This excerpt recounts Archie Clark reporting to training camp as a rookie with the 1966-1967 Los Angeles Lakers. Archie nearly gets cut, though he was one of the better players in camp. Why? The Lakers, like all NBA teams back then, followed an unwritten rule called “racial balance.” During Black History Month, Archie’s saga is worth revisiting. If you like what you read, consider purchasing Shake and Bake just out from University of Nebraska Press. Also follow me on Twitter @KuskaBob. I’ll be posting daily articles soon on this blog about Archie and lots of other players from his era. Following this blog will be a great way to relive this seminal era of NBA history! Trust me, I’ve got some really obscure stuff in the pipeline that you’ll only find here.
Archie Clark saw the brake lights flash red in front of him and tapped his brake pedal. Traffic on the Pasadena Freeway stiffened for an instant and then sailed onward. Along the roadside, thirty-foot palm trees rustled exotically overhead. In the distance, Archie glimpsed row upon concrete row of single-level stucco homes and backyards landscaped with citrus trees and swimming pools. Mass-produced, middle-class haciendas to celebrate sun, surf, and the good life. Archie had heard that without a car to ply the city’s vast freeway system, the California Dream and its perpetual state of motion ground to an unpleasant halt. Thank goodness for his trusty Olds Ninety Eight. The thing ran like a top.
As the traffic neared downtown Los Angeles and the usual rush-hour snarl, Archie spotted the green overhead sign for Exit 26 Figueroa Street. Bingo. He signaled down the offramp, merged left into heavy midday traffic, and noticed in the distance the L.A. Coliseum and, beside it, the modern, glass-and-steel façade of the 15,300-seat Los Angeles Sports Arena, home of the NBA Lakers. Ten minutes later, Archie stood in the air-conditioned lobby of the Lakers office suite, exchanging another predictably awkward hello with general manager Lou Mohs.
“Mr. Mohs, my wife and I just got into town. I was wondering if you have a place ready for us to stay?”
Mohs frowned. “No, we don’t offer accommodations,” he answered tartly. “You have to find your own place to stay. Didn’t you get our letter?”
Archie felt his heart begin to pound. What letter? Maybe he could afford another night in a hotel. Then again, maybe he couldn’t. Finding an apartment was a lot to dump on a rookie from the Midwest with the start of training camp just around the corner. Archie didn’t know his way around Los Angeles, neither did he have any idea of where black people were welcome. Los Angeles was just as self-segregating as Detroit, just a little more informal about it.
Mohs, anxious to get back to his desk, wasn’t offering any advice. In fact, Mohs seemed to want to be rid of his third-round draft choice altogether. “You know, Archie, there are other teams out there that need guards,” Mohs shrugged. “Baltimore and Chicago will need help in the backcourt this season. You might have a better chance of making one of those teams.”
The words cut through him like daggers. If the poker-faced Mohs was being truthful—and he seemed to be—the Lakers planned to cut him. At age twenty-five, his NBA career was over before it started. Archie would be back in his hometown of Ecorse by October, dead broke and scrambling to find a factory job to keep up his car payment.
The thought chilled him. But Archie regained his composure, looked Mohs in the eyes, and chuckled politely, “I didn’t come all this way to play for Baltimore or Chicago.”
Archie headed back outside into the California dream, took a deep breath, and tried to remain calm as he told Valerie about the change in plans. He found a telephone booth nearby and dialed his mother. She had an idea. Archie’s father Houston had a cousin that everybody called Aunt Ruby. She lived in Los Angeles with her husband. Maybe Ruby could take them in until they got settled.
Archie dropped another dime into the pay phone, and carefully dialed the number his mother had dictated. He heard the line crackle followed by the first dull ring. What if nobody’s home? What would he tell Valerie?
“Hello,” a woman’s voice answered.
Archie identified himself as Houston’s son and, trying to sound upbeat, recounted his saga and predicament.
“Come on over here, baby,” the warm, melodic voice answered.
Archie felt his tension ease. He jotted down the directions to the house, repeated them to her, and hurried back to his car.
Thank God for his big family.
“Hello, baby, you’ve come a long way,” Aunt Ruby called out to Archie when he arrived. “How’s your mother and father doing in Detroit?”
Aunt Ruby and her husband owned a single-story bungalow in the then-racially-mixed Crenshaw neighborhood in the city’s southwest section. As Archie would discover, nobody had a bigger heart than Aunt Ruby. He and Valerie were in good hands.
