Last season's Boston Celtics, led to a 67-15 record by Larry Bird, evoked
memories of that team. The 1982-83 Sixers, with Julius Erving, Andrew Toney and Moses Malone at the forefront, went 65-17 and raced through the playoffs, losing only once in 13 games. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers won 33 straight games, an NBA record, before closing with a 69-13 record.
Still, a great many people - including the experts who voted in two NBA- commissioned polls on the subject in the last decade - think that the 1966-67 Sixers were the best collection of brains, blood, bones and sinew to grace the courts of the NBA.
The team started with Wilt Chamberlain, but it hardly ended there.
Hal Greer, the consummate midrange sharpshooter; Wali Jones, the mercurial playmaker, and Larry Costello, the defensive ace, led the backcourt. Playing lesser roles behind them were Billy Melchionni and rookie Matty Guokas, at 6- foot-6 a forerunner of today's big guards.
On the wings, the Sixers were awe-inspiring. Forwards were known only as forwards in those days, but massive Luke Jackson could have put the power in power forward, and Chet Walker was smooth and lethal. Billy Cunningham, a capable scorer and rebounder, gave opposing forwards no vacation when he replaced either Jackson or Walker. He played the sixth-man role to the hilt. Dave Gambee, another sub up front, helped make the 1966-67 Sixers as deep as they were talented.
Alex Hannum, a man and coach they all respected, was at the controls.
It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for opponents to have to cope with the towering, talented Chamberlain, to have to go chest-to- chest with the burly Jackson or to have to contend with Jones darting their way on the break, flanked by Greer and Walker.
"It was no fun," said Jerry West, then a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers and now the Lakers' general manager. "They were so good, particularly up front. They were physically imposing, and they weren't just big. They could play. I've never played against a better team."
In addition to their 68-13 regular-season mark, those Sixers went 11-4 in the playoffs, ultimately beating the San Francisco Warriors, 4-2, to win the NBA title.
Something set them apart, made them special.
"Like any great team," Cunningham said, "the chemistry was absolutely perfect on and off the court. We were a pretty close group. Players are different now than they were then. Everyone had a roommate (on the road) in those days. Except Wilt. Nooooo, not the big fella."
Chamberlain, a startling specimen at 7-foot-2 and 300 to 315 pounds, was part maverick and part politician and always intimidating.
Hannum, known as a taskmaster, once was asked why his star center seemed to get away with so much.
"I don't treat Wilt like everyone else," the coach responded. "He doesn't fit the mold."
Cunningham said the players would try to avoid having Chamberlain on their teams for scrimmages because whoever got Wilt surely would lose. Chamberlain - who, after attending Hannum's first training camp, never showed up at another one - just didn't put out during dress rehearsals. When the ball was tossed up and the game was on the line, however, he was the last man anybody wanted to play against.
Chamberlain's competitive nature was exemplified during a game against the Baltimore Bullets. Gus Johnson, a thunder-dunker, had stuffed once on the Big Dipper, and he tried to do it a second time later that night.
"It was Gus against Wilt," Cunningham said. "Gus went in to dunk, and
Wilt caught the ball, threw Gus to the floor, and they had to take Gus off the floor with a dislocated shoulder."
If Chamberlain didn't get you, Jackson, who stood 6-9 and had a playing weight in the neighborhood of 265, would.
"If there was one key player on that team, it was Luke Jackson," Cunningham said. "Luke was a fierce competitor. If you weren't busting your butt on the court, he'd run by you and say, 'Why don't you sit down if you don't want to play?'
"He was a pretty big guy, too. He used to come to training camp weighing 280. He had the biggest shoulders I've ever seen on a human being."
The Sixers had more than strength, though. They also had speed and smarts, and all of their qualities were cemented by camaraderie.
After they won 44 of their first 48 games, Costello, then a starter, suffered an injury to an Achilles' tendon. Jones stepped in, and not only did the team not miss a stride, it seemed to become even more cohesive.
"Wali Jones was a great leader," Walker said. "People have no idea about Wali's effect on that team. His leadership was incomprehensible."
Once his playing time increased with his new starting role, Jones' speed blended well with the might the Sixers wielded in their frontcourt. He distributed the ball effectively and displayed a steady jump shot when it was needed. His outside shot, blended with Greer's deadly jumper and Walker's outside shot, made Chamberlain and Jackson even more effective.
"It (the change from Costello to Jones) changed the rhythm of the team," Walker said, "because they were two different kinds of guards. Costello was a defensive guard, and Wali, I guess, today would be called a point guard. He knew when and where to get the ball to you. Hal, who would be called a shooting guard, complemented him perfectly."
Cunningham was the wild card. An advocate of tough defense after he became the Sixers' coach in the late '70s, he was offensive-minded as a player - a machine gun with unlimited ammunition. He ran, drove and maneuvered, always going toward the basket as if it were a magnet and he were lugging a ball bearing.
"You had the epitome of the sixth man," said Chamberlain, describing Cunningham. "He was ready to score 30 points in a quarter if you needed him to."
Except for Costello, 35, none of the key players was past his prime. Chamberlain and Greer were 30, Gambee 29, Walker 26, Jackson 25, Jones 24, Cunningham 23 and Guokas 22.
After the fantastic voyage that season, Sixers co-owner Irv Kosloff announced that the team would be a dynasty. The dynasty never materialized.
"The shame of the whole thing," Cunningham said, "is how quickly they broke the team up. I don't know what happened. Wilt, Chet Walker left. And Wali. Boom. It was gone."
Chamberlain left after a dispute with Kosloff and Jack Ramsay, the team's general manager at the time.
Ike Richman, who co-owned the Sixers with Kosloff when they got Chamberlain
from the Warriors in a trade in January 1965, had promised Chamberlain 25 percent of the team, Chamberlain said. The Warriors were three months behind on Chamberlain's then-astronomical $100,000-a-year salary at the time, so with the promise of part ownership, he came East, he said.
Richman died of a heart attack at a Sixers-Celtics game during the 1966-67 season, and, partly because of the promise he said he had gotten from Richman, Chamberlain ended up battling with Kosloff and Ramsay. Today, 20 years later, the NBA still does not have a black owner or part owner.
"They (broke up) the team because of the old Portland coach," said Chamberlain, refusing to let Ramsay's name pass his lips. "I won't call his name, but he was the general manager. We went from the best team in the world to the worst."
The Sixers went 62-20 in 1967-68 but lost to the Celtics, the eventual NBA champions, after holding a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Division finals. Chamberlain was traded to Los Angeles for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff on July 9, 1968.
"Wilt was the guy who demanded to be traded," Ramsay said. "At first, he wanted to go to the West Coast. He said he would not play in Philadelphia."
The American Basketball Association had just opened shop, and that gave Chamberlain another option, putting added pressure on the Sixers' front office.
"I'm sure he had a couple of offers," Ramsay said. "He was going to jump to the ABA. We had little choice but to trade him if we wanted to get anything at all for him."
Walker was traded with Shaler Halimon to the Chicago Bulls on Sept. 2, 1969, for former Villanova star Jim Washington and a player to be named later. Jones was traded to Milwaukee after the 1970-71 season. Greer finished his career with the Sixers in 1973, after 15 years of service. Jackson suffered a severe injury to an Achilles' tendon the season after Chamberlain was traded and was never the same player.
"I'll be rather candid," Jones said. "People didn't want to see five blacks starting, so they just broke it up. I wasn't being paid what I felt I should be compensated, so I left, and I think that's why the others left. There was no other reason to break up the team like that, because we were all so young."
Walker echoed Jones' sentiments. He said that, even while the team was ripping apart the NBA in 1966-67, there were distractions on the periphery.
"It was difficult," Walker recalled. "We were playing right in the middle of a revolution. There was the civil-rights movement and Vietnam, and we were playing right in an establishment environment. That was the first time in history, I think, that five blacks started in professional basketball."
The Sixers, even at the expense of killing a would-be dynasty, refused to bargain creatively with Chamberlain, and Walker believes that, if they had, the superstar center would have stayed.
"At the time, we had poor management," Walker said. "Jack Ramsay didn't want to be the general manager. We had a good coach and poor management. If we'd had Red Auerbach, we probably would've stayed together.
"Wilt wasn't happy with the amount of money he was making, and he liked the West Coast. A strong general manager would have been able to give him some kind of benefits."
And if Chamberlain and the rest of the nucleus had stayed, those Sixers might have gone on to prove - without argument - that they were the best basketball team ever.
OFF COURT, PLAYERS FIND SUCCESS IN THEIR LIVES
The members of the 1966-67 76ers squad were obviously champions on the court, but they continued to win long after the ball quit bouncing.
Two of them - Basketball Hall of Famers Billy Cunningham and Wilt Chamberlain - are trying to become franchise owners.
Here's a look at what the players on the 1966-67 team are doing now:
BILLY CUNNINGHAM. Still a resident of the Philadelphia area, Cunningham, 43, is a general partner in a Miami consortium that is hoping to get an NBA expansion franchise. Cunningham, who coached the Sixers to an NBA championship in 1982-83, became a basketball analyst for CBS Sports in 1985 after seven years as a coach.
WILT CHAMBERLAIN. A resident of Los Angeles, Chamberlain, 50, has done some acting in Hollywood, is a professional volleyball player and has major
investments in several businesses. He is involved with an investment group in Toronto that is looking to get an NBA expansion franchise.
CHET WALKER. Another Los Angeles resident, Walker, 46, is a film producer. He was involved in the filming of Freedom Road and The Marva Collins Story for television. He is working on The Mary Thomas Story, a docudrama about the life of the mother of Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas. It is scheduled for release by CBS in the spring.
MATT GUOKAS. A Philadelphia resident, Guokas, 42, is in his second year as the Sixers' head coach after serving as a television color commentator and assistant coach under Cunningham for the team. Guokas directed the most injury-riddled team in Sixers history to a 54-28 record, fourth best in the NBA, last season. The team came within a basket of making the Eastern Conference finals.
WALI JONES. A resident of San Antonio, Texas, Jones, 44, has devoted
himself to helping youth. He is a human-development trainer under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education, Region VII, at the Center for Education Development. He has been involved in several stay-in-school and anti-drug programs in the last decade.
LUKE JACKSON. A resident of Beaumont, Texas, Jackson, who will turn 45 on Friday, is the head of the recreation department there.
BILLY MELCHIONNI. A resident of Garden City, N.Y., Melchionni, 42, is a stockbroker in New York City.
LARRY COSTELLO. A resident of Utica, N.Y., Costello, 55, coaches basketball at Utica College. In 10 years as an NBA head coach, Costello compiled a 430-300 record for a .589 won-lost percentage. In his nine years as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Costello's teams won an NBA title (1970-71) and six division titles. He finished his NBA coaching career with the Chicago Bulls.
HAL GREER. A resident of Philadelphia, Greer, 50, owns a marketing company.
DAVE GAMBEE. A resident of Portland, Ore., 49, Gambee is a businessman there.
BOB WEISS. A resident of San Antonio, Weiss, 44, who played in only six games with the Sixers in '66-67, was named head coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs this past summer.
ALEX HANNUM. A resident of Santa Maria, Calif., the former coach, 63, is a general contractor.