The waiting made it sweeter

Alex Hannum and Wilt Chamberlain began to build toward an NBA title nearly four years ago. They finally won it, with a different team
May 07, 1967

Late in the sixth game at the Cow Palace, with San Francisco moving along seven, 10 and then 12 points in front of Philadelphia, the chill surmise grew: Wilt Chamberlain never would be a winner. He and his 76ers had dethroned the Celtics, but they were falling apart before the Warriors. The day before, back home, the 76ers had shot 3 for 17 in the last quarter and lost the ball nine times, to blow a 97-84 lead, lose disgracefully and be forced to go west again, ahead 3-2. And now they were far behind. A win and a tied series and the Warriors would come east for the final game with momentum and youth in their favor. It was as if Philadelphia merely had been assigned the task of shepherding the championship from one dynasty to a team that would start another.

And then late in the third period, relying on their relentless power, the 76ers began to come back. They were still behind 106-102 early in the fourth quarter when a rookie named Matt Guokas, who had been 10th man on a 10-man squad for much of the season, took a quick pass off a rebound from Wilt and threw in a 20-footer. Seconds later Guokas had the ball on a break, driving alone at Nate Thurmond, the man who is the only heir to Chamberlain and Bill Russell. With an effort that ended the season for him, Guokas blitzed Thurmond, flipped in an amazing layup over, under, past or through Thurmond, and then crashed full speed into the basket support. He lay there for a while in a crumpled heap. But Philly had caught the Warriors. "Gook! Gook!" Wilt cried later at Guokas. "The rook showed us how!"

The child having led him. Chamberlain then brought his team home. He had eight rebounds in that quarter and half a dozen blocks. Finally he made the utterly perfect move in the last seconds when the 76ers led 123-122 and Rick Barry had the ball. As Wilt began to menace him, Barry decided to pass to Thurmond. But at that instant Chamberlain switched back to Nate. The switch left Barry literally hanging, with no alternative but to try a desperate push shot at the basket. It missed by feet, and the championship was won.

Construction of this ultimate victory had begun a long time ago, on a fall day in 1963 in Vancouver, B.C. Alex Hannum and Chamberlain had come together for the first time that September, as coach and star of San Francisco. Wilt had averaged 45 points a game the season before, but the Warriors had finished fourth, sullen and dispirited. Hannum had led Syracuse to a 48-32 record in the Eastern Division, with not a single player averaging so much as 20. In Vancouver, Hannum started to run the Warriors his way, and almost from the first, and then on every succeeding day, the two men clashed and bickered.

Finally, as the season's opening game approached, Hannum and Chamberlain fell into deep, violent argument. Hotly intent, they went at each other for real. Other players rushed forward in time to prevent blows, but Hannum still glared at Wilt. "All right, we'll go outside and settle it," Alex said. But the players would not allow that, either. In their minds the matter was settled, anyway; Hannum's ideas had won. They were right. Wilt led the Warriors to the championship of the West that year.

It was a team with grave weaknesses, however, and when they were exposed the following year, chaos ensued. Wilt was traded in midseason to Philadelphia, Hannum was later fired. They wandered through months of despair and coincidence until they ended up on the same team again last fall. This time, in Philadelphia, there was no rancor or distrust. They knew they needed each other—Hannum to outcoach Bill Russell, Chamberlain to outplay him.

After the fourth game of the playoff series with San Francisco, Philly's first victory in the Cow Palace, Chamberlain stepped up to be interviewed on TV. The man who had scored thousands and thousands of points but had never won a championship had taken exactly six shots that night, none at all in the second half. The losers had Rick Barry, who had taken 41. Wilt was asked about this. "Sometimes," he said, for the ears of the people back in Philly, "it is actually easier to play against a team that has one man do most of the shooting."

However easy it was, the final victory over San Francisco was still a special one for Hannum and Chamberlain. In a sense, it was a double triumph, because they had laid the foundation for the success the Warrior franchise also was achieving. A record 15,612 jammed into the Cow Palace for the last game, and 4,483 more had to shell out $2.50 each just to watch on closed-circuit TV. Pro basketball in The City, as its citizens pretentiously call San Francisco, is In. No pro crowds are better dressed or more mannerly. The players are treated like idols, greeted by adoring young fans with autograph books, not by the kind of chivying creatures in mackinaws or plastic suits who patronize the eastern arenas and linger in the dark runways in search of an edge in the points.

