This story appears in the July 16, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
Late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 11, 1972, Wilt Chamberlain, 35, and in the 13th season of a career that would last only one more year, began welcoming a few hundred of his closest friends to a party at his recently-completed Bel-Air mansion. He had christened the massive 7,100-square-foot pleasure palace Ursa Major, after the constellation that contains the stars that compose the Big Dipper, the nickname he vastly preferred to Wilt the Stilt. Many of the guests, who included his Los Angeles Lakers teammates and a friend from the football world named O.J. Simpson, were still there as dawn broke high in the Santa Monica Mountains. Wilt himself didn’t get to bed until 7 a.m., though that was not unusual for the Dipper even on, say, a routine Tuesday.
The housewarming marked Wilt’s true arrival as a member of the Hollywood glitterati—the 7’1″ host wore what the Los Angeles Times described as a “pale-gold antelope suit”—and also punctuated the fact that the Philadelphia-born Chamberlain, in his fourth season as a Laker, had finally found a true home.
“Wilt was a wanderer and a searcher,” says Jerry West, Wilt’s teammate back then and now a consultant with the Los Angeles Clippers, “and I’m guessing he could’ve called a lot of places home. But there’s no doubt he loved being in L.A. Wilt loved the beach. He loved the weather. He loved being a celebrity in a town that worships celebrities. L.A. fit him. The bigness of it all, the star quality.”
So as the dust begins to settle after the expected-yet-clamorous West Coast landing of LeBron James, who last week agreed to a four-year, $153.3 million free-agent deal with the Lakers, one must ponder the historical role that the City of Angels in general and the Lakers in particular have played in the transformation of the NBA’s power elite over the years. And, not incidentally, the role that West, during his nearly 60 years in L.A., has played in three of those moves, all involving game-changing centers.
West teamed up with Wilt to win a championship in 1972, which came in five games against the Knicks two months after Wilt’s immortal Ursa Major bash. Several years later West coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the UCLA product who, in a 1975 trade, had maneuvered himself back to SoCal. Abdul-Jabbar had spent six seasons in Milwaukee, where he had earned one championship, three MVPs and the reputation for being “moody” or “aloof,” the code words of the day for a black athlete who distrusted the media.
And most notably for his own legacy as a general manager, West worked himself into a frazzle in the summer of 1996 to lure free-agent Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers, days of nonstop negotiation that landed West in the hospital. So as a player, coach and GM, West has been in the middle of basketball reinvention in a city where reinvention is the professional M.O.
West, of course, would’ve loved to have gotten his hands dirty in the LeBron Lottery. He and James are members of a mutual admiration society—West has steadfastly defended LeBron against his haters, while James refers to West as the Godfather—and there was speculation that the Logo’s presence alone was going to lure LeBron to L.A.’s “other team.” But West, who never met a negotiating battle he didn’t relish, didn’t buy it. The Clips didn’t have the cap space to make a play even if LeBron had been interested, which he was not.
At any rate, West holds no enmity toward LeBron for the outcome of his latest Decision. “It’s mind-boggling to me how people have gotten mad at these guys, like Kevin Durant and LeBron, for leaving,” West said last week. “The way I see it, no player owes any city an apology. Certainly not LeBron, who has done so much for Cleveland. Hell, I wish I had had some freedom to move when I was playing.”
But he did not. Chamberlain, loudly and proudly, was that rare player who fought for, and gained, his geographical independence in the NBA’s pre-free-agency days. Most of the early labor battles in the NBA were fought not about player movement but issues such as a pension plan and better medical treatment. Oscar Robertson, chafing from racial slights, spent the better part of a decade trying to extricate himself from Cincinnati before he finally got the Royals to trade him in the spring of 1970. He went to Milwaukee and immediately won a championship with Abdul-Jabbar, though by the end of four seasons in Brewtown, both wanted out.
