Today, we look back on two players who headed the supporting cast on one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
Forward, 1964-’75 (11 seasons).
Teams: Cincinnati Royals, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers.
Regular Season: 31.4 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 16.5 PER, 70.0 WS
Playoffs: 69 G, 29.3 MPG, 11.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 14.4 PER, 4.1 WS
Happy Hairston was on one again.
March of ’79 was nearly in the books, and the Los Angeles Lakers – his employers for six of his 11 NBA seasons – had just won the 44th of their 76 games played. The playoffs were scheduled to start in little more than a week and the win, a 124-113 rollover of the down-and-out Detroit Pistons, had improved the Lakers’ grip on one of the six Western Conference playoff spots by yet another extra bit of pressure per square inch. At four games ahead of the seventh-place San Diego Clippers with six to play, L.A. was all but assured a postseason berth; only the seeding remained undecided.
Hairston, of course, had been retired from the NBA for four years. His transition out of the athlete’s life had been challenging. He was 33 years old when he had called it a day, his utility in the one vocation he was built to perform exhausted. Most men his age would have started a family by now, settled into a career, started to build. They were on the rise. Happy Hairston, like the rest of his ex-jock brethren, had shot his capability on a handful of years. He was washed up and wrung out, his palette dry with a vast canvas of empty decades left to fill.
Though it had been short on accolades, Happy had had a terrific playing career. Chosen by the Cincinnati Royals with the 33rd pick of the ’64 Draft, his first six seasons were marked by steady improvement and frequent change of address. In 1968, he was traded to Detroit for three-time All-Star Tom Van Arsdale; the following year, he was flipped to Los Angeles for low-impact forward Bill Hewitt. His star was in ascent all the while, his per-game averages building from 13.1 points and 7.0 rebounds over three-plus seasons with the Royals, to 17.3 and 10.7 in 122 games played with the Pistons, to a high watermark of 20.6 and 12.5 in his first 55 games with the Lakers.
In 1972 – his second full season in L.A. – Happy’s game underwent something of a makeover. Under the direction of new coach Bill Sharman, the Lakers overhauled their offensive attack, shifting the scoring duties from the front court to the back via the installation of Tex Winter’s triangle offense and a fifth-gear, fast-breaking style. Over the past three seasons, the team had utilized center Wilt Chamberlain and forwards Hairston and Elgin Baylor as the second and third scoring options behind Jerry West. In Sharman’s system, West paired with fellow guard Gail “Stumpy” Goodrich to provide the buckets (the two combined for 51.7 points per game), with primary support coming from swingman Jim McMillian (18.8 PPG).
Chamberlain and Hairston, meanwhile, were asked to zero their focus onto the more blue-collar aspects of the game: rebounding and interior defense. The pair submerged themselves to the muttonchops in the dirty work, tallying a remarkable 2,617 rebounds – 46 more than the entire Royals’ starting five – while letting their scoring numbers sink into career-low territory. One season away from retirement, Wilt’s averages of 14.8 points and 9.3 field goal attempts were the fewest he’d managed in a season thus far; Hairston’s 13.1 and 10.0 stood second-to-last to the 6.1 and 5.8 he’d put up as a 12-minute-per-game rookie.
With the responsibilities apportioned as such, the Lakers now ran at optimal efficiency. They rode the new configuration to a season for the ages, winning a then-record 69 games by a still-record margin of 12.28 points per. They ripped off a monumental 33-game win streak, the longest in the history of pro sport in America. They steamrollered through the playoffs, bowling over the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks in 10 games before eliminating the New York Knicks from the Championship series in five.
Hairston was now fully recast as a rebounding specialist, the role he would play to the end of his career. He had averaged 15.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game through his first seven seasons. From ’72 onward, he clocked in at 13.0 and 13.1, placing in the top-ten in rebounds per game twice and leading the league in total rebound percent once. He even got his name into the record books, pulling down a heretofore unmatched 13 defensive rebounds in a single quarter during his final NBA season.
Two days prior to the start of the ’76 campaign, Hairston was waived by the Lakers, who had gotten long on young bigs with Corky Calhoun, Don Ford, Cornell Warner, Kermit Washington, and new acquisition Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the books. Now in retirement with nary a grey hair to be seen, his problems no longer lay with how he might prepare for Haywood or Wicks, but with how he might apply his considerable remaining vitality.
He thought he might try his hand at acting. He had been bitten by the bug early on in his tenure with the Lakers, when he landed a bit part as “Veteran Player #1” in the acclaimed made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song. The rigors of preparing for and then performing in a full NBA season, however, left him with little room for outside pursuits. As such, it wasn’t until he put a full year of retirement behind him that Hairston had found his way onto the screen again, this time in a small, one-off role in the Robert Forster/Chuck Connors cop drama Police Story.
Acting gigs were few and far between for Hairston, and when they came, they were strictly small time. He peaked in 1977 with single-episode appearances on CPO Sharkey (as “Barton”), Emergency! (as “Referee”), and Sanford & Son, (as “Man”). By the time that James at 16 came calling with the juicy role of “Moose” on offer, well, Happy started to get to feeling that his wheels had got stuck in the mud.
