The Undeclared War Between Chamberlain and Baylor, 1971

[When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, the national headlines roared about a new NBA dynasty. With Chamberlain patrolling the middle, Laker superstars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West would rack up points faster than a pinball machine. 

Too bad that the trio never really clicked, owing to injuries and animosity. Some of the latter involved the unexpected falling out of long-time friends Baylor and Chamberlain. What went wrong? In his autobiography Hang Time, Baylor and his collaborator Alan Eisenstock place the blame squarely on Chamberlain. They say he arrived in Los Angeles as a changed man, inscrutably tense and moody. Here’s Baylor:

“All through training camp, I try to connect with Wilt. I invite him to play poker with us. He joins us after bragging about his card-playing prowess. Maybe my running commentary during the game throws him off, but he’s a poor poker player. He loses his shirt. What’s worse, he claims he’s forgot his wallet. He offers me and the other guys IOUs.”

According to Baylor, Chamberlain even refused to socialize with him or his teammates. “I rarely see him out with anyone on the team, except, eventually Jerry [West] . . . One of those times, Jerry reports to me the next day that Wilt spent the entire meal complaining. I’m sure that’s true because Wilt complains a lot.”

Baylor then claims Chamberlain was just a difficult teammate:

“He tells me privately that Jerry ignores him when he’s open, which leads me to believe that he tells Jerry privately that I ignore him when he’s open. Of course, he’s not always open. He just thinks his is or says he is, even if he’s blanketed by two or three guys. If I take a shot, he’ll shout to me, ‘Didn’t I tell you I was open?’”

In West’s autobiography, West by West, he doesn’t mention the Chamberlain-Baylor rift, which went to their graves as an open wound. West does state that Chamberlain was “the most sensitive and insecure person I had ever been around.” What about Baylor? West curiously doesn’t say much about his long-time running mate, except that he was “one of the most-dignified people I have ever met.”

West, of course, is correct about Baylor. He held his head high at all times. But his dignity could spill over into blind stubborn pride. In 1966, for example, the Lakers drafted Jerry Chambers in anticipation of Baylor’s eventual retirement. All those surgeries didn’t lie—Baylor’s knees were a wreck. But Baylor refused to groom his promising understudy who hailed from his native Washington, D.C., as the unwritten culture then was among Black NBA players. Nobody was going to tell him it was time to quit. Chambers was on his own.

In this article, published in the magazine Sports All-Stars’ 1971 Pro Basketball Annual, Laker beat reporter Merv Harris (one of my favorite NBA reporters from back then) takes a closer look at the Chamberlain-Baylor rift. Harris’s eyewitness explanation is the best I’ve seen, based on my research on the Lakers during this era. If you like Chamberlain and/or Baylor, this article is definitely worth the read.]

Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor used to be friends, two men of unsurpassed talent who respected each other as superstar rivals and who happily traded quips and comments with each other the dozen or so times each season the National Basketball Association’s schedule-maker caused their paths to cross. Then, in 1968, they became teammates instead of opponents, and their friendship turned into a cancer—an undeclared warfare that remains one of the reasons the Los Angeles Lakers have yet to reach the greatness predicted for them when pro basketball’s all-time dominant center joined a starting lineup which already included the all-time greatest forward and one of the two or three all-time greatest guards, Jerry West. 

In the large, luxuriously carpeted room deep within the bowels of Jack Kent Cooke’s glittering Forum in which the Lakers dress and shower, Baylor’s locker is in one corner, alongside West’s. Chamberlain’s is as far across the room as it could be in another. The distance that separates them reflects the differences in temperament and style of play which opened a gulf between the two giants big enough to drive an expansion franchise through. Familiarity didn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it did breed bitterness and led, at least partly, to Bill Russell’s 11th and last NBA championship. 

The facts speak for themselves. The season before Chamberlain became a Laker, Baylor averaged 26.0 points per game in the regular season and 28.5 in the playoffs. When Chamberlain arrived, Baylor averaged only 24.8 and a humiliating 15.4 points per game. 

Chamberlain led the league in assists with 702 his last season as a Philadelphia 76er, but had only 366 the next campaign as a Laker while his other statistics also dipped. 

The team—so powerful on paper that the question wasn’t so much a world championship as whether the Lakers would become all-time all-universe—was beaten on its homecourt by Russell and the Celtics in the deciding game of the 1968-69 world championship series, Russell’s farewell before his retirement. 

The two Lakers saw little of each other the following offseason, and then Chamberlain sustained the knee injury in the ninth game of the campaign, which was to keep him out of the lineup and away from the ballclub until the week before the playoffs began. Simultaneously with Wilt’s injury, Baylor seemed to shake what had been considered—by those unaware of the trouble between them—a long slump and began to play spectacularly once again. 

