Happy Hairston: Oh, Happy Days, 1971

[When Happy Hairston broke into the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals in 1964, he quickly became known for being anything but happy. “Troublemaker” seemed like the better descriptor. The outspoken Hairston got into an oncourt argument with the team’s star Jerry Lucas, and Royals head coach Ed Jucker benched him. When a reporter asked why he’d been benched, Hairston answered, “He [Jucker] said, ‘I didn’t warrant playing.’ If I don’t warrant playing, he doesn’t warrant coaching.” 

Things only went downhill from there, and the Royals’ beat reporters cheered when the Troublemaker was finally traded to Detroit. Sure enough, once in the Motor City, Hairston bickered with Coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who wouldn’t play him, and cozied up to the team’s general manager Ed Coil to get more playing time.

“Mr. Coil, the general manager who is still one of my favorite people called me up Thanksgiving night 1969 and asked me, ‘Was I packed?’” Hairston recalled. “I said ‘yeah,” because we were leaving to go to Philly, and he said, ‘Well, you’re not going with us,’ and I said, ‘Where’m I going?’ and he said, ‘Los Angeles.’

“I can’t recall what I said next, but it was elated. Basically, there’s only two places you want to play as a pro basketball player—New York or Los Angeles.” 

Everything changed for Hairston as a Laker. This article, published in the January 23, 1971 issue of The Sporting News, tells the rest of Hairston’s NBA story. It’s from Dan Hafner, who then covered the Lakers for the L.A. Times.]

In some ways, it is great to be with a winner. And when you’re playing on the same team with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain—and Elgin Baylor before he was sidelined because of an Achilles tendon operation—you’re usually with a winner. 

But it isn’t so great and it’s not so easy to live up to your nickname, if you’re trying to have a name for yourself. The superstars get the headlines, and nobody knows it better than Harold Hairston, the 6-foot-7 forward of the Los Angeles Lakers, who is known throughout professional basketball as Happy.

By sheer hustle and determination, Hairston, on his way to the best season of a seven-year pro career, is gaining recognition on his own. His consistently brilliant play is moving him out from under the shadows of his illustrious teammates. 

Hairston, now 28, is at the peak of his career. He is averaging almost 20 points and over 11 rebounds per game, but it is his other contributions, unnoticed in the statistics, that have brought unstinting praise from Chamberlain, West, and Coach Joe Mullaney. 

“He has been our most-consistent player,” said Mullaney, whose club is leading the Pacific Division of the National Basketball Association. “I don’t know where we would be without Happy, most certainly not in first place. He played well for us last year and is doing better this year in every phase of the game.”

With Baylor out, probably for the entire season, the Lakers have loaded Hairston with responsibility. As the only other player among this starters over 6-foot-5, Happy must give Chamberlain a hand at clearing the defensive boards. 

Hairston admits he is overwhelmed by all the recognition he has received lately. Suddenly, he became a candidate for an All-Star berth, he is in demand for speaking engagements, and the youngsters flock around for autographs. 

“I can’t believe it,” he said, flashing the smile that led to his nickname. “And now THE SPORTING NEWS is interested. I’ve never been written up in a sports publication before. It’s something. 

“Don’t get me wrong. I consider it a privilege and a stroke of good fortune to be a member of the Lakers. I said so when I joined them last year, and I feel it more strongly now. 

“They (West, Chamberlain, and Baylor) are superstars in every sense of the word. As individuals, they are different in attitude and mood. But there is an error about each of them—sort of a proud feeling. It’s the way I would be if I were a superstar. 

“But when you play on the same team with those guys, you have a different job to do. For instance, what player should have the ball in the clutch, other than West? My job, and it’s the same with (Keith) Erickson and (Gail) Goodrich, is to compliment them. That’s why I’m surprised I’m getting recognition. I’ve had more in the last month than I had in the first six years.”

Hairston has not always been the Happy One. A reputation as a showboat and a troublemaker followed him from Cincinnati, which drafted him in 1964 after a fine collegiate career at New York University, and to Detroit, where he went in 1968. It did not end when he joined the Lakers on November 28, 1969, being traded by the Pistons for Bill Hewitt.  

“I was overjoyed when I learned of the trade,” said Hairston. “I was finally in the major leagues. The Knicks, the Celtics, and the Lakers, that’s the majors. I guess you can add the Bucks to that, now that they have Lew Alcindor. A guy would have been crazy not to give his best for the Lakers. It is a wonderful organization.

“Wilt was out because of his operation when I joined the club, and Elg was in and out of the lineup, so the Lakers put me right to work. That was fine, because that’s my game: work. I’m usually the first guy at practice, and I’m always in condition. I think that’s why I’ve never had a major injury.”

Hairston’s play the latter part of the 1969-70 season was a big reason the Lakers finished only two games behind Atlanta in the Western Division race, despite the loss of Chamberlain. 

But problems arose when Chamberlain returned just in time for the playoffs. Hairston, who had been playing about 40 minutes per game and in one 10-game stretch averaged 28 points a game, was suddenly a part-time player. It was felt that Chamberlain and Hairston could not play together. Happy’s confidence suffered. He averaged only 18 minutes per game and never played up to his brilliance of the regular season. 

“I knew I could play with Wilt,” said Hairston, “but we were out to win, and Mr. Mullaney did what he thought was right. I think it’s been proved that I can play with Wilt. Everyone on the Lakers must realize that it is up to us to adjust to the superstars, not them to us.”

Hairston also would like to set the record straight on his reputation as a troublemaker. “Maybe I was a little immature at first,” he said, “but all I ever wanted to do was play the best basketball I could. I never knew my father. He left before I was born, and my mother had to raise the five of us (he has four sisters) and I never had a man to advise me. 

“Near the end of my first year with the Royals, Oscar (Robertson) introduced me to Ronald Grinker, an attorney in Cincinnati. He has in recent years been like a father to me. 

“He put me on a budget, and I call him two or three times a week. With his help I have matured, and I don’t think anyone can say I’m a troublemaker.”

It seems that all of his career Hairston has played in the shadow of another athlete. At NYU, Barry Kramer was the fair-haired All-America. It was Happy’s job at 6-foot-7 to guard the bigger centers and to get the ball to Kramer. 

At Cincinnati, Robertson and Lucas were the big stars. It was Hairston’s job to guard the opposing team’s best forward, such as Rick Barry or Baylor. “Believe me,” admitted Hairston, “I got burned plenty of times. It is impossible to guard either one of them. But that’s how I learn to play defense.”

There is probably no player in the NBA more adept than Hairston at forcing the offensive foul. But he pays the price. He gets knocked to the floor hard at least three or four times a game because he has taken a defensive position and his opponent has barged on through. 

There was bitter disappointment when the announcement of the complete Western Division All-Star team came. Happy had set his heart on making the club. 

“I’m not really too surprised,” he said quietly. “Automatically, West and Chamberlain were on it, but I thought maybe the coaches would select me. I think I’ve played about as well as any forward in the division, except maybe for (Jerry) Lucas and (Bob) Love. 

“It’s a funny thing. If I had been with one of the expansion teams, I would have made it. It would have been much easier for me to score 28 to 30 points a game, and I would have had quite a few more rebounds, too. 

“On this team, the opportunities are just not there for either scoring or rebounding. But really, I’d rather be with the Lakers.”

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