[More from Los Angeles Times columnist extraordinaire Jim Murray. In this mid-January 1965 gem, Murray pokes fun mostly at Lakers’ Walt Hazzard to document the travails of the “most-despised of God’s creatures—the rookie.” Holy hydrocollator!]
Los Angeles—Walter Raphael Hazzard, Jr. in his fur-collared greatcoat, his dashing Parisian beret, cuff links blinking in the overhead lights, and his alligator shoes all attesting to taste and affluence. He looks the part of the well-turned boulevardier. You see him walk down a St. Louis street, and you half expect the accent to be one-part Maurice Chevalier and two-parts Peter Lawford. You are sure his valet has just helped him on with his clothes. The socks not only match, so do the breast handkerchief and the tie. And the handkerchief, you could bail out of an airplane with it.
Alas! It is just a pose. Walter Raphael Hazzard is that most-despised of God’s creatures—the rookie.
That bag he’s carrying is not a fresh set of monogrammed underwear or a silk hat for the after-the-opera supper. It’s Elgin Baylor’s hydrocollator, a machine whose sole function in life is to prepare hot, moist pads for application to Elgin Baylor’s knees before a game. The other bag—the one with all the round lumps in it—is not magnums of champagne. It’s basketballs.
One year, you’re cutting down the basket as national champion while they play the UCLA fight song, and the next year you’re struggling up the stairs with 50 pounds of machinery, and Elgin Baylor is saying, “Set it down right over there.”
You’re an All-American piano mover.
You go from “Mr. Wonderful” to “Mr. Wonder-Who-He-Is?” Or, in the immortal words of Freddy Corcoran, from “who’s who” to “who’s he?” You go from a place in the sun to the dark side of the moon.
If anybody rooms alone on the trip, it’s not you. If you get the good seat on the airplane, the regulars chase you out of it. The coach, the press, the owner take you out to dinner only if they take everybody else.
The halftime shows do not feature rookies. You get to shave only in the morning and for free like the truck drivers or the clock punchers. There’s no camera, only the hotel room mirror, which is dirty because your roommate, who is a regular, has used it first. He’s also the one who turns the lights out at night. When HE’S good and ready! If you want to read, rook, go on down to the lobby.
If you get the ball, get rid of it. These are the pros, baby. That’s Bob Pettit over there. Don’t try to throw the ball over him or it’ll end up in your esophagus. You’re too little, too late, and never mind your clippings. History is not our long suit. We pay off on last night’s game, not last year’s. We have to beat the Boston Celtics, not Boston College. You get to play 14 minutes, so try not to louse up. This is not the Olympics. This is important. This is for car payments and diaper service and the down payment on a new house in the valley. Don’t get fancy out there or we’ll make you walk to the airport, carrying the hydrocollator.
Walt Hazzard takes it in stride. He is sure he will be one of the stars of the game. It is only a matter of time before someone will be carrying HIS hydrocollator, when someone won’t say, “Say, aren’t you Walt Hazzard?”
And the coach will come up on the plane and tap a rook on the shoulder and say, “Out of there, son, that’s Walt Hazzard’s seat.”
Cotton Nash is also a rookie and, on alternate weeks, he gets to carry the hydrocollator. But gradually, rookies become people. In Stan Musial’s restaurant, Nash orders oysters and super-veteran Rudy LaRusso slips him a pearl stickpin to bury the oyster.
Gene Wiley, who sometimes says two words a week, gets round-eyed when he sees it, “Lookit, Cotton, got a pearl!” he exclaims. Cotton frowns. “I’ll have to give it back. “
“No, no!” shouts the general manager, “it’s the law, you got to keep a pearl they serve you.”
“Not this pearl,” La Russo observes, sharply fingering his loose tie.
Nash pulls the pearl pin out. “Look,” Wiley marvels. “It’s got a nail in it.”
“Course it has,” Elgin Baylor, who is in on the gag, observes crossly. “How do you think it got out of the oyster? You have to cut the nails off oysters. Everybody knows that. Even the rookies.”
By this time, everybody is on the floor with aching sides, and Nash silently hands the stickpin back to LaRusso. And picks up the hydrocollator. And turns back into a rookie.