30 for 30 Jogs a Memory
Butch van Breda Kolff didn’t dwell on the past.
The former NBA and college coach had a great history to look back on, but looking back wasn’t his style.
“Really, what counts is today,” van Breda Kolff told me when I spent some time interviewing him at Sun City Center back in the 1990s.
For someone known for collecting technical fouls, he loved to laugh. Age 72 at the time, he attributed his youthful appearance to “drinking a lot of Miller Lite and being around young guys” during his coaching career, adding, “Could be the Dutch oil in my skin.”
But his skin grew thin when talking about the NBA of the 1990s as compared to the NBA when he began coaching in the league in the 1950s. Ironic, since van Breda Kolff had perhaps the league’s original prima dona when he coached the 1969 Los Angeles Lakers.
Watching ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry brought van Breda Kolff back to mind.
He left Princeton to coach the 1967-68 Lakers, which went 52-30 to finish second in the Western Division.
“That first year was really fun,” van Breda Kolff said. “They knew what they were doing. Really had it clicking.”
Enter “The Big Dipper.”
Wilt Chamberlain came to the Lakers in a trade before the 1968-69 season, giving the team a star-studded troika of Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. That group of Lakers won three more games than the previous season. Unfortunately for van Breda Kolff, the marriage with Chamberlain wasn’t made in heaven.
Darrall Imhoff was one of the players traded to the 76ers for Chamberlain and offered a premonition to van Breda Kolff the day after the deal was made.
“He came into my office and told me, ‘You just broke up the best team in basketball,’ ” van Breda Kolff said. “He probably was right.”
van Breda Kolff’s Lakers went on to lose to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the finals; a close game in which Chamberlain sat out the last couple of minutes. van Breda Kolff would be vilified for the rest of his life for his decision to keep the big man on the bench. Butch didn’t care. Nor did he care for Chamberlain.
“[Chamberlain] was injured,” Van Breda Kolff said. “We were down 11, he’s limping, knee was hurting. So he came out. There were no complaints. Then we cut the lead to two points and [Chamberlain] wants to go back in. I said no. We were better without him.”
Trailing by two, the Lakers popped the ball loose from the Celtics on the defensive end, but it went right to the Celtics’ Don Nelson, who shot. The ball hit the back of the rim and bounded straight up before falling through the basket. Final score: Celtics 108, Lakers 106.
It was van Breda Kolff’s last game with Wilt; he resigned following the season.
“No way I could handle that,” van Breda Kolff said.
He went on to coach the Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Jazz. His coaching career culminated with a head coaching stint at Hofstra University that ended in 1994.
Coaching had changed a great deal since he began his career as an assistant for the New York Knicks in 1950. He conceded he’d never seen the athleticism that prevailed in the NBA in the 1990s. But, he told me, “Now the inmates are running the asylum. Coaches try to please the players too much. Used to be the players tried to please the coach. It’s a shame, because the game’s not being taught.”
While he didn’t agree with the way the coaches and the players had changed, he allowed that he couldn’t fault them.
“They’re getting paid a lot of money,” van Breda Kolff said. “It all depends on what you want out of coaching. I never did it for the money. I’m Dutch and I’m frugal. I was happy as long as I made enough money to have a few beers in the fridge. I liked the players. The camaraderie. The zinging that goes on.”
He added that the level you were coaching at “doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”
“Playing together,” he said. “Doing some nice things. That’s what it’s all about.”
van Breda Kolff died several years ago. Wonder what he’d think about today’s NBA. Actually, I’ve got a pretty good idea.