Mar 05, 2020, 05:57AM

Abandon All Hope Basketball Fans

You can’t “beat L.A.”

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Aside from arriving in Los Angeles with five Minneapolis-won championships already in tow to artificially bolster their legacy, the Lakers sewed the seeds of their contemporary dominance through a relic of a bygone basketball era: the territorial draft pick. In all fairness, the owners of the National Basketball Association ultimately took steps to rectify the situation, but the damage had already been done.

The absurdity of the situation regarding Wilt Chamberlain’s entry into the NBA is an excellent starting point for attempting to explain the long-since-eliminated territorial rule adopted by the league in 1954, and eliminated by the league in 1965.

Chamberlain, who’d only just enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1955, was already assured of his future NBA destination. Thanks to the NBA’s territorial-rights rule, an NBA franchise could elect to forfeit its first-round pick if it opted to lay claim to a talent that lived within 50 miles of the city in which the team resided. Since Chamberlain grew up in Philadelphia and attended Overbrook High School, the Philadelphia Warriors could exercise their hometown right to draft Chamberlain.

Only a few events could’ve prevented this transaction from occurring, and none of them were likely. First, Chamberlain might’ve opted not to play professional basketball once he’d concluded his tenure at Kansas. Second, an NBA franchise might move to within a 50-mile radius of Lawrence, Kansas. If the latter event were to transpire, and an NBA franchise landed in Kansas City, the rights to select Chamberlain with a territorial pick would automatically transfer to the theoretical Kansas City basketball club.

Obviously, none of that happened. The Warriors gleefully selected the 7’2” Chamberlain with their territorial pick, even after he’d opted out of his final season at Kansas and played for a single barnstorming season with the Harlem Globetrotters. Philadelphia immediately leapt from the basement of the Eastern Division to the second best record in the league, with Chamberlain leading the NBA in scoring for the first of what would be eight consecutive seasons.

Due to the NBA’s disposition toward expansion and fan stabilization, the idea of the territorial draft selection was to allow the local franchises to leverage the popularity achieved by collegiate stars with ties to the cities in which those professional franchises had planted themselves. And, in prior seasons, the caliber of players to which franchises had no claim under the territorial rule had been shockingly high. Actually, it would have been shocking except for the fact that there were fewer than 10 NBA franchises in existence, and many of the nation’s best players neither grew up in the few cities where NBA teams dwelled, nor played collegiate ball within a 50-mile radius of those cities.

It’s for this reason that Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, each of whom was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, somehow managed to fall into the hands of the Minneapolis Lakers shortly before the Lakers relocated to Los Angeles.

No teams attempted to build themselves into contendership through the territorial loophole more aggressively than the Cincinnati Royals. As a precursor to the mockery that would unfold out west, the Royals enjoyed unfettered access to the tremendous talent pouring out of the University of Cincinnati at the time, including players who’d contributed to a dynastic run of five consecutive Final Four appearances between 1959 and 1963, along with two National Championship wins.

During a six-year stretch, the Royals nabbed Mike Mendenhall (1959), Oscar Robertson (1960), Ralph Davis (1960), Bob Wiesenhahn (1961), Jerry Lucas (1962), Tom Thacker (1963) and George Wilson (1964). All of them played for the University of Cincinnati with the exception of Lucas, whom they still claimed the territorial rights to since he grew up in Middletown, just 40 miles north of Cincinnati.

In essence, the Royals fielded a reconstituted version of an NCAA powerhouse team. It was fortunate for the league that no NBA franchise could yet boast the ultimate unfair advantage of residing in a true major-market city that simultaneously boasted a powerhouse collegiate program. However, that all changed in 1960, when the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, which contained both the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles within its borders.

The presence of the Lakers in Los Angeles posed an obvious threat to the integrity of the territorial draft option: Marquee players who wished to play professional basketball in Los Angeles could preemptively draft themselves to the Lakers simply by choosing to attend USC or UCLA. Ultimately, this is precisely what happened.

Context is important here for other reasons. At the time of the Lakers’ relocation, there were only eight NBA teams, and the Lakers became the only team situated either west or south of St. Louis. In terms of places that players would prefer to spend their time during the chilly fall and winter months of a typical NBA season, no other city in the league could compete with Los Angeles. Therefore, the allure of Los Angeles to marquee high-school players was palpable, since they could realistically expect to maneuver themselves into the most lavish professional climate in the league simply by being a dominant force at a university in or near Los Angeles County.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for benefits owed to the Lakers presence in Los Angeles to start trickling down to the local universities. In 1964, the Lakers exercised their territorial rights to Walt Hazzard, the NCAA’s player of the year from UCLA’s NCAA championship team. Hazzard had grown up in Philadelphia, but decided to travel completely across the country to play for John Wooden’s Bruins, and became the foremost star of Wooden’s first championship team at UCLA.

The following season, UCLA won its second consecutive collegiate title, and the Lakers once again exercised their territorial rights to draft Bruins’ guard Gail Goodrich, the 1965 national college player of the year. Goodrich would go on to lead the 1972 Lakers in scoring during both the regular season and the playoffs, and co-starred with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain on the first Lakers team to rightfully win a championship after the franchise had moved to Los Angeles.

