An under-30 basketball superstar returned to his hometown team with an avowed goal of giving the city the NBA championship it so narrowly missed in his first go-round there.
That’s not just the story of LeBron James and Cleveland. It’s also the plot for one of the most fascinating episodes in the legend of Wilt Chamberlain, a Philadelphian who was no less controversial — and arguably more talented — than the King.
A look at the January 1965 return of Philadelphia’s greatest athlete points out not just the remarkable similarities between Chamberlain and James, but also the enormous differences in how basketball and its stars were covered then and now.
While the media treated James’ Cavalier homecoming like the Second Coming that, technically, it was, Chamberlain’s merited only modest headlines. It wasn’t a much-anticipated offseason transaction. Instead, it came as an All-Star break surprise.
On entering the NBA in 1959, Chamberlain had been a Philadelphia Warrior. In three spectacular seasons, he set never-equaled statistical milestones. In 1961-62, for example, he averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds a game.
But as great as Chamberlain was, his path to an NBA title was perpetually blocked by Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics. Eventually, Philadelphians grew jaded by his numbers and weary of his team’s annual postseason disappointment.
After that 1961-62 season, owner Eddie Gottlieb sold the Warriors, who were moved to San Francisco. Chamberlain adored that cosmopolitan city, but apparently the feeling wasn’t mutual.
“Chamberlain is not an easy man to love [and] the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him,” Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli would say. “Wilt is easy to hate … people came to see him lose.”
But in 1963, Philadelphia’s brief NBA exile ended. The Syracuse Nationals moved to the city and were renamed the 76ers.
The city was slow to warm to players who, for years, had been opponents. But 76ers co-owner Ike Richman had a solution. Richman was Chamberlain’s lawyer and close friend and he threw a full-court press at the superstar, urging him to come home.
“The 76ers were the old Syracuse Nationals,” Chamberlain would say, “which was a team I hated. Going back home was nice, but I had fallen in love with San Francisco. … But Ike … talked me into returning, saying, ‘This is where you belong.’ “
According to Robert Cherry’s book, “Wilt: Larger Than Life”, Chamberlain initially told Richman that, if traded here, he might retire after one season.
But the Warriors were 11-33, and struggling on and off the court. On Jan. 15, 1965, two days after he’d collected 20 points and 16 rebounds in the All-Star Game at St. Louis, they sent Chamberlain back home.
In return, San Francisco got $150,000 in cash and three journeymen — Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and Connie Dierking.
There was none of the breathless hoopla that followed James’ Friday decision. Philadelphia’s newspapers made note of the deal in non-banner headlines. Local newscasts mentioned it only during their brief sports roundups.
Richman, whose namesake grandson handles Comcast-Spectacor’s publicity, tried on his own to create some excitement. He invited 1,500 youngsters to Chamberlain’s first 76ers game and had them cheer ceaselessly. Some held banners proclaiming “We Love Wilt” or “Wilt for Mayor”.
“The cheering went on for 15 minutes [after Chamberlain took the floor],” the player’s accountant, Alan Levitt, told Cherry. “Wilt started to cry right out on the floor.”
Philadelphia was an improving team, with a veteran star in Hal Greer and two promising young talents in Chet Walker and Luke Jackson. Chamberlain’s arrival briefly interfered with the chemistry. And the player and coach Dolph Schayes, former on-court rivals, clashed.
“There was a little friction,” Walker told Cherry. “Before Wilt came it was Hal’s team. And he didn’t want to give up his authority.”
Chamberlain bumped up attendance, from 3,609 a game in 1963-64 to a 4,349 average. The 76ers finished 40-40 and, as always seemed to be the case, were beaten by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference final.
In 1965-66, the improving Sixers won the East (55-25) before their inevitable playoff loss to Boston.
Chamberlain’s second honeymoon was brief. That April, Sports Illustrated published two articles by him entitled “My Life in a Bush League”. In it, he ripped virtually everyone in the NBA, including teammates.
Fans there and elsewhere, weary of his enigmatic, complaining nature, soured further on Chamberlain. It was at that point, the superstar would say, when his reputation as a “loser” was cemented.
The following season provided a welcome respite for everyone. Alex Hannum replaced Schayes as coach and the 1966-67 Sixers put together one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. They went a then-record 68-13, at last beat Boston in five conference-finals games and cruised to the league title, ironically topping San Francisco in the finals.
The dreams born on Chamberlain’s homecoming had been realized. Philadelphia had both won a championship and, in doing so, vanquished the hated Celtics.
Chamberlain’s behavior had been ideal. He willingly altered his game for Hannum, finishing first in rebounds (24.2), third in scoring (24.1). Remarkably, he also ended up third in assists, his 7.8 a game exceeded only by a pair of future Hall of Fame point guards, Guy Rodgers and Oscar Robertson.
The success couldn’t be sustained. A year later the 76ers went 62-20 but this time were beaten in seven games by the Celtics in another conference showdown.
Hannum left after that season and Chamberlain, briefly interested in coaching the team, said he wanted equity in the 76ers. But without Hannum and Richman, who died in 1966, Chamberlain lacked front-office cover.
In July 1968, after difficult contract negotiations, new GM/coach Jack Ramsay traded his star center. His second stint in Philadelphia was over, ended just as abruptly as the first.
“He said, ‘If you don’t trade me, I’ll go the ABA,’ ” Ramsay later recalled.
And Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain, took his talents to Los Angeles.