This is the eighth in a series of examinations of basketball-related legends and whether they are true or false.
This is a special All Wilt Chamberlain edition of Basketball Legends Revealed!
BASKETBALL LEGEND: Wilt Chamberlain had an infamously poor reaction to his coach’s invention of morning shootarounds.
Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most enigmatic basketball players of the 20th Century. Just based on talent alone, Chamberlain should have been the greatest player in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA) (and as it currently stands, he is certainly in the top ten anyways), but Chamberlain tended to look at basketball a lot differently than some of his Hall of Fame peers. Chamberlain himself described the difference between himself and his most famous rival, Celtics center Bill Russell (winner of eleven NBA championships to Chamberlain’s two) as the fact that Russell would vomit before a game due to being so worried about winning while Chamberlain never wanted to win that badly, and he felt that he was happier NOT wanting to win that badly. He had varied interests outside of basketball (particularly a fondness for women that has since become legendary) – basketball was never the end all/be all to him and he liked it that way. He wanted to win, of course, heck, he wanted to win a lot – just not to the same extent that Russell did – and that was fine with Chamberlain.
That attitude (and his penchant for late night partying) led to a famous story involving Chamberlain’s first season with Bill Sharman as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers (1971-72). That season, Sharman instituted something that had never been done in the NBA – he required his team to come in during the morning of a game to do mandatory morning shootarounds.
As legendary basketball columnist Sam Smith relays the story:
The creation of the shootaround, ostensibly to better prepare for games but also to perhaps push players to ending their nights out earlier, is credited to then Lakers coach Bill Sharman in 1971. My favorite story about that was with Wilt Chamberlain on that team. Wilt supposedly told Sharman he comes to the arena once a day and Sharman can decide when. Wilt pretty much eschewed the shootaround.
First off, real or fake, good attitude or bad, the way Chamberlain’s quote is most often told “You tell Bill Sharman that I’ll go to the arena one time today. Either now or for the game tonight. He can pick” is a great line.
But is it true?
Not according to Sharman, who told Fran Blinebury (and many others over the years, I just happen to be quoting a great Blinebury article from the Houston Chronicle in 2008), “I’ve heard that story hundreds of times over the years. It’s a great story. But it never happened. I talked to Wilt right before camp, and he said, ‘You know, Bill, I usually don’t get out of bed until noon. But if you think it will help, I’ll go along if we win.’ ”
Sharman has maintained that same story for years in many different articles and books, noting that he was actually impressed by how much Chamberlain WAS willing to work with him during his first season coaching the Lakers.
Now, beyond just the quote, though, I think there are two other lesser “legends” about the morning shootaround that need to be cleared up.
One, that Chamberlain eschewed the shootarounds. Well, as Sharman just noted, no he did not (Sharman usually claims that Chamberlain missed between one and three shootarounds during the 1971-72 season).
But secondly, and more importantly, the motivation behind the shootaround has been a matter of some myth-making as well, particularly the part about how Sharman came up with the idea specifically TO try to curtail Chamberlain’s late-night activities.
That is not the case. Besides the fact that Sharman has said as much over the years, Sharman actually had been doing mandatory morning shootarounds since he first began coaching in the American Basketball League (ABL) (a low level competing basketball league during the 1960s) in 1962 with the Cleveland Pipers (owned by George Steinbrenner). He won the ABL title that season, and so he made the shootarounds part of his coaching routine, from the ABL to the American Basketball Association (ABA) ( a higher profile competing basketball league from the late 1960s/early 1970s), where Sharman coached the Utah Stars to an ABA championship in 1970.
So when he signed on with the Lakers as Head Coach in 1970, the morning shootaround was part of the Sharman package. It was not something he invented to deal with Chamberlain. Interestingly enough, Sharman came up with the concept back when he was a player in the NBA during the 1950s. He would often have trouble sleeping the night before a game, so he would get up early and do a morning shootaround, and he always found that it cleared his nerves. He felt that it would do the same for the players he coached.
How did it work for the Lakers in 1971-72?
Not so bad – they went on to won 69 out of 82 games, a record for wins that stood for more than two decades. They also recored an NBA-record 33 straight victories (still a record to this day). And, naturally, they also won the 1972 NBA Championship.
Understandably enough, the morning shootaround quickly became something every team used. It was an NBA staple until very recently, when some teams began to phase the shootaround out (beginning with the San Antonio Spurs, whose coach Gregg Popovich feels that his veteran-heavy team can be trusted to work out on their own on their own schedule). Still, the majority of teams continue to use it regularly – and it might never have caught had Chamberlain not gone along with Sharman’s plan – and while we don’t necessarily have to give Chamberlain CREDIT for doing something to help the team (as that’s what professional athletes are SUPPOSED to do), we should at least be sure not to DIScredit him, either. In this instance, Chamberlain was quite willing to do what it took to win – and the results speak for themselves.
Thanks to Sam Smith, Fran Blinebury and Howard Beck (of the New York Times) for the information needed for this piece!
BASKETBALL LEGEND: Wilt Chamberlain is in the Volleyball Hall of Fame.
As I said above, Wilt Chamberlain was an amazing athlete. Just amazing.
SO amazing that after he retired from playing professional basketball in 1973 (at the age of 36), he began a SECOND career in professional sports!
This time as a professional VOLLEYBALL player!!
Chamberlain began playing volleyball late in life, not until 1969 (when he was 32 years old – he was born in August, so these ages are based on how old he would be at the end of the basketball season).
But after he retired, Chamberlain helped form the International Volleyball Association (IVA) in 1975 as a team owner. He ended up trying to keep the league afloat (as it was a bit of a tough sell to the American public) by becoming a player himself for his team, the Orange County Stars, in 1977!
Chamberlain’s star appeal was great enough that he was able to get the IVA’s All-Star Game televised on NBC!
Sadly, the world was just not yet ready for an international professional co-ed volleyball league, and the league went under in 1979.
For his efforts, though, Chamberlain was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame!
Not many players can say that they are members of TWO different sports Halls of Fame!
BASKETBALL LEGEND: A game against Wilt Chamberlain helped convince a college star not to play in the NBA.
STATUS: Basically True
When Wilt Chamberlain was a high school student, he was one of the most highly sought after prospects in the country (heck, likely THE most highly sought after prospect in the country).
Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach first met Chamberlain when the high schooler was working as a bellhop at the Kutsher’s Hotel in the Catskills in New York (this was something that many high school and college basketball players would do – you’d work as a bellhop at a hotel and then compete against other basketball players working at other hotels in games to entertain the guests, especially the New York crowd who tended to really enjoy basketball). Auerbach tried to convince the young man to go to a school in New England, because the NBA had a rule at the time that players could be drafted based on “territorial picks,” so if you went to school in, say, New York, the Knicks could use their territorial pick to make sure that they got you – this was because the league figured that people would root more heavily for local stars.
Chamberlain turned down the offer and ended up going to school at Kansas University (when he entered the NBA, the NBA ended up skirting the rules of the territorial draft ANYways, and allowed the Philadelphia Warriors to use a territorial pick on Chamberlain, even though Philly and Kansas are not exactly neighbors – the league’s theory was that there was no OTHER team in Kansas, and Chamberlain at least WAS from Philly originally).
While there, though, Auerbach arranged a game of one-on-one between Chamberlain and Kansas center B.H. Born., who has just graduated a year after being named the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament of 1953 (where Kansas won the National Championship). Born was working at a hotel, as well, that summer.
Chamberlain defeated Born 25-10.
Born was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the 22nd pick in the 1954 Draft, but Born chose not to play in the NBA, choosing instead to work for a tractor company as a tractor engineer and play in the Amateur Athletic Union (for the team sponsored by the tractor company he worked for – wink wink nudge nudge).
As the story goes, Born was so amazed at how good Chamberlain was, he figured that there was no way he’d be able to compete in the NBA if he couldn’t beat a high school player!
And there’s certainly a lot of truth to that – Born specifically DID say something to that effect (Robert Cherry has some choice Born quotes in his great Chamberlain bio, Wilt: Larger Than Life) that he figured the AAU was a safer place to play where he didn’t have to worry about guys like Chamberlain or Bill Russell (who was a major college star at the time).
I just find it hard to believe that that one game made THAT much of a difference – I think it sounds a lot more like Born was not a “can’t miss” NBA prospect and he was never really THAT much into the idea of pro basketball to begin with, which was not that uncommon. Heck, just four years earlier, Irwin Dambrot was named Most Outstanding Player and was drafted by the New York Knicks but turned down professional basketball to pursue a career in dentistry. After all, during this time in the NBA’s timeline, you had players like George Mikan retiring in their prime at least partially to find better jobs for their families, so it was not like playing in the NBA was a no-brainer decision. Especially since playing in the AAU put Born into a situation where he had major job security – he ended up working at the company associated with his AAU team for FORTY YEARS! So I doubt Born regretted not going to the NBA.
So I think it is more that the game against Chamberlain was just the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back that confirmed a decision Born likely was already leaning toward, not some mythical event where Chamberlain beat Born so bad that Born changed his mind right there on the spot.
But still, it remains an interesting event in sports history – a high schooler beating the Most Outstanding Player of the Year 25-10 is impressive in and of itself!
Born did one last good turn to his alma mater (where his retired jersey hangs in the rafters) – he was one of the first people to push Chamberlain to play at Kansas!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com