Guard Keith Erickson of the Los Angeles Lakers ambled out onto the court with his teammates to warm up for an exhibition game one night last week and Seattle Coach Al Bianchi called out to him: "Hey, Keith, who's that new guy you got with the beard?"
The new guy was Wilt Chamberlain, the man who once scored 100 points in a regulation NBA game, the man who once took 55 rebounds against the Boston Celtics. He is now a Laker, joining Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to make L.A.—on paper anyway—the greatest basketball team ever. Of the five best pros playing today—Wilt, Elgin, Jerry, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell—the Lakers this season have three. The trade that sent Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers to L.A. (to continue this season of sweeping statements) must rank close to the top of the most astounding deals in the history of professional sport. It is as if the Niblets people traded the Jolly Green Giant to Heinz for a soup recipe and two vats of pickles.
The Lakers coughed up more than that, really—Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers—but it still seemed like a brazen theft by L.A. President Jack Kent Cooke. Now the millionaire ex-Canadian could sit back in his chair at the Forum in suburban Inglewood (where there are lakes—artificial ones, to be sure—on the infield of a nearby racetrack) and watch his hirelings batter all comers.
That at least is how it looked on paper. But National Basketball Association games are played on hard, waxed wood and there the perfect deal looks more like a perfectly ticklish situation for Coach Butch van Breda Kolff. If the Lakers win the title, people will say their Aunt Gertrude or Uncle Jack Kent could have done the coaching. If the Lakers fall short, Van Breda Kolff undoubtedly will be made the goat.
And they could. Despite being the most devastating force in the game when he is in the mood, Chamberlain has been on only one championship team in his nine-year pro career. Russell, Robertson, Baylor and West have never been traded. Chamberlain has been traded twice.