LeBron's homecoming a reminder of Wilt's Philly return

Posted: July 16, 2014

An under-30 basketball superstar returns to his hometown team with an avowed goal of bringing the city the NBA championship it so narrowly missed in his first go-round there.

That story line didn't originate last week when LeBron James announced he'd be rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers. It happened here first, 49 years ago, when Wilt Chamberlain came back to Philadelphia.

A look back at that January 1965 return reveals similarities between the two situations, but also enormous differences born of technological advances and the increasing significance of sports in American life.

While traditional and social media treated James' 2014 homecoming like the Second Coming that, technically, it was, Chamberlain's merited modest newspaper headlines. Far from having been a major topic of speculation, the trade that brought him back to Philadelphia came as an All-Star break surprise.

On entering the NBA in 1959, Chamberlain became a Philadelphia Warrior. In three spectacular seasons, this city's greatest athlete set never-equaled statistical milestones. In 1961-62, for example, he averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds a game.

But as awesome as Chamberlain was, the 7-footer's path to an NBA title was perpetually blocked by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics. As a result, Philadelphians soon grew jaded by his accomplishments and weary of the Warriors' annual postseason failures.

Attendance declined in his second and third years and after the 1961-62 season, owner Eddie Gottlieb sold the Warriors to a group that moved them 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."

Meanwhile, Philadelphia's NBA exile was brief. In 1964, the Syracuse Nationals moved here and were renamed the 76ers.

The city was slow to embrace 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. . . . Ike . . . talked me into returning, saying, 'This is where you belong.' "

According to Robert Cherry's biography, "Wilt: Larger Than Life", Chamberlain initially told Richman that, if traded here, he might soon retire.

But the Warriors had troubles too. In January 1965, they were 11-33 and struggling at the gate. So on Jan. 15, 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 the trade, San Francisco got $150,000 plus three journeymen - Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and Connie Dierking.

The news was met with considerable interest here but none of the breathless hoopla that followed James' decision. Philadelphia's newspapers made note of it in one- and two-column headlines. Local newscasts mentioned it only during their brief sports roundups.

While the Cavs sold out of 2014-15 tickets soon after James' news, Chamberlain's homecoming didn't translate into a financial boon for the team. Attendance of 4,349 a game in 1964-65 increased only slightly, to 5,815, in his first full 76ers season.

The Sixers' first home game with Wilt came on Jan. 21, fittingly enough against the Warriors. Only 6,140 fans showed up in Convention Hall, 1,500 of them youngsters Richman had planted for the occasion.

Richman, whose namesake grandson handles Comcast-Spectacor's publicity, told the youngsters to cheer noisily for Chamberlain. 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."

Philadelphia was an improving team, with a veteran star in Hal Greer and two promising young talents in Chet Walker and Luke Jackson. But Chamberlain's arrival briefly interfered with the chemistry. And he 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."

One game under .500 when they acquired Chamberlain, the 76ers finished 40-40 and, as usual, were eliminated by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference final.

In 1965-66, they were a force, improving to 55-25 and winning the regular-season East title before their inevitable playoff loss to Boston.

That April, Sports Illustrated published two articles by Chamberlain entitled "My Life in a Bush League". In it, he ripped virtually everyone in the NBA, including teammates.

Fans here and elsewhere, weary of his enigmatic, complaining nature, soured further on Chamberlain. It was then, the superstar later noted, when his reputation as a "loser" was born.

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. After a then-record 68-13 season, they crushed Boston in the conference finals and cruised to the league title, ironically topping San Francisco.

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), but only third in scoring (24.1). Remarkably, he also was third in assists, his 7.8 a game exceeded only by future Hall of Fame guards Guy Rodgers and Oscar Robertson.

A year later the 76ers went 62-20, and Chamberlain won his third straight MVP, this time leading the NBA in assists. But the success couldn't be sustained and, in yet another conference showdown, Philadelphia lost in seven games to the Celtics.

The air was out of the balloon. Hannum left and a restless Chamberlain briefly considered succeeding him. His contract was up and he wanted equity in the 76ers.

But without Hannum and Richman, who died in December 1965, Chamberlain lacked front-office cover. In July 1968, after difficult contract negotiations, new GM/coach Jack Ramsay traded his center.

"He said, 'If you don't trade me, I'll go to the ABA,' " Ramsay later explained.

The superstar's second Philadelphia honeymoon was over, as abruptly as the first.

And Wilt Chamberlain - Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain - took his talents to Los Angeles.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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