That night, Archie tossed and turned and replayed his brief encounter with Lou Mohs. Why had Mohs even drafted him? The only positive comment that Mohs had ever made publicly about Archie was that he already had completed his military service, a plus in these Cold War days.
Did Mohs have the final say on the Lakers opening-season roster? Or did Lakers coach Fred Schaus? If it was Schaus, that gave him a fighting chance to make the Lakers. Archie did the math. The Lakers invited five guards to camp, and four would make the team. Jerry West, the team’s superstar, was a seven-time all-NBA player. He wasn’t going anywhere. Neither were second-year guards Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard. Both had starred collegiately for UCLA and were extremely popular around Los Angeles.
That left rookie John Wetzel as Archie’s sole competitor for the fourth-and-final guard spot. Archie paused. John Wetzel?
He was the team’s eighth-round draft choice. Why would Mohs prefer to keep a seemingly obscure eighth-round pick from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute over a third-round choice with All-Big Ten credentials and who had been a stand out in rookie camp? It didn’t make sense. And, if it didn’t make sense, it couldn’t be true.
Several miles away at his home in Inglewood, Lou Mohs lied in bed that night hoping not to feel the pain. His doctors said he was down to months, maybe a year, before he would lose his battle with cancer. Although Mohs maintained the tanned, buttoned-down appearance of a Los Angeles business executive by day, he had dropped a great deal of weight over the last several months. For many at work, it was hard to believe this tall, frail sixty-something year old had played three seasons in the National Football League back in the 1920s and answered to the nickname “Big Lou.”
Mohs continued to push himself through the daily aches and fatigue. The Los Angeles Lakers were his baby, and it was hard for him to let go. Six years ago, in the summer of 1960, Big Lou had signed on as general manager of the Lakers to relocate the failing franchise from his native Minnesota to Los Angeles. The Lakers’ nearest NBA neighbor would be more than 1,800 miles away in St. Louis.
Bob Short, the team’s forty-two-year-old majority owner, advised Mohs that he would stay behind in Minneapolis and tend to his trucking company. As Short told Mohs, he and his investors had lost a hefty $300,000 on the Lakers. They couldn’t afford to fritter away much more. If Mohs could turn a quick profit for them in Los Angeles, they could cover their losses and sell the team to the next sucker. Before Mohs departed, Short reportedly handed over $5,000 in seed money, wished him Godspeed on behalf of the stockholders, and repeated the half-serious instructions:
“Go out there and don’t let me hear from you; if you have any money left send it back to me; if you need any money forget where you came from.”
Through much trial and error, Mohs sold the Southern California on the Lakers. In this city of stars, his main attraction was the high-scoring Elgin Baylor. Although the team’s leading man was black, Mohs wasn’t worried about selling tickets. Not in L.A. Los Angeles entertainment came in all colors, though presumably in the right proportions, and Baylor had the magnetic presence of a hip jazz musician. Most considered the price of admission a bargain to experience Baylor’s virtuosity, the float and the flourish that no other American in a pair of sneakers could equal.
The other leading man was Jerry West, a skinny, six-foot-three white kid with a crooked nose and crew cut. As his more worldly teammates joked, Jerry was just “Zeke from Cabin Creek.” He was a Walt Disney throwback character—a shy, self-critical, socially awkward backwoodsman who felt more at home in Boomer, West Virginia than on Wilshire Boulevard. And there was absolutely no hiding it. “When he first came to L. A., he had an accent only a few squirrels could understand,” wisecracked L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray.
Mohs realized that if he could get fans to the games, Zeke from Cabin Creek would take care of the rest. Nobody played harder than West, and nobody was more clutch with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down.
Although some questioned the wisdom of promoting a two-man show in a sport that historically offered fans intricate, five-man offensive patterns, Mohs would hear none of it. In 1954, the NBA owners had voted in a 24-second clock to speed up games—and to make a statement. The NBA was in the entertainment business. If fans wanted to watch deliberate offensive sets and cheer final scores of forty-six to forty-two, they could take a seat in a college gymnasium. But if they wanted to watch basketball’s greatest stars go head to head every twenty four seconds and light up the arena with their extraordinary talent and 120 guaranteed shots per game, the NBA was their ticket.
“Willie Mays comes up to bat just four times in a game for the [baseball] Giants,” Mohs shrewdly explained the comparative advantage of paying four bucks to watch the Lakers. “But there’s nothing in the basketball rules that says we can’t have our best shooters try fifty baskets a game, if we want them to.”