When the playoffs began last spring, there was too much at stake and too little time for the conflict to reassert itself. A truce was both necessary and possible. The Lakers stumbled to three losses in the division semifinal series with Phoenix before ripping off seven straight wins and entering the title tournament against the destiny-touched New York Knicks. 

Seven games later, the Lakers, Baylor, Chamberlain, West, and the entire city of Los Angeles were frustrated again. Now it is a new season, and the Baylor-Chamberlain relationship may hold the key to whether the Lakers will be an NBA force or drop to mediocrity. 

The trouble on the playing floor developed shortly after Chamberlain’s arrival. Baylor became convinced that Wilt’s preference for the low post—the area under the basket—prevented him from making the dazzling, daring drives which had been his special brilliance for so many years. 

Chamberlain, embroiled in another even more bitter conflict with coach Bill van Breda Kolff, didn’t deny his preference for playing deep. But he said he’d get out of the area, or “clear out,” when Baylor wanted to drive. After a period of indecision and stagnant offense, Baylor abandoned his former style and went more and more to his outside jump shot; and he began to sulk when his scoring totals and overall effectiveness declined. 

As Baylor became more and more unhappy, Chamberlain became more and more disillusioned with his former friend. He confided to friends, that he’d lost his previous respect for Baylor, who seemed so reluctant to take advantage of what Wilt could do for him. 

At Philadelphia, 6-foot-9, 250-pound Luke Jackson had learned to drive from the corner, force the man defending against him to run into Wilt’s unpassable “pick” and then to take either a Wilt-screened jumper or drive around for the easy layup. Certainly, Wilt felt, the quicker, smaller Baylor could learn to do the same thing. 

And so, they stopped working together offensively and had less and less to say to each other socially despite the intense intimacy which living and traveling within an NBA team creates. 

Who was the hero and who was the villain? Who was the sinned-against and who the sinner? The best answer is that they shared equally in guilt, along with van Breda Kolff. The one-time coach of Bill Bradley at Princeton University never did devise a way for Baylor and Chamberlain (and West) to work together effectively. Two weeks after that humiliating title loss to Boston, he gave up the battle in disgust and accepted the coaching job at Detroit. 

Then again, maybe there wasn’t any guilt involved at all. Sometimes in life, circumstances have their own momentum and consequences no matter how the people involved attempt to direct things. Given the chance to get Chamberlain, could the Lakers have done anything but make the deal? Hardly. They hadn’t had a dominating center since the glory days of George Mikan in Minneapolis and getting Chamberlain ensured they’re being a contending team indefinitely. 

Could Baylor and Chamberlain be expected to learn new habits in a few weeks after careers spent doing things in their own uniquely individual ways? Not without strong third-person direction they couldn’t, and that direction never came. (For West, it should be noted, the adjustment wasn’t as great because he relied so heavily on his outside jump shot anyway. In fact, he was the Laker who best took advantage of Wilt’s presence by gambling for defensive steals and playing his man more tightly because Chamberlain was back under the basket to protect him.)

Even more than what took place on the court, however, the end of Baylor’s and Chamberlain’s former closeness—Wilt had even been an honored guest at Elgin’s wedding in 1958—stemmed from the unintentional challenge Wilt posed to Baylor’s role of team leader. 

Baylor, the game captain, had become the on and off-court leader of the Lakers almost from the moment he joined the team. More than just the most-dependable scorer and most-effective rebounder (until his later knee problems began to take their toll), Baylor was the focus of all Laker conversations. He was the one who started a discussion, turned it gleefully into an argument, and then made the final judgment of the dispute—whether whimsical or serious. Would a lion whip a tiger? No, Elgin decided once. It was Elgin who disciplined the rookies, Elgin who decided when it was time for a pregame meal, and Elgin who decided when it was time to play poker. And if he wanted to play bridge or hearts instead, bridge or hearts it was. 

Time drags heavily for professional basketball players as they travel from city to city, hotel room to hotel room, airport to airport. Baylor loves to make that time more endurable with constant “fat mouthing”—harping and jibing at his teammates with great zest and with pointed wit. “Elgin never in his life said, ‘I don’t know,’” observed West one day. “If he doesn’t know the facts, he’ll make them up. You don’t dare question him.”

Observed former Laker Rudy LaRusso, “If you saw a four-car auto accident, he saw a 54-car crash.” Indisputably, Baylor was always “the Chairman of the Board,” the “Kingfish,” and also “Motor Mouth.”

Enter Wilt Chamberlain. Throughout his life, the 7-foot-1 giant had particularly enjoyed a business negotiation or a game of dominoes or a game of cards or a heated discussion because, when he’d made his point and emerged victorious, his success couldn’t be dismissed as being merely physical. 

