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HOOP DU JOUR
On April 5, privileged life that I lead, at the invitation of Bill and Joyce Sharman, I attended the 40th reunion of the Lakers’ 1972 championship team, which practically paled compared to the 33 games in a row they won that season, an NBA record that’s as likely to be broken as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
Preceding the formal tribute at the Manhattan Beach Marriott, I joined the team for dinner. It took me a while before it finally dawned on me that the worldly woman on my right was Wilt Chamberlain’s year -ounger sister, Barbara Lewis.
HOLDING COURT: Former St. John’s and NBA star LeRoy Ellis (right, battling with Kevin Kunnert of the Rockets while playing for the Sixers in 1976) died on June 2 at the age of 72.
Also at the table were Jerry West, Flynn Robinson, LeRoy Ellis, who had been at war with prostate cancer for several years after continuing to play at a high level in Master’s Tournaments throughout the country into his late 60s, and their spouses.
Despite Ellis’ debilitation, the former Thomas Jefferson High School and St. John’s all-time leading rebounder (16.5 average) was resolved to make the trip from his home in Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles, where his pro career began as the No. 6 pick of the 1962 draft.
Ellis shot me a look of disbelief when I said I’d begun following him in the late 1950s when he teamed with the fabled Tony Jackson. I never stopped, actually. Throughout his 14 years (9.7 points, 8.3 rebounds) with four NBA teams, I always checked the box scores to see what he did.
I proceeded to rattle off the names of that St. John’s 1959 undefeated freshman squad: Willie Hall, Ivan Kovacs, Fred Edelman. That’s when I really got Ellis’ attention.
That crew was Lou Carnesecca’s first recruiting class. He had left unblemished CHSAA champion Archbishop Molloy to assist former Knicks coach Joe Lapchick and had taken the 6-foot-4 Hall with him. Or maybe it was the other way around; I’m unsure how those deals work.
Ellis’ motive for choosing St. John’s was unadulterated. He purely wanted to play again alongside the simonized-shooting Jackson, whom he idolized. Didn’t we all! Jackson wore No. 24.
“I looked up to him so I took No. 25, because I was a year behind,” he said. “When I got to L.A. the second time, Goodrich had No. 25 and he wouldn’t give it up.”
As happy as the survivors of the 1972 Lakers (69-13) were to be in each other’s company, laughing loudly at threadbare stories as if hearing them for the first time, this was no fantasy camp get-together.
Moods switched from smiling to somber in mid-sentence. Everyone was aware (West and Keith Erickson even verbalized it, their voices cracking and eyes watering) this would be the last time this group — Sharman, scout Bill Bertka, West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillian, Erickson, Pat Riley, Ellis, Jim Cleamons and Robinson, who, too, was suffering from (incurable) cancer — would reassemble intact.
Chamberlain, Happy Hairston and John Q. Trapp already were long gone.
Later that night, when it was Ellis’ turn to be introduced to a select audience of 1,000 or more upstairs, he whispered to Joyce Sharman, who conceived and directed the emotive event as well as the making of a documentary on the Lakers’ unassailable accomplishment, his desire to walk the 50 feet to the stage.
So, with a young woman on each side for support, Ellis lifted himself from his wheelchair to his height of 6-foot-10 and, as the crowd stood and applauded, slowly made his way down the aisle. Soon the gentle man had the people in the aisle laughing hysterically.
Each honoree was asked to share a memory about the win streak and the Lakers’ Hall of Fame coach. After corroborating Sharman’s inventiveness, motivational skills, positive treatment of players and cagey strategy, Ellis made some simple deductions regarding the defending champion Bucks’ 120-104 streak-snapping victory.
“I played in all 33 wins. But because Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was out there and he’s always tough we had to put our toughest on him, which was Wilt [Chamberlain],” he said before directing his next statement at Sharman. “Bill, I just wanted to let you know that I didn’t get to play in the 34th game. I played in all 33, but the 34th one that we lost, I didn’t get to play.”
Ellis, 72, was supposed to have another six months to live. He died June 2, almost two months to the day of the reunion.
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