Wilt Chamberlain comes home

Posted: January 25, 2013

13th in a series of 25

THE SETUP:On Jan. 15, 1965, Wilt Chamberlain was traded by the San Francisco Warriors to the Philadelphia 76ers for Lee Shaffer, Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann and $150,000. Welcome home, Wilt.

By the All-Star break of 1965, the San Francisco Warriors were in bad shape. Playing in the Cow Palace - an arena appropriately named because of its hosting of farm shows and rodeos and having an aroma of cow dung - the Warriors were drawing more flies than fans. The team was 11-33 and going nowhere. And owner Franklin Mieuli, whose business partner Matty Simmons bailed after 1 year, was bleeding money.

Mieuli did have Wilt Chamberlain, the world's best player, and Alex Hannum, a future Hall of Fame coach, running his team. And his Warriors were coming off a season in which they reached the NBA Finals. The future looked bright. One year later, Mieuli was presiding over a disaster.

Just before the start of the 1964-65 season, Chamberlain became ill. He had severe stomach pains that landed him in hospital. There was some speculation that he had suffered a heart attack. But that diagnosis was quickly dismissed by Chamberlain's Philly-based personal physician Stan Lorber, who became a lifelong friend. Lorber, according to Robert Cherry in his book, "Wilt: Larger Than Life," knew, because of Chamberlain's obsession with fitness, that Wilt's heart rate was usually below 60 and usually had a funky EKG.

Years later, according to Cherry, Mieuli recalled that the Warriors' team doctor insisted that no insurance would cover Chamberlain because of his bad heart. The doctor said, "I bet my job on it - he won't last a year."

Lorber knew better. He had Chamberlain return to Philadelphia, where he ran more tests. He diagnosed Chamberlain with pancreatitis, probably brought on after a couple of toots of hard whiskey, which Chamberlain gave up drinking immediately.

Chamberlain had lost between 15-20 pounds by the time he returned to the Warriors, who were struggling at 1-4. But he recovered quickly. He scored 16 points in his first game back and two games later, scored 52 in a 133-127 win over the Knicks in double overtime. There was a 62-point game against Cincinnati, a 63-pointer against the Sixers and he dropped another 58 on the Knicks. But the Warriors were terrible. And by Jan. 15, 1965, the team, despite Chamberlain leading the league in scoring, was 11-33 and no one was showing up to see them. For the season, attendance was just 76,963.

It was time for Mieuli to make a move. There were enough reasons to trade Chamberlain - the so-called bad heart; his presence was stunting the development of second-year center Nate Thurmond; Chamberlain's salary, which was more than what the rest of Warriors were being paid; the bad record; poor attendance.

Bottom line: Mieuli couldn't afford to keep Chamberlain.

The only problem was that Chamberlain, the schoolboy phenom from Overbrook, was happy in San Francisco. Unlike other Warriors who were Philadelphia basketball legends - Paul Arizin and Tom Gola - Chamberlain embraced the Warriors' 1962 move to California. San Francisco's reputation as a racially liberal city was attractive to Wilt.

The trade was made but Chamberlain was not thrilled. Not because he was coming back east, but because he would be playing with transplanted Syracuse Nats.

"As far as I was concerned," Chamberlain said at the time, "the 76ers were the old Syracuse Nationals, which was a team I hated. Going back home was nice, but I had fallen in love with San Francisco, and I was rather sad to leave.

"But Ike Richman, my lawyer and my closest friend, talked me into returning, saying, 'This is where you belong.' "

Richman, who was co-owner of the 76ers, made sure his new center felt welcome in his first game back. He arranged to have 1,500 school children attend the game at the Arena holding banners and screaming at the top of their lungs. The ovation lasted 15 minutes.

And once Chamberlain began to relate to new teammates - especially Hal Greer, who was the franchise player, and Chet Walker - everything began to gel.

The team reached the Eastern Conference finals, where it lost to Boston in seven games, thanks to John Havlicek stealing Greer's pass to Walker on the game's final play. Two years later, they were the greatest team ever assembled.

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