[By February 1967, Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers were on their way to notching a historic 68-13 regular-season record. With Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics struggling to find their rhythm, NBA arenas began asking the inevitable: Were the 76ers destined to become the league’s next great dynasty? “I really can’t say,” answered Wilt, also hoping to avoid comment on the recent whispers and winks making their way down Philadelphia’s Broad Street. Some considered “in the know” claimed that Philadelphia’s seven-foot wonder was preparing to jump to the brand-new American Basketball Association.
The ABA rumor had started a month earlier at the league’s second organizational meeting. An ABA “delegate” reportedly flashed a $250,000 contract signed by Wilt himself to potential investors. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner ran with the story, and Chamberlain ho-ho-hoed it to a halt. A few weeks later, the rumor picked up again at the ABA’s lively opening press conference in New York, the one where George Mikan stepped to the podium to save the day and the league. Mikan, however, couldn’t save one of his new ABA colleagues from declaring on the record, with no proof, that Wilt “has committed himself to us.”
“It’s not true that I’m going to the other league,” Chamberlain countered. “They’ve used my name the last couple of months. I didn’t like the manner in which my name was being prostituted.”
Was Chamberlain being truthful? The ABA was misusing his name. Or, was Chamberlain, by not threatening to sue or otherwise hold the ABA fully accountable, allowing the rumor to simmer? His contract was indeed up at the end of the season, and it was no secret that Chamberlain and Philadelphia owner Irv Kosloff were at odds. Chamberlain claimed he’d been promised a handsome ownership stake in the 76ers; Kosloff claimed his superstar was badly mistaken. The ABA rumor, if kept at a low simmer, would provide Chamberlain with some needed leverage in the bitter bargaining months ahead.
Then again, Wilt preferred to live in New York. Why wouldn’t he want to own part of an ABA team there? Hadn’t Wilt attended the ABA’s first organizational meeting and allowed his name to be bandied about as a prospective owner. Actions speak louder than words.
Before attempting to answer these questions, there’s more to the story. The ABA rumor came to a brief head in February 1967. Below, I’ve added three newspaper articles to thresh out the story. Two are from the Philadelphia Daily News’ Jack Kiser, who covered the team and had a cozy working relationship with Chamberlain. The other is a follow-up story to the ABA rumor. It’s from the Philadelphia Inquirer and tells a little bit of the other side of the story. We start with Kiser, a.k.a., “Jack the Ripper” for his occasional poison pen, on February 1.]
Wilt Talks on Topical Things
Wilt Chamberlain, the voices said, is playing his final year for the 76ers. That the great center already has signed a contract as combination player-owner-star attraction of the new league, which will begin operation next season with a powerful setup of established stars who already have been induced to jump from the National Basketball Association.
At first the voices were just whispers, delivered out of the corner of the mouth and protected by a cupped hand and a knowing wink. But they kept getting louder and louder and finally they became roaring headlines. Now practically everybody around believes them, which has to be the greatest sports farce of the decade.
The truth is, you can take all the truth there is to these rumors and put it in the navel of a canary and still have enough room for a couple of caraway seeds.
The truth is that the supposedly rich brains behind the new American Basketball Association have yet to come up with a paltry sum of $50,000 each that they were supposed to cough up for initial operating expenses. There is much more mouth than money behind the entire operation and if you think that Wilt Chamberlain is going to be roped into a situation like that, then you don’t know Wilt Chamberlain.
But hasn’t he already signed a contract with the new league for $250,000 and a chunk of the proposed New York franchise? After all, some prospective ABA owners were shown a contract with his signature on it at a recent organizational meeting here in Los Angeles.
Ask Chamberlain if you want a straight answer.
“No, I have not signed any such contract,” Chamberlain said firmly last night as he relaxed in his plush Hacienda International hotel suite, resting up for tonight’s game with Los Angeles. “I definitely have signed no contract with a new league. If somebody is showing any contract around, it certainly doesn’t have my true signature on it.”
Chamberlain, like so many other NBA stars, admits he talked with representatives of the new league. “I will talk with anyone who presents me with an opportunity to better myself,” he explains. “But talking and signing are two different things.”
