Original Old School: Smooth As Silk

by November 27, 2010


SLAM: We’ve gotta talk about your shot, the unconventional form that was so effective for you. How did that develop?

JW: Most kids start off with the sidewinder motion, to get enough momentum to reach the goal. When I was about 13, I was about 6-foot, 6-1 at the time, and I was one of the best kids of my age, so I started playing with older kids. They blocked my shot all the time, so I changed my shot. I didn’t realize I was doing anything wrong.

SLAM: Did any of your coaches ever try and change your shot?

JW: Early in my sophomore year at UCLA, Coach Wooden called me over, and I was literally terrified. He said, “Keith, show me how you’re shooting that ball. Shoot some shots for me.” So I’m shooting the ball, taking instruction, and he’s out there rebounding for me-and that blew me away, Coach Wooden rebounding for me. And the thing that struck me, every pass he threw me was perfect. Anyway, after a few shots, Coach Wooden asks me, “How does the ball leave your fingertips? Does the ball leave your fingertips with good reverse rotation?” I said, Yeah, of course, Coach. And he said, “OK, then, keep doing what you’re doing.”

SLAM: It wasn’t textbook, but it’s hard to argue with the results. You were a 50 percent career shooter in college and the pros.

JW: Well, I also got a lot of layups. But Chick Hearn used to call it “the 20-foot layup.”

SLAM: It pretty much became your trademark, what you were known for.

JW: It still is. People see me out and they show me the windup, like “Hey, that shot.”

SLAM: You were drafted by the Warriors in ’74 and immediately put up great numbers. Was it an easy transition for you?

JW: UCLA and Coach Wooden prepared you for anything, but it was quite an adjustment. I was involved in a little film that summer after I graduated, and I was under the lights and sweating a lot, then I went to rookie camp dehydrated, and really bombed big time. They had to carry me out, man. I was feeling pretty good about myself, and that taught me a great lesson. The guys on the team all had a good time with that.

SLAM: That Golden State team came from nowhere to win the title in your first season. How sweet was that for you, winning an NBA championship as a rookie?

JW: You tend to treasure it. We were picked to finish fifth or last in the division, so it was really kind of a Cinderella thing. When I was on the Lakers, we had a team of superstars, and we were always supposed to win. But to be my rookie year, to cut my teeth and have that kind of success…We had a great superstar in Rick Barry, who was known as a selfish crybaby. I like Rick personally, but people were like, “The good news is, you got drafted. The bad news is, you’ve got Rick Barry.” In the offseason, we traded Nate Thurmond for Clifford Ray, and Butch Beard was our point guard, so it was kind of an eclectic group. Al Attles was our coach, and everyone respected him. Al was all about hard work. Al played 15 years in the NBA as a defensive demon, so we were a defensive team, we were very quick and we were very smart.

SLAM: You played two more years in Golden State before going to the Lakers as a free agent in ’77. Why did you make the move?

JW: I had really wanted to stay with Golden State. This was kind of in the beginning of when the NBA was going from a rich owner’s hobby to a corporate business. I found out later that the Warriors just couldn’t afford to keep me. If you look at their history, they had a slew of guys who came through, played great and then left because they couldn’t afford to keep them. But I wanted to stay. I was positioned to be the heir apparent to Rick Barry, which was a great situation for me.

SLAM: Those late ’70s Laker teams, with Kareem and Norm Nixon among a lot of other guys, were good but not quite great for your first few years there, and then Magic Johnson arrived. Was it immediately obvious the impact he was going to have?

JW: I thought that he was gonna be a great player, but I didn’t think it would be so soon, and I really didn’t know how good. There were doubters. You know, a 6-9 point guard, that was never heard of, and he wasn’t a very good shooter when he first came into the League. I think what really made the difference was Jack McKinney [the Lakers coach going into the ’79-80 season, he was seriously injured in a bicycle accident and replaced by Paul Westhead], who was really the architect of Showtime. The thing about Magic, he may have worked harder in practice than he did in the games. As you saw that unfold, you realized, man, this guy is really something. Until then, we couldn’t get past Seattle. They had that great backcourt with Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams. But then with Magic and Norm, who was one of the quickest guards I’ve ever seen, we could.

SLAM: You went on to three titles in the next six seasons, helping start the Showtime era and the Lakers ’80s dynasty. Looking back, which of those three championship teams do you feel was the best?

JW: They were all good teams, but I think, when Bob McAdoo came [in ’81-82], to have that combination with Kareem and McAdoo, that was tough.

SLAM: It seems like fans today probably remember the back-to-back ’87-88 teams more than the three title teams you played on. There was obviously a lot of carryover on the rosters, but do you have any doubt that your teams could’ve matched up?

JW: You’re right, there’s a lot of carryover. But there’s no doubt we could’ve competed.

SLAM: During your time with the Lakers, your teammates included Nixon, McAdoo, Michael Cooper, James Worthy and Byron Scott, not to mention Magic and Kareem. As nice as it must’ve been to play on such loaded teams, was it tough to find your spot?

JW: Well, it was great, because they were all great people who wanted to win first, and the players kept each other in check as far as egos and attitude, and that helped make it work. But the adjustment for me coming from Golden State to playing with Kareem was that you could never get in the paint. Then, playing with great guards who dominated the ball…basically, they told me to get out on the break, then get open and make shots. And that’s what I tried to do. Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic playing for the Lakers -great organization, great teammates, great basketball-but I basically had to learn to play without the ball.

SLAM: Your daughter isn’t a ballplayer, but your two sons, Omar and Jordan, are both making names for themselves in the game. Have you been involved in their careers?

JW: When I could, but more importantly they were fortunate to be exposed to programs that taught them well. They’re old-school players. They’re kids, and they want the hype like kids do, but they’re more old-school, and they’re unselfish. Not so much because of me, but they were in good programs.

SLAM: Having played for Coach Wooden and then going through the recruiting process with your sons, it had to be tough to find coaches who could measure up.

JW: I tried not to harp on that, but we took it into consideration, and tried to look for character traits that are similar.

SLAM: They obviously got some of your height and your game, but did they inherit that shot of yours?

JW: No. [laughs] They came to me when they were little and said, “Hey, Dad, show us how to shoot the ball,” and I said, No, no. You gotta go figure that out yourself.