August 23, 2007

Butch van Breda Kolff, R.I.P.: The coach and mastermind behind perhaps the darkest moment in Los Angeles Laker history has died at the age of 84. Coaching the Lakers to two NBA Finals appearances in the late-60's, van Breda Kolff was always remembered for allowing his dislike of Wilt Chamberlain interfere with the Lakers' bid to win the 1969 championship.

In brief, the Lakers had lost to the Boston Celtics in five of the previous seven NBA Finals, and had not yet won a title in Los Angeles. With the teams splitting the first six games by winning on their home courts, the aging Celtics came out fired up in the 7th and deciding game of the 1969 Finals, which for the first time was being played in Los Angeles, and took a commanding lead late in the game. At one point losing in the fourth quarter by 17 points, the Lakers had cut the lead in half with less than six minutes to play, when Chamberlain dislocated his knee while rebounding a ball at the defensive end. Trying gamely to play, the Laker center finally limped off the court with 5:15 to play, and van Breda Kolff moved back-up forward Mel Counts into the center position in place of Chamberlain.

Over the next few minutes, Counts played well; it also helped that his Celtics' counterpart, Bill Russell, had five fouls. The Lakers cut the lead to a point, with Counts hitting two free throws and an outside jumber, with just under three minutes to play. Insofar as Chamberlain couldn't hit free throws to save his life, had no outside shot to speak of, and also had five fouls, Counts gave the Lakers a dimension during that rally that they normally didn't have. The Celtics, aging and in foul trouble, seemed spent.

What happened next is the stuff of nightmares to Laker fans, and still enables Celtic boosters to wake up each morning with some serious wood. With under three minutes to play, the Lakers had three straight chances to take the lead, all of which came to naught; Elgin Baylor put up a wild shot, then Jerry West and Keith Erickson had turnovers on consecutive possessions. On each possession, the Lakers' offense was curtailed by the lack of a dominating inside presence. Finally, with just over a minute to play, Don Nelson put up a desperation shot over an outstretched West, which bounced high off the back iron and into the basket, giving Boston a three-point lead. At the other end, Counts got the ball underneath the basket on the next Laker possession, only to have the ball stripped by Russell. After two more free throws, the Celtics lead grew to five points with less than a minute to play, and would eventually reach eight points. In all, the Lakers went six consecutive possessions between points in the final three minutes.

At some murky point during this sequence of events, Chamberlain had either miraculously recovered from his injury, or had decided to suck it up and play, but in any event had informed his coach that he was ready to go back in. van Breda Kolff, who hadn't gotten along with Chamberlain during the season, exercised the same coach's discretion that would get him fired soon afterwards, and told the greatest player in basketball history to sit down, as Counts was playing well in his absence. The Lakers got no closer than two points the rest of the way, and lost for the sixth time in eight years to their hated rival, 108-106.

In none of the accounts that I have seen does it identify when Chamberlain announced he was ready to go back in. Certainly, the Lakers played well for several minutes after Wilt went to the bench, but on their three possessions where they failed to take the lead, the Celtics had clearly adjusted to Counts' presence on the outside. Even with a crippled Chamberlain, the Lakers could have used him to bottle up the Celtics front court, setting up West, Tommy Hawkins or even Counts to have open shots from the outside.

What's even harder to excuse if you're a Lakers fan is that van Breda Kolff didn't see fit to reinsert Chamberlain in the final minute, when his play under the basket might have sparked a last-ditch comeback. The three-point shot was still a decade in the future, so having a good perimeter player stroking from twenty-three feet out wasn't going to make the game any closer than having Wilt put in a finger roll. Even if the Celtics had held on to win, you still want to have the players out on the court that give you the best chance, and even if putting in Wilt would have been tantamount to a Hail Mary pass, at least the fans and players would feel like the team gave it their best shot. Not bringing Wilt back into the game when he asked to go back in, even during desperation time, was clueless.

After Nelson's shot, the Lakers needed their own miracle, and Counts was clearly not going to do it. van Breda Kolff's stubbornness may not have cost the team a title in '69, any more than Bill Buckner's error necessarily cost the Red Sox the '86 World Series, but it had the same impact on the long-suffering fans of the team. He was a very good coach, and he certainly deserved to be remembered for the overachieving teams he coached at the college level (including a Princeton team that made the Final Four in 1965), so it's sad he'll be remembered for a couple of minutes when he wasn't a good coach.


Seitz said...

and told the greatest player in basketball history to sit down

Huh? Magic wasn't even in the league yet.

Steve Smith said...

Point taken.