Hal Greer: What Wilt Means to the 76ers, 1966

[This article was published in the magazine Pro Basketball Illustrated, 1965-66. It’s supposedly a verbatim transcript of Hal Greer’s comments to writer Ernie Salvatore about Wilt and the 76ers. Fat chance. Salvatore clearly did quite a bit of smoothing out of Greer’s syntax to improve readability. People just don’t talk in such flawless complete sentences. The article is also a little too fawning in places. Salvatore clearly wanted to keep everyone happy.

But I think the final product probably more or less represents Greer’s thoughts about playing with Wilt in the mid-1960s. After all, the chances are good that Salvatore ran the final past Greer for a thumbs up. That’s the way these things are done. So, here you go: the late-Hal Greer almost in his own words.]

****

When Wilt Chamberlain joined us on the Philadelphia 76ers midway through last season, we appreciated the fact that he was the greatest scorer in basketball history. But we certainly had the man figured wrong—both as a person and as a player. And while he was proving us wrong in the winter of ’65, he was also saving pro basketball in Philadelphia. 

On both counts, we sure were grateful. And why not? You must remember that when the old Warriors went west to San Francisco, taking Wilt with them, they left a lot of bitter fans behind. The bitterness was still lingering two years later when my club was shifted from Syracuse to Philadelphia. 

In our first year as Philadelphians, we were practically orphaned. Home attendance never averaged more than 2,000 to 3,000 a game. Even two of the three newspapers boycotted us, as did most of the radio and television stations. Not only did two of the papers not assign permanent writers to us, but they also kept our games hidden in the back of their sports sections. So, hardly anyone knew we were in town, or cared much. They resented the desertion of the Warriors and the fact that the league let them leave. We were the innocent victims. 

What added to the unpleasantness was that most of the fans who did attend our games couldn’t accept us as anything but former enemies. They’d been watching us battle their old Warriors for too many years to forget easily. We had knocked the Warriors out of the Eastern playoffs quite a few times.

So, we had to go through the long 1963-64 season pretty much the way the [baseball] Braves did last summer in their lame-duck season in Milwaukee. They found the crowds hostile wherever they went—home or away. We did, too, and, in basketball, that’s a tremendous disadvantage. The homecourt is where you’re supposed to be 10 points stronger against the opposition, mainly because of crowd support. 

Facing that kind of handicap, I sometimes wonder how we ever managed to survive and get into the playoffs. We had attendance troubles back in Syracuse, too, but that was because the city was simply too small to support a major-league team. But at least our fans there were loud in their vocal support. The papers and broadcasting outlets were behind us, too. 

The night Wilt reported to our club for his first game as a 76er, however, everything changed. Everything began to come up roses for us in so many ways. The changes for the better were almost miraculous. 

For one thing, we drew the first sellout in our Philadelphia history. More than 10,000 people jammed into the arena. For another, the crowd was on OUR side. No longer were we a bunch of unwanted transplants, former enemies, as it were, masquerading as friends. Why? Wilt Chamberlain was the reason. Wasn’t he their greatest pro sports hero? And wasn’t he there with us?

Wilt Chamberlain was a hometown product, a boy who had grown up on the streets of South Philly, a boy who had risen to stardom at Overbrook High School, and then had become an All-American at Kansas. The fans were delighted to have him back and to show him how they felt. They gave him a standing, two-minute ovation when he was introduced. 

I’ll never forget my feelings that night. Seven seasons of pro basketball have made me something of a cold turkey emotionally; but as the ovation continued and Big Wilt stood there bashfully acknowledging the cheers as best he could, my skin began to crawl. 

Afterwards, Wilt said, “That’s the warmest ovation I’ve ever had. I was proud to be a Philadelphian. I wanted to go out and score 100 points.”  

Well, he didn’t score 100 points. He got 22. What else he accomplished was easily worth 100, though. For he picked off 29 rebounds, blocked a dozen shots, and contributed another dozen assists. His great performance was obviously heightened by the ovation, and it helped us defeat the San Francisco Warriors, 111-102.

That Wilt’s old club, the defectors to California, provided the opposition added a touch of poetic justice to the proceedings. The crowd was well aware of it. 

If the ovation inspired Wilt, it also brought us together as a team. It made us feel that, for the first time, we really belonged to Philadelphia. The box office proved it, too. The rest of the season, we averaged more than 9,000 fans for every home game. Often tickets were sold out from two to three weeks in advance. The reason was obvious: Wilt Chamberlain. He had made us citizens of Philadelphia, just by coming home. 

Thus, despite Wilt’s great contributions to the 76ers as a player, his helping the club and the players to belong to the city has to be the most-important boost he gave us. At least in my opinion. You have to feel you belong to a place in order to play well. You have to have an overriding loyalty to something. 

