On December 7th, 1973, the Los Angeles Lakers hosted a Bill Russell-coached Seattle Supersonics team in Los Angeles. The game was and should be mostly lost to history with the emphasis of post-game narratives on the Sonics finally catching a win in LA.
As Gil Lyons of the Seattle Times wrote:
The Sonics scrambled and clawed to a 115-111 success, ending a string of 20 frustrating appearances in Jack Kent Cooke’s sports palace. The win also snapped a 13-game Laker domination of Seattle and ended the Sonics’ own six-game string of losses.
For me the game would’ve remained resigned to the minutia of NBA history, a single pixel in an infinitely-sized NBA logo were it not for today’s sport page. Tucked away on the back page beneath the WHL standings and next to the upcoming NFL lines was the “This date in sports history” feature: On December 7th, 1973 Jerry West recorded a then-NBA record 10 steals against the Sonics. If it would’ve been Alvin Robertson setting the record in 1987, I would’ve batted an eyelash but nothing more.
I knew the tracking of steals came along a little later than the standard points, rebounds, and assists, but didn’t realize the stat was tracked as early as 1973-74; which happened to be the first season the league kept track of thefts. For historical context, West’s 10 steals is still good enough for second-most steals all-time in a game. Larry Kenon (1976) and Kendall Gill (1999) each had 11-steal games.
On the night of all those steals back in December of 1973, Jerry West, whose silhouette would eventually be immortalized as the NBA’s logo, was a 35-year-old combo guard in the final season his illustrious career. He only appeared in 31 games that season due to a groin injury, but still averaged over 20ppg, 6apg, and nearly 4rpg. Most interesting in his stat line though was the 2.6 steals he averaged.
It’s fair to assume the 35-year-old West had lost a step by 1973. While still a quality guard with good play left in the tank, his averages and efficiency were down across the board. He appeared in a career-low minutes and games while averaging the lowest points since his rookie season – and still put up 20/game. His combined playoff and regular season minutes were nearly 43,000 and it’s clear to point to age as a contributing factor to his season-limiting injury.
And even with those caveats, West still averaged 2.6 steals/game. For more context, only seven players in league history have reached at least 80 total steals while averaging at least 2.5 steals and less than 32 minutes/game. The rest of those guys were between 22 and 29. At 35, West was stealing the ball at an all-time clip. For a fun exercise in projecting what West could’ve possibly achieved in terms of career steals, Curtis Harris, curator of the great http://prohoopshistory.net/, attempted to estimate West’s career steal numbers. The sensible methodology produces eight seasons with three-plus steals/game and one season with over four steals/game and most ludicrous is that there’s nothing unreasonable about the projections.
This is where I reveal my ignorance in that I haven’t watched West’s clips nearly as much as I wish I had. I have his autobiography, West by West, sitting on a bookshelf, unread and while I can rattle off West anecdotes, I’ve never gone deep on his defensive capabilities. The league started awarding All-Defensive honors in 1968-69 when West was nearing the end of his prime. In the six years he was eligible for defensive awards, he made the second team once and the first team four times – all past the age of 30. While his nickname was Mr. Clutch and damn near any highlight you’ll find of him will be of a steady downpour of jumpers, he had a reputation for being strong defender and reportedly had an 81-inch wingspan which is the same as Rajon Rondo. All this mixed with the hard evidence of 2.6 steals/game as a 35-year-old and anecdotal evidence of his intense approach to defense point a player who should be considered one of the greatest back court defenders in league history.
That game 42 years ago could act as a microcosm for the tortured dissatisfaction that plagued much of West’s life and pro basketball career. The Lakers turned the ball over 30 times and four of their players fouled out. West was masterful in defeat though with 27 points on 15 shots, five rebounds, five assists and of course 10 steals. That’s a line that’s been achieved just four other times in league history. And not to belabor the point, but West was 35 when he did it. West knew he was a great player, but did it give him any measure of satisfaction? I have no idea, but tracing his defensive prowess beyond the threshold of a 10-steal game 42 years ago has given me an even greater sense of appreciation for the Logo.
I don’t recall watching that game, but I can recall a Laker game later that 1973-1974 season in which West was trying to come back from a long layoff from injury. He kept clanging brick after brick, so finally was benched for most of the 4th quarter. Without West, the Lakers rallied back and were down only 1 point with the ball at half court and about 3 seconds left. Bill Sharman put West back in, and at the buzzer he hit a running 22 footer for the win.
It was both pretty astonishing and pretty predictable.
I can recall Laker announcer Chick Hearn explaining in 1972 or so that both Jerry West and he were the same height, 6’2″, Chick wore a 35″ sleeve on his sports coats, but Jerry wore a 38″ sleeve, which is why he had so many steals.
That and being a basketball genius — West also blocked a striking number of shots, many from behind on outside jumpers by guards being guarded by Gail Goodrich, which I’ve rarely seen since.