Chet Walker: The Jet Prepares for a Final Landing, 1975

[From Way Downtown has published nearly 350 posts. Not one has highlighted the great Chet “The Jet” Walker. Let’s change that right now with a brief post that picks up the Jet’s 13-season NBA career just as it is about to come in for a final landing. This article, written by basketball columnist Mark Engel, ran in the February 27, 1975 issue of the publication Basketball Weekly. Here’s to one of the all-time greats, on and off the court. Want to know more about Walker, pick his 1995 autobiography Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete’s Coming-of-Age in America.]

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The milestones began to collect in earnest this season, joined by the scattered gray hairs that dot the head of a basketball player about to turn 35. First came Chet Walker’s 18,000th NBA point, making the Chicago forward only the 10th in league history to climb that high. Soon after, his 1,000th game, placing him in an even more select club, now numbering just eight.

And when over 18,000 fans laughed at a Midwestern snowstorm and packed into Chicago Stadium to stand and applaud the veteran that second evening. Walker could only ask why they would do it. Chet Walker, he said, is just not that important. 

On a ballclub which stresses a crusader’s philosophy of all for the cause, the player’s humble view of his special night is logical. But to listen to the man talk with pride of the achievement itself makes it evident he is pleased. 

“The 1,000 games is more important to me than the points,” Walker stated. “It means you’ve played a lot, you’ve earned your money, and you’ve worked hard. I have to feel pretty good about that.”

That Walker would play at all this season was in doubt for the longest time during the preseason weeks. The man was troubled by some element in the Bulls’ atmosphere, which even now he says is not to be discussed. He penned a letter to the team’s front office talking of retirement, and only when player and management sat down and talked things out did the former Bradley star agree to spend another winter in basketball sneakers. 

“There were some problems over the last couple of years,” he stated, “that I didn’t want to have to deal with anymore.”

But the problems in the clubhouse were to be solved, and in addition, the Bulls had a second selling point to convince Walker to play another year. This, they said, was to be Chicago’s first championship year, and the acquisition of veteran Nate Thurmond was the catalyst needed.

But the most well thought out plans of the basketball team were cruelly put on ice at the season’s very outset, when two important cogs—forward Bob Love and guard Norm Van Lier—decided not to take their appointed places in the machine until they made an effort to renegotiate their contracts. They failed, but for the first dozen or so games, it was up to Walker, Jerry Sloan, and Thurmond, himself trying to learn about his new teammates and their system, to keep the club afloat.

That the Bulls didn’t flounder, like, say, a Jabbar-less Milwaukee, is to their credit. And that they didn’t get off as quickly as they have in the past may, in the long run, be a blessing.

“The last couple years, we’ve probably played our best basketball during the middle of the season,” Walker stated. “Now we’re peaking at the end of the season, and this will help in the playoffs.”

Playoffs and winning a championship are not subjects with which Walker is totally unfamiliar. In his dozen years in the NBA, he has been involved in postseason play every time. In 1967, Walker and the Philadelphia 76ers won it all. He was a fixture on that team, and yet two years later, at an age well on the good side of 30, Walker and his 18 points a game were traded to the Bulls for one Jim Washington, journeyman. [Note: This is another Jack Ramsay trade that, on paper, seemed to tweak his Philadelphia roster in the right direction. In reality, the trade backfired badly.] 

It was one of those deals which may be questioned interminably with due reason. But Walker believed it was one which had to be made. “There’s all kinds of excuses and rationalizations to use if you want to get rid of somebody,” he noted. “The Bucks could say Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) doesn’t rebound enough or make some other excuse if they wanted to get rid of them.

“The fact of the matter is that there was a political situation in Philadelphia, where I had to go. Wilt (Chamberlain) was gone, and they tried to build up another superstar in Billy Cunningham. They really didn’t need another scoring forward.” [Note: Ramsay had asked Walker, an NBA all-star and one of the league’s top clutch scorers to “focus on rebounding,” so he could run the 76ers’ offense through Cunningham. Walker predictably bristled at Ramsay while he remained in Philadelphia.]

Scoring is what he does best, as a career average of 18.2 points a game will attest to. He is known as a hired shooter, ready to go one-on-one at any time. But that, he says, is not really accurate.

“Everybody analyzes you and says, ‘That’s what he is.’ There becomes a stigma attached to you, and you don’t shake it. When I came into the league, I was always a good one-on-one player, but I’m not exclusively one-on-one. I try to fit into my team’s system.

“My defense is not as good as Dave DeBusschere’s, but it’s got to be adequate for me to have played this long. In Philadelphia, I always played the other team’s best offensive forward.”

Seven times Walker’s abilities, both offensive and defensive, were judged good enough to merit him a spot in the midseason all-star game. But not, however, this year, when others with even flashier statistics, or more importantly, bigger reputations earned a trip to Phoenix. It is all part of a career which, for the most part, has been spent in someone else’s shadow. 

“I’ve been playing what I guess you’d call the co-star role many times,” Walker said. “When I was with Philadelphia, you couldn’t expect to be the dominant figure with Wilt on the team. When I was traded to Chicago, they were in a struggle for existence. For a while I stood out, but they wanted a team concept, so I was put back in the same position.

“But I accept it. I don’t need the recognition to satisfy my ego. I know I’m not recognized for some of things I do. Some guys just need recognition more than others.”

For Walker, this could very well be the last hurrah. He may have lost just the slightest amount of quickness, keeping his play at its accustomed level now by relying more on his ability to know what to do at the right time.

“As long as I stay healthy, I could play a bit longer.,” he stated. “But there comes a time in a professional basketball player’s life to quit. Some things you get tired of. I’ve almost outgrown basketball. At my age, it’s not the kind of profession I should be involved in.”

The hint is presented strongly, even if a retirement announcement—not dependent on the Bulls’ winning the league championship—is to come only at the season’s end. And when it finally does, Chet Walker, quite surely, will be missed.

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