The Bay area franchise is so attractive now that it probably will be the major battleground in the conflict between the NBA and the new ABA. Bruce Hale, the coach at the University of Miami, who has the edge over others because his daughter is married to Rick Barry, has been offered the ABA Oakland job. Now Hale is getting impatient as he waits to hear if Oakland will accept his terms. But whoever gets the job, the Oakland management frankly admits that it must raid the NBA for a superstar. If it is not able to, the franchise has no hope of competing for spectators, since the Warriors have moved 18 home games for next year right into the beautiful Oakland arena. Barry and Nate Thurmond are obvious local targets. It has been reported that Oakland offered Thurmond a five-year contract at $75,000 a year, with a liquor store all his own just for signing. Thurmond is worth it. He performed marvelously against Chamberlain; it was not just by choice that Wilt shot so infrequently.

The playoffs also demonstrated how dependent (for better or worse) the Warrior fortunes are on Barry's shooting arm. In the third game Rick made 55 points, but that required 48 shots. In the next game he handled the ball 59 times. Twice he lost it, three times he was fouled before shooting, 43 times he shot and only 11 times did he pass off. On occasion, it looked as if his teammates were trying to steer the ball away from him, and in the fifth game Coach Bill Sharman risked censure by sitting Barry down for a long period while his team was behind. As it turned out, Tom Meschery went wild and Barry wasn't needed.

Meschery's spurt, like several by Guard Jimmy King, was reminiscent of the Philly offense. The 76ers play what they call "milk it." The player with the hot hand gets the ball. On defense, the 76ers played both the San Francisco and Boston series with the main intention of negating the cutting move off the high post that both opponents favor. They overplayed the cutter, forcing him to the side where Chamberlain would help trap him. "If we get them in a corner," Chet Walker said, "they can try to shoot over Wilt—either that or they can pass the ball back out in only one direction."

The Warriors overcame this defense in the third game by going with the flow instead of fighting it. Thurmond shifted his pick so that the defensive man would be slowed a bit longer; then the Warrior with the ball would shoot before someone else—usually Wilt—could distract him. "All we wanted was one dribble past the pick, and then—up," said Jeff Mullins. Thus the Warriors took the astonishing number of 50 outside shots from the side and corners in this third game, as compared to the more usual 25 or so from this territory that Philly put up. The Warriors hit and won, but Philadelphia adjusted its defense only slightly. "Look," Hannum said, "they've reached a point where they're working to get 20- and 25-footers. We're happy if they have to work for that kind of shot. Besides, nobody's ever going to win a series—a game, yes, but not a series—on outside shooting."

Still, the most succinct tributes to Philadelphia's skill had already come from Boston—which is only fitting. One day shortly after his team had vanquished the Celtics, Hannum received a long letter signed, ominously, "An Anonymous Boston Fan." But there was no vitriol in it, only love for the Celtics and praise for the 76ers. It included a listing of the first names of the 76ers and their meanings—Lucius meant "light," Matthew was "a gift of Jehovah," and so on. Then the letter concluded: "But the one that is even more [fitting], above all these, is Alexander, which means, 'a defender of men,' wherein I'm sure the secret lies."

Hannum put the letter down, stunned and touched. A few days before, after Boston was beaten, Hannum had gone over to compliment Coach Russell on his efforts. Minutes after that, Russell came into the Philadelphia locker room searching for Chamberlain. The big men still pay each other these tributes. Russell moved through the crowd, his black cape draping his gaunt shoulders, his creased, bearded face showing the anguish of an El Greco. When he reached Wilt, Russell reached out his hand. "Great," was all he said.

"Right, baby," Wilt replied, with hardly any expression. "Great," Russell said again, and then he was gone—leaving behind a man who would no longer spend his summer aching for the ultimate fulfillment of his talent.

PHOTOWASTING CHAMPAGNE on Coach Hannum's bald head becomes a pleasurable exercise for the victorious 76ers, led by Guard Hal Greer, as sixth-man Billy Cunningham (32) waits his turn. PHOTOSIMULATING WILT'S long reach, Warrior defensive men use tennis rackets in practice.