Phil Chenier: Can He Unseat Walt Frazier as Basketball’s Top Guard, 1975

[Sam Goldaper was a prolific basketball writer, but his body of work can be pretty uneven in their reading pleasure. This article, published in the February 1975 issue of the magazine Super Sports, is a case in point. Goldaper’s prose is pretty choppy, but he raises a legitimate question: When will Phil Chenier surpass Walt Frazier as the NBA’s top guard? It was a question that many wondered back then, and here’s a chance, choppy though it is, to revisit the debate.

As an added bonus, I’m adding a 2013 video from a Phil Chenier roast in his native Berkeley, C.. Doing the roasting is the late-great Gene Ransom, who starred at Berkeley High and then at Cal. Gene the Dream was one of my heroes as a kid. This is my belated tribute to a wonderful person taken from us way too early and oh-so senselessly earlier this year.] 


The telephone rang more than usual in the New York Times’ sports department the morning of August 24. Most of the callers wanted to point out a mistake on page 43 of a story that headlined: Bullets Invest Heavily in Chenier.

Set in the body of the story was a photograph of Phil Chenier, the Washington Bullets’ backcourt man whom they had signed to a seven-year contract. “That’s not a picture of Phil Chenier,” said one caller.

“Hey man,” said another, “that’s Walt Frazier’s picture.”

And so it went. Even one of the secretaries to an editor at the New York Times visited the sports department to point out the error. Of course, everyone was wrong. The photo was of Phil Chenier, but it was easy to be fooled. Chenier not only has a striking facial and physical resemblance to Walt Frazier, he is quickly challenging the charismatic Knick guard for supremacy as the best backcourt man in pro basketball.

That the Washington Bullets invested so heavily in Chenier’s future proves he is on his way. Last season, his third, he was named to the all-star squad and led the Bullets in scoring (21.9 points per game), steals (2.04), and free-throw percentage (.820). He topped every guard in the National Basketball Association with 67 blocked shots.

“Phil has signed a lucrative long-term contract that befits a player of his caliber,” said Bob Ferry, the Bullets’ general manager. “He is one of the top guards in all of basketball, if not the greatest.”

The news conference at the National Press Club in Washington to announce the seven-year signing must have been a satisfying day for Ferry. It was Ferry, then a scout, who found Chenier at the University of California. [Note: Not true. Bob Ferry saw Chenier in Colorado Springs during the tryouts for the Pan-Am Games. BUT, other NBA scouts, particularly Chicago’s Jerry Krause, saw him, too.]

When the Bullets called “Phil Chenier” in the 1971 NBA Hardship draft, the immediate response was, “Phil who?” Chenier was not then one of the glamour names of college basketball. He had skipped his senior year when he was just another guy on the team noted for its shooters. “The big name on the club was Jackie Ridgle,” recalls Chenier. “I didn’t have the reputation, just the confidence I could make it as a pro.

“Now, I have to pinch myself to see if all this is real. I never dreamed I could be this far in basketball three or even two years ago. Four years ago, I was going into my third year of college at California.

“It has all happened so fast. When I first came out here, I didn’t think the Bullets were really interested. They had three guards—Earl Monroe, Kevin Loughery, and Fred Carter. I was afraid I would not fit in. And then all of a sudden, they were all gone, and I was left with a position to play at. I still can’t believe it.”

Carter and Loughery were to leave just days after the start of the 1971 season. They were traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Archie Clark. From then on, Chenier was in the right place at the right time. The soft-spoken backcourt man, with the sleepy-eyed look, was there when Monroe staged his famous walkout and when Clark was a holdout much of the 1972-73 season and was plagued by a shoulder separation just last season.

Call them breaks, or whatever, the 24-year-old quickly made a name for himself around the league. Instead of getting his feet wet as a third guard, as had originally been planned, he was pressed into the starting lineup almost immediately when Monroe left the Bullets to become a Knick. Playing in the shadow of Clark, who controlled the ball, Chenier averaged 12.3 points and was named to the All-Rookie team.

Gene Shue is no longer coaching the Bullets. He has moved to the Philadelphia 76ers, but Chenier—and his accomplishments—remain a favorite subject with him, especially when he recalls Phil’s sensational 53-point scoring performance against the Trail Blazers on December 6, 1972.

“I saw Will Chamberlain have a lot of 50-point nights when he concentrated on scoring,” said Shue, “but I’ve never seen a better game by a little man. The phenomenal part was his 25 points in the first half. Then to follow it up with a 28-point second half . . . why, that’s almost unbelievable.”

Shue was not the only one overwhelmed by Chenier’s performance, which came three months into his second pro season. Jack McCloskey, the Trail Blazer coach then said, “They told me he was a good shooter, but this kid’s not good—he’s great. He does everything. Chenier is not in a class with West or Frazier now, but he will be soon.”

McCloskey was correct!

Chenier hit 22-of-31 shots from the field and 9-for-11 from the foul line that night. When he was asked about it, Chenier said, “It was just my night. I felt good right from the beginning. The first part of the game. I had good rhythm, felt great, and hit my shots in the opening minutes. I think I had 44 points in high school once and 34 against Seattle in college—but never anything like this.”

By last season, many of the players in the NBA had begun to talk about Chenier, including Jerry West. These are samplings:

From Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers, “Physically, he is as good as any player I have faced in this league. He is going to be fantastic.”

Clifford Ray, recently traded to the Golden State Warriors from the Chicago Bulls: “He’s just bad. He shoots like West, and he’s so smooth. He never gets excited or loses his temper either.”

Bob Love of the Chicago Bulls: “Chenier’s going to be one the best ever to play this game.”

Last winter, the American Basketball Association, in what evidently had been a public relations move to bring attention to the league, held a draft of NBA players. Kevin Loughery, the coach of the Nets, made Chenier his first pick and called him “the best guard in basketball.” The move didn’t hurt Chenier any. It gave him greater bargaining power and helped him become a $200,000 a year player.

When Frazier heard the remark, he disagreed with Loughery and said, “Next to me, Chenier is the most-complete player in basketball.”

The Knicks and the Bullets have met in the NBA playoffs for the last six seasons. But last March when Frazier and Chenier were matched head-to-head, it fueled comparison and discussion of the similarities of their playing styles and their look-alike features.

“I always get a little more psyched up when I’m playing against Frazier,” said Chenier during the series. “He’s the best, and it makes me feel good when I’m doing well against him.”

Chenier, a virtually unstoppable jump shooter who gets great height on a jump and then shoots line drives, also had limited Frazier to six points. Make that, Chenier and foul trouble limited Frazier to six points. Walt sat out the second quarter, got into more foul trouble in the second-half, and then shuttled in and out of the game with little success.

Once before, Chenier had held Frazier to six points—that in a regular-season game when Frazier scored only two points in the first half, and Phil had blocked two of Clyde’s jump shots. Moreover, Chenier scored 30 points in that game, 20 in the first half.

After that regular-season game, Frazier explained, “I wasn’t shooting well. I just didn’t have any rhythm, but Chenier had something to do with it. He had his hands in my face all night. He’s really becoming a complete player. You can’t let him get an early jump on you. You know those young upstarts.”

Chenier was more complementary of Frazier when he said,  “He’s the best there is. It has to make you feel good when you can contain him a little.”

But listening to K.C. Jones, the Bullets’ coach, you realize the defensive job that Chenier did on Frazier was no accident. “Phil is our most-improved defensive player,” Jones said. “He’s done it all through hard work. Defense, many times, is just a matter of desire, and Phil has plenty of that. I know a lot of coaches don’t like to burden the best scorers with the toughest defensive assignment, but that’s what I am going to do. Phil has become my best defensive player.”

Speaking of defense, Jones knows all about it. For many years, he was one of the league’s all-time defensive standouts when he played in the Boston Celtic backcourt. He has worked overtime to improve Chenier’s defense.

Whether it be defense or any other facet of the game, when Jones talks about Chenier, a smile breaks across his well-rounded face. “Chenier’s only problem is that he’s so good he gets confused,” said Jones laughingly. “He’s got so many moves. Sometimes, he can’t make up his mind which one to use. He can be one of the greatest players in this league. Sometimes, I think the game is too easy for him. He does everything so effortlessly. His jump shot is mechanically perfect, and there is no one in the world who can stop him from getting it off.”

Phil thought his coach was too kind. “I’ve had quite a few of those shots K.C. talked about blocked,” said Chenier smilingly. “What I’m striving for is more consistency and to be able to do all the things that a Frazier does. Clyde is the top rebounding guard in the league, he’s among the best in assists and steals. Those are the big things, not the 52-point games. I had a lot of those in the California parks.”

Chenier showed some of that consistency in that fifth playoff game, which gave the Bullets a 3-2 series lead against the Knicks. Explaining how he held Frazier to six points for a second time in the Knick guard’s career, Chenier said, “It’s a tremendous challenge playing against a guy with the reputation he has. There is pressure, but the real pressure is on him.

“Everyone’s after his top spot. Everyone wants to be the No. 1 guard in pro basketball. He has to go out on the court and do something day in and day out, and every time he lines up, the guys he’s playing are going to try and make him play as hard as he can. He’s going to try to do anything to affect his play. 

There’s one thing you can do. You can hope you’ll start off hitting. You try to make him play a little defense, and maybe you’ll get him in foul trouble . . . anything you can do to affect his offense.

“There’s no way to keep him from getting his shots off, but maybe if there’s something like fouls on his mind, worrying him, it’ll affect his shooting.”

On the subject of comparison with Frazier, Chenier said, “When I was in school, I watched a lot of a great ones . .  . Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Dave Bing. I’d take the good things they did and try to fit them into my own game. I’d watch Walt Frazier, too, of course. No, I won’t tell you what things I copied. Let’s just say, I watched him closely.

“Clyde is the best. He deserves his reputation. He earned it. I’d like to be in that position myself someday. It’s a very healthy position to be in, especially financially.”

At the contract signing ceremony, Chenier said some athletes establish a goal of earning $1 million, but he had insisted he was not one of them.

“A certain amount of financial security would make me happy. I wouldn’t have taken a million. I don’t set money goals. If you set goals on the court, the money follows. I set a goal to make the All-Star team, to gain the respect from the players I play against and those I play with, and to be recognized as one of the top guards in the league.

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