Don’t let the cynics fool you on that point. Sure, we’re pros. We play the game for money. It’s the way we support our families. But we live on adrenaline, too. We need encouragement to excel, just like the average working man. It’s difficult to even want to excel when you feel no one cares. 

Wilt ended these anxieties—and, if I sound like a psychiatrist, excuse me for putting some old college courses to work—the night he joined us. He made us into a real fine team—a team with desire as well as balance. You need both ingredients for success in the National Basketball Association. 

With Wilt we had, at last, a good big man. That was what we never had during my years with the club. With Chamberlain, we could effectively challenge Boston and the other top clubs—like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. 

Before the trade for Wilt, we used to get killed off the boards by guys like Bill Russell and Wayne Embry. Our speed, best in the league, wasn’t enough to give us that second shot very often. Now, we could clear the boards and capitalize more on that speed, too. 

Unfortunately, though, a few weeks after Wilt’s arrival, we ran into a series of key injuries. Otherwise, we would have passed the Royals and gotten into second place in the Eastern Division. Larry Costello and I, the regular backcourt men, missed most of the last three weeks of the season with injuries. Larry had a bad thigh. I banged up an ankle. 

Nevertheless, the club gamely hung on for a 40-40 split in the regular season. We were healthy in the playoffs and forced Boston into a full seven-game showdown, which we should have won. We were trailing by a single point in the last four seconds of the final game when I helped mess up an out-of-bounds play. I was supposed to pass into Chet Walker, then get behind a screen by Johnny Kerr for the shot. 

You know what happened. Johnny Havlicek intercepted my pass. How he did it without pushing off, I’ll never know. But he made the big play and killed us. Naturally, we all felt terrible, especially Wilt. The big guy has been frustrated by the Celtics and Russell for most of his career. 

Analyzing things later, we agreed we just had a bad break. I didn’t throw the ball in hard enough. That’s all Havlicek needed to make his interception. Give Johnny credit for a great play, but mark these words well: We’re going to get even this season.  

The mistakes of last year won’t be repeated. We spent 35 games with Wilt transforming ourselves from a run-and-shoot team into one that blended speed with finesse and defense. With Wilt in the lineup, we were learning to do many things. 

He made Walker, young Luke Jackson, and Dave Gambee into much stronger offensive men. He took the pressure off me, so I could shoot more from the outside. The opposition’s big man couldn’t afford to pick me up as they had been doing. Now, they had to switch off to Wilt. 

That’s the reason my scoring increased after Wilt arrived. I was getting more chances to shoot under less pressure. That led Coach Schayes to increase my playing time from between 35 and 40 minutes to 40 and 45 minutes. 

Bianchi and Costello, my backcourt colleagues, similarly benefited. You can’t imagine what that extra split-second means to outside shooters. No wonder I began scoring more. When the defense dropped off on me, I’d drive, and that helped. I used to average around 20 points a game, but when Wilt came, I raised it to 22.  That has to help me when I sit down to talk salary with [owner] Ike Richman. 

Besides showing us how to overcome first-class contenders, Wilt also showed us how wrong we’d been about him. As an opponent, he’d seemed to us to be strictly a shooter. Playing for us, he showed us that he was also a polished pivot man, a great feeder, and a remarkable rebounder. In his two years under Alex Hannum, our old coach, Wilt learned how to blend into an offense instead of working as a scoring machine only. 

Dolph wanted Wilt to blend his skills, too, and the Dipper gave Schayes full cooperation. The way Wilt’s learned to work the pivot and boards is murderous. It keeps the enemy off balance. Playing with Wilt a half season convinced us that in many ways he’s a stronger, more accomplished player than Russell. Now, the Dipper hates to be compared to Big Bill, who has been the bane of his existence. Inwardly, Wilt believes he’s been unfairly treated in the comparisons, being cast as the villain. 

Granted, Russell is the inspiration for the Celtics. Well, so is Wilt for us. And Russell can’t come close to shooting on a par with Chamberlain. Neither can he ignite an offense in as many ways as Wilt can. 

Russell has had the good fortune of playing for Boston and Red Auerbach. Don’t undersell the importance of Auerbach, either. He took Russell and fitted him with a ballclub. Chamberlain was never that lucky until he was traded to the 76ers. Time will prove me correct. 

If the pro basketball writers are really objective next season, I don’t see how they can possibly bypass the Dipper as the starting Eastern center for our All-Star game. These are the men who’ve helped cast Chamberlain as a villain and who have helped pass along his rather poor image to the public—an image even I fell for. 

I used to believe he was self-centered and selfish. Now, he’s shown me he’s a dedicated team man and a very warm person. I learned that if Wilt believes a particular idea will help the team, he’ll pull all stops to implement it. We’ve got the team figures for proof. 

When he left San Francisco after the All-Star game in mid-January, he had scored 1,490 points in 38 games for a whopping 38.9 average. Supported by good outside and corner shooting with us, he scored “only” 1,058 in 35 games for an average of 30.0 points a game. 

