Moments before the opening tip-off of the season, the arena where the ABA's new San Antonio Spurs play was dark except for a spotlight illuminating a great papered hoop at one corner of the floor. The words "San Diego Conquistadors" inscribed on the paper were torn into illegible shreds as Tim Bassett burst through the hoop. He was followed by George Adams, Caldwell Jones, Jerry Pender, Billy Shepherd and other non-legends in their own time who, by recourse to the program, could be identified as San Diego basketball players. The last Conquistador to appear had to duck to fit through the hoop. The spotlight reverentially escorted him as he jogged down the darkened floor, the tails of his glen-plaid suit coat flapping behind him, an immense gold amulet swinging across his almost-bare chest, swirling tongues of purply light reflecting off his patent-leather shoes. Just before he reached the San Diego bench, he saluted the crowd with a restrained wave of his left fist. Then Wilt Chamberlain, holder of more than 40 pro basketball records, four times the NBA's Most Valuable Player and the reputed bane of eight different pro coaches, gathered his new club around him. On this sticky night in South Texas, Chamberlain joined a profession to which he has long been considered least likely to accede: coaching.
Several days later Bill Russell stood in the center circle of the gym inside Building 46 at Seattle's Sand Point Naval Air Base surrounded by the sweating, puffing members of the SuperSonics. His head jutting forward in his familiar condor-like pose, Russell spoke so softly that his words were indistinct to the handful of onlookers at courtside, but it was clear from the actions of the players, who looked down at the floor and pawed it with the toes of their sneakers, that what he said was less than flattering. After two or three minutes the practice resumed with the Sonics doing 10 laps, running them outside the black boundary lines of the court, then returning to the passing drill that had so displeased Russell. This time their long, baseball-style throws were harder, lower and more accurate.
Like Chamberlain, Russell is now a coach. And like Wilt, he is finding the job fresh and challenging, even though he has three seasons of coaching behind him. These were spent at the helm of the Celtics, a team of experienced players and confirmed winners, not the least of them Russell himself. And while Russ coached Boston to two NBA titles in his three seasons, there was always Red Auerbach lurking behind the nearest cloud of cigar smoke whenever advice was needed. Now, after four years away from basketball as an itinerant lecturer, broadcaster and trick-shot artist for Ma Bell, Russell is on his lonesome with a team whose owner has been known to tender advice as readily as Red, but with none of Auerbach's expertise, and whose players, some of whom are very talented, won only 26 games last season.
That Chamberlain and Russell now have the title of coach in common does not mean that they have grown any more alike than they were when playing center. Back then they were the Yin and Yang of pro basketball, and more than anything else the dramatic confrontations between Wilt's offense and Russell's defense made the game a big-league sport. They have both been hired by owners who hope to latch on to some of that old magic. But beyond that there are few similarities in the parts they are being asked to play.
October 29, 1973
At 38 Russell has come to Seattle as a coach and more. He is also the general manager—or better still, the general factotum—who is supposed to keep the strong Sonic franchise flying upright. It almost nose-dived last season on account of abrupt coaching changes, the loss of the exceedingly popular Lenny Wilkens in a bad trade, the interference of Owner Sam Schulman and an agent who represents several of the players, and dissension among teammates.
On the other hand, Chamberlain, who at 37 says he can play another 10 years and sometimes seems to mean it, was hired primarily as a player. How soon Wilt will suit up for San Diego depends on how fast Owner Lenny Bloom is able to resolve a contractual hassle with Chamberlain's erstwhile employer, Jack Kent Cooke of the Lakers. Whether Wilt starts playing sooner (perhaps as early as next week) or later (next fall when the option year of his old Los Angeles contract expires) he is still responsible for coaching the young Qs, upon whom the future of the team rests.
The idea of Chamberlain-the-coach is one which until lately was deemed out of the question by most pros, including Wilt himself. In his recently published autobiography, he wrote, "I just don't have the temperament to be a good...coach..." and "I won't take a coaching job...A coach has to suffer through the same regimentation and time-consuming commitments that a player does—and that doesn't interest me...."
Beginning with the Lakers' defeat in the playoffs last spring, events began conspiring to change Chamberlain's mind. "When the Knicks beat us we were an old, tired team, and I admit I felt pretty old and tired, too," he says. "Looking ahead to another year with the Lakers wasn't that exciting to me. Then I began to think it might be fun to be with a young, inexperienced team.
"I had been talking on and off with Len Bloom for a year or so. I liked him as a friend but I never thought anything would come of it. The ABA kept coming up with these deadlines I had to sign by, and I kept saying, 'Cool it.' I just wanted to spend my usual relaxed summer playing volleyball and traveling to Europe. But I felt pretty sure that my decision wouldn't be between the Lakers and San Diego. It would be between retiring and San Diego."
Any lingering notions Chamberlain might have had of remaining with the Lakers were foreclosed late last summer when Cooke left Los Angeles and moved into New York's Waldorf Astoria to take a direct hand in attempting to revive the financially troubled TelePrompTer Corp., of which he is the largest stockholder. In the past, Cooke personally negotiated the contracts of Laker superstars, but TelePrompTer's problems took precedence. According to some estimates, by the time trading in TelePrompTer shares was halted on Sept. 10, Cooke had paper losses of $50 million since early 1973.
"I admit there might have been some chance I'd have gone back to the Lakers if Cooke had been around," says Wilt. "He's a graceful, eloquent talker and a master of negotiation."
The event that sealed Chamberlain's decision to jump to San Diego came in mid-September when the Lakers, concerned that Wilt would not return, traded Forward Jim McMillian to Buffalo for young Center Elmore Smith. "I had already pretty well made up my mind," says Wilt, who sarcastically calls Smith Elmo, "but that made it easy to make my decision final. The Lakers never bothered to get my feelings on the deal and they realized it would reflect negatively on me to the fans. I wasn't afraid of Elmo; I can still eat him up. What I didn't like was the way the Lakers went about it. It was a slap in the face."
That might seem like a gentle affront by the time this season is completed. If Wilt is allowed to play he will have to make the very difficult adjustment to the dual role of player-coach, but with Chamberlain in the lineup, feeble San Diego will be a far better team, particularly since the Qs are weak where Wilt is strong: on defense and in rebounding. As a player he may also fill ABA arenas, something he has shown he cannot do as a coach. In San Diego's first three games it drew 5,879 in San Antonio (cap.: 10,146), 5,013 in Denver (cap.: 6,841) and 2,318 for its home opener (cap.: 3,200).
Assessments of Chamberlain's coaching potential by his old mentors have not been harsh, even that of Bill van Breda Kolff, whom Wilt calls the worst coach he ever had. Only former teammate Elgin Baylor has said outright, "I don't think he can coach. He never had any discipline." That is not quite true. Chamberlain is an intelligent man who has occasionally displayed a steely singlemindedness about things that catch his fancy. In midcareer he changed from a scorer to a passer to a defensive specialist and he has become a world-class volleyball player during his spare time.
Wilt hardly seems transported by his new job when he says, "I'm extremely happy about the way it's turned out so far. But I must admit I might not feel that way five months from now." Yet he is deadly serious when he talks of combining the defensive techniques of Joe Mullaney with the tactical savvy of Alex Hannum and Bill Sharman and the psychological touch of Frank McGuire. Chamberlain also knows he has an advantage none of those other coaches had: there are young players on his team who are all but awestruck just being in the same dressing room with him.
So far Chamberlain has responded to the adoration with a fatherly approach. Through the Qs' first three games he grew increasingly vocal on the bench—where he loftily ignored the ABA "recommendation" that coaches wear neckties—and his remarks, except for very occasional asides to the referees, were uniformly upbeat. Even when an angry "What the bleep are you doing?" slipped between an "Atta go, babes" and a "Good play, good play," he invariably followed it up with an "O.K. That's awright. We'll get it next time." And Wilt likes to use physical contact whenever he talks with a player. In fact nothing portrays the Chamberlain style better than the Big Brother poster that shows a tall man with his arm draped gently around the shoulders of a small boy.
"During my European travels I've found the people there particularly warm," says Wilt. "Part of it is that the men are not afraid of touching each other. I think that can be a very supportive thing in coaching."
Perhaps because he has often been rudely criticized during his own career, Chamberlain has added politeness to his rebukes. No two Qs seem to have caught his fancy as much as Shepherd, a 5'10" guard who looks about 13 years old, and Jones, a promising 7-foot rookie center whom Wilt discovered in Philadelphia's Baker League last summer. In one of San Diego's first games Shepherd broke down the middle and passed the ball to Jones when the latter was still a step away from good shooting position. Jones tried to dribble on the run and committed a traveling violation. A moment later Wilt called Shepherd to the bench and said, "Billy, with the big guys you must wait longer before you give them the ball."
"O.K., sure," said Shepherd.
"Thank you very much," concluded Chamberlain without a hint of sarcasm.
Wilt had joined San Diego too late to have done any real coaching. After the Qs' 121-106 win over San Antonio, he volunteered, "I was the assistant coach tonight. Stan Albeck, who's supposed to be my assistant, ran the team." After San Diego's losses the next two nights to Hannum's Rockets (135-111) and van Breda Kolff's Tarns (118-113) Wilt held long blackboard sessions and admitted coaching errors to the press.
Following the second defeat Chamberlain finally had an opportunity to call his first practice of the regular season. He scheduled it for 10 a.m. Sunday, then turned to Albeck and asked, "Can we get the gym at nine?"
"Sure," said Albeck.
"Good. Let's do it then," said Wilt. When asked how a 9 a.m. practice would fit in with his insomniac pattern of late to bed and later to rise, Chamberlain replied, "I won't go to sleep at all Saturday night."
When practice ended on Sunday, Wilt still had not shown up. Various Qs' officials claimed he was in conference with various other Qs" officials, and players were heard to whisper, "Where's Wilt?"
The answer to their question was literally up in the air. Chamberlain had left Los Angeles for the 30-minute hop to San Diego on a 7 a.m. flight. The plane had been diverted first to Palm Springs and then to Phoenix because of heavy fog in San Diego. When Wilt finally touched down he was furious, an emotion heretofore not generally associated with his absences from practice.
Seattle has an absentee problem of its own. Last season, even though fans continued to arrive at the healthy rate of 9,448 a game, average attendance dropped nearly 2,000 from 1971-72. The reasons were obvious: the Sonics had their second-worst record ever with a roster of players far too talented for a fourth-place finish. Around the NBA, Seattle was considered a team of malcontents and prima donnas that needed a tough coach to fulfill its potential and refill the empty seats. From the very first day he took charge of the Sonics, Russell indicated he intended to be just that sort of man. These were among the introductory thoughts of Chairman Bill:
"If the team survives training camp, we'll win.
"We're going to run all over the place. We'll look like chickens.
"Most of the guys can run. The ones that can't will walk to the unemployment office.
"If we don't make the playoffs, I'll be disappointed. If I'm disappointed, the players will be very unhappy.
"We'll either work together or die together.
"We're going to run and run and run and run. We're going to pick some teams up at the airport.
"I intend to teach the players—the hard way.
"I'll take a baseball bat and a carrot to training camp."
Except for forgetting the carrot (but not the bat) and failing to win consistently, Russell has lived up to his promises. Even before training camp opened, he was working with his two big men. First, he cut Jim McDaniels down to size. McDaniels is the alleged 7-footer who, Schulman had insisted, should play center last season. Russell measured McDaniels, found he stood 6'10" and listed him as such, thereby eliminating the assumption that he should be a giant pivotman and allowing him to move back to his natural position of forward. An off-season regimen of instruction by Russell has improved McDaniels' timid game enough to make him a starter.
Next, Russell switched his best player, 6'8" Spencer Haywood, from forward to center and introduced him to the complexities of the hook shot by having him fire up to 500 a day all summer long.
But it was not until preseason camp that Russell and his assistant, ex-Celt Emmette Bryant, began being tough on everyone. Each of the Sonics' two-a-day workouts ran at least two hours and 45 minutes and some lasted as long as four hours. They stressed conditioning and fundamentals so heavily that there was not enough time to install all those trusty old Celtic patterns. The Sonics still have not seen the One Play.
And practices during the regular season, which begin with 20 minutes of calisthenics, are hardly any easier. While Bryant organizes the drills, Russell parcels out tidbits of individual instruction and assesses penalty laps at the drop of a bounce pass. No Sonic runs alone. When one does laps, the rest go with him. That is Russell's way of teaching that basketball is a team game in which everyone suffers for individual mistakes.
At no time do Seattle players suffer more than after losing games. At the start of the next day's practice, the Sonics run enough laps to equal the number of points they yielded in defeat. Since 20 times around a basketball floor is roughly a mile, a 108-106 loss, like the one Seattle suffered at the hands of Kansas City-Omaha last week, means that practice will begin with a brisk 5½-mile trot.
"I tell them that if they intend to lose, they better do it by the lowest score possible," Russell says. "That's what's called emphasizing defense.
"We have guys on this team who are sensitive. I tell them being sensitive is a right you earn and that they can't be sensitive yet because they haven't gotten good enough. If you're on a team that won only 26 games, maybe part of your problem is your inability to take criticism. I also tell them they can be good. They have talent but are so shockingly lacking in fundamentals that I brought my cousin up here during training camp. He's a college coach and he ran them through drills you usually give to freshmen in high school. If I didn't like these guys, I wouldn't waste my time on things like that."
Few coaches other than Russell could get away with these rigorous measures. His record of 11 titles in 13 seasons at Boston and the imposing force of his personality, from the extra jut he gives his chin in anger to his wild, cackling laugh, make it easy for him.
"It's all very simple," says Guard Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, who seemed near the end of his career last season but shed 15 pounds to play for Russell. "He's the world's greatest winner and he knows the system of Red Auerbach, the greatest pro coach ever."
That reputation allowed Russell some straight talk when Schulman offered him the Seattle job. "I told him, 'Look, Sam, nobody wants to work for you. You've always got your fingers into everything.' Still, I decided to take it, and not just because of the Brink's truck he gave me. I've always liked the city of Seattle. I didn't know much about the rest of the team, but I knew Haywood was a great player. And I realized that when Sam agreed to give me complete control it would be the kind of job I'd like, the kind that I could put all of myself into."
Russell has taken over more than Schulman's basketball operations. He seems to have an option now on the entire populace of Seattle. A crowd of more than 14,000 appeared for the first exhibition game, and attendance has remained strong even though the Sonics won but two of eight preseason games and ended their first two weeks of the season with a 3-4 record.
Nonetheless, Seattle shows signs of being an improved team. Passes frequently end up in the hands of a Sonic who manages to slip free of his man and, as Russell proved last week in the loss to the Kings when he yanked Guard Fred Brown, he will bench anyone who blatantly fails to yield the ball to an open teammate. A touch of defense has also been added, but with two starters learning new positions and only four truly experienced pros on the roster, Russell may have to wait a few months, or perhaps a full season, before his team has a winning record. Until then the Sonics will be mostly running in circles.