Remembering Jerry West’s 60-footer, Lakers heartbreak 50 years ago
Jerry West made a 60-foot heave to beat the buzzer and send Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals into overtime. The Lakers lost the game and eventually the series to the New York Knicks in seven games.
In 1970, there were certain NBA cities in which Walt Frazier liked to enjoy his newfound fame while on the road. The Knicks point guard was 25, an All-Star for the first time and a sensation off the court, where his alter ego, “Clyde,” was often found in the spotlight, draped in furs.
Los Angeles was not one of those cities.
When Frazier arrived that spring for an NBA Finals matchup against the Lakers of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor — stars he’d once idolized — he rarely left his room at an airport Holiday Inn. He said he was content to watch cowboy movies all day.
But there was another motive for staying in, and resting up.
“I knew I had to guard West,” Frazier said. “My reputation was on the line.”
The series that unfolded featured more suspense and stars than any of those movies, and a plot that remains indelible in NBA history. Frazier’s reputation would be forever changed after a 36-point, 19-assist performance in a title-clinching Game 7 performance.
For West, who averaged 31.3 points and nearly 13 free throws against New York, the series extended what had been the theme of his career — individual brilliance, overshadowed by the misery of a losing.
“I don’t try to even think of those games,” West said. “I just know how it felt to lose and how painful it was and how angry you get. Almost every emotion comes out of a player if you care enough and compete enough.”
But in his memory, West can still trace the arc of the shot he lofted inside the Forum 50 years ago Wednesday, from 60 feet away with the Lakers down two in the final seconds of Game 3. With the series tied at one game apiece, West took an inbounds pass from Chamberlain, dribbled three times, shook free of Willis Reed’s defense and launched a desperation shot.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s pretty straight,’” West said. “You just never think it’s going to go in.”
It did. But the celebration that followed would be temporary.
When West’s shot fell through the net, Knicks guard Bill Bradley remembers seeing teammate Dave DeBusschere crumple under the basket.
Sitting on the Knicks’ bench moments later, with overtime waiting and coach Red Holzman preaching calm, Frazier remembers looking up.
“The crowd was in a frenzy, everybody was going crazy, and there we were looking up at the scoreboard wondering what happened? What the hell happened?” Frazier said. “I’m saying to myself, man, if God wanted us to win that game that shot would have never went in.”
West was known for his jump shot off of a hard dribble, the same technique he taught a college-aged Bradley at a summer camp nine years earlier. West occasionally practiced half-court shots too, but nothing close to matching his heave in Game 3. Everything about it was instinctual, West said.
“Would you have bet some money on that shot? Probably not,” said Lakers center Mel Counts, then in his sixth season. “Would you have bet your house on it? I know you wouldn’t have bet your house on it. It was unbelievable.”
The three-point line didn’t arrive in the NBA for another nine years. Had it existed in 1970, the shooting on the Lakers’ roster would have led to a championship in five games, West said. . Instead of a Game 3 victory and a 2-1 lead, all West’s miracle shot earned him was a rare breather. He’d played all 48 minutes in regulation and was concerned when one of his legs shook from fatigue before overtime.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired in my life,” West said. “I was completely, mentally and emotionally exhausted, but physically, it matched that.”
He played all five minutes of overtime, finishing with 34 points and nine assists, but his effectiveness was blunted. The Knicks won by three.
“I never will forget Jerry West’s shot, but all that did was put us into overtime,” Bradley said. “We have a chance to play five more minutes. Do we believe in ourselves or not? And we did, and we won.”
When the Lakers traded for Chamberlain in 1968, it created a team with the star power and ability to generate attention that would not have felt out of place in the modern NBA.
The Knicks feared the capability of the Lakers’ trio. Frazier, as a rookie, was so awed seeing Baylor walking down a street in New York that he followed him for several blocks, staring but never approaching the Lakers great. The Knicks, though, had grown up to be too well-coached to fool, too unselfish to bait into mistakes and too young to expect to give up, Counts said. That contrast between the rosters was evident later in the series.
When Reed, the Knicks’ emotional and statistical leader, tore a muscle in his right thigh during Game 5, the Knicks scuttled their offense at halftime to create a 1-3-1 scheme. It drew Chamberlain’s defense away from the basket, forcing him to choose whether to guard a Knicks big man at the foul line or a guard running the baseline, from corner to corner. The ball flowed between teammates, keeping the Lakers guessing.
The NBA has told teams they can reopen their practice facilities May 8 under certain restrictions if they are in a state where public health guidelines allow it.
The Lakers reaffirmed why stars mattered with a 22-point victory in Game 6 to even the series. Chamberlain had 45 points and 27 rebounds. Silence filled the cabin during the Knicks’ flight home for the deciding game.
“Who’s going to guard this guy?” Frazier said. “Our only hope was Willis.”
Without social media to rely on for news, Frazier and Bradley arrived at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 without a clue whether Reed would play. Before tipoff, Holzman shooed teammates angling to see whether Reed would receive a pain-killing shot in his right thigh out of the training room.
The Knicks found out the same way as everybody else. Frazier and Bradley can still hear the crowd’s roars that followed a hobbling Reed walking out for warmups. And they can still see West, Baylor and Chamberlain freeze their warmups to gauge Reed’s readiness.
“My ears were ringing for two days,” West said. “That’s how noisy it was in that building.”
The Knicks contend Reed’s entrance rattled the Lakers; certainly Chamberlain, who struggled to decide how to guard Reed despite the injury. Seeing the clearly hobbled Reed pleased West, who expected an advantage. Reed made his first two jump shots and the Knicks pounced for loose balls. Instructed by Holzman before tipoff to find the open man, Frazier realized that man was him, and took advantage for 36 points to go with 19 assists.
“The best seventh game in NBA history,” Bradley said.
Willis Reed, hobbled by a thigh injury, makes his entrance for Game 7 of the NBA Finals and helps the New York Knicks win the title over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers would get revenge two years later, beating the Knicks in five games for West’s long-sought title. West made nine of his 19 shots to lead the Lakers with 28 points in the 1970 Game 7, yet scar tissue remains. He called it one of the worst games he’s ever seen the franchise play, and still shoulders blame.
“I was embarrassed with how I played,” he said. “Why, for that occasion, I don’t know. They played great. They were just a smart team and we didn’t adjust to them, at all.”
It played out like a movie — an epic for the Knicks, a tragedy for the Lakers, depending on your allegiance — whose scenes remain vivid to those playing its parts.
“You don’t get more dramatic moments than the fifth and seventh games or a shot like the West shot,” Bradley said. “Those don’t happen.”
Frazier, recalling the series recently, paused to say he was getting goosebumps.
“I always said it was a thing of destiny,” he said. “If we play the Lakers five more times after that, I don’t think we would have won the game. But this one game, the way Willis came out, the game that I had, the way the crowd reacted — it all just fell in place.”
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