One might consider Boston to have been the NBA’s first Destination City because the Celtics won 11 championships in 13 years between 1957 and ’69. But the conductor for that orchestra was Red Auerbach; the players were the talented string section. Bill Sharman, Jim Loscutoff, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek were all Auerbach draft picks (Bob Cousy was famously snubbed by Auerbach in the 1950 draft and came to Boston when the Chicago Stags folded), and Bill Russell arrived through a crafty 1956 draft-day trade with the St. Louis Hawks.
“From what Bill Russell used to say about racism,” says West, “I don’t think he’d consider Boston a ‘destination city,’ particularly if you throw in the weather. The term we all used to hear back then, and still do, was ‘mecca.’ New York was supposedly the basketball mecca. But, really, I don’t remember anyone running to get to New York either.”
The one player from those Knicks teams who most considered New York a “destination” was probably reserve Phil Jackson, who rode the subways and roamed the libraries. And even Jax eventually ended up in L.A.
So it was a big story when Wilt found a way to join Elgin Baylor and West, who says, “I remember seeing this magazine cover that said: is this a super team? Well, I can tell you this: We weren’t. Elgin was injured and getting older, and there were adjustment issues, and it took us four seasons to win a championship.”
But the Lakers got one, and it seemed to most Wilt-watchers that the Dipper never found true contentment until he found Locust Land, where he continued to be an oft-seen Angeleno Alpha until his death in 1999: His gardener found him in his custom-made 72-square-foot bed in Ursa Major, from where he had never moved.
Now, let’s not overthink one of the major reasons that Los Angeles became the NBA’s designated Destination City. As the Beach Boys put it in 1965: “The West Coast has the sunshine, and the girls all get so tanned.” By all accounts, Wilt, a lifelong bachelor, had an avid interest in securing female companionship, and he was not alone in that interest.
But the attractiveness of the Lakers goes beyond L.A.’s glimmering surface. Few players tried to get themselves to San Diego even though the Rockets (1967–68 through 1970–71) and the Clippers (1978–79 through 1983–84) played in that meteorologically perfect place. And the Clippers played in the same climate as the Lakers for all those seasons when GM West was turning the Lakers into a perennial Finals participant and owner Donald Sterling was turning the Clippers into an embarrassment. By and large, real players don’t go to losers.
So to a large degree, the people most responsible for the Lakers’ status as a Destination Franchise are George Mikan, who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships, and Baylor and West, who together built the L.A. version into a must-watch showpiece in the 1960s. Another shout-out must go to Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, who, despite his penuriousness in most matters, built the Forum, which he insisted be called the “Fabulous Forum.” For many years it was.
“Los Angeles has everything you want except bad traffic and an incredibly high income-tax rate,” says West. “I’ll tell you one group that’s just as excited about LeBron coming as Lakers fans—the government.” After the California Democratic Party tweeted out an invitation for LeBron to register to vote in the state, conservative Rep. Devin Nunes countered with a tweet that said LeBron “should have held out for more just to afford the Moonbeam weather tax,” a reference to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Becoming a political football before you played a single game is something that Wilt, Kareem and Shaq never had to deal with.
Abdul-Jabbar didn’t necessarily legislate a move to L.A. because he was thinking of titles. The Lakers had gone 30-52 the year before he arrived, and Kareem didn’t yet know of the existence of a high school kid in Lansing, Michigan, named Earvin Johnson, with whom he would ride tandem into history. Kareem simply wanted out of the Milwaukee cold and into the L.A. sun. But, remember, it was still a trade, not an I-think-I’ll-go-here decision.
“The Bucks acquiesced a little because Kareem really wanted out,” says West, who had retired as a player the year before Kareem arrived and got the Lakers’ coaching job in 1976, KA-J’s second season in L.A. “But they got some pretty good players in return.” In exchange for Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley, Milwaukee got Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and Dave Meyers, all solid pros. But, look, teams almost never get fair value when they let go of an immortal. The Philadelphia 76ers had received Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff in exchange for sending Wilt to L.A. in 1968. Do the math on that one.
“Kareem was kind of a quiet deal, at least by L.A. standards,” says West. “He was one of those incredibly gifted players who doesn’t get as much credit as he should get. Sure, everyone knows his name, but he was so efficient and consistent, and he played the game so … so … easily, that it’s easy to forget about him.”