The very same week in which Goodrich was drafted by the Lakers, New York City’s most dominant high school phenom in history—the 7’1” Lew Alcindor—declared that he’d travel across the country to suit up for UCLA, stating: “I like the curriculum there, and the atmosphere, and the people were nice to me.”

Alcindor’s presence at UCLA highlighted the fundamental flaw of a system that permitted territorial claims, and sportswriters spotted it immediately. Within a week of Alcindor’s declaration that he’d play for the Bruins, Bob Johnson of The Spokane Chronicle editorialized about the unfair advantage held by the Lakers, saying it was “just a matter of time” before the Lakers fielded more talent than the Boston Celtics, as long as they kept exercising their territorial rights over Bruins players.

That June, the NBA owners moved quickly and voted during their annual meeting to erase the territorial claim rule, with St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner mincing no words about why striking down the rule was so critical. “If the Lakers got Lew Alcindor, the rest of us might as well throw in the sponge,” Kerner explained to a reporter from The Los Angeles Times. Of course, none of this prevented Lew Alcindor from playing for the Lakers altogether. It simply delayed the inevitable, because Alcindor would eventually ask the Milwaukee Bucks to let him “go home.”

As it turns out, the practice of NBA free agents either requesting or exercising the option to “go home” is far from a modern occurrence. Of course, the definition of “home” has gone through several permutations, and has had its boundaries stretched depending upon the player making the request.

For example, Carmelo Anthony’s 2011 debut with the New York Knicks was promoted as a homecoming—complete with the unveiling of a highlight video set to Skylar Grey’s Coming Home for the jubilant Madison Square Garden crowd—owed to the fact that Carmelo was born in Brooklyn in 1984, and played one year collegiately in a national-championship-winning effort with Syracuse University. However, the instant you learn that Carmelo moved to Baltimore at the age of eight, and recognize that Syracuse is a four-hour drive from New York City (Baltimore is actually an hour closer), the homecoming story loses some of its legitimacy.

Regardless of modern considerations for what constitutes a homecoming, when Alcindor—who first began publicly asking everyone to refer to him as “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” in 1969—forced the hand of the Milwaukee Bucks by manipulating them into trading him to either his hometown of New York or his adopted hometown of Los Angeles by the start of the 1975-76 NBA season, he set in motion a series of events that would shape the destiny of the National Basketball Association for the next 50 years.

While Kareem, already a three-time league MVP and a one-time champion with the Bucks, was the most noteworthy of the NBA players to alter his name in a reflection of his adoption of the Islamic faith, he was far from the only player to do so. Moreover, when he landed in Los Angeles alongside Walt Wesley in a trade that sent Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman to Milwaukee in his stead, it placed him on the same team as fellow UCLA alumnus Gail Goodirch, and his presence also made Los Angeles an attractive free agent destination for several players around the league, and doubly attractive for one player in particular.

Jackson Keith Wilkes legally changed his name to “Jamaal Abdul-Lateef” during the summer of 1975 as a reflection of his own adoption of Islam. He was still celebrating his selection as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, which was a pleasant accompaniment to the NBA championship he’d recently won with the Golden State Warriors. It was the first title won by the Warriors since their move to The Bay, and the last one they’d win prior to the arrival of star guard Stephen Curry more than three decades later.

Despite being born just north of Oakland in Berkeley, Wilkes obviously felt more at home in Southern California. He’d grown up in Ventura, roughly 70 miles from the city of Los Angeles. More importantly, like Kareem, Wilkes had attended UCLA and teamed with Bill Walton on two championship teams during the Bruins’ dynastic accumulation of ten championships during the 1960s and 70s.

By 1976, Wilkes was an NBA champion, an award winner, and an All-Star. Surprisingly, after deliberately stonewalling the Warriors’ efforts to sign him to a new contract, Wilkes shocked the Warriors and the rest of the league by inking a deal with his hometown Lakers. “I was happy [in the Bay Area], we won the championship one year, and the fans were great, but I felt I deserved more money,” answered Wilkes when reporters asked him why he was leaving the Warriors after three successful seasons.

Late in the 1977 season, Wilkes openly expressed his lamentations about the handling of his first NBA contract with Bob Hayes of The San Francisco Examiner. According to Hayes, the two primary sources of Wilkes’ frustrations with the Warriors stemmed from general manager Dick Vertlieb conveniently forgetting his promise to renegotiate Wilkes’ contract if he had an above-average rookie season (apparently being named Rookie of the Year hadn’t done the trick), coupled with the preferential treatment and heightened tolerance for bad behavior afforded to the team’s superstar player, Rick Barry.

Hayes quoted Wilkes as saying: “As soon as the season ended, I talked with the Lakers. Yesterday, when we reached agreement, I contacted my attorney (Fred Slaughter), told him I was ready to sign, and that was it.” However, Slaughter almost immediately contradicted his client’s assertion that money was the primary issue at play. “It was not the financial thing that was the biggest,” admitted Slaughter. “Jamaal has wanted to play with Kareem, and has wanted to return home and play before fans who watched him before. Actually, the Warriors were in front in the race to sign him until almost the end. But, the opportunity to return home, to play with Kareem and for Jerry West sort of changed the end of the race.”

