Guard Keith Erickson of the Los Angeles Lakers ambled out onto the court with his teammates to warm up for an exhibition game one night last week and Seattle Coach Al Bianchi called out to him: "Hey, Keith, who's that new guy you got with the beard?"
The new guy was Wilt Chamberlain, the man who once scored 100 points in a regulation NBA game, the man who once took 55 rebounds against the Boston Celtics. He is now a Laker, joining Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to make L.A.—on paper anyway—the greatest basketball team ever. Of the five best pros playing today—Wilt, Elgin, Jerry, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell—the Lakers this season have three. The trade that sent Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers to L.A. (to continue this season of sweeping statements) must rank close to the top of the most astounding deals in the history of professional sport. It is as if the Niblets people traded the Jolly Green Giant to Heinz for a soup recipe and two vats of pickles.
The Lakers coughed up more than that, really—Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers—but it still seemed like a brazen theft by L.A. President Jack Kent Cooke. Now the millionaire ex-Canadian could sit back in his chair at the Forum in suburban Inglewood (where there are lakes—artificial ones, to be sure—on the infield of a nearby racetrack) and watch his hirelings batter all comers.
That at least is how it looked on paper. But National Basketball Association games are played on hard, waxed wood and there the perfect deal looks more like a perfectly ticklish situation for Coach Butch van Breda Kolff. If the Lakers win the title, people will say their Aunt Gertrude or Uncle Jack Kent could have done the coaching. If the Lakers fall short, Van Breda Kolff undoubtedly will be made the goat.
October 13, 1968
And they could. Despite being the most devastating force in the game when he is in the mood, Chamberlain has been on only one championship team in his nine-year pro career. Russell, Robertson, Baylor and West have never been traded. Chamberlain has been traded twice.
A player of Chamberlain's caliber does not get shuttled around without reason, and there is reason in Chamberlain's case. He often acts like a big spoiled kid—he sulks, he refuses to go hard in practice and he has an insidious way of demoralizing a team. The Lakers last season were a happy group, with Van Breda Kolff performing the difficult trick of being both boss and buddy. But harmony can be a fragile thing among pro basketball troupers, especially on their inhuman road trips.
On the record, Laker players are optimistic about the trade, yet not one of them seems genuinely enthusiastic. "I don't think there will be any problems," said West. "We've always gotten along well and that's one reason the Lakers have always had good records in Los Angeles. Last year if we played well, we had a chance to win. Now if we play well, we're going to win."
Chamberlain talks as if it is a fraternity reunion. "Some of these guys I know so well," he said. "I played with Hawk [Tom Hawkins] when I was with the Globetrotters and he was with the College All-Stars. I've known Elgin who knows how many years. I've known West since he was a rookie. Freddie [Crawford] and I go back to when we played in the schoolyards in New York. I feel relaxed with these guys. This has been a much easier transition than from San Francisco to Philly. After six years with one team, it kind of hurt me. I had friends on the 76ers, too, and I'll miss them, but I've known these guys and it's been easier to adjust to them."
Still, there are nagging doubts about these two Chamberlain trades. The first one was in 1965. Chamberlain had moved west more than two years before, when the Philadelphia Warriors became the San Francisco Warriors. Sports page readers were startled when the Warriors peddled him back to their replacements in Philly, the 76ers.
The truth is, San Francisco was happy to get rid of him. Owner Franklin Mieuli figured that the club had poor attendance anyway and that the potentially excellent Nate Thurmond was rusting on the bench, so why not sell Chamberlain and use Thurmond as the nucleus of a new team, a team identified with the Bay Area rather than Pennsylvania? In return for supposedly the game's greatest player, the 76ers gave half a hill of beans: Connie Dierking, who backed up Thurmond; Lee Shaffer, who refused to report; and Paul Neumann, a good guard.
Chamberlain's move from Philadelphia to L.A. was completely different. Although he grew up in Philadelphia and starred at Overbrook High School there, his family left for California five or six years ago and now manages a 32-unit apartment house, the Villa Chamberlain, in an integrated central Los Angeles neighborhood. The Chamberlains are very close and Wilt's father is seriously ill, so there were strong personal reasons for him to want to go west. He had been thinking about it for at least two years.