That’s a drop of almost nine points a game. It’s grounds for complaint from a great scorer. 

Wilt never murmured. Know why? His assists had increased from an average of three (117 in 38 games) to nearly four (135 in 35). His rebounding went up by another 25 percent. Together, these two factors can account for as much as 10 points a game. 

We watched Chamberlain throw himself completely into the plan. We saw him work as a team man. We now know he’s a team man. But try to convince the public outside Philly. To them, he remains the bad guy who’d rather shoot than eat. 

No wonder he talks of retiring. His big salary ($65,000) has given him material comfort, but hasn’t changed his image. That’s because the public doesn’t want to change it, at least not yet. 

Two incidents connected with the 76ers didn’t improve his image last year either. First, there was that seven-day wait between the day Wilt was dealt to the 76ers and the day he reported. The papers castigated him, and the public shook its head knowingly. It proved, said his detractors, that he didn’t have his team’s interest at heart. 

Frankly, I didn’t see it that way. Wilt had a lot of personal and business matters to clear up in San Francisco before reporting—things the average player wouldn’t be concerned with. What made it worse was that we lost three out of four and were down to eight players—we’d dealt three for him—during the week’s wait. What the critics overlooked was Chamberlain’s great play after he joined us.

Secondly, there were those magazine articles that appeared during our playoff against Boston. Written under Wilt’s byline, they were critical of pro basketball and of the way our club was coached. That Wilt would write such things was, in the public’s mind, traitorous. That they would appear during an important playoff was inexcusable. 

While many of Wilt’s allegations were true, the way they were presented in the article by the collaborator were misleading. The timing, bad as it was, was also a mistake. Wilt disliked the presentation, and he insisted he was unaware the articles would appear during the playoffs. 

Understandably, he was upset. So were the rest of us. We were worried about what would happen when Wilt and Dolph faced each other for the first time, because our chances in the playoff hung in the balance. Dolph had gotten the needle from Wilt and was in an embarrassing position. 

Well, Dolph Schayes grew a couple of inches taller in all our eyes, Wilt’s included, for the way he responded. He never mentioned the articles. He stuck to the job at hand. He ran the club and asserted his authority. It almost won us the Eastern championship. 

Maybe the articles were a blessing in disguise. Still, they gave Wilt’s public image another setback, which added to his exasperation. Though he’s broken every scoring record known to man, though he absorbs more unnecessary punishment than any three big men in the league without a whimper, the boobirds continue to work overtime on him wherever he goes. It’s like slashing a Picasso with a razor, if you ask me. 

Remarkably, Wilt keeps tight control over his temper. Good thing. He’s the strongest man I’ve ever met. If he ever turns loose on someone—Cassius Clay included—he’ll kill him. 

The chances for this are slim. Underneath that somber, bearded front, there beats the heart of a gentle, sensitive man. Then, too, Wilt has a fine sense of humor. When he joined the team, for example, he was continually being reminded that he was now going to be playing with the finest backcourt men in the league—fellows named Costello, Bianchi, and Greer. Wilt acknowledged the fact and proceeded to play 35 regular-season games with us and another 11 in the playoffs. Going into the playoffs, he had said nothing to the three of us about our great speed. He just played as though he accepted the fact. 

The day before our first playoff game with the Royals, we were working out in the Cincinnati Gardens when Wilt turned to me and said, “Hey, Greer, let’s have a race.”

The suggestion surprised me. Wilt, that big giraffe with those long legs racing ME—a man supposed to be the fastest in the NBA?

“Are you kidding?” I asked.  

“No, I’m serious,” he said. “Let’s just have a friendly race from one endline to the other. Okay?”

I agreed. We lined up, and with sportswriter George Kiseda serving as the starter, we took off. The big galoot beat me by a half step. 

I was shocked. 

“Want to get even?” he challenged. 

I sure did. I’d missed almost the last three weeks of the season with a bad ankle. My legs weren’t really in shape. The race would do them good, and it would give me a chance to shut Wilt up. 

This time, he beat me by three feet!

I was shocked even more. I was also embarrassed. 

Then, Wilt came over to me and said, “Don’t feel bad, Hal. Remember, I was a track man at Overbrook and Kansas, too. I know a few tricks about these things that you don’t. I just wanted to see if I’d forgotten them and figured you’d give me the stiffest test.”

I didn’t feel so bad after that. I even felt warmer towards him. 

It means a lot to all of us on the 76ers. He means a lot to the Philadelphia fans, too. The best way we can show our appreciation to Wilt, I think, is to combine with him to bring the city its first basketball championship. That would put the icing on the cake for the big fellow. 

I don’t want to see him quit. But, if he does, the 76ers would like one more chance to help him go out a champion. 

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