When the Lakers’ remarkable 33-game winning streak finally ended on that chilly Sunday in Milwaukee in 1972, their shooters going cold and Bucks sensation Kareem Abdul-Jabbar running wild with 39 points and 20 rebounds, the notion someone would ever challenge the landmark achievement seemed farfetched.
“We just finished a streak that I don’t believe any other team is going to break,” Lakers forward Jim McMillian said after the game.
Mr. McMillian, meet LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
And Lakers fans, now might be the time to start worrying one of the most enduring records in sports history is in serious jeopardy.
More than 40 years after the Lakers and Jerry West and Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain strung together 33 straight wins over more than two months - annihilating opponents by an average of 17 points per game while obliterating the NBA record of 20 straight wins by the Bucks a season before — here come the streaking Heat led by James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a tight-knit group of role players.
After racing back from 13 points down with eight minutes to play Monday in Boston to beat the Celtics, the Heat stretched their winning streak to 23 games, the second-best run in league history.
In the process, they leave many to wonder if they can catch the 1972 Lakers — while rendering a few former Lakers a bit edgy.
“For so many years, I never truly felt anyone would ever break it,” Goodrich said. “But now, I think the Heat have a very good chance.”
Others are digging in.
“They are not going to do it,” said Keith Erickson, a reserve forward on the 1971-72 Lakers and a proud guardian of his team’s historical record.
He hopes, anyway.
“There is no doubt they are a fantastic team,” Erickson added wistfully.
Meanwhile Bill Sharman, the coach of those Lakers, watches with a mixture of awe and apprehension, the basketball fan in him marveling at James and the Heat while his heart of purple and gold fears a monumental achievement is on the brink of being toppled.
“Well, I have to admit that I am a little nervous about Miami’s streak so far,” Sharman wrote via email Monday. “I think that anything is possible.”
Say it isn’t so, Bill.
In the 41 years since the Lakers captured the imagination of sports fans across the nation, no professional team has come close to challenging the record.
The New England Patriots won 21 straight games from 2003-04, but that spanned two seasons and included the postseason.
The Houston Rockets won 22 straight games in 2007-08, but no one truly believed those Rockets would climb past the Lakers.
From a historical perspective, UCLA won 88 straight basketball games from 1971-74 — a march that coincided one season with the Lakers’ run — and Oklahoma won 47 straight college football games from 1953-57.
But when it comes to professional sports, no one’s seriously challenged the Lakers’ record.
And while the Heat remain 10 games away from matching it, the path cleared considerably after coming back to beat the Celtics on Monday.
Up next are NBA punching bags Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic - so 27 straight is well within reach.
The Heat then play in Chicago against the Bulls and in New Orleans against the Hornets, and assuming Derrick Rose does not return for the Bulls, it looks like 29 straight wins is possible.
It gets a bit dicey at that point, as the Heat play in San Antonio against the powerful Spurs in a nationally televised game March 31.
Should the Heat get through that game, the Lakers record is in serious peril.
“I’d be very surprised if they don’t get to 29,” Goodrich said. “And while I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spurs beat them, I also wouldn’t be shocked if the Heat won too. They’re just heads and shoulders above everyone else right now.”
If so, the Lakers’ mark is in danger of falling.
“They say that records are made to be broken,” Sharman said. “But naturally I hope that we hold on to the record a bit longer.”
Of course, with 10 wins still to go, anything can happen. And as we’ve seen during the Heat streak, they have a habit of playing with fire - their Houdini act against the Celtics their latest escape from disaster.
All of which makes the Lakers feat so amazing, especially considering their nonchalant 6-3 start and the shocking retirement of star forward Elgin Baylor nine games into the season.
“There is no way anyone could have seen what we were about to do,” Erickson said. “You don’t lose someone the caliber of Elgin and expect to put together a 33-game winning streak right after.”