Describing those fifty baskets a game was Chick Hearn, one of the best play-by-play announcers in the business. Hearn, a chatty Art Linkletter clone, had turned a struggling, seemingly self-conscious basketball team into a trusted, entertaining, 50,000-watt friend: “Rudy LaRusso—and isn’t he a handsome young man, folks – passes the ball from the corner to Jerry West. Zeke from Cabin Creek, who dribbles in the backcourt, showing no signs of favoring his injured knee while his lovely wife Jane watches from courtside . . . West passes ten feet into the right forecourt to Elgin Baylor. Elg yo-yos the dribble in front of the key, fakes Bob Pettit into the popcorn machine, jumps, hangs suspended 10 feet in the air, is hit, shoots 20 feet straightaway, it looks good, it’ll count if it goes, it goes, it is good!”
All that was left for Mohs, before the cancer took him, was to beat the Boston Celtics. The Celtics had bested the Lakers two out of three seasons in the NBA Finals. As hard as it was to admit, the Celtics were just better. They were like an old battle-tested army platoon that fought as hard as necessary—but they always pulled together and won in the end.
The Lakers also had absolutely no answer for the dominating, six-foot-ten Bill Russell. He was an explosive leaper, quick as a cat, and always in position to rebound, block shots, and otherwise intimidate opponents. Mohs had tried his damnedest to find Russell’s six-foot-eleven match. In fact, he’d rotated more big men into Laker uniforms than he could count—Jim Krebs, Ray Felix, Wayne Yates, Gene Wiley, LeRoy Ellis, Tom Dose, Darrell Imhoff. None could handle Russell.
The hole in the middle bothered new owner Jack Kent Cooke. The fifty-two-year-old, self-made media mogul paid a record $5.175 million to purchase the Lakers from Bob Short in June 1965. It was a startling—no, jaw-dropping—figure. What got everybody was Short and his stockholders had purchased the team eight years earlier in Minneapolis for $150,000. As recently as 1960, Laker stockholders sold their shares in the team for ten cents on the dollar; others simply handed back their shares to Short and called it even. Was any basketball team really worth five million bucks? Or was this new, emerging breed of sports entrepreneurs just crazy? In Cooke’s case, he knew zero about the sport, other than the garages of many Southern California homes were decorated with wooden backboards and owning a pro basketball team might make a promising investment.
Cooke grinned like a fox at those who questioned his sanity, having privately appraised the team’s worth at $4.5 million. “I know it is a high price to pay, but eventually it will be worth it,” said Cooke, a short, balding Canadian ex-patriot with slits for eyes and the affected voice and air of a Shakespearean actor. “Bob Short is a hard man to do business with, but I like him. Not enough, however, to sell it back to him for million-dollar profit when it dawns on him next week or next year what he has done. The Lakers are here to stay.”
The NBA and its mostly undercapitalized, hand-to-mouth arena owners had never seen anything like Cooke’s pushy, conquer-the-world ambition. Most insiders simply bristled at his megalomaniacal behavior. “He [Cooke] was the number one asshole that ever lived,” said former player Rod Hundley, who now teamed with Chick Hearn in the broadcast booth. “He was totally, absolutely, unbelievably wrapped up in himself and had no respect for anyone but himself.”
Mohs, though stoic, seasoned, and sixty years savvy, clearly walked on eggshells around Cooke. The new boss and his whirlwind mind left little in its path unscathed. He grilled Mohs about the team’s finances, rewrote the team’s fight song to his liking, sent memos to broadcaster Chick Hearn on proper word pronunciation, and consolidated press row in the Sports Arena to create a special section where he could lounge at courtside with the Hollywood stars. Mohs didn’t push back. He was too tired for that now. His health continued to decline, and his days with the Lakers were numbered. Mohs checked his ego at the front door and got with the program of hailing the emperor and his new pajamas. “I have worked with many brilliant and aggressive men, but Mr. Jack Kent Cooke has to be the most versatile, experienced, and eloquent of all,” Mohs pandered. “. . . I don’t think you can say enough about this man’s drive and enthusiasm. It’s catching—or better be—and affects his entire organization, escalating even greater successes.”
In truth, Mohs benefited from Cooke’s arrival. He no longer had to worry about the administrative bean counting and planning promotional giveaways. He could focus his energy, as Cooke called it, on the “day-to-day operations” of the team under his new title as vice president and general manager. In other words, Big Lou would work more closely with Fred Schaus to produce a winning product for Cooke and his minions to sell. In addition to deciding which players to keep, Mohs spent more time on the road scouting college players. Mohs, after all, considered himself to be one of the best talent scouts in the business. His secret: Look for players with long arms. They played taller than their height.
