By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Mar 1 2012 9:21AM
Season of Giants: 1961-62
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The great ones are supposed to practically walk in the clouds, breathe in the rarified air of our imaginations and radiate their own light. They come with names -- Babe, Wilt, Broadway Joe, Magic -- that conjure up freeze-frame memories of their heroic feats.
If it is possible to construct a Hall of Fame career at ground level, that was Walt Bellamy. Living in the shadows of the legends.
Bellamy entered the NBA as a rookie in the 1961-62 Season of Giants, the year Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors did the unthinkable, averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds per game and scoring 100 points on a singular night against the New York Knicks. It was the year the nonpareil talent that was Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double for the Cincinnati Royals, the year the great Bill Russell won his third MVP award and led the Boston Celtics dynasty to the fourth of eight straight championships.
In terms of size (6-foot-11, 225 pounds), speed and the ability to put the ball into the basket, Bellamy never had to take a backseat on a basketball court. When it came to timing, though, he might as well have been the proverbial guy caught outside holding a golden fork on the day it rained soup.
"What an offensive player," said Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham. "He was unique at the time because he was a big man who liked facing up to the basket. He could drive from the foul line or shoot that nice little jump shot. But you never perceived him as a back-you-down physical force like a traditional big man and maybe that's why he gets overlooked."
"He gets lost in all of the history because of Wilt and Russell and their rivalry that lasted all those years," said former guard Wali Jones. "But if you look at the numbers, you've got to be impressed."
Bellamy's numbers were impressive -- 20.1 ppg, 13.7 rpg, .516 FG pct over a 13-year career for a half-dozen teams. When he retired in 1974 he ranked sixth all-time on the NBA scoring list and third in rebounding. He still is one of only seven players in history to score more than 20,000 points and pull down more than 14,000 rebounds. The other are Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Robert Parish, Moses Malone and Karl Malone.
Bellamy's greatest accomplishments came when he was younger, first as the starting center on the gold medal U.S. Olympic team in 1960 that included Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas and then when he broke into the NBA with a splash.
"Winning that gold medal was the single highest achievement of my sports life," Bellamy once said.
As the No. 1 overall pick out of Indiana University by the expansion Chicago Packers, Bellamy hit the ground running and scoring. He averaged 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game, both the highest marks ever by a rookie not named Chamberlain. He finished the season as the league's second-leading scorer, trailing only Wilt. He led the league in field-goal percentage. His player efficiency rating of 26.3 trailed only Chamberlain (31.8) and Elgin Baylor (26.5). He was the starting center for the West in the All-Star Game.
"It was a competitive time and we were all professionals," Bellamy recalled in a TV interview. "I relish when people bring up those days and the battles we had against each other. They were truly centers in those days. Not just in size, but also in endurance and leadership on the court. You didn't hear of centers playing 20 or 25 or 30 minutes a game back then. You played the entire game. I have always believed the centers of that time were the best conditioned athletes in professional sports."
If not for the almost incomprehensible numbers being posted by Wilt, the rookie Bellamy might have taken the still-growing NBA by storm. Then again, Bellamy's own easy-going attitude and lack of a mean streak might have prevented that.
"He had a very dry wit and I think Wilt liked him," said Matt Guokas, who played with Chamberlain. "Wilt always wanted to win games, but I think Bellamy was one of the guys he never wanted