They got out to a 24-12 lead, and although the Lakers pulled to within three at halftime, the men in green, despite being an old squad, played excellent defense and ran at every opportunity, which took them to a 91-76 lead after three quarters.
Then came an unthinkable piece of drama.
Chamberlain vs van Breda Kolff
With just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Lakers were trying to make a rally. They trailed 103-94 when Chamberlain tweaked his knee after grabbing a rebound and had to come out of the game.
Unexpectedly, with Mel Counts, a mediocre big man, filling in for Chamberlain, L.A. got hot thanks to West’s fear of losing yet another championship, and it came to within one point with two minutes remaining.
Chamberlain was good to go, and he let van Breda Kolff know, but the coach told the future Hall of Famer that the team was doing well enough without him.
Say what? In crunch time of Game 7 with the world championship at stake? Against the Celtics?
Without the game’s most dominant player, the Lakers fell short yet again, 108-106. There would be no balloons, no champagne, no band playing a jubilant song of joy.
Instead, there would be anger, sorrow, anguish and lifelong angst.
West was inconsolable and felt like quitting basketball, the one thing in life he truly cared about (he would actually play five more seasons). Anytime he talks publicly about this loss, the sadness and wistfulness in his voice is palpable.
Imagine something like what happened between Chamberlain and van Breda Kolff happening nowadays in the age of social media.
Imagine one faction calling Chamberlain names and blaming him for the loss because he took himself out for what turned out to be a non-injury, while another faction blamed van Breda Kolff for essentially costing his team a ring.
The Lakers would finally get their rings three years later, but it wasn’t the catharsis they dreamed of, as they beat the Knicks and not the Celtics in the Finals.
They wouldn’t finally defeat the Celtics for the world title until 1985, and it wasn’t until 2010 that the Lakers beat them in a Game 7.
That’s how long it took the Purple and Gold to avenge the bad fortune that took place throughout the 1960s.