While on the road, Mohs noticed a lanky, long-armed, six-foot-five white kid from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute named John Wetzel, probably in the first round of New York’s National Invitation Tournament (NIT). Wetzel wasn’t mentioned prominently in any of the standard college basketball magazines that scouts then used as cheat sheets. And yet, number 24 had a real presence about him on the court and a soft shot. Mohs made a mental note. He may have just stumbled onto the next Jerry West.
That May, Mohs selected Wetzel in the eighth round of the 1966 NBA draft. Mohs might have chosen him earlier, but Wetzel had broken the navicular bone in his right wrist. He was back in Blacksburg, Virginia, wearing a cast and hoping to begin rehabbing his wrist in a couple of months.
“When the Lakers drafted me,” Wetzel recalled, “I went into Howard Shannon, my college coach, and asked him, ‘What would you do if you had a cast on your hand, and you had a chance to tryout for a pro team?’ He said, ‘I’d cut the damn cast off and go try out.’ So, I walked up to the college infirmary, and I had one of the guys take a saw and cut it off.”
“I flew to Los Angeles and played well in rookie camp,” Wetzel continued. “At the end of camp, Fred Schaus and Lou Mohs called the players individually into a room to meet with them. That’s when they’d either let you go or invite you back to attend the veterans camp. I got in there, and they said, ‘Wow, we like what you did. We want you to come back in the fall.’ Of course, nobody had agents back then. They just pulled out an NBA contract and offered me $11,000 on the spot to sign with the Lakers.”
Wetzel signed on the dotted line and flew home to Blacksburg. An orthopedist replaced a plaster cast on his broken wrist, and Wetzel lugged the thing around for another six weeks. Or just long enough to pack his bags and say his goodbyes.
John Wetzel was headed to California to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Coach Schaus tooted his whistle at the start of training camp, and about a dozen tall men in practice gear immediately rotated around the perimeter of the basket shooting jump shots, one after the other. The mass shooting drill turned the Loyola gymnasium into a rhythmic, thudding, squeaking echo chamber. Seated in the wooden bleachers of the Loyola College gymnasium was Lou Mohs. He had made up his mind. The Lakers had to keep rookie John Wetzel as their fourth and final guard.
Mohs had no problem with Archie Clark. In fact, Clark had looked real sharp at the start of training camp, but the businessman in Mohs said that he had no choice. Clark was a small guard, and the Lakers already had two good ones in Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. Wetzel was a big guard at six foot five, and he could reliably spot West for a few minutes per game and even fill in at forward, if needed.
Besides Mohs had to worry about the Lakers’ “balance,” a code word for too many blacks on the roster. Although every team defined balance differently, Mohs drew the line at five black players on his twelve-man roster, up from four African Americans in the early 1960s. His gut told him that the average white fan would start calling the team “too black” past that point. They’d quit identifying with the team, and attendance would suffer.
That’s why Mohs had traded forward Tommy Hawkins, one of his favorite black players, to the Cincinnati Royals at the start of the 1962-1963 season. Mohs had always regretted that trade. As the sentimental last wish of a dying man, Mohs planned to trade for Hawkins and forward Jim “Bad News” Barnes, another of his favorite black players, and bring them home for what might be his final season. If Mohs kept Clark, he would have six whites and six blacks, or, in the strange math of the NBA, an imbalance.
Mohs met with the team publicist Warren Turnbull to begin preparing the annual Laker yearbook and the other standard promotional materials. His orders: Keep the photo of Wetzel; don’t worry about Clark.
Before Mohs could meet with Clark to deliver the pink slip, The Ax struck again. The Ax was Laker center Darrall Imhoff, who had earned the nickname for constantly hacking opponents on shots. During a team scrimmage, Wetzel saw an opening, drove hard to the basket, and Imhoff reached in for the steal. The six-foot-eleven, 225-pound Ax got all wrist and no ball.
“Darrall broke my wrist for a second time,” said Wetzel. “So that was the end of training camp for me.”
Mohs now faced a dilemma. He could keep Clark, the only viable fourth guard in training camp, and imbalance his roster. Or Mohs could work the phones to see if he could orchestrate a trade for a decent white guard.
Big Lou started dialing.