The Miami Heat’s winning streak — 27 games and counting going into a Wednesday night game at Chicago — has shone a spotlight on the Lakers’ epic 33-game winning streak from 1971-72. And in the Sunday Oklahoman, our man John Rohde ranked the 10 most impressive winning streaks in sports. You can read that list here.
The Lakers were No. 1. OU football was No. 2. The Sooners won 47 straight games from early 1953 through late 1957. It’s a record that hasn’t really been approached in major college football and isn’t likely to be. And the idea that the Lakers would rank ahead of those Sooners has caused some readers great angst.
But I agree with putting the Lakers ahead of the Sooners. I tend to think that most every professional winning streak is more impressive than anything similar in college, for this reason. Scheduling. The pros don’t make their own schedules. The pros play when and where and against who they’re told to play. The colleges, not so much.
To his credit, Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s scheduled great non-conference games. OU’s 1953 season began with a loss to Notre Dame and a tie with Pittsburgh. Between then and the next time OU lost, to Notre Dame in November 1957, the Sooners played these non-conference games: Texas five times, at California, TCU, at North Carolina, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, at Notre Dame and at Pitt.
And the Sooners during the streak twice beat great Maryland teams in the Orange Bowl.
But despite trying to schedule great, turns out those non-conference slates weren’t all that tough. OU beat Texas five times, but three of those Longhorn teams didn’t even finish with a winning record, and beat Oklahoma A&M four times. The Aggies were a combined 17-16-3 in non-Bedlam games during that span, playing a mostly-Missouri Valley schedule. The ‘Horns were 7-3 in 1953 and 6-4-1 in 1957. Notre Dame in 1956 was 2-8. TCU in 1954 was 4-6. Cal in 1954 finished 5-5. Those two North Carolina teams were 3-7 and 2-7-1. The two Pitt teams were 7-4 and 5-6, though that 7-4 team made the Sugar Bowl.
Still, a representative schedule. Which was needed, because Big Seven football during that time was awful. The Sooners, of course, dominated. They tied Kansas for the 1946 and 1947 Big Six titles, then didn’t lose a conference game from 1948 through 1958; their streak ended in 1959, even though OU still won the Big Seven that year.
The rest of the conference was mediocre during the 47-game winning streak. Kansas State and Missouri tied for second in 1953, each at 4-2; KSU went 6-3-1, Missouri 6-4. Nebraska placed second in 1954, going 4-2 and 6-5. Nebraska placed second in 1955, going 5-1 in conference but 5-5 overall. Colorado 1956 might have been the best Big Seven team to challenge OU during the era; those Buffs went 4-1-1 in the league and 8-2-1 overall, losing just 27-19 to OU, the Sooners’ closest conference call during the streak. And in 1957, Kansas placed second, at 4-2 and 5-4-1.
So the truth is, in winning 47 straight games, the Sooners beat an elite opponent only a few times. Maryland twice, Pitt once, Texas maybe once, Colorado.
Now, let’s check out the ’71-72 Lakers. First, the scheduling. During the streak, the Lakers won three sets of back-to-back games — games played on consecutive nights. And that’s not counting the four times the Lakers won back-to-back-to-back games. Three games in three nights. That was an old favorite of the NBA — especially the weekends. Teams often would play Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And they did so in the days of commercial travel, which meant short nights and long plane rides with tall legs and cramped seats.
As for the competition, the 1971-72 NBA consisted of 17 teams, but there still was the same general distribution of quality teams and rumdums. The Lakers and the Bucks each finished in the 60s for wins — LA 69-13, Milwaukee 63-19. That Bucks team was the defending NBA champion and had a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing the game as well as it’s ever been played.
In the 50s for wins were Chicago (57-25), Boston (56-26) and the Warriors (51-31). In the 40s were the Suns (49-33), Knickerbockers (48-34) and Sonics (47-35). The Bullets were mediocre, 38-44, but eventually made the NBA Finals, led by Earl Monroe. The rest of the league was largely trash.
During their streak, the Lakers went 3-0 against the Celtics, winning once in Boston. The Lakers went 1-0 against the Bucks, in a game at LA. the Lakers went 1-0 against the Bulls, in a game in Chicago. The Lakers went 2-0 vs. the Suns, winning once in Phoenix. The Lakers went 3-0 against the Warriors, winning twice in Oakland. The Lakers went 4-0 against the Sonics, winning twice in Seattle. The Lakers went 1-0 against the Knicks.
That’s a record of 15-0 against teams that eventually finished with at least 47 victories. Seven of those 15 wins were on the road.
From Nov. 5-7, the Lakers beat the Bullets 110-106 in LA, the Warriors 105-89 in Oakland and the Knicks 103-96 back in LA.
From Nov. 12-14, the Lakers beat the Sonics 115-107 in LA, the Blazers 130-108 in Portland and the Celtics 128-115 back in LA.
From Dec. 8-10, the Lakers beat the Rockets 125-120 in Houston, the Warriors 124-111 in Oakland and the Suns 126-117 in overtime back in LA.
From Dec. 17-19, the Lakers beat the Warriors 129-99 in LA, the Suns 132-106 in Phoenix and the 76ers 154-132 in LA.
Nine of those 33 victories were by single digits, but remarkably, none except the overtime game against Phoenix were closer than four points.
You know, this really isn’t a Laker-OU debate. It’s more of a Laker-Heat debate. LeBron James says the competition is much tougher these days, but I don’t know if I buy it. There are more good players in the world today. There also is 30 teams in the NBA, which makes for a watered-down league.
The Lakers during their winning streak were running into the John Havlicek Celtics, or the Walt Frazier/Willis Reed Knicks, or the Jabbar Bucks, or the Chet Walker/Bob Love/Norm Van Lier/Jerry Sloan Bulls, or the Nate Thurmond Warriors, or the Spencer Haywood/Lenny Wilkens Sonics, about twice a week.
And they did it sometimes playing their third game in 48 hours, having flown TWA from Cincinnati or some such place to get back to Los Angeles.
Sorry, LeBron and OU fans. The Laker streak might not be the most impressive in sports history. But I can’t think of a better one.