A business deal was a consideration, too. Chamberlain, who has made at least one trip abroad every summer for 11 years and has been in 63 different countries, had entered into what could be a lucrative arrangement as liaison man between the Diners' Club (headquartered in L.A.) and Fugazy Travel and the Negro market. Diners'/Fugazy wants to open a lot of offices with black managers and black employees.
Philadelphia was pleased to cooperate. There had been bitterness between Chamberlain and 76ers President Irv Kosloff for more than a year, Chamberlain was asking for half of Fort Knox to play and there was that attitude that does not always endear Chamberlain to his teammates. (A few noted how much better practices seemed to go when Chamberlain did not show up, which happened in Philadelphia often enough.)
In between trips for exhibition games Chamberlain drives around L.A. in a Dodge convertible looking for a pad (at last report his Bentley was in San Francisco and his Maserati was in New York). And everybody in the league keeps busy and entertained thinking of reasons why the Lakers' one-two-three punch will miss.
One of the popular theories is that two superstars are company but three will be a crowd, that each guy will bring his own ball. Chamberlain denies this will happen. Baylor and West, as he knows, are fine passers and feed each other often. And for the past three years or so he has been criticized for not shooting enough.
"What I have to learn with this team," said Chamberlain, "is that the guys pass a little better—I don't mean to put Philly's guys down—than I've been used to. They have great peripheral vision."
Another theory has it that Baylor is the team wit and loves being the off-court center of attention; he may resent doing a double with Wilt the Stilt. Could be, but so far the two seem to be getting along, even though Baylor is for Humphrey and Chamberlain is for Nixon. On a flight last week to Phoenix the two were playing crazy eights and good-naturedly accusing each other of cheating. The volume of their accusations increased as they tried to drown one another out. Finally Baylor tried to enlist a third player, West, as a witness to Chamberlain's thievery. West just chuckled and declined to take sides, which might be a good omen.
Several other things are more likely to cause trouble. Chamberlain is a loner. He likes to room alone and he sometimes prefers private transportation over taking the team bus. Baylor and West and probably all the rest would like to room alone, too. Also, though it might seem like a small thing, the Lakers have a clean-shaven image. When Crawford joined them from the Knicks he shaved off his mustache (whether under orders or not he won't say). Chamberlain is still wearing the beard that makes him look like a giant version of Fu Manchu's hyperthyroid son.
There are definite problems on the playing floor, too, but mostly on offense. Chamberlain's 7-feet-plus are such an intimidating defensive factor that opposing teams' shooting percentages are suffering noticeably against L.A. this exhibition season. As with the Boston Celtics and Bill Russell, the Lakers can cover their men more tightly and not worry if they get by because Chamberlain is back there ready to swat their shots into the 18th row. The only trouble with Chamberlain on defense is that often he does not bother to screen out his man after a shot. Usually he does not need to, but his lack of defensive effort spreads to his teammates, who do need to.
On offense, Los Angeles has been a fast-break team, a moving team, the kind of team that Van Breda Kolff loves to coach and watch. With Chamberlain in the lineup last week—and part of this might be the getting-used-to-each-other process—the offense slowed up like a car with sticky valves. For one thing, Chamberlain is not good at taking the ball off the defensive backboard and flipping it out to start the fast break. Some detractors feel he cultivates this deficiency because he knows he has no chance for an assist or a basket on a fast break.
When the ball went into the pivot, things slowed up even more noticeably. Chamberlain seldom passes off to the first man cutting by; he is not used to slipping around his man for a quick dart to the basket; and when he is at the high post the man guarding him quickly drops off him, clogs it up under the hoop and dares Chamberlain to shoot.
In the second quarter against the Seattle Supersonics last Saturday night Van Breda Kolff put Mel Counts at center in place of Chamberlain and the Lakers were suddenly their old selves again, zipping down the court on fast breaks and entertaining themselves and the crowd with clever passes.
The Lakers have really not had an outstanding center since George Mikan back in the Minneapolis days (when there were some real lakes around and the nickname made a little sense). There have been Ray Felix, Jim Krebs, LeRoy Ellis, Gene Wiley and Darrall Imhoff, some of whom were pretty good, but the talk was always how the Lakers would be unbeatable if only they had a strong pivot man to go with Baylor and West.
Well, now they have the new guy with the beard. And they might be so good that they will win despite all theories to the contrary.