Flynn Robinson’s life in basketball didn’t end at 33
The way Flynn Robinson sees it, the Lakers’ all-time record for consecutive victories was never seriously imperiled even as the Houston Rockets bumped off foe after foe through February and into the middle of March.
“Twenty-two,” Robinson says of the Rockets’ streak, which was ended last week by the Boston Celtics, “is a long way from 33.”
Thirty-three, of course, is the remarkable number that Robinson helped the Lakers stamp into the record books during the 1971-72 season. Robinson, who turns 67 next month, was a 6-foot-1 guard and the top-scoring reserve on a team that was unbeatable for two months and brought Los Angeles its first NBA title.
As a backup to starters Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, the former Wyoming star averaged nearly 10 points in fewer than 16 minutes a game.
Kingmaker Chick Hearn dubbed him “Instant Offense.”
All these years later, Robinson still laces up his high-tops regularly and plays in 60-and-over tournaments around the country -- “I’m still Instant Offense,” he says, “but you have to pass the ball too” -- and says 33 still resonates.
“The streak means that when I go to the Y, they say, ‘Flynn Robinson played on that Laker team that won 33 in a row,’ ” says Robinson, who lives near Hawthorne and plays at the Westchester YMCA. “They don’t say that that team also won the NBA championship and had the all-time best record for 20-something years. I guess that’s what the streak means to me. And so I deal with it.”
By that, he means he deals with questions from reporters and fans asking if the ’71-72 Lakers, whose 69-13 record set an NBA record, would have defeated the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of 1995-96, who were 72-10. Or, more recently, if the Rockets could eclipse the Lakers’ record for consecutive victories.
“I don’t think none of them could’ve beaten us,” Robinson says of the ’71-72 champions, whose top rebounder and fourth-leading scorer was Wilt Chamberlain. “I mean, we had a monster team. Of course, we can’t go back in time.”
No matter. Robinson is content with the here and now.
“I’m enjoying life, having fun,” he says. “That’s been my outlook all my life. We get eight to 10 retired players dying every year, and when you see that, you realize you’ve got to do some positive things and keep on moving.”
One thing that keeps him going, Robinson says, is participating in a program that takes underprivileged kids out on the ocean and teaches them how to fish.
Interacting with the children, Robinson says, is a kick.
“On the boat, he’s kind of a rah-rah guy,” says Philip Friedman, who runs the 976tuna.com youth fishing program. “He’s really into the whole thing of high-fiving with the kids and getting them enthusiastic about the whole thing and also preaching the message of conservation and protecting the ocean.”
Says Robinson: “We have fun and we touch lives.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Robinson was introduced to the program through basketball. Visiting the Lakers’ El Segundo practice facility a few years ago, he says, he spoke with trainer Gary Vitti, who urged him to get involved.
“Basketball,” Robinson says, “has been my life.”
At Wyoming, where his teammates included newly rehired Pepperdine Coach Tom Asbury, Robinson was a three-time All-Western Athletic Conference first-team selection, averaging a conference-record 26.5 points a game.
The 15th pick in the 1965 NBA draft, he was an All-Star with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969-70 season, averaging a career-high 21.8 points a game while playing alongside rookie center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After the season, however, he was traded to the Cincinnati Royals in a deal that brought Oscar Robertson to the Bucks. He thought his chances of winning a championship had ended.
A year later, to his delight, he was traded to the Lakers.
What followed was a season for the ages, even if miserly Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke didn’t show as much appreciation for it as Robinson would have liked.
“We won 33 games in a row and he gave us a $5 pen set,” Robinson sniffs. “It was an embarrassment, but we were focused on winning the championship.”
A few months after they did, Robinson was traded again.
All told, he played seven seasons in the NBA and one with the San Diego Conquistadors in the ABA, averaging 14 points in fewer than 23 minutes a game for his career. He retired after the 1973-74 season, but he never stopped playing.
“I’m still pretty good,” he says. “About three years ago, I was named one of the top three players in the world in the 60s bracket, so that’s a pretty good achievement.”
Says Gary Munson, a former Cornell forward who organizes the team that Robinson helped win age-group national championships the last two years, “He’s a hell of a player. He doesn’t miss inside of 18 feet.”
Nor does he have any plans to give up the game.
“I can’t say how long I’m going to play because all that’s up to God,” Robinson says. “But I’m going to play as long as I’m living.”