Rudy LaRusso: ‘He Gets the Job Done,’ 1967

[Mention the near-great Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1960s, and two names immediately roll off the tongue: Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. In this medium-length article, from the January 1967 issue of the magazine Complete Sports, journalist Paul Green profiles Rudy LaRusso, another vital cog on those Baylor and West teams. LaRusso wasn’t nearly as talented as the Big Two. But the 6-feet-8 forward was just as crazy competitive and beloved by his coach and teammates. 

What set LaRusso apart were his extreme intelligence, toughness, and willingness to mix it up with any and all comers in the paint, as the photo above shows him scuffling with the masked Wilt Chamberlain. And then, in October 1966, there was his epic bad judgment to brawl with New York’s Willis Reed.

Ironically, LaRusso’s toughness would be his undoing in Los Angeles. No, he didn’t storm into the crowd and pummel a movie star. LaRusso’s hand-to-hand combat under the boards offended the aesthetic sensibilities of Mr. Jack Kent Cooke, the team’s insufferable, one-of-a-kind owner who sat front row with the movie stars. 

On January 16, 1967, or not long after this magazine article hit the newsstands, Cooke decided LaRusso and his rough stuff had to go. In a complicated three-team trade, Cooke banished the offensive LaRusso to Detroit, where the Pistons’ player-coach Dave DeBusschere thought his “steal” would be the final piece to a future championship puzzle.  

But LaRusso did the then-NBA unthinkable: he refused to report to Detroit. What’s more, LaRusso announced his retirement from pro ball. He and his family were staying put in Los Angeles. Though LaRusso would work out a sweetheart deal the following season to come out of retirement and play for the San Francisco Warriors, his unprecedented stand against Cooke and the vagaries of NBA trades has sadly faded with the years. At some point, I’ll post my writeup of Cooke’s monumental trade fiasco. It’s quite a story.]  

Pregame practice gets a basketball player up to competitive pitch. He loosens his muscles, sharpens his shooting eye, and rehearses his moves. When the ball goes up for the opening tap, he’s ready to erupt like a bottle of soda shaken well before uncapping. 

When they are on the road, the Los Angeles Lakers have a pregame ritual that puts them in the mood and unequivocally assures they’re well shaken. Veteran LA forward Rudy LaRusso was describing this exercise not too long ago. It takes place en route to a game, and this particular time, Rudy was talking about a visit to Philadelphia’s arena:

“Getting there is the hazardous part of pro basketball. There are 11 of us, and we go in three cabs, with 4-4-3 distribution. Coach (Fred) Schaus pays one driver, but the custom in the other cabs is for the last man out to pay up. So the scrimmaging is always brutal. In Philadelphia, there was one tie, and the cabbie chased us all the way into the dressing room.”

There’s money on the line in the Lakers’ version of “The Great Escape” and plenty of technique involved. You’ve got to get position, preferably a window seat (on the sidewalk side to avoid getting clipped by vehicular traffic, and, if possible, on the side opposite the driver for instant getaway). You must have the quickness to detach yourself from the crafty crook of a teammate’s leg, and the muscle and second-effort to plunge over bodies and disappear into the crowd on the sidewalk. 

If you had to put your money on which man hits the street first, you’d be safest betting on LaRusso. That is, if you’ve watched enough Laker basketball. 

For Rudy’s a money player who sacrifices form and image for results. Bouncing out of that cab, he’s braced and brimming for a gentlemanly game of basketball. Among the pros, LaRusso operates under both backboards, and the game there is called “Divorce—NBA-Style,” where a little hard feeling causes painful separations. Like your head from your shoulders.

Rudy, 6-feet-7, 235-pound forward for the Western Division champs, does not shy from such working conditions. He does what he must. And that’s the beauty of the man. It has made him a thorough, if unheralded, professional. 

Back in the ’58-59 season, Rudy was captain of Dartmouth College’s basketball team, and one cold night in March doing what he must required the deeds of Superman. For Dartmouth and Princeton were playing off for the Ivy League title on Yale’s neutral court, and Princeton had both the ball and a one-point lead with three seconds to play. 

LaRusso did what he had to. He lunged and intercepted the Tiger inbounds pass, wheeled and dribbled for the Dartmouth hoop. Up he went, and zing went the strings of the net—and the hearts of the Dartmouth fans. The buzzer sounded just as Rudy’s basket made Dartmouth the Ivy League champion. 

Doing what he had to do was often more sophisticated for Rudy. He’s a dedicated winner and knows how to get what he wants. Earlier in his career at Dartmouth, he read a scouting report about a Princeton player and smiled craftily. This player had stung the Green in a previous game, but the intelligence on him was that if you could distract him, rattle him, you could reduce his effectiveness. 

From the start of the next Dartmouth-Princeton game, Rudy chattered away at him. When the Princeton man backed in to get position for a pass, LaRusso mussed his carefully prepared pompadour. The man was steaming more than he was playing basketball. He contributed little as Dartmouth won the game. 

That was LaRusso in the Ivy League, driving for clutch scores, psyching opponents. Naturally, he was commanding off both backboards, but, at first, he didn’t even realize it. As a junior, he scored only 10 points one night against Columbia and walked off the floor angry at his miserable performance. Angry, that is, until he got to the dressing room and they told him he had just set an Ivy League single-game record with 32 rebounds. 

Dartmouth coach Alvin (“Doggie”) Julian recommended LaRusso to the pros. He knew Rudy could scramble underneath and would get his points on hustle and a medium-range one-hander. But Doggie admitted, “Rudy’s going to have to learn a little more defense. I hope he’s quick enough to hold his own.”

Again, LaRusso did what he had to. He was the number two draft choice of the Lakers and would have to play for a team that built its offense on the play of superstar forward Elgin Baylor. LaRusso realized that the team needed rebounding and hard-nosed defense from its other forward. 

