He coached the purple-and-gold for just two seasons, but Van Breda Kolff led the Lakers to 52 and 55 wins, respectively, and two trips to the NBA Finals where they lost to their nemesis, the Boston Celtics, both times.
Jerry West described the former Princeton University and New York Knicks player as a basketball “purist” who believed in a team-oriented game. West enjoyed two of his best seasons under Van Breda Kolff, who followed his Lakers success with NBA coaching stints in Detroit and Phoenix, then with the Memphis Tams of the ABA, the New Orleans Jazz and finally with the New Orleans Pride of the Women’s Basketball League.
After beginning his collegiate coaching career at Lafayette in 1951, van Breda Kolff piloted Princeton (where he coach Bill Bradley) to four Ivy League titles and guided Hofstra to a 23-1 record in 1959-60. He won 482 college games in 28 seasons as a coach and took six teams to the NCAA Tournament in an era when berths were scarce. His own college career was interrupted by his service in the Marines Corp during World War II.
His commitment to the team game and ongoing feud with Wilt Chamberlain is ultimately what caused his resignation as Lakers coach following the seventh game of the 1969 finals against the Celtics. The Lakers trailed by seven with just over five minutes left when Chamberlain hurt his right knee on a rebound and took himself out of the game. Mel Counts played so well in his place, even making a 10-foot jump shot to pull the Lakers within one point, that when Chamberlain said he was ready to return van Breda Kolff decided not to put his star center back in the game. “We’re doing well enough without you,” he said.
The Lakers lost the game, 108-106, van Breda Kolff quit in frustration and Chamberlain stayed to help the Lakers win their first NBA title in Los Angeles three years later.