Wilt Chamberlain: The ‘Shape’ of Things to Come, 1967

[Several years ago, writer Wayne Lynch published the book Season of the 76ers: The Story of Wilt Chamberlain and the 1967 NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers. As noted accurately in the dust jacket:

For eight straight years, the Boston Celtics had dominated the National Basketball Association. Each and every season during that stretch, a new NBA championship flag was hoisted to the top of the hallowed Boston Garden. No team had been able to stop them; nobody thought any team could or would

The dust jacket then states that Lynch’s book “chronicles the unprecedented, record-setting championship journey of the team that finally stopped the Celtics and became the new kings of the NBA.” Writing in the early 2000s, Lynch had the hindsight to highlight one season, singular. But for Philadelphians in the mid-1960s, the Sixers were not only the “new kings” of the NBA, they had taken over as the league’s new empire. The 76ers, after all, were still fairly young and extremely talented with Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, Wally Jones, and Billy Cunningham.

The Sixers Empire of the late 1960s never came to pass. In the 1968 playoffs, the Sixers famously collapsed to the Celtics, and coach Alex Hannum hustled home to his native California and a job in the ABA. Jack Ramsay then took over as the team’s coach-general manager and shuffled the roster, partly out of necessity and partly out of hubris. By 1971, Ramsay’s serial bad trades, injuries, and draft choices left Philadelphians booing the worst team in NBA history.

Through the years, Ramsay always contended that he didn’t want to trade Chamberlain, the foundation of the Sixers Empire. That’s mostly true. What forced Ramsay’s hand was Chamberlain’s hefty contract for the 1967-68 season. It was a one-year deal reported to be worth $250,000 (a copy of Wilt’s contract shows the amount to be $150,000). 

This record NBA payday was also whispered to be a one-time buyout to settle the bad blood between Chamberlain and the Sixers’ mild-mannered, but stubborn, owner Irv Kosloff, a.k.a. “Kos.” You may recall, Wilt famously believed that Kos’ former partner had promised him an ownership stake in the Sixers, and Kos claimed his superstar was badly mistaken. But actions speak louder than words, and Kos had indeed “bought out” his superstar, suggesting that there was probably some merit to Chamberlain’s claim.

More important, Chamberlain believed the buyout was historic for another reason: his one-year contract had no option clause to bind him to Philadelphia and Kos. That’s debatable (the copy of his contract doesn’t show the option crossed out), though Chamberlain may have had an understanding with Kos. What isn’t debatable, Kos had tired of pacifying Chamberlain and decided to dig in his heels. He wasn’t going to resign his star for the then-exorbitant salary of $150,00 or more per season.  

Either way, Chamberlain badly wanted to take a pause from the Kos. And it showed in his sometimes-lackluster play during the 1967-68 season. This brief article documents just how lackluster that play could be on some nights, even against Boston. The article comes from the fantastic Jack Kiser and the November 20, 1967 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News. Enjoy!]

Alex Hannum leaned forward on the bench, cupped his hands, and yelled out, “Shape, Shape,” in a sharp, sure voice. Wilt Chamberlain quickly moved to the high post, just above the free-throw line, as Hal Greer dribbled across midcourt. 

The “shape” play was a routine controlled-offensive maneuver, one the 76ers had used successfully hundreds of times before. A simple play based on fear. Just throw the ball into Wilt, and when the opposition folds back frantically to help stop the world’s greatest scorer, you either cut to the basket or move to an open spot for an automatic 10-12-foot popper. 

It was a perfect spot for the play. The 76ers were up by 105-102 with a little over four minutes left. Boston already was in the penalty-foul situation, and the 76ers still had four personals to “use.” Now was the time to kick the stuffings out of the Celtics. 

It was what Hannum calls “a coach’s dream situation, where you have all the percentages going for you, and all you have to do is wedge for the basket or take the easy popper. You can afford an offensive foul, and they can’t afford to foul you.”

Using this kind of strategy, with the muscle and talent to make it go, Hannum’s hotshots last season had gone through the league faster than a wife goes through a paycheck. They wiped out the Boston dynasty, won the NBA title without being pressed to the limit, and apparently started a dynasty of their own. 

But what happened next makes you wonder if this might not be the shortest dynasty in history. 

Greer lofted the ball into Wilt. But instead of calling for help and making sure he stayed between Chamberlain and the basket, Bill Russell quickly moved around the 7-foot-3 center, knocked the ball away, and two seconds later Sam Jones was sinking a 16-foot jumper. 

This cut the heart out of the 76ers, as plain as if a knife had been used. They fumbled and fouled their way into a 116-111 defeat, making only one of their last 11 shots from the floor and looking like a bunch of unsure amateurs in the process. 

Today, they’re in second place in the Eastern Division with a 12-4 record, and Boston is in first at 12-3. This time last year, the 76ers were 15-1, and never looked back after that. 

Why the big change? It’s obvious, so obvious that even Hannum doesn’t try to talk around it anymore. The opposition isn’t afraid of Wilt Chamberlain as a scorer anymore. The big man, who once scored 100 points in one game and averaged over 50 for a full season, all of a sudden has become a so-so offensive player. 

“I’m sure the rest of the league has become aware of the fact that Wilt’s having trouble with his offensive moves, that he’s not thinking about the hoop as much as he should,” a saddened Hannum said after Saturday night’s loss at the Spectrum before a record 15,239 mourners. 

“They’re not playing him as honest as before, and if you can’t keep them honest on defense, then you’re in trouble. It’s obvious that Wilt has to make some re-evaluations of his offensive game.”

Russell, who knows when he has a good thing going for him and isn’t going to rock any 7-foot-3 boats, guarded his words carefully when asked about the play. “It was a desperate situation, one calling for an unorthodox maneuver,” he said softly. “So, I gambled. If I failed, Wilt would have had a clear path to the basket, and that guy doesn’t even need a clear path to score.”

That was the case last year, and nobody knows it more than Russell. He read the statistics like everybody else. Statistics that show Chamberlain either has lost his offensive game completely, or he is yet to get his timing down because he missed over a month of preseason training. 

His average has skidded to 14.1, fifth on the team, his field-goal percentage has slid all the way down to 53.6. And it wouldn’t be 53.6 percent if you eliminated the dunkers from a range of five inches or less. Anybody who can remember when he sank his last fade-away jumper gets a season pass to the [ABA] Anaheim Amigos games. A $250,000 center, he has been outscored 11 times this season by such $20,000 nothings as Mel Counts, LeRoy Ellis, and John Block. 

Saturday night, he had three field goals in 11 attempts. Two of them were rebound stuffs, and the third was a “Dippy Dunk” on a feed from Matt Goukas. He didn’t come close on five fade-aways, and three “finger rolls” were equally inept. 

To say that Chamberlain was solely at fault for the 76ers’ second-straight loss to Boston would be unfair. They still would have won, if they played anything resembling normal basketball during the final four minutes. Wilt didn’t miss a shot during this stretch because he didn’t take one. Hal Greer missed five times, Chet Walker missed three, and Billy Cunningham, Wally Jones, and Luke Jackson missed one each. 

As a loss, it was a team effort. But as an astute student of the game named Eddie Gottlieb observed later, “You’re not going to beat anybody with Wilt scoring only eight points.”

Chamberlain isn’t satisfied with his scoring, but he isn’t about to say he’s slipped as a scorer. “Look, there’s more to this game than just scoring points,” he began. “It’s my job to keep our offense well-balanced, to think of scoring after I think of defense and rebounding and hitting the open man. 

“Have I lost my shooting touch? Hell no. There’s only one center in this league that gives me real trouble—Nate Thurmond. Russell also is tough, but the others are. . . well, if I wanted to, I could score a zillion points off any of them.”

Okay, Wilt, but when?

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