Unbreakable? The 33 Game Win Streak of the 1971-72 Lakers

It is a well-known fact that as a child, Gail Goodrich was my idol. His sweet left-handed jumper was something any right handed kid could idolize. I even sent off and received an autographed picture of Gail. It was one of the highlights of my youth when it came in the mail. All through high school I wore number 25 in every sport as a tribute. In 1971-72, I was in second grade and it is when I became a fan of basketball. I would often walk the single block to the school to play ball outside. All the while, imagining I was Gail Goodrich.

The 1971-1972 season was one of transitions for the Lakers. Elgin Baylor hung up his shoes after a few games, the knees just could not take the pounding. Wilt Chamberlain, the most dominant offensive force the game had ever seen, was in the twilight of his career. For the year, he only averaged 14 points a game but grabbed an astounding 19 rebounds a game. Jerry West, still ten years in the league, was a dominant force dishing out around 9 assists a game. Happy Hairston, along with Jim McMillian rounded out the starting five. Off the bench came Flynn Robinson, Pat Riley, and Leroy Ellis.

Before the season began, Owner Jack Kent Cooke brought in former Celtic Bill Sharman to take over the coaching duties. Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor tried to tough it out for nine games, but that was all he could do before retiring. As a result, Goodrich would need to carry more of the scoring load. And he did respond by averaging a career high 25.9 points per game. But the most impressive feat of the 1971-72 Lakers was a 33 game win streak – the longest in all of professional sports history.

The Lakers started out the year going 6-3 the first month. Come November, the team reeled off 14 wins that month. In December, the Lakers pulled off 16 more. January saw the team winning three in a row before falling to the Bucks on January 9.  The Lakers would go on to win the title that year by beating the Knicks in the finals. They also set a record by winning 69 games. That record would stand until the 96 Bulls won 72.

Gail Goodrich reflected in 2008 on the record streak

The media started to make something of it when we broke the Bucks’ record of 20 from the previous season. But people also started talking when we surpassed the Knicks’ record of 18.

I don’t think that we really focused at all on the streak. We went out and played, and it’s a cliché, but we played one at a time. Bill Sharman was a coach who stressed consistency and preparation for every game and we really did play one game at a time in a sense.

When it was all over, we then realized what we had really done, understanding that it was significant, but it wasn’t our goal. We were still concentrating on the playoffs and winning a championship because that was our first championship. The 33 games was just icing on the cake. I don’t think it really hit us until it was all over.

The Lakers’ 33 game win streak will stand for a long time for two reasons.
1. High Tech Scouting
All professional teams today  now have every play of every game on a computer and can send that information in a few minutes. Defenses can align and shift to defend sets and plays. What helped the Lakers was the balance they had. Sure, Wilt could be a dominant force but he did not need to be. With Goodrich, West, and McMillian scoring at prodigious rates, Wilt transformed his game.
2. Depth
Today’s NBA Rosters are loaded with depth from all over the world. I didn’t consider Pat Riley as a dominant bench player in 1972. The starting five for the Lakers was deep but not the bench. In the 1980s, the Lakers and the Celtics both went 7 deep with All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers.

The streak records are 26 in baseball by the 1916 Giants, 21 by the Patriots in the NFL, and 17 by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL. The days are numbered for that kind of dominance, it is out. Parity and competition is in. My days as a Lakers fan would soon end. Gail Goodrich soon left via free agency to the New Orleans Jazz. My boyhood allegiance to the Lakers was gone.


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