The Los Angeles Lakers have had several franchise high points. In the 1950s, when they still played in Minneapolis, they were the league’s first true powerhouse, winning the title the year they joined the BAA in 1949, then going on to win four more championships in the next five years. They missed the playoffs only once in 12 seasons in Minneapolis, and the very next year—1960—they ended up in the NBA Finals, losing to Boston and starting for real that historic rivalry.
In the 1980s, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a cast of characters rotating through the rest of their lineup won five titles in nine seasons between 1980 and 1988 and made two more Finals after that, falling short in 1989 against Detroit and 1991 against Chicago before Johnson’s HIV diagnosis brought that era of Lakers basketball to an end.
But no Lakers team in that entire storied franchise history put everything together so gloriously that they set records that would stand for decades quite like the 1972 championship squad. Let’s take a look back at the year when a perpetual bridesmaid finally put on the veil and walked down the aisle.
The On-Court Record
The ’72 Lakers won 69 regular-season games, which stood as a record until 1996 when the Bulls broke it and still to this day remains the third-best regular-season record in an 82-game campaign (the 2016 Warriors, of course, are the other team to break 70 wins and outdo the Lakers) in history. Magic never won more than 65 games (in 1987, the best of the Showtime Era); Shaq and Kobe topped out at 67 in 2000, as did Kobe and Pau in 2009. The 2020 title team went 52-19; that prorates out to 60-22 over 82 games.
But hidden in that big record is one of the most astounding stretches in the history of not just the NBA, but of professional sports. The morning of November 1, 1971 dawned with the Lakers at 6-3. People waking up to check the standings in the morning edition of the newspaper on January 8, 1972 saw the Lakers at 39-3.
And while they would lose to the defending champion Bucks in Milwaukee a day later, the Lakers ended up winning 33 games in a row. No team before or since has done that.
An NFL team would have to go 16-0 in two consecutive regular seasons and then win their opener in Year 3 to get to 33 in a row. The closest anyone’s come is when the Indianapolis Colts won the last nine games of the 2008 season after starting 7-4 then started the 2009 season 14-0, a total of 23 wins in a row.
The 1916 New York baseball Giants won 26 in a row to set MLB’s mark.
And no hockey team has won more than 17 straight—Pittsburgh did it in 1993. Sure, NHL teams have had longer unbeaten streaks because until recently, the league still had ties. The 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers went 25-0-10 for one stretch. But 10 ties is a far cry from outright winning 33 straight games in any sport.
And while we’re on the subject, the same could be said for soccer, when Arsenal went undefeated in the English Premier League with 26 wins and 12 draws, but again, 12 ties is not the same as putting together a winning streak.
The Lakers? They won—as in “scored more points than the other team, not the same amount to stay unbeaten”—33 straight games. The record may never be broken in any sport.
Then, as icing on the cake, the Lakers swept the 57-25 Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals, beat the 1971 champion Bucks in the conference finals, then beat the 1970 (and ’73) champion New York Knicks in the Finals, neatly disposing of the only other champions besides themselves in the four-year interregnum between the 1969 and 1974 champion Boston Celtics.
As good as other Lakers teams were, they never did that.
The Featured Players
This was a veteran Lakers team that featured a lot of the talent that had perpetually fallen short in the 1960s.
Jerry West, who entered the 1972 NBA Finals 0-8 in championship series, finally got his ring. West is underappreciated by young fans today, so let me give you some perspective. He averaged 27.0 points per game in his career while playing shooting guard before there was such a thing as a 3-pointer. Just think of how many points West could’ve scored if he’d played in the era of Stephen Curry and James Harden, 3-point bombers who add four or five points per game to their scoring average just because so many of their makes are worth three points instead of two.
And like Harden, West was a master of getting to the free throw line; his 840 made free throws (on 86.0 percent shooting) in 1966 are to this day the single-season NBA record.
Wilt Chamberlain, another guy known as a perpetual bridesmaid in the Finals, led the league in field goal percentage, making 64.9 percent of his shots, almost all of them right under the basket. The following year, he would make 72.7 percent, which stood as the NBA record until Mitchell Robinson broke it by hitting 74.2 percent of his shots in 2020. According to Basketball Reference, Robinson’s average distance from the basket on his shots was 1.3 feet. One presumes Wilt had a similar proximity on his shots, although shot data does not go anywhere near that far back.