“Rudy worked at defense,” says a man close to the Lakers, “the way some players work at scoring. He was content to let Elgin get the headlines and just work hard at a very tough job.” He knew he’d have to go man-to-man against cornermen like Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit, and Tom Heinsohn, and he wanted to be ready. 

Though the Lakers had drafted Rudy high, (then) coach John Castellani didn’t expect immediate returns. “We figured,” said Castellani, “that he might be a year or two away from being a good pro.” But  as the exhibition season unfolded, Rudy demonstrated he could help right away. 

After LaRusso had scored 12 points and taken 10 rebounds in a preseason game against Boston, both Castellani and Red Auerbach were shaking their heads. “Frankly,” said Castellani, “we’re surprised. He is much more advanced than we had anticipated. He stands right up under the boards, and is strong. He is a good pro prospect.”

Auerbach, who usually keeps close tabs on college players in New England, was annoyed at himself. “I only scouted him once,” Red said. “Looks as if I lost out on a good one. He really goes underneath, especially off the offensive boards.”

The Lakers were experimenting to find their second forward, and it was not actually until the season was a month old before LaRusso got a clear shot at the regular spot. He responded characteristically. 

By season’s end, he was second on the team in rebounding. And had the second-highest scoring average at 13.7. A lot of his points came on sheer hustle. He’d go up after shots on the offensive boards, and if he couldn’t try a controlled tip-in, he’d bring the ball down. Then, with a fake or an unsubtle shoulder, he’d clear a path through the arbor of outstretched arms and bank in a short hook. 

When the pressure mounted, Rudy, appropriately, rose to the occasion. He stepped up his scoring to 15.4 in the playoffs, and his tight coverage of Pettit almost helped the Lakers upset the Hawks in the semifinals. 

LaRusso’s aggressive defending had won grudging admiration around the league. “LaRusso,” said Schayes, “is smart on defense. He knows how to use his hands, and he’s the best man in the league at blocking out his man for a rebound. LaRusso really hounds you when you’ve given up your dribble.”

There is another dimension to LaRusso’s war against NBA rivals. He’s a dedicated team man. He played for six weeks that rookie year with a painful wrist injury. When team officials finally sent him to have it X-rayed, they discovered he had been playing all that time with a broken bone.

That’s the way it’s been with LaRusso for seven NBA seasons. He’s made substantial contributions to a team that has been a consistent winner (The Lakers have won four Western Division titles and have never been out of the playoffs in his time), though it’s one of his biggest disappointments that the Lakers have yet to take the championship away from Boston. They just missed in ‘62 when Frank Selvy’s last-second shot rimmed the basket, and they just missed last season when their late rally fell a basket short. 

Throughout, though, LaRusso has plugged away, often underappreciated next to the flashy heroics of Jerry West (who joined the Lakers a year after Rudy did) and Elgin Baylor. He’s not underappreciated by sound basketball men, though. The New York Knicks have always been after him, especially since he’s a New York City boy. As Rudy was starting his second year, in fact, the Knicks offered the Lakers Kenny Sears for LaRusso. The previous season, Sears had led the NBA in field-goal percentage with a .447 mark and had averaged 18 points a ballgame. 

Schaus wouldn’t give Rudy up. Instead, he delivered a lecture on LaRusso’s value to the team: “He can hit outside or around the basket. He’s big, but still quick enough to play defense and strong enough to battle under the bucket. This is a difficult combination to find. Rudy is a ballplayer’s ballplayer. He’s a plugger. He gets the job done.” Rudy’s had a game once where he scored 50 points and pulled down 20 rebounds, but generally LaRusso has averaged more than 14 points an outing during his career. Not spectacular but steady, and it comes right along with his sturdy rebounding and stout-hearted defense. 

LaRusso, whose hobbies include writing and watercolor and oil painting, has found that life in the NBA is a lot different from his life at Ivy League Dartmouth. “Mealtime,” he said, “is the biggest problem in pro basketball. You can’t eat too close to a game, and most of the time you’re either traveling or sleeping.” Once when Rudy checked into the hospital for three days with ulcers, the doctors were shocked that a young athlete should be so afflicted. Until they heard about his grueling routine. 

There are bright aspects to traveling, though. “There are more good bridge players on the Laker team than in a Dartmouth fraternity house, “ LaRusso says. “But Coach Schaus has a good way of breaking up the games when he wants us to get some rest. He fines the card players $10 apiece. So, we all double up in those seats that are built for midgets and try to sleep. 

“Sometimes Elgin Baylor relaxes us with his imitation of Oscar Robertson. The biggest thing about Big O is his eyes. They’re like two fried eggs, and Elgin calls him Mr. Peepers. Elgin drops his head, peers up, and sneaks around like Robertson. It’s a funny act. 

“I’ve roomed with Baylor at times, and he snores like a truck all night. The only good thing about rooming with him is that when he starts up the card game, you don’t have to get out of bed to play.”

Whether there is an NBA title in the cards for LaRusso is difficult to say. But Rudy’s pushing as hard now as he did when he was a rookie. In fact, just as he was that rookie season, LaRusso was the Lakers’ number two rebounder (with 660) and number two scorer (1,170 points) last year. His defense, too, is still top notch. High-scoring Rick Barry, last year’s Rookie-of-the-Year, found out in a hurry. The slim San Francisco forward said after the season that of the cornermen he gone one-on-one against, “LaRusso and (Boston’s Tom) Sanders or the two toughest men to score against.”

Rudy LaRusso does what he must. It’s made him wealthy as one of pro basketball’s top forwards. And it’s helped make the Lakers one of the game’s top teams. All that remains now for Rudy and the team he serves so faithfully is an NBA title. This could be their year. 

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