Former Laker coach Butch Van Breda Kolff, who had a sometimes controversial but always colorful career on the sidelines with 13 teams in three professional leagues and at various colleges over a span of nearly four decades, has died. He was 84.
Imagine a 2003 Shaquille O’Neal being traded to last year’s Phoenix Suns.
He’s still athletic, but he is becoming increasingly comfortable with doing nothing more on offense than setting up camp in the post while his guys toss it in and cut off of the entry pass.
How would Mike Dâ€™Antoni feel?
Now we can begin to understand why, when Wilt Chamberlain was traded to Lakers in 1968, Butch Van Breda Kolff was angry.
He was at a house party at Bill Bertka’s, and he didn’t take the news in the way one would imagine upon learning his team had just been dealt the greatest offensive and rebounding force the game has ever seen.
“…Butch didn’t have anything against Chamberlain…but you had to have Chamberlain in the post, and that dictated a style of offense that Butch didn’t really like. He’d rather have all five men moving, all five men interchangeable and sharing the ball.”
-Bill Bertka from The Show
Born from the now infamous Princeton offense, it’s not hard to see why Van Breda Kolff had a dilemma.
Before Bill Sharman persuaded a more willing Wilt to focus on the â€œother endâ€ of the floor, Van Breda Kolff would do the same but not without damaging the relationship beyond reconciliation.
Thus the clash of egos commenced.
Wilt would eventually acquiesce, and the Lakers would hold the opposition to a stingy 94.7 points per game.
“We’re doing well enough without you”
The low point of Van Breda Kolffâ€™s roguish career unfolded in Los Angeles. At the worst possible time, and in the worst possible place.
In 1969 the Lakers felt they would finally break through. They had home court advantage after a 55-27 regular season that saw the Celtics finish fourth.
â€œMost of the years we played they were better than we were. But in â€™69 they were not better. Period…â€
They took a 2-0 series lead, but The Celtics fought back to send it 7 games as per the ritual. But the uniqueness of finally having game 7 occur in LA caused owner Jack Kent Cooke to overflow with confidence. His Lakers would finally be freed from the â€œGarden Curseâ€.
So confident was he that he had balloons, that were to be released at the final buzzer, trapped in a net in the rafters of the Forum. The band was instructed to play “Happy Days Are Here Again” when the moment finally arrived.
Legend has it that the sheet of paper containing the instructions for the Forum staff on what to do when the Lakers won made it into the hands of the Celtics. Motivation that a hobbled and aging Celtics team could desperately use.
The fourth quarter arrived, and the Celtics took a 13 point lead when Russell, who in the â€™68 Finals as player-coach had out-coached Van Breda Kolff, scored and gave Chamberlain his fifth foul. Van Breda Kolff left The Dipper in because in almost 900 games, Chamberlain had never fouled out. But Wilt came down wrong with 5:45 left and removed himself from the game.
This was too much for Van Breda Kolff and even Russell himself, who would later comment that even if his leg was broken, Wilt shouldn’t have come out.
Over the next 2:30 minutes, with those balloons still menacing the players from above, the Lakers would even the score while Chamberlain idled.
When Chamberlain asked to return to the game, Van Breda Kolff refused.
It was then that Van Breda Kolff would utter the words he would unfairly be most remembered for.
But this is but one moment in an illustrious career that included coaching the NBA, ABA, NCAA, as well as women, and eventually high school. And the trail that he blazed across the basketball world is one that is a testament to something we can all connect with: An unconditional love for the beauty of the game.
-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho