[Let’s go Way Downtown to . . . Inglewood, CA. and Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum. Time to check in on the great Gail Goodrich as a still-young, but maturing, pro. This article comes from the magazine Popular Sports All-Pro Basketball 1974, and the byline belongs to the prolific Bill Libby.]
Small by basketball standards and baby-faced, Gail Goodrich has had a hard time acquiring recognition as a big man in his sport. Immature as well as tiny when he commenced his college career, he was considered by some a bit of a brat. Turning pro, he was termed a selfish soloist who was only interested in his scoring. All along the way, he often complained whenever he did not get his way.
All of this has changed. He seldom complains about anything these days. He has little to complain about. Others have little to criticize him for. Many of the criticisms were wrong, anyway. Others have been overcome. Goodrich always did some things splendidly. Now he does everything well. He has become a complete player and a team player. He remains young looking, but he has matured into an appealing personality as well as one of the great players in the game.
Gail Goodrich has grown up. “I’ve changed,” he concedes. “I was 18 when I went to UCLA. I’m 30 now. That’s 12 years in-between. I’ve bounced around some. I’ve been traded twice. I’ve been there and back. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people. I guess you could say I was a cocky kid.
“Now I’m confident. There’s a lot a difference between cockiness and confidence. Cockiness is thinking you can do something and saying it. Confidence is knowing you can do it and not having to say it.”
Hollywood handsome, bright, and with an appealing personality, Goodrich is sophisticated these days. He is paid more than $100,000 a season, has a big basketball camp with Elgin Baylor, owns apartment houses, and has other investments. He always has been conservative with cash to the point of being teased about it by players and writers. It has been said he will wait for you to put down your newspaper rather than buy one of his own. A dime is a dime. He denies it, of course.
“I’m not that bad,” he grins. “But I know the value of a dollar. Playing basketball is a profession. You play for money. Side business is for money.”
He spends on clothes. He wears more duds and wears his hair stylishly long. He is a serious sort, sort of straight. His marriage has had its ups and downs, but he and his pretty wife are all together now, with son Brian, born last fall.
“I’ve settled down,” he says. “It’s been a long trip to the top, but I feel my best years in basketball are ahead of me, and I expect to make the most of them. Then I’ll go on to something else. I have a business background. I majored in business administration at UCLA. I was a stockbroker for a while. I enjoy business. I enjoy basketball. I’ll play until it’s time to turn to something else.”
With Jerry West nearing retirement, Goodrich should become the quarterback of the Lakers before long. “I’m ready for the responsibility now,” Gail says.
Gail’s father captained the USC basketball team in 1939. He hung up a basket in their San Fernando Valley backyard. “He taught me everything, except my jump shot,” Gail grins.
However, Gail grew up so small, he despaired of succeeding in this sport. He loved it, and he practiced it endlessly and became skilled at it, but, when he went out for his high school jayvee team, he was only 5-foot-1 and weighed only 99 pounds.
“I cried about it,” he concedes. “But my father and mother encouraged me to stick to it.” He did and grew, though not a lot. By his senior year, he was 5-foot-11, 135 pounds. He was a star, but few colleges considered him big enough.
John Wooden has spotted him early, liked his skills and style, and talked to his parents about the youngster going to UCLA. They were so pleased by Wooden’s early enthusiasm and interest that, by the time USC came around to recruit him, even Gail, Sr., the ex-USC star, pressed his son to go to UCLA.
Gail did. “It was an easy choice. They were the only two schools which really seemed to want me,” he smiled.
But he wasn’t ready. Wooden runs disciplined practices, which were too tough for Goodrich, and he complained about them to the point he was kicked out of them a few times. Wooden plays the players who practice best. Goodrich played little in his sophomore season, and Gail complained about that.
Wooden played him some at forward where needed, although Gail had grown only to 6 feet, and Gail complained that he’d never make the pros if he didn’t play guard. They laughed because no one figured Gail would make it as guard or anything else as a pro.
Gail became a regular guard as a junior. But the other guard, Walt Hazzard, a brilliant dribbler and ballhandler, always seemed to have the ball, and Gail complained about that, too. Teammate Keith Erickson recalls, “He was always complaining about something. He’s changed, and we’re friends now, but I must say he was sort of spoiled.”
Wooden says, “Gail was young and immature. He had a lot to learn. But he did learn a lot, and he became a great player.”
Gail says, “Except for my size, everything always came easy to me. When I first went to UCLA, I hated the hard work and the tedious practices. Wooden stresses fundamentals and teaches by repetition. I thought I knew it all. A lot of us were bored by it, but all of us benefited by it. I wasn’t cut out to play forward, and I was used to handling the ball all the time, so I wasn’t happy by the way Wooden used me. I popped off a lot. I wasyoung. But playing forward and playing with Walter [Hazzard] helped me. I learned to play without the ball, which is important.”
Today, Bill Sharman says, “Goodrich may be the best player without the ball in basketball. Which means he keeps the defense busy and gets free to take passes. Players who can’t do this waste themselves a lot.”
Of all the criticisms of Goodrich, the one that clearly is ridiculous is that he is not a clutch player, that he is a loser. On the contrary, he can stand on his record. He carried Poly High of North Hollywood to the Los Angeles city championship, despite a chipped ankle bone. He helped UCLA to two straight NCAA championships, its first two of a string of nine out of 10 that has formed a Decade of Dynasty unmatched in sports. And he starred as the Lakers won their first NBA crown in Los Angeles in 1972. “I like pressure. It doesn’t scare me. It inspires me to perform at my peak,” he says. He has proven it.
He made All-American his last two seasons at UCLA. He led the Bruins in scoring both seasons with averages of 21 and 24 points. With Hazzard, he helped his team to a 30-0 record his junior year. He led the Bruins in scoring in the championship game against Duke with 27 points. The end man on an explosive fastbreak, he also had a soft outside shooting touch. He fired away with 50 percent accuracy in the title tilt.
The next year, the Bruins were supposed to fall back with Walter gone. Gail took over and led the team to 28 victories in 30 starts and another crown. In the tournament, he was tremendous. He scored 40 against Brigham Young and 30 against San Francisco in the regionals. He scored 28 against Wichita and 42 against Michigan in the finals. The latter endured as a championship contest record until erased by Bill Walton last season. Little Gail flew in and around the bigger Wolverines in a dazzling display of quickness and touch. He hit 12 of 22 shots from the field and made the heralded Cazzie Russell look like just another player.
His being drafted by the Lakers delighted his hometown Los Angeles fans who loved Gail’s hustle and talked about him all the time. He was a wanderer, this gutty little guy, they said. Baylor affectionately nicknamed him “Stumpy.” But the Lakers had such guards as West, Hazzard, Jimmy King, and Archie Clark, and Fred Schaus for two seasons—and Bill van Breda Kolff for a third season—regarded Goodrich, by now 6-foot-1, too small to be a starter, and he could not win a regular role. He complained, of course.
As he played more each season, his scoring average went up from around eight points to 12 to 14. But after three years, Gail was so dissatisfied that he asked to be put on the expansion draft list, which would be used to stock new franchises. This shocked local fans, who did not know it was Gail’s wish. However, Fred Schaus has admitted, “Even if he hadn’t asked, we’d probably have put Gail on the list anyway. We had to put someone on, and we held others more highly. We knew he had talent, but we were a contender and couldn’t afford to experiment with him while he developed. To be honest, we underestimated how fast and how well he would develop.”
Gail says, “When I first got into pro ball, everyone said it was a physical game and I’d have to beef up physically to survive, being as short as I was. They told me to put on weight. I put on weight, and it slowed me down. Then they said I was too fat. The fact is, I’m not really fast anyway. I am quick, but the extra pounds cut down on my quickness.
“I had to learn to play better defense, but the weight didn’t help me as much as quickness would have. I was a shooter, and the Lakers had plenty of shooters. I had to learn to think pass first. I got screwed up. I lost confidence, even in my shooting. I never got a real chance, and I was soured and desperate to get away from the team. I knew if I didn’t get a chance soon, my career would be over, and I think that would have been true. I figured I’d get a chance with an expansion team.”
Phoenix took him and gave him his chance. He came on fast, performing regularly and averaging almost 24 points one season, then 20 the next when Connie Hawkins came in to share the shooting. Hawkins complained about Goodrich not passing to him. Hawkins has said, “For a while I wasn’t sure. Maybe he didn’t see me. Then I saw that he saw the others. He didn’t see me because he didn’t want to.”
In his book, Foul, he blasted Gail. Later, however, with his sensational sense of humor, Connie gave Gail a copy autographed, “Gail, I’m sorry I called you a white #^%&T!!”
Gail laughs about it, but not a whole lot. “I always thought he liked me,” he says, as though mystified. “I always thought we got along and played well together. We had a couple of spats, but so do a lot of players. Well, he wanted the ball. I can understand that.”
Goodrich learned when he returned to Los Angeles three seasons back. Phoenix wanted a big man and took Mel Counts for Goodrich in about as bad a deal as any pro team has made. Counts is a foot taller than Gail but cannot be compared to him in value. Phoenix passed him on, and eventually he wound up back in L.A. as Gail’s teammate.
Meanwhile, Gail has averaged 17, 26, and 24 points the last three seasons for the Lakers and led them in scoring the last two. At Bill Sharman’s direction, he took a lot of the ballhandling load from the veteran West. However, with West stressing playmaking as much as shooting, Gail still shot a lot. Under the tutelage of K.C. Jones, Goodrich developed defensively. West says, “He’s just become an outstanding player.”
Sharman, who teamed with Bob Cousy at Boston to form a great guard duo, says, “West and Goodrich are the best pair of guards ever.”