Interestingly, Elgin Baylor, himself a ’60s stalwart and Hall of Famer—even if he’s better-known in younger fan circles as the unfortunate soul who was the GM of the Donald Sterling-owned Clippers garbage fire for years—retired after just nine games of the ’72 season. Which, in turn, means the Lakers were 6-3 on the day he hung up his sneakers…just in time to win 33 in a row. Ouch.
Gail Goodrich, himself a Hall of Famer, came into his own in 1972, playing alongside West in the backcourt and making his first of four consecutive All-Star appearances and second of five overall. His scoring exploded, and he set a career high with 25.9 points per game.
Rounding out the starting lineup were Jim McMillian—who became the workhorse at small forward when Baylor retired—and the wonderfully named Happy Hairston (though his parents named him Harold) contributing 13.1 points and 13.1 rebounds per game as the fifth option.
On the bench? Guard Flynn Robinson was the leading scorer at 9.9 points per game as the starters played the overwhelming majority of the minutes. Wilt averaged 42.1 minutes per game and West, McMillian, and Goodrich were all over 37 minutes per contest; Hairston averaged 34.4, leaving precious few touches for the bench guys.
Also on the Lakers bench, where he averaged 6.7 points per game as a shooting guard, was Pat Riley—yes, that Pat Riley, who would gain fame or notoriety depending on whether you were a fan of his teams as a coach and executive first in Los Angeles and then later with the Knicks and the Miami Heat.
Bill Sharman coached the Lakers starting in 1972. He had previously coached first the San Francisco Warriors and then had a stint in the ABA coaching the Los Angeles Stars, who moved to Utah in 1970, won the ABA title in 1971 with Sharman on the sideline, and eventually folded 16 games into the ABA’s final season in 1976.
Sharman holds the distinction of having been inducted into the Hall of Fame both as a player in 1976—he was an 8-time All-Star and four-time champion with the Celtics, retiring after the 1961 season—and as a coach in 2004 for having coached not just champions in two different leagues, but one of the greatest teams of all time in those ’72 Lakers.
Sharman did what nobody else in Los Angeles had been able to do since the franchise moved from the land of 10,000 lakes to a city where fresh water has to be piped in by an aqueduct since nowhere near enough water exists for its population until someone figures out an economic way to get salt out of the waters of the Pacific Ocean. And his guidance is a big part of why West didn’t have to retire without a ring. Wilt had one from the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, but Jerry—the 1969 Finals MVP in a losing cause and the only player ever to win that honor without winning the series—nearly did without.
I mentioned them in the opener, but it’s worth recapping them here.
The 2001 Lakers were the most dominant playoff team in franchise history while the 2000 edition was the most powerful regular-season team, but in truth, the 2001 version was probably the better team. They would have run the table in the playoffs but for Allen Iverson dropping 48 points and one huge diss move on Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the Finals.
The ’87 Lakers were the pinnacle of the Magic Johnson era; their 65-17 regular-season record, 15-3 playoff record, and victory in the final showdown with Boston in the Finals gives them an argument of their own among the NBA’s all-time great seasons.
And the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers deserve mention as the best of the bunch out of those old-school teams. They went 51-17 in the regular season (a 62-20 clip per 82 games), then navigated their way through a complex series of playoff games as the NBA, fresh off the merger between the BAA and the NBL, tried to sort out what to do with 17 teams for that one bloated season (the league would contract to 11 teams in 1951 and eventually bottom out at 8 teams by 1955; they wouldn’t have 17 teams again until Portland, Buffalo, and Cleveland got in on the fun in 1970.
Minneapolis first beat Rochester in a one-game playoff for the division title. They then beat the Chicago Stags, Fort Wayne Pistons, and Anderson Packers—that’s Anderson, Indiana, which even in 1950 had just 46,820 residents—by winning the first two games of a best-of-three series all three times before ultimately overcoming the Syracuse Nationals in six in the NBA Finals.
Plus, there’s the 2020 COVID Bubble Champion Lakers, a team that was perhaps nowhere near the equal of the other Los Angeles title teams but nonetheless brought the franchise its first ring in a decade.
But none of those Lakers teams were quite as dominant or quite as spectacular, nor would they have the same impact on the legacy of the players involved, as the 1972 champions.
NEXT: Memphis Grizzlies. Grit. Grind. Going down in defeat. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!