That was true even after Magic was drafted first overall in 1979. After four seasons in which Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers won a total of two playoff series, Magic and Cap, as Johnson always referred to Kareem, led the Lakers to five championships in the 1980s. Magic ran to the spotlight and made the passes; Kareem retreated to the solitude and made the baskets. The Skyhook Sultan would later make peace with Milwaukee, telling fans during a book signing that he learned “Midwest values” as a Buck. But it was in the City of Angels that Abdul-Jabbar became the best combination of collegian and pro player there ever was and probably ever will be.
In the summer of 1988, Tom Chambers became the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent, so when West made his 1996 pitch to Shaq, he did so in a more fluid, yet complicated, environment. Players now had true freedom, and no one was exactly sure where the delightfully unpredictable O’Neal wanted to land. Or even if he wanted to leave Orlando. With the Magic he had a great young team that had already made the Finals, a best buddy in Dennis Scott and an ever-maturing Dynamic Duo partner in Penny Hardaway. Plus, West also had other center options on the free-agent menu in Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.
“But for me it was always Shaq,” said West. “From the first time I saw him in college, I always envisioned him in a Lakers uniform. He reminded me a little of Wilt, a wanderer, a searcher, a man for all seasons.”
After countless phone calls with Shaq and his L.A.-based agent, Leonard Armato, West finally got the O’Neal deal completed, which happened just a few weeks after West had also skillfully arranged the acquisition of Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets, who had drafted him at No. 13. “I was exhausted after it was all done, and my doctor ordered me to the hospital for three days,” says West. “But obviously it was worth it.”
As was the case with Kareem and Wilt, the allure of both the city (Shaquille had already completed his immortal film Kazaam, which came out around the time he was signing the Lakers deal) and the franchise (O’Neal had been a fan of the Showtime Lakers) helped the Big Aristotle make his decision. But West could’ve cared less about Shaq’s portrayal of a gentle genie or his seminal rap work on Fu-Schnickens’s “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock).” Shortly after Shaq arrived in L.A., West took him to the Forum and told him to look up at all the championship banners (11 at that time) and all the retired numbers, players such as Magic, Baylor, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich, James Worthy—and of course West himself.
“I know you’re thinking about movies and your music career and all that,” West told him. “But this is about basketball, and you have a chance to be up there, one of the Laker greats.” Four seasons later, Shaq and Bryant teamed up for the first title in a threepeat that opened the new millennium.
West’s relationship with O’Neal remains strong. “Of all the players I’ve ever dealt with,” says West, “Shaquille remains the most approachable, the most unchangeable, the most grounded. I love the guy. I’m as proud of that deal as any I ever made.”
As a Clippers rep, West would’ve loved to have escorted LeBron on a similar stroll, this one to midcourt at the Staples Center where he would’ve pointed out all the … well, there are no championship Clippers banners. Which is part of the reason that drawing LeBron to the Clips was a nonstarter from the jump.
“All due respect to the Lakers, who handled everything well,” said West, “but, as these things go, LeBron was not a tough free-agent signing. LeBron wanted to come to L.A. and he wanted to come to the Lakers. Period. He has a family he’s thinking about. He has a home here. [Actually two homes.] He has a son [13-year-old “Bronny” Jr.] whom he wants to keep in one school in Los Angeles. He will be a celebrity out here, sure, but it’s a place where, once in a while, he can get lost, be himself. You can’t do that everywhere.
“That celebrity factor wasn’t a consideration for me when I got here in 1960. I was 22 years old and didn’t know anything. I didn’t chase any endorsements and didn’t get any. The hangout factor of L.A. wasn’t big for me because I didn’t hang out.
“But most everything I got out of basketball came from my association with this city and the Lakers. It was my launching pad. Getting to play with Elgin. Getting to play with Wilt. And playing for the fans. Despite all the losing we did in the Finals before we finally won one, the L.A. fans never turned on us.
“I hope LeBron has that experience out here. I really do. I hope he finds the happiness that I found.” West stops and makes this point clear. “Just not when he plays the Clippers.”