Gail says, “I got the chance to develop at Phoenix. Being so small, I had more to learn than most players going into pro ball. I could get off shots in college ball that I couldn’t get off in pro ball. Those big centers block your shots, and it can discourage you. You have to concentrate on making quick moves, and you have to alter the arc on your shots, and you have to learn where you can and can’t shoot from. Playing regularly, I made the adjustments, and now I know I can get off good shots and don’t worry about it at all.
“I was a little worried when the Lakers brought me back because of my bad experience there before. But I figured it was sort of like they were admitting they’d made a mistake and, if they wanted me, they’d probably used me this time. And, of course, they have.
“The season before last, I underwent a running program in the preseason under UCLA track coach Jim Bush, and that got me in shape. I cut off 10 pounds. Then the new coach Bill Sharman worked us half to death, and that really got me ready to the point where I didn’t tire late in games. A little guy like me has to go all out all the way. I can’t coast. I had a big year, and the team went all the way.”
Gail is by far the best little man in the game, cool and clever, so good observers often forget him when discussing small stars in the NBA. The little lefty plays big. He hounds his foes on defense now and gets by without being badly burned very often. He passes off fairly often and with good accuracy. He has an astonishingly soft touch shooting from outside and is quick and deadly on drives, finding holes to get the ball through. He is fouled a lot and outstanding at the free-throw line.
In the Lakers’ record 33-game winning-streak season before last, Gail led his side in scoring 16 times, including four-straight games and seven of eight at one time. Twice he tallied 40 or more points. He led with 32 in the record-tying 20th straight triumph, spinning in three long shots under pounding pressure in overtime of this thrilling triumph over Phoenix. He led with 32 again in the record-setting 21st victory over Atlanta, and his pass for one score and shot for another broke open the game at the finish.
In the third game of the playoff semifinal against Milwaukee, he hit two free throws, a layup, and a long shot in 90 seconds near the end to spark a crucial three-point triumph. In the fifth game, his [traditional] three-pointer with 90 seconds to go put the Lakers ahead to stay.
After the New York Knicks had blasted the Lakers in the first game of the final, while West missed 15 of 21 shots in the second game, Goodrich missed only four of 18 to bring his side back. In one two-minute stretch, he mauled Earl Monroe, as he hit a jumper, fed Wilt Chamberlain for a stuff, stole the ball and fled in for a layup, then fluttered in a 20-footer.
In the fourth game, he hit the basket and a free throw to wrap up the critical overtime triumph. In the fifth and final game, he came on late to spark the clincher. At last, the Lakers had won. Little Gail sat, sweaty and weary, smiled, and said, “I feel 10 feet tall.”
Last season, the Lakers won another pennant, reached the final again, but fell short as the Knicks gained revenge. The Lakers won 60 games, second in their history only to the record 68 of the year before. They were riddled by injuries all season and perhaps should not be too disappointed by their final failure.
But the test of greatness in a team is its ability to sustain success. In recent seasons, New York, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles have been swapping the crown around. It figures to be that kind of campaign again in 1974.
“I don’t feel any of us played as well as we could have last season and especially in the playoffs. We lacked consistency,” Gail says. “I hate to admit it, but maybe we weren’t hungry enough. We didn’t seem to have the same drive. We’re good, so we still won a lot of games and went a long way. If West hadn’t been hurt in the playoffs, I think we still might have won them. With West, we can go all the way again. Losing hurt us and made us hungry again. But it’s a tough league and an injury here and a break there is all that seems to separate the four or five top teams at the end.
“What will happen when West retires? We’ll be hurt, and we’ll have to make a difficult adjustment. He’s a super-player, of course. And we complement each other well. Someone like Jim Price, who has a lot of promise, will move in, and I’ll do more ballhandling and take over more. I don’t really care. I’ve learned to do whatever my roll calls for. I take it as it comes now. I make the most of situations instead of complaining about them.”
There was talk Goodrich and Happy Hairston would be traded to Portland for Sidney Wicks. Now it is said UCLA’s super-alumnus Sam Gilbert started the rumor, wanting it to be true. No matter, Gail says he is undisturbed. “I went to our manager, Pete Newell, and asked him, and he said there was nothing to it and no way the team wanted to let me go. If I’m traded, I’ll go. I don’t think I will be. I think I’m an important part of this team now. I have confidence in myself.”
There is talk that Wilt Chamberlain’s forthcoming book blasts West and others, possibly Goodrich. Warily, Gail laughs. “I hope not,” he says. “If it was anything like that, it would hurt the team. It would hurt me. But I’ve survived such things before. I hope it’s not anything like that. I think I’ve gotten along all right with Wilt. He’s our big guy, and he helps us in a million ways. He covers up for me defensively, for one. Well, I don’t know what’s in the book, so I’m not going to worry about it. Whatever happens, I’ll try to make the most of things.”
You see, he’s all grown up now, a good guy and a grand player and not about to let the bumps in the road bother him.