THE ROYAL CANADIAN
Jack Kent Cooke – who like so many who succeeded in Los Angeles was not from there - was a microcosm of L.A. in the 1960s. The old ways were out. The new ways were in. The new ways were ways of excellence, productivity and creativity. The Lakers were a haphazard operation under Bob Short, but became an efficient operation under the perfectionist Cooke.
He was brusque. He wrote memos. He was detail-oriented. He noticed everything and expected it to be corrected, pronto. He shouted. He was like George Steinbrenner before Steinbrenner, a new kind of owner at a time when owners were rich old guys who bought teams so they could invite their drinking buddies to watch games with them.
“He was the number one a—hole who ever lived,” said “Hot Rod” Hundley, who was a Laker broadcaster under Cooke. “He was totally, absolutely, unbelievably wrapped up in himself and had no respect for anyone but himself.”
“Everybody was on eggshells,” recalled John Radcliffe, a Laker statistician. “We were afraid to make a mistake, because we were gonna get yelled at. It was his style. He didn’t hold anything back.”
“Mr. Cooke shouted and screamed at anyone who didn’t give him perfection,” said scout Bill Bertka. “He was interested in the bottom line, in success, in winning. That’s all he wanted.”
Cooke once invited Bertka to his home for a breakfast meeting and asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee, to which Bertka replied, “That would be nice.”
Cooke responded that he did not care whether it was nice or not: “Do you want a cup of coffee?”
Bertka said that Cooke’s goal was to put people on “the defensive.” Legendary basketball guru Pete Newell, who coached California to the 1959 national championship, helped build the Lakers dynasty, modernize basketball, and re-structure the dynamics of center play in the NBA (his “Big Man Campuses” became a model for development of post players), took to Cooke’s style. The owner insisted on recording every phone call, a tool Newell found valuable to him when talking trade or contract with fellow executives or agents.
Like A’s owner Charlie O. Finley, Cooke required his employees to be “on call 24 hours a day, because Jack was on call 24 hours a day,” said Newell.
In an age before cell phones, Cooke demanded that his key people be near a phone and to stay in contact so they could be reached at hotels, restaurants, dinner parties and the like. He wanted discipline and punctuality. Still, Cooke understood the “big issues,” according to Newell; letting an “honest $50,000 mistake go by without comment,” then yelling over “pocket change.”
Cooke was not the type to get flustered, and this attitude carried over to his employees, much the way a calm general or President exudes control in a time of crisis. At first, Cooke’s greatest contribution came in the form of marketing and promotions. But he was so hands-on he could not help but “learn” the inner game of basketball.
Few owners have ever succeeded at this, no matter how hard they try. The only exception seems to be Finley, who despite having only played some American Legion ball was either a baseball genius or the luckiest man in the world when every move he made fell into place during his building of the three-time World Champion Oakland A’s.
Cooke studied and listened. His ego got the best of him. He came to the conclusion that he knew basketball the way a Pete Newell, a Tex Winter, a Jerry West knows basketball.
“He didn’t know,” said West.
Cooke hailed from Canada. He was a self-made man, a natural salesman who by dint of hard work succeeded in the capitalist shark tank. He made his mark in the radio business and moved, like so many others with a dream but no pedigree, to California. Once he made his money, he seemed to try and re-invent himself as an “old money” figure, effectuating the three-name affectation. He no doubt would have loved to be Sir or Lord Jack Kent Cooke, as his benefactor, Lord Thomson, a British media magnate, had been known.
Cooke’s uniform design, the choice of purple that he called “Forum blue,” and vision of a stadium modeled after the Acropolis, gave the scent of a man who thought of himself as vaguely European and indeed aristocratic.
He saw sports as the leisure activity of a king, so to speak, and went after the Angels franchise that Finley and Short wanted, but Gene Autry landed. Denied a spot in baseball he set his sights on basketball and ice hockey, the latter a natural for a Canadian but alien to the Southern California landscape.
It was his pursuit of a hockey franchise that led him to the building of the Forum. In 1965, the Sports Arena was only six years old and perfectly acceptable for basketball. But a minor league hockey team played at the Sports Arena, and the city rebuffed Cooke’s attempts to secure an NHL franchise for the building. He then went out and built the Forum for the Kings and the Lakers.
When Jack Kent Cooke opened his “Fabulous Forum” during the 1967-68 season he became a symbol of “can-do” L.A.; the city of the future where private enterprise could solve the woes of society. The Lakers were the “new breed,” ushering an old league into modern times. His team, like actresses in nearby Hollywood, underwent a facelift in their first season. Throughout the year it looked like it was a winning formula. Bill van Breda Kolff took over as the coach. The team changed their color scheme, in accordance with Cooke’s love of the color purple. The reason he called it “Forum blue” was because he loved the color, not the word. It would be the Lakers’ uniform style until the Shaq O’Neal-Kobe Bryant era.
Elgin Baylor was called “Motormouth” because he talked so much. He nicknamed Jerry West “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” because he grew up next to Cabin Creek, West Virginia. Jerry was kidded about his background a lot. Some people called him “Beverly Hillbilly” after the popular TV show of that era.
Jack Kent Cooke was the driving force behind the trade that involved the Lakers sending two first round draft picks, plus Elmore Smith and Brian Winters, to the Bucks for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975.
By the numbers
14 – the number of times Jerry West was selected for the All-Star Game.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism