There’s not a basketball fan in the world (or woman who lived in the 60s & 70s) that doesn’t know who Wilt Chamberlain is. But how many people know who Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark or Darrall Imhoff are? Not many, even though Clark and Imhoff were NBA All-Stars and Chambers’ performance in the 1966 NCAA Final Four remains one of the best ever. Well, those are the three non-household names the Lakers traded to Philly in 1968 for the original MDE.
You might be asking, “why would the 76ers make this trade?” Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Jack Ramsay’s 2004 book, Dr. Jack’s Leadership Lessons Learned From a Lifetime in Basketball.
Another “do-over” decision I still think about was more of a delayed decision, but nonetheless had a negative result. It centered on the man I regard as the most talented, intelligent, complex, and interesting of all the players I’ve known – Wilt Chamberlain. Prior to the 1966-67 season, in Philadelphia, Wilt had set all kinds of scoring records (he had been the league’s perennial leader in scoring and rebounding, at one time averaging over 50 points a game for a season), but he had won no championships.
The Boston Celtics ruled then, having won eight titles in a row. Wilt seemed to sense that this Sixers team had the player personnel, in addition to new coach, Alex Hannum, that together could reach that goal. Under Hannum’s influence, Wilt became a true team player, scoring a modest – for him – 24 points a game, grabbing 24 rebounds, and dealing just under 8 assists. The Sixers set a league record at the time for most wins with a 68 and 13 mark, and went on to win the 1967 championship, Wilt’s first in his eight seasons in the NBA.
I was general manager of that Sixers team and got to know Wilt quite well. When Alex Hannum left the Sixers to coach Oakland in the ABA, I talked with many candidates to replace him. Among them were Frank McGuire, John Kundla, and Earl Lloyd, each of whom could have had the job, but declined it for various reasons. Chamberlain often stopped by the Sixers office to inquire how the coach search was going. When time went by without a selection, he told owner Irv Kosloff and me that he’d be interested in becoming player/coach if I would help him with the Xs and Os. The suggestion took us both by surprise and we said that we’d give it some thought. We agreed to meet again in a week, after Wilt had returned from a trip to the West Coast.
I liked the idea. I thought that Wilt would play with added intensity knowing his name was on the line, and I was confident that I could help with the technical aspects of the job. Koz and I talked it over and agreed that we’d make a deal with Chamberlain to be the team’s coach. But when Wilt returned, he said that he had changed his mind, that he was not going to play in Philadelphia again, and he demanded a trade to a West Coast team – to Seattle, Los Angeles, or San Diego. When we indicated that we weren’t interested in trading him, he said that he’d jump to the ABA team in Los Angeles. (The ability of NBA players to leave their existing teams began in 1967 when Rick Barry, a free agent at the time, left the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA to join Oakland of the newly formed ABA. Barry was forced by a court order to sit out a year, but then played for Oakland in 1968-69, and played three more years in the ABA for other teams before returning to the NBA with the Golden State Warriors in 1972. With that precedent established, NBA players who were not under contract looked to enhance their bargaining position by threatening to “jump” to the ABA. Chamberlain knew that he was playing with a strong negotiating chip.)
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I had come to the meeting brimming with enthusiasm, prepared to fill the coaching void, and suddenly found myself, still without a coach and with the prospect of losing the most powerful player in the game. Koz, who was accustomed to Wilt’s negotiating ploys (he only did one-year contracts, had no agent, and did all the negotiating himself), tried to push the discussion aside. But Wilt said that he was serious about his decision and that in now way would he play for Philadelphia again. He walked out of the meeting leaving me with my mouth hanging open.
We eventually worked out a deal with the Lakers – the only team Wilt later said he would go to – and moved on. Had Luke Jackson not torn and Achilles tendon, the deal might not have been so detrimental. (Jackson was a powerhouse rebounder, who could score inside and from the perimeter; but he never regained his ability to run and jump like he once had, and the Sixers started a downward trend.)
Thinking back, I’ve often wondered what the outcome would have been if I had jumped on Wilt’s first offer to coach the team. Might we have finalized a deal before he went to the West Coast? Or, when Wilt visited the Sixers office to ask about the progress in hiring a new coach, could I have suggested become player/coach to him? Or, could the Sixers have kept him if we had not caved in when he threatened to jump to the ABA, and told him instead that he was staying in Philly and that the player/coach opportunity was still open?
Wilt would play five years for the Lakers, going to the finals four times and winning a title in 1972.
According to Wilt’s book A View From Above, he said Lakers owner Jerry Buss tried to lure him out of retirement multiple times. The last time being in 1989, when Wilt was 55 years old!
UPDATE: For a great long read about the trade, check out Haley O’Shaughnessy’s piece for The Ringer: Wilt Chamberlain’s Trade To Los Angeles, 50 Years Later.