But with McMillian replacing Baylor in the starting lineup to give the Lakers a fierce rebounding and defensive frontcourt of Happy Hairston, McMillian and Chamberlain, and high-scoring guards West and Goodrich deftly playing off each other while keeping defenders honest with their outside shooting, the Lakers were a beautifully constructed unit.
“You look at the skill set of the players and how each player perfectly fit their role, we really, really complemented each other,” Goodrich said. “And we knew how to play well together.”
The five starters all averaged double figures in scoring, with Goodrich and West averaging 25 points per game and McMillian averaging 18.
“We were very explosive, and we were very confident,” Goodrich said. “Almost to the point of being cocky. Let’s face it, when we stepped on the floor we expected to win every game.”
Meanwhile, the innovative Sharman was introducing new ideas as the head coach.
“I call him the architect,” Goodrich said.
Sharman, who played at USC and with the Boston Celtics, was a masterful X’s and O’s coach, but it went beyond schemes and playcalling.
He was the first NBA coach to hire an assistant — his former Celtics teammate K.C. Jones — and make film review a fundamental part of preparation.
And it was Sharman who sold the Lakers on the game-day morning shootaround, an idea he came up with after noticing his free-throw shooting improved as a player when he practiced them the morning before games.
But first he had to get Chamberlain to buy in.
“(Chamberlain) said that if I thought it would help the team, he would give it a try,” Sharman remembers. “After we started the shootaround, we started winning, and that was the beginning of the streak.”
Sharman, as much as anyone, helped fuel the Lakers’ success with his pioneering ideas and all-inclusive approach in which players had a platform to express themselves.
“He let us have input, he listened,” Goodrich said. “But it was how he handled people that also made him so effective. Even when he disagreed with you, he’d say. `That’s a great idea, but let’s try it this way first and see if it works. If not, we can try your way.’
“It was actually pretty funny when you think about it. But once you understood his intent and why he handled it that way, it made perfect sense.”
The streak began innocently enough Nov. 5, 1971, with a 110-106 win over the Baltimore Bullets. And though no one foresaw what was about to unfold, it wasn’t for another 19 games until the Lakers were pushed again.
While going for their 20th win in a row — and playing their third game in three nights — the Lakers went to overtime against the Phoenix Suns, but with Goodrich leading the way in the extra period, they prevailed 126-117.
Two nights later, they broke the Bucks’ record by earning victory No. 21 with a win over Atlanta.
“Obviously we knew at some point we’d lose a game,” Goodrich said. “But we were a confident bunch, to be sure.”
Said Erickson: “To be honest, we didn’t talk about the streak as a team much. Our goal was to win the championship; our entire focus was on that. But the streak definitely became a big deal. It was impossible to ignore.”
Win No. 33 came at Atlanta in a 134-90 blowout Jan. 7, but two days later the Lakers were in Milwaukee to face the Bucks and their young phenom center.
With Goodrich, West and McMillian combining to make just 17 of 55 shots and Abdul-Jabbar dominating in all phases, the Lakers fell 120-104.
“I mean let’s face it, the Bucks were a great team,” Goodrich said. “And we did not play well at all. You can’t do that against an elite team. So, we lost.”
And with it, the longest winning streak in professional sports history came to an end.
The reaction was mixed afterward.
“Jerry West said it was like a death in the family,” Sharman said. “Others felt a sense of relief that they could just go out and play and not worry any longer about the streak. As for me, all I could think about was, `OK, we set the winning streak record, now we have to win the championship or it really won’t matter what we have accomplished.”’
The Lakers did just that, earning their first NBA title in Los Angeles by beating the New York Knicks, 4-1, in the finals.
“It would have been devastating had we not followed through with the championship,” Erickson said. “The fact we did made it the perfect ending to a remarkable year.”
One that has stood up for more than 40 years.
But here come the powerful Heat, who, incidentally, were built by Pat Riley, a reserve on the 1971-72 Lakers.
Could this be the year the Lakers record falls?
“Hey look, we had it for 40 years, right?” Goodrich said. “If they can do it, more power to them.”