As early as their first roadtrip together, an overnight journey to Arizona in October of 1968 for a pair of exhibition games against the Phoenix Suns, it became apparent that Baylor would no longer be the center of attention. On the short plane trip, Baylor organized an immediate hearts game . . . but across the aisle, Chamberlain had been joined by several other players for a game of whist. In the airport lobby, as the Lakers waited for their baggage, some players gravitated naturally toward Baylor to listen in on whatever he wanted to discuss . . . but others moved toward Wilt. And, so it went. 

Nineteen sixty-eight was a presidential election year. Chamberlain was one of America’s few Black celebrities who endorsed Richard M. Nixon, and he even taped a series of television conversations with the Republican candidate for use in his campaign. Baylor supported Hubert Humphrey, a close friend of former Laker owner Robert M. Short, and whom he had met when the Lakers played in Minneapolis. 

The two superstars went round and round that fall, on planes and in locker rooms, about the relative merits of the two candidates, at first in their usual bantering way and then, as election day neared, more and more seriously. Sometimes, the bantering turned into furious shouting matches and, often as not, it was Chamberlain who was shouting loudest. 

That hadn’t happened to Elgin much, and, when the other Lakers occasionally sided with Chamberlain, Baylor would lapse into embarrassed sputterings. Speechless? Yes, and it was galling to him. When Nixon won the election, Chamberlain understandably gloated . . . and Baylor understandably seemed to take the outcome as a defeat not for Humphrey or the Democratic Party, but for himself. 

As the season progressed and as the Chamberlain-van Breda Kolff dispute became more and more topics of the press and fans, a typical postgame pattern began to develop. Reporters—and there are a lot of them in Southern California—would first here van Breda Kolff in the corridor outside the Laker dressing room, then enter to get Wilt’s rebuttal. A straggler or two would wander over to talk to Baylor or West in the opposite corner, but with rare exception, it was Chamberlain who was the best story. 

West didn’t mind. He’s always been patient and cooperative with the press, but he doesn’t enjoy being interviewed. Baylor wasn’t fond of interviews either, and he noted once, “At first, I liked being a star, then I got tired of it.” 

Being almost completely ignored was a new experience for Baylor, however, and, as his point totals and rebound figures dropped, the lack of postgame attention seemed to underscore his frustration. His depression deepened, and his friends, eager to lighten his mood, put the blame on the new man who had intruded upon what had always been Elgin’s private domain. If you were one of the reporters gathered around Chamberlain and looked away from the cluster of writers toward where Baylor sat in semi-isolation, you sometimes caught the Laker captain looking back at you with a wistful look that seemed to say, “You used to crowd around me that way, too.”

Chamberlain hadn’t purposely eaten away at Baylor’s prestige. Nor had he purposefully eroded Baylor’s importance to the team on the court. He was having enough trouble trying to keep from making statements that would have completely shattered the team’s unity, although he did speak out often enough to neutralize van Breda Kolff’s criticisms. He’d happily have shooed reporters toward Baylor, if only that had been possible, and as to his intruding on Baylor’s once unquestioned role as The World’s Greatest Living Authority. . . well, the time dragged just as much for Wilt as for the other Lakers, and he enjoyed fat-mouthing as much as anyone else on the club. 

It was a clash of egos that couldn’t be avoided. For those who were friends of both of them, the situation bordered on the tragic. Where their years of NBA stardom should have been climaxed by success and acclaim, they instead were being marred by pettiness and controversy. 

The Lakers entered the era of the 17-team, four division NBA as an old-and-tired team. Baylor will celebrate his 36th birthday this fall, West his 33rd in the spring, and Chamberlain his 35th by next summer. Elgin was idled long stretches of last season by an assortment of injuries. Chamberlain, of course, spent most of the campaign recovering from his major knee surgery. West, meanwhile, played with aches and pains and pulls and sprains that have benched him too often in his career. They would have sidelined him again had not the Lakers been hit by injury after injury, which reduced their available players to as few as seven men for some games.

Oh, they’ll still be favored to win their division—it stretches along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Seattle—but whether they’ll be a championship series finalist again will be one of the great questions of the year. Chamberlain has played only once for an NBA champion team, Baylor and West never. They have finished second best year after year, and, when it happened once again in the seventh game humiliation at Madison Square Garden, their fans and the Southern California press reacted in harsh terms. 

If the three superstars remain healthy and if [new coach Joe] Mullaney can do what van Breda Kolff could not—devise an offensive scheme meshing their abilities instead of dissipating them—those harsh terms could change rapidly into exuberant cheers. It won’t happen if the Baylor-Chamberlain truce of last season’s playoffs can’t be made permanent. 

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