John Block was a high school student when the Lakers first changed his life.
It was 1960, and a 16-year-old bloc who had grown up in Glendale, increasingly serious about baseball, began drawing on basketball when the Minneapolis Lakers arrived in Los Angeles. When Block grew to 6 feet 9 and recruits became aware of it, he stayed near his home at Glendale Community College before playing at USC. He hoped his Pac-8 record and size would be discovered by the Jerry West and Elgin Baylor franchise.
“That was my wish,” said Block. “I wanted to be in the NBA. And I wanted to play for the Lakers. “
He did it when the Lakers used a 1966 draft pick against a striker who spent his rookie season taking the advice of teammate Rudy LaRusso to watch West and learn from everything he did, his training habits down to his inclinations.
Block’s lonely season for the Lakers isn’t why strangers sometimes still ask about a game he calls the “most memorable” game of his 10 year career that sometimes leads him to hit YouTube for grainy Keith footage Jackson and Bill look at Russel.
That moment is still reserved for his indelible, if largely overlooked, role as a Lakers opponent – he helped the Milwaukee Bucks break the Lakers’ NBA record of 33 games 50 years ago on January 9, 1972.
Lakers trainer Bill Sharman speaks to his team during a break on January 9, 1972 in Milwaukee.
(Arthur Shay / Getty Images / Disney General Entertainment Content)
The streak was eventually crushed under the weight of predictably brilliant performances by two future Hall of Famers in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (39 points, 20 rebounds) and Oscar Robertson (17 points, nine assists), the star duo of the Bucks. But that piece of Southern California history came to an end because of the striker whose roots began there. Over time, Block has become a footnote to one of the most notable games in NBA history, but a force for those who experienced it.
“One player I got into the league with … who was the unsung hero, so to speak, was a guy named John Block,” said Pat Riley, who was a Lakers before becoming a Hall of Fame coach and manager in 1971. Was a security guard. 72. “I remember John Block got about 20 points in the game and even though they had Kareem, he was a big, big differentiator in that game.”
His contributions officially stand at 17 points and 10 rebounds, and along with the 18 points that Guardian Lucius Allen scored in 19 minutes – whose decorated UCLA career was another LA link to the downfall of the streak – the Bank of Bucks helped ending a performance that had previously built for 24 hours after Milwaukee defeated Detroit the night before and eventually targeted the Lakers.
“When we left this locker room [after beating Detroit] that was the beginning of the electricity that was supposed to be built up the next day, ”said Block. “We expected something to be part of. And I woke up the next morning and said, ‘Wow, this will only be one day.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was going to be some kind of day and when we walked into the locker room there was this electricity, just this focus, there is no way the Lakers will be able to beat us.
“You come to a zone where you are in the right place at the right time and things just happen. And that was the case with me. It was easy, it was one of those games that just flow. It just happens. When I got into this game. I was excited and ready to go. “
Block had come to Milwaukee months earlier in the post-1971 NBA championship off-season, but his past had prepared him to adapt quickly to a new team of stars.
At Community College and USC, Block played for coaches who were among the forerunners of the triangle offensive, an experience that made him very adaptable to reading teammates and playing as a cutter and passer. As a rookie with the Lakers, his teammates included stars like West and Gail Goodrich, who arrived in Milwaukee that January day, and Baylor, whose surprising resignation in the first few months of the 1971/72 season immediately preceded the start of the streak. And for the next four seasons with the San Diego Rockets, Block had treated offensive rebounds like treasure while playing alongside goalscorers like Elvin Hayes, Stu Lantz and Calvin Murphy.
Most importantly, Block had known Abdul-Jabbar for six years when he arrived in Milwaukee. As part of a short-term missionary trip sponsored by the church he attended, the Hollywood Presbyterian, and Young Life, Block spent the summer of 1965 living in Harlem and, often the only white gamer, playing pickup games in famous Rucker Park play where his teammates occasionally included Earl Manigault, the legendary playground player.
By the end of the summer, the Church sponsored two New York players to attend school in Los Angeles – one of whom was friends with then-Lew Alcindor, the best high school player in New York and the country, who soon went west to UCLA. When Block hung around the college student apartment on the Presbyterian campus in Hollywood, he often found Alcindor there too. Pickup games followed.
“I had this relationship at playing ball and at the bigger ball and all these things with Kareem before I even played him or anything,” Block said. “So it was an easy flow.”
In the years between their LA and Milwaukee meetings, Alcindor had changed his name but remained the same dominant presence. His rookie-of-the-year campaign was followed by a second season, 1970-71, in which he selected the league’s most valuable player and the NBA final in the midst of Milwaukee’s championship run, the start of a brilliant 20-year career called the best All-time goalscorer and six-time MVP.
But by January 9, Milwaukee had lost four of its previous nine games. Judging by the glory of the Lakers’ undefeated November and December, the Bucks were “undeniably left behind – once proud world champions, now by comparison troubled and brooding giants,” as Sports Illustrated wrote at the time.
“If I remember correctly, it was a game they kind of circled,” said former Lakers security guard Jim Cleamons. “I don’t know if anyone on your side will admit that.”
Rockets striker John Block drives the baseline and gets a screen from teammate Stu Lantz against 76ers striker Billy Cunningham in Philadelphia on November 19, 1969. Block would play for seven teams in 10 seasons.
(Rusty Kennedy / Associated Press)
There was little doubt, Block admitted. When the Bucks got there before tipoff, “we got in and everyone was in the zone,” said Block, a calm focus that was soon fueled by a howling crowd. Block, not known for his emotions on the pitch, at one point clenched a fist in celebration after snapping a shot in front of the Lakers bank, a moment captured by a Sports Illustrated photographer.
“They can’t help but both of them get really, really excited,” said Block. “Goodrich and Pat, Keith Erickson – all really good guys I’ve known for years. They were pretty pissed off that I played so well. “
Block had 11 points by half time, including a basket he waved around Wilt Chamberlain after getting an offensive rebound over the Lakers’ dominant center. The unexpected nature of his appearance as a factor was heard in the tone of Jackson and Russell’s halftime analysis on the ABC broadcast. When Jackson shot a carousel for viewers adorned with hand-placed names and statistics, the iconic play-by-play announcer called Block a “definite surprise.”
“The main reason the Bucks are ahead is John Block,” said Russell. “Because the Lakers didn’t shield him from the offensive boards. They did a very bad job, because you can’t give a guy you call an outside player, the sixth or seventh man, if you let him come in and get points. Those are points that hurt you. “
En route to the 1972 championship, the Lakers defeated Milwaukee in six games in the Western Conference finals, and Block spent the next season in Philadelphia and Kansas City in a winding career that ended in 1976 after 618 games with seven teams due to injury. For the next 25 years he trained at colleges all over California and drew from an extensive pool of contacts, including Tex Winter.
Block and his wife, Margie, have lived in San Diego for 22 years and for the past two years have worked together on an autobiography about Block’s life and driving influences, beliefs and basketball. The work inevitably led Block to pull the threads together in his 77 years. Two concern the Lakers – when he joined them and when he defeated them. The memory of the latter is just a click away on YouTube, a 1-hour and 57-minute window into the most memorable game of his life.
“I actually went to see it with some people and some friends,” said Block. “And my grandchildren are getting back to the age at which I might watch them again.”