Nevertheless, he continued to plug away. In 1979, he scored his first role in a major motion picture. The flick was called The Concorde…Airport ’79, and with Alain Delon, Robert Wagner, George Kennedy, and Bibi Andersson on board, it boasted an impressive collection of international screen luminaries.
The initial rush of excitement triggered by the opportunity to rub elbows with such accomplished professionals on a production of such scale was quickly washed away by the fact that Happy’s part, once again, amounted to little more than window dressing. Not only had the creative machine declined to give his character a name, they hadn’t even bothered to specify what sport the “American Olympic Team Coach” was coaching.
Beyond that, the film was shit, and Happy knew it. The Concorde was the fourth installment in a series of Airport pictures that had overstayed its welcome by three. Upon its August release, it would find itself standing blindfolded before critical lambast and box office flop, the double-barreled shotgun blast that would at long last kill the franchise good and dead.
But that would come later. In March of ’79, the Los Angeles Lakers were playoff-bound and Happy Hairston was on one again.
That nickname, by the way: it wasn’t intended to be taken literally. Harold, as he was known to the folks back home, had always been prone to sudden swings in temperament, the fallout in the perdurable civil war between his hale and hearty ego and his hypersensitive soul. When his days and nights were filled with basketball, his moodiness would drive him to petty infighting with teammates, or actual fist fighting with opponents. As a struggling actor with money in the bank and time on his hands?
In the short story “Bored to Death,” the writer-cum-detective Jonathan Ames describes himself as a “periodic alcoholic.” “Every few years, I try drinking again,” he says. “Or rather, drinking tries me. It tries me on for size and finds out I don’t fit and throws me to the ground.” Such was Happy’s relationship with the bottle. He’d had little time for boozing during his playing career, with so much of what was free devoted to the maintenance of his physical condition. Now, with boredom, professional dissatisfaction, and a persisting spiritual malady swirling within him, he’d found that the devil inside had more than temper tantrums and knuckle sandwiches up its sleeve.
Ever the professional, Happy had little trouble abstaining from drink when there was work to be done. He reveled in graft, setting to the task at hand – whatever it might be – with a dedication bordering on the pathological. Total immersion of self was what had shaped him into such a good basketball player. Though it had yet to pay dividends with the acting, he applied himself just as rigorously to each performance, no matter how small the role.
When the salve of occupation ran dry, however, Happy’s ever-present need to be consumed festered awfully. In short order, he’d found that a night in the cups provided the same relief as a night in the gym or a day on the set; through the process of losing himself, he was afforded a release from himself.
In the years since his retirement, he’d developed an operational pattern: gig and bend, gig and bend. Working straightened him out; idling cut him loose. With the end of each period of employment, he would find that his thirst had grown considerably. In time, those nights in the cups had turned into days at the trough, whole blocks of them spent in unquestioning service to unquenchable thirst.
And so, with the playoffs around the corner, a new decade on the horizon, and a nothing role in a terrible movie in the can, Happy watched the team that had given him the boot upend the one that sent him to it. He watched alone in his Hollywood home, dressed for prowling in his red velvet suit, a quart of Seagram’s and a liter of Schweppe’s at his elbow.
As the contents of the bottle dwindled to below the quarter line, the evening began to swirl and bleed into itself, Kareem on the television melting into the polar skin rug while the blood rushing in Happy’s ears engulfed Chick Hearn’s patter, degrading it into a reading from the Pig Latin dictionary played off a reel-to-reel at the bottom of a well. The sound was a wash and the world was a fuzz and someone dimmed the lights to black and when they pulled them up again he was leaning all of his 230 pounds on the brass rail at the Frolic Room or the Whitehorse or the what did it even matter where.
“I’ll make you a bet,” he was saying, the words a viscous sludge oozing from the slack fissure above his chin. “You see that rock you got back there? I’ll bet you I can spin that on the tip of my finger for the whole of the next commercial that plays on that TV.” He was talking to the bartender, and gesturing toward a bright orange basketball sat in the center of a sports memorabilia display behind the bar.
“I’ll bet you a case of Miller Lite I can do that,” Happy finished. Though he would have found that he could not recall how he had gotten here if he had thought to wonder on it, he knew without knowing that he knew that he had left the house because supplies had been kicked.
“No, thanks,” said the bartender, notes of aggravation spiking his tone. This was now Happy’s third attempt at landing one last drink. Having burned through the cash he had taken out with him, he had also tried sweet-talking his way into a tab and trading the medallion around his neck for a bottle of Old Grandad.
Happy lashed his head forward and kicked at the ground. An impotent rage had begun to emerge from the morass of dumb, animalistic feeling bubbling inside him. He might have started to shout, or perhaps even cry, had an interested onlooker not stepped in.
“Say,” said the sharp-suited man with the salt-and-pepper hair, “aren’t you former basketball whiz Happy Hairston?”
Happy nodded flatly, his dejected, booze-blind gaze affixed to the sticky bar top below.
“You know, I’d like to see you try that. Bartender,” said the man, as a crowd of people slowly began to assemble. “Give him the ball and let him spin. If he can keep it up for the duration of the next commercial, you give him a case of Miller Lite on me, Frederick Miller the Fourth, descendant of the founder of the Miller Brewing Company.”
The bartender rolled his eyes but obliged, taking the ball down and handing it over to Happy. What happened next was pretty amazing. Fortunately, there was a camera crew on hand to capture the whole thing.
Note: Roughly 40 percent of the above is a total fabrication.
Forward, 1970-’79 (9 seasons).
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, Buffalo Braves, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers.
Regular Season: 32.1 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 13.9 PER, 46.0 WS
Playoffs: 72 G, 37.8 MPG, 16.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 13.1 PER, 4.6 WS
On November 4, 1971, Elgin Baylor decided that he’d had enough. Over the course of his exemplary 13-season career, he’d made 11 All-Star teams, 10 All-NBA first teams, and finished top-five in the MVP voting seven times. He’d had eight seasons with top-10 finishes in both points and rebounds per game, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and set the single-game scoring record not once, but twice. Despite persistent knee trouble that muffled his impact from his sixth season onward, he had amassed what was then the third-highest scoring total and fourth-highest rebounding total in NBA history.
Now at 37 years old, those balky knees had been done shot to hell but good. Two seasons prior, they’d kept him out of 28 games; in the next one, he’d missed all but two. In a nine-game stab at a 14th season, he’d put up averages of 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds (both less than half his career marks) in 26.6 minutes per. It was clear that he had wrung all but the very last drops of ability out of a body that was growing more uncooperative by the day. On Friday, the Lakers were scheduled to tip off against the Baltimore Bullets; on Thursday, Elgin got the press together and told them he was done.
Baylor’s departure created a vacancy in the starting lineup which was filled by sophomore swingman Jim McMillian. Drafted by the Lakers with the 13th pick of the 1970 Draft, McMillian had been steady, if unremarkable, in his rookie season, contributing 8.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 21.6 minutes per, appearing in all but one of 82 regular season games. At three weeks into his second season, he’d emerged as a dangerous scoring weapon off the bench, averaging 19.1 points, including team-leading performances of 28 and 39 against the Knicks and the Hawks.
McMillian acquitted himself nicely in his first night on the post-Elgin front line, putting up 22 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists in a 110-106 victory. The next night, he dropped 28 on the Warriors in a 105-89 routing. He closed his eyes, held his breath, counted to 10, and when he looked up, he saw that two months had gone by and he was still the starting small forward for a basketball juggernaut that had come out winners in 33 straight games.
The Lakers rolled to 69 wins and an NBA Title that season. For Baylor, whose Lakers had lost in each of the eight NBA Championship series he had taken part in, it was a cruel twist of fate. After captaining his team toward the pinnacle year after year for more than a decade, it was only when he had stepped aside that they’d surmounted it.
For McMillian, on the other hand, it was the start of a five-season run as one of the league’s great supporting players. He had averaged 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 1972. The solid production continued into the playoffs, peaking with a career-high 42 points in the Lakers’ 135-134 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Two of the Conference Finals.
The core crew returned for another run at the title the following season, this time losing out to the Knicks in five. Though McMillian was once again a steady, reliable component of the starting five (18.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists), he was traded to the Braves in the offseason for center Elmore Smith, who would serve to fill the hole vacated by the retiring Wilt Chamberlain.
Entering his fourth professional season at the age of 25, McMillian was something of an elder statesman on a very young Buffalo squad that had gone 21-61 the previous year. It was likely as much his relative experience and track record of production as it was his “cool and collected demeanor” that earned him captain’s status with his new team.
At his side were future Hall-of-Famer Bob McAdoo (22 years old), future All-Star Randy Smith (25), eventual Rookie of the Year Ernie DiGregorio (23), and fellow new hire Gar Heard (25). McMillian turned in his best season yet, averaging 18.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists, helping the team to a 42-40 finish and its first ever playoff appearance.
The Braves’ success continued over the next two seasons, as 49- and 46-win finishes served as springboards to a seven-game first-round loss to the Bullets, and a six-game second-round loss to the Celtics. In 1976, however, the team drafted Hall-of-Fame-bound forward Adrian Dantley, and thus declared McMillian expendable. He was sold to the Knicks in September, which began the three-year process of his phasing out of the league.
In New York, his scoring numbers had fallen to the single digits as he was downgraded from 32 minutes a night to 24. He played his final NBA season in Portland, averaging 3.6 points and 1.7 rebounds in 12-minute bursts. In mid-February, he was released from the team.
Contrary to popular belief, he did not go on to become the “Rent is Too Damn High” guy.
 64 points against the Celtics in 1959; 71 points against the Knicks in 1960.