Butch Van Breda Kolff, 84; Laker coach resigned after face-off with Chamberlain

Times Staff Writer

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.

Van Breda Kolff died Wednesday at a nursing home in Spokane, Wash., after a long illness, his daughter, Kristina, told the Associated Press.

Although he had great success, taking teams to the NCAA tournament six times in his 28 years as a college coach and reaching the NBA Finals twice with the Lakers in his decade in the pros, it is the low point of his career that is best remembered in Los Angeles.


And because of that, the name Wilt Chamberlain will forever be linked with Van Breda Kolff.

Taking over a Laker squad that had struggled to a 36-45 record in the 1966-67 season, Van Breda Kolff led the team to a 52-30 mark in his first season, culminating in a trip to the 1968 NBA Finals, where the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.

The Lakers’ search for their first world championship in Los Angeles looked even more promising the following season. The team, which featured Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, won 55 games in the 1968-69 regular season, won home-court advantage for the playoffs and, in a rematch with the Celtics in the best-of-seven finals, won the first two games.

But the often tempestuous relationship between Chamberlain and Van Breda Kolff reached the breaking point at a crucial moment in that championship title bid.

Boston came back to tie the series and, in the deciding seventh game at the Forum, had a seven-point lead with just over five minutes to play.

Then Chamberlain, a dominating 7-foot-1 center, hurt his right knee coming down with a rebound and left the game.


Mel Counts replaced him, the Lakers rallied and, when Counts made a 10-foot jump shot, the Lakers had pulled to within one point.

Chamberlain stepped forward and told Van Breda Kolff he was ready to return. Van Breda Kolff, who had clashed with Chamberlain earlier in the season, told his starting center he was sticking with Counts.

“We’re doing well enough without you,” Van Breda Kolff told Chamberlain.

Chamberlain sat down and the Lakers lost the game, and thus the championship, by two points, 108-106.

Van Breda Kolff resigned, Chamberlain returned and helped the Lakers win an NBA title in 1972.

Born Willem Hendrik Van Breda Kolff in 1922 in Montclair, N.J., he attended Princeton University, left to serve in the Marines during World War II, then returned and served as captain of the college’s basketball team for his final season.

After playing professionally for the New York Knicks for four years, ending with the 1949-50 season, Van Breda Kolff began his coaching career with Lafayette College and later returned there to coach a second time. He also coached at Hofstra, Princeton, the University of New Orleans, and finished up back at Hofstra from 1988 to 1994.


He had a 482-272 college coaching record and won seven conference titles.

In addition to coaching the Lakers, Van Breda Kolff coached the Detroit Pistons, the Phoenix Suns and the then-New Orleans Jazz of the National Basketball Assn., along with the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Assn. and the New Orleans Pride of the Women’s Basketball League.

In the mid-1980s Van Breda Kolff, at 61, coached a high school team in Picayune, Miss.

“Butch was an adventure in life,” said Bill Bertka, a longtime member of the Laker organization who hired Van Breda Kolff to coach the Jazz.

When his Tams were getting blown out in San Antonio one night, Van Breda Kolff got off the bench, walked to a bar near the court and ordered a scotch and water while the game was still going on.

In his final season, at the age of 71, Van Breda Kolff was described by the New York Times as the “animated, nonstop-gesticulating, chair-kicking, sideline-pacing, expletive-spewing Butch of days gone by.”

“I’m a complainer,” Van Breda Kolff once told the Los Angeles Times. “Everything isn’t perfect, and I let people know when it isn’t, but that doesn’t interfere with life.”

Van Breda Kolff is survived by three daughters, Kristina, Karen and Kaatje, and a son, Jan, who played professional basketball and coached at four colleges, including Pepperdine.