Big Wilt can spot a con artist a mile away, so you can’t believe he would be serious about such an obvious shaky setup. But he also knows that the threat of his jumping to a new league can’t hurt his bargaining position with the 76ers in the future, so he plays it cool.
Chamberlain and club owner Irv Kosloff have had their contract differences, mainly over promises made by the late Ike Richman when he was serving in the dual role as co-owner of the club and Wilt’s personal attorney. Insiders say that Chamberlain was coaxed into postponing his retirement plans for at least three years by a hefty contract, plus a piece of the 76ers action, but it couldn’t be put into the formal contract because league rules forbid an active player from owning stock in a club.
After Richman’s untimely death, the report goes, Chamberlain learned that Kosloff had never heard about his well-publicized (lost boy) act while his teammates were in their pre-season training camp.
Chamberlain was asked about this yesterday and the conversation went something like this:
Do you now own stock in the 76ers, stock that will be delivered to you when you retire from play? You don’t have to expound, just answer yes, no, or no comment.
“That’s a very sticky question,” he replied after a long pause. “I can’t say ‘no comment’ because that would be like saying yes. What I will say is this: that I had several agreements with Ike Richman that I thought were binding. And that because of my respect for Ike’s memory, that some concessions have been made on these agreements. Some concessions have been made on both sides.”
What then, he was asked, were his plans for the future?
“My immediate plans are to beat Boston, beat Boston in the regular season and in the playoffs,” he replied. “That is all I am thinking about right now.
“As for next year, well I’m not going to think about that until this season is over. I’m getting to be an old man (he’s 30 years 5 months and 10 days old) and I honestly don’t know whether or not I will play anywhere next season. Have said this every year I’ve been in the league, but now I really mean it.”
For what it’s worth, here is one man’s opinion on Wilt’s future: if the 76ers were to win the championship this year and he wipes out that never-a-winner tag that has been chasing him around ever since he got out of Overbrook, it will take some powerful persuasion on the 76ers’ part to get him back for the third year of his contract. And unless some legitimate money men come into the new league picture, he wouldn’t even think seriously about jumping anything but center for the 76ers
–Jack Kiser, February 1, 1967
[Exactly one week later, Kiser revisited that pesky ABA rumor. This time, he had some breaking news.}
Wilt Rejects ABA Offer in Secret Meeting
Pittsburgh—The rumors finally have become a reality. Whispers about Wilt Chamberlain receiving big offers to jump from the NBA to the proposed American basketball Association finally have taken a firm voice.
The offer was extended to Chamberlain in Room 1417 of the Penn-Sheraton Hotel While the 76er star was awaiting the game with San Francisco last night. It included a basic salary of $50,000 per year, a $250,000 annuities package, and a 20 percent slice of the New York franchise.
Chamberlain, the Daily News has learned exclusively, thought the initial offer over for 16 hours, then rejected it for the present time, but left the doors open for further negotiations.
The meeting involved ex-NBA star Max Zaslofsky, former West Point performer Mark Binstein, and an unidentified gentleman who looked very much like Art Brown, president of ABC Freightways Forwarding Company, who also is president of the proposed New York club.
Chamberlain admitted “a meeting has taken place and certain financial offers were made” but wouldn’t elaborate.
“I will make some sort of an announcement after the NBA season is completed,” he said. “Anything else will have to come from the New York group.”
It apparently was Chamberlain’s initial meeting with the Brown group, although ABA spokesmen have made it known for some time that the 7-3 center was their initial target. Prior to this, all his talks have been with Connie Seredin, president of Professional Sports Management, Inc. of New York.
All these talks took place when the ABA is still in the planning stage, and the Daily News has learned that certain offers were made to Chamberlain then, which have since apparently been withdrawn.
The major one was a lucrative bonus offer from the ABA officials for his jumping to the new league. They figured, and still do, that once a superstar like Wilt made the move, other NBA players would be more receptive to offers, and it is no secret the Chamberlain wasn’t entirely pleased with the announced setup of new franchises, especially those given to New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston. Like most other NBA stars, he has his doubts about a pro basketball franchise having a 50-50 chance to survive in those cities.
While Chamberlain wouldn’t elaborate on his offer and temporary rejection, he did discuss why he would consider leaving an established league like the NBA for a position in an obviously shaky new league.
“Basketball has given me a lot,” he told this reporter, “and I think I have given a lot to basketball. But I would like to give it more. I believe there is much room for improvement in playing conditions and player management relations in the NBA, but very little, if anything is being done in this direction.
“Look,” he continued, “I know everything can’t be the way Wilt Chamberlain would like for it to be. But this isn’t just Wilt Chamberlain’s opinion. It’s the opinion of every player in the league, but many of them are afraid for their jobs, so only guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson speak out and are immediately branded as finks and pop-offs.”
Chamberlain, now in his eighth season as an NBA superstar, is also the league’s highest paid performer, drawing well in excess of $100,000 per season. “But I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of jumping to another league if money was the only motivation,” he says. “I think a new league definitely will strengthen a player’s negotiating position in the NBA and I’m not just talking about salaries. There are other things which are important to players as human beings. We don’t want to run the league, but we would like the courtesy of having our complaints heard.”
The New York group has given Chamberlain the assurance that this will be the case in the new league. They expect him to play for two for three more years, then move into the front office at $50,000 per year as a team official with a possible position on the ABA’s board of directors.
It is apparent that each team in the new league has been assigned an NBA superstar with which to negotiate. But it now will be done in an individual club basis, instead of an overall league basis. Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Jerry Lucas are among those on that list. Barry, one source said, was approached here Tuesday night by the Oakland group. Baylor also has been approached, but his interests lie in the direction of a playing-coach job with the NBA’s new Seattle club.
ABA commissioner George Mikan has promised that his league will not raid the NBA or even talk to any player until his present contract has expired.
That promise already has been broken. And much more figures to break before pro basketball peace is established. War has been declared.
–Jack Kiser, February 8, 1967
[Kiser never wrote another word about Chamberlain and the ABA rumor. In fact, as quickly as Kiser’s story heated up the rumor, it cooled down—make that, stayed a low simmer. But the Philadelphia Inquirer dutifully ran a next-day follow-up to Kiser’s scoop that offers the needed perspective of New York’s Arthur Brown.]
Wilt Offered 20% of New Club
Last season the 76ers won the Eastern Division title and lost their coach. This year they could win the whole National Basketball Association shooting match and lose their superstar. After a year of Super Bowls and super promotions, it’s only fitting that the case of Wilt Chamberlain and the new American Basketball Association has turned into a super mystery.
The question is: Where do Wilt and the ABA stand at this point?
Chamberlain, the seven-foot cog in the 76ers’ runaway performance in the Eastern Division, met with representatives of the ABA’s nascent New York team in a Pittsburgh hotel room, where large sums of money and ancillary benefits were proffered to Wilt
“I have listened,” Chamberlain said. “I can’t say whether I’ve rejected or have not rejected anything.”
Wilt was reportedly offered a $50,000 annual salary, a 20 percent share of the New York franchise and $250,000 in annuities. He would not pinpoint any figures, but Arthur Brown, president of ABC Freight Forward Co. and head of the New York club, said they were two-thirds right.
‘Asset to League’
“We felt Chamberlain might be an asset to our league and, as such, we made him an offer,” Brown said. “We were interested in knowing his reaction. If he accepted, we couldn’t do anything about it anyway because he’s under contract to the 76ers at the present time.
“We offered a $50,000 salary and a 20 percent interest in the club,” Brown said. But, he added,, “Not one cent in fringe benefits.”
Chamberlain, at first thought to be working on the second year of a three-year contract, may actually be, instead, free to negotiate after this playing season.
Open to Offers
“Prior to any conversation with Wilt,” said Brown, “we asked him if he was free to discuss next year’s contract at this time. If he weren’t free, we wouldn’t have gone all the way to Pittsburgh to meet with him.”
Did Wilt say he was under contract for next season?
“Wilt said he was free, at this time, to talk with us concerning next season,” Brown answered.
Neither Wilt nor the 76ers, however, will confirm or deny that his contract with them expires after this season.
76ers Stand Pat
“Our position is unchanged,” said Jack Ramsay, 76ers’ general manager. “Any discussion with regard to Wilt’s contract will be held in abeyance until the end of the season. We’re not interested in getting into a discussion about Wilt’s status. We’d like to take care of the season at hand.
“Wilt is playing the best basketball of his career, and we want all attention devoted to winning the NBA championship.”
–Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1967