Sunday, July 8, 2018

This Day in NBA History (Chamberlain Deal Shifts Balance of Power West)

July 8, 1968—With the dominant player in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the last half-dozen years deciding to pull up stakes from his Eastern team, the competitive balance in the league shifted decisively in the direction of the Los Angeles Lakers

But check that dateline again. It’s not 2008, but 1968. LeBron James wasn’t even born then. No, it’s Wilt Chamberlain I’m talking about. 

Two blockbuster trades occurred in the league in 1968. The one pulled off by the Knicks in December, bringing Dave DeBusschere over from the Pistons, was one of chemistry, as several players (notably Willis Reed) assumed different positions and roles. 

But the Chamberlain trade, sending him away from the Philadelphia 76ers, was more akin to the one bringing Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors, creating a supernova of talent on a team already blessed with All-Stars--and foreshadowing an era when the game's greatest talents had more of a say in both their futures and the fortunes of the major teams. 

The Lakers hadn’t won the NBA finals since the 1953-54 season, when they had been in Minneapolis rather than the City of Angels. They had come agonizingly close with five finals appearances since their move to the coast in 1961, but, even with the likes of All-Stars like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, had never made it to the promised land. But the old order was about to change with the arrival of Wilt the Stilt.

How he hated that nickname! It was as if it referred only to his athleticism, he claimed, while discounting his court sense. And while he was at it, when were people going to start crediting him as a team player?

By rights, that latter recognition should have come at the end of the 1966-67 season, when—agreeing to focus less on the scoring that had made his reputation and more on rebounding and defense—Chamberlain led the Philadelphia 76ers to an NBA championship, with a thrilling victory in the Eastern Division finals that ended the Boston Celtics’ skein of eight straight championships. 

Chamberlain had enjoyed great rapport with coach Alex Hannum, who, as he had done while with the San Francisco Warriors, convinced “The Big Dipper” to buy into an egalitarian style of offense in which he was used as the passing focal point rather than the principal offensive weapon. 

But the next year, when the 76ers lost to the Celtics in the playoffs, Hannum jumped to the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA), and Chamberlain’s relationship with Philadelphia’s front office deteriorated. 

Years later, General Manager Jack Ramsey recalled that Chamberlain had taken an active interest in Hannum’s replacement when, out of the blue, he tossed his own hat into the ring. The idea of a player-manager was not uncommon in the 1960s (indeed, the last one in the NBA, Dave Cowens, filled the role in 1979 for the Celtics), but this request caught Ramsey and owner Irv Kosloff by surprise.

After he had had a week to consider, Ramsey decided such a move could work, and was ready to talk about it with Chamberlain. But now, the big man told the front office that he had changed his mind. Not only did he not want to be a player-coach, but he did not want to play in Philadelphia anymore. If the front office could not arrange a trade to a West Coast team—Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles—he was ready to jump to the ABA.

Ramsey and Kosloff might have been angry, but they could hardly have been surprised. In 1965, after his trade to the Warriors, Sports Illustrated’s Frank DeFord had noted that this was the fifth time that Chamberlain had used a threat to quit as a bargaining chip. In this pre-free agent era, that—and now, the presence of the ABA—represented the only available bargaining chips for a player.

But Chamberlain wasn’t really “a player.” In 1960s basketball, he was an outsized figure who, like baseball’s Babe Ruth, wrought, like Babe Ruth, a revolution in how his sport was played. In 1962, he had not only scored 100 points against the unfortunate New York Knicks but also averaged more than 50 points per game for the entire season. With no nagging injuries at this point, he was not beyond going on a similar scoring binge again. 

Rather than simply lose their most valuable player to the ABA with nothing to show for it, Ramsey and Kosloff decided to try to obtain as much value in return as they could. The deal they worked out—three players (in this case, Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff) for Chamberlain--resembled the magnitude of the transaction that brought The Big Dipper to Philly in the first place. 

AJ Neuharth-Keusch of USA Today, in an article two years ago, listed it among the most lopsided trades in NBA history. Metaphorically, one can liken the trade’s impact on the Western Division to an earthquake. But you begin to run out of adequate descriptions for this event when you recall that this was the first time that the reigning league Most Valuable Player—the winner of that honor for the fourth time, no less—had ended up getting traded.

Philadelphia would not win an NBA championship again until Julius Erving and Moses Malone ended the heartache in 1983. The Lakers, while experiencing initial growing pains involving Chamberlain (the Big Dipper was far less jovial than new teammate Elgin Baylor, and disagreed with the game plans of coach Butch van Breda Kolff), still had a quicker payoff: four finals appearances in five seasons, including a title in 1972 season, when he was named most valuable player of the finals.

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