Wilkes then continued to gush about how returning home to play for the Lakers was the second best thing to happen to him in his life, exceeded only by winning the 1975 NBA Championship with the Warriors. “Playing basketball at UCLA was one of the fun times of my life,” Wilkes stated. “I’m returning to play in front of fans I played for then. I’ll be playing with Kareem, whom I think is the greatest player in the game. My parents live 90 miles from there. I live 60 miles from there. I was always enthused about the Lakers organization. As a youngster, I watched Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.”

Apparently, Wilkes harbored no resentment for the very same franchise and player that had bounced his Warriors team from the second round of the most recent season’s playoffs in seven tough games. Furthermore, he certainly wasn’t entertaining any discussions about who the best center in the NBA was at that moment, even if the star of the reigning champions in Portland happened to be the very same man who’d helped him deliver two championships to UCLA during his tenure there.

“[Bill] Walton had a fantastic year, but it was only one year,” Wilkes told the press. “For endurance, consistency over a long period of time, unselfishness and total dedication, I think Kareem is the greatest.”

Wilkes was the first legitimately homegrown Los Angeles basketball talent to have witnessed the Lakers develop into NBA champions right before his youthful eyes. He then crafted himself into a hot free-agent commodity, and leveraged the options he had generated for himself through his hardwood successes into a triumphant return home to play at The Forum in the hopes of delivering additional titles to his beloved hometown franchise.

Make no mistake about it; the movement of the Lakers to Los Angeles swung several future NBA championships. At the time of the team’s relocation, Los Angeles became the most attractive location in the NBA solely based on its climate and geography, which was handy when it came time to acquire a limelight-thirsty megastar like Wilt Chamberlain in 1968. Beyond that, the presence of the territorial draft rule encouraged young stars to attend Los Angeles-based universities in the hopes of ultimately landing in the most attractive NBA market, and the subsequent successes of the UCLA Bruins continued to make Los Angeles an attractive place to play collegiate basketball even after the territorial draft option was voted out of existence.

Of course, the damage had already been done; a generation of elite collegiate players considered Los Angeles to be “home.” To that end, they engaged in everything short of outright collusion to deliver championships to their adopted home, and this only served to stoke the desires of local Los Angeles residents to contribute to the hometown legacy of basketball dominance. As a result of this, the Lakers have summarily manufactured an era where they have the second largest title count in the league, possess a massive worldwide fanbase, are situated in America’s number-two media market, are located in the entertainment capital of the entire world, and play in a subtropical climate along a waterfront.

This is why, every summer, at least one marquee free-agent talent is heavily rumored to be actively engaged in the process of concocting a plan to abscond to Los Angeles either because they have a hometown or collegiate connection to the area, or because being stationed there will assuredly benefit the player’s off-the-court endeavors and ambitions. Even subordinate stars or role players like Norm Nixon, or even role players like Rick Fox and Nick Young are granted clear off-the-court perks to playing in Los Angeles. Nixon dated and then married Fame star Debbie Allen in the early-1980s, Fox married actress/singer Vanessa Williams and launched an acting career of his own during the 1990s, and playing on the Lakers certainly didn’t limit the relationship options of Young (a USC graduate) who was engaged to rapper Iggy Azalea in 2015.

Realistically, in what other scenario would we have been expected to endure (in back-to-back summers no less) the family of Lonzo Ball threatening to throw an authentictantrum if the UCLA star was drafted by any team other than his beloved hometown Lakers, and Lebron James opting to leave the four-time and defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers—his actual hometown team—simply because he felt like living and playing for an uncharacteristically subpar Los Angeles team would be better for his personal brand? LeBron knew he wouldn’t remain without a co-star in Los Angeles for long, as his mere presence in L.A. was sufficient to entice All-NBA forward Anthony Davis to join him the following season.

To that end, the homecoming motif has even bled over into what has historically been the lesser of the two Los Angeles franchises—the L.A. Clippers. Let’s set aside that in 1979 the San Diego Clippers organization signed Bill Walton to what was once the richest contract in NBA history precisely because he was such a big star at UCLA and would be a strong local attraction. After all, every geographic advantage held by the Lakers is shared by the Clippers, who play their home games in the same building.

When have we ever had to accept a scenario in which the star player from a reigning and defending championship team—in this case Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors —would willingly elect to leap to a Los Angeles team and abdicate his right to defend his championship simply because he wanted to go home? Why is this treated as reasonable? It’s as if Leonard was motivated by the idea of using the highlights from his otherworldly championship jaunt as an audition video to present to his hometown teams to strengthen his position during free agency negotiations.

Moreover, Kawhi wasn’t even all that picky when it came to deciding where he’d play; his stated destination was either going to be the Lakers orthe Clippers. Either option would’ve been fine as far as he was concerned, and in the end it was the Clippers that landed Kawhi… because they had also lured Los Angeles County native, Fresno State alumnus and NBA All-Star Paul George to return to Los Angeles to partner with him.

This is exactly why, in the long run, you simply can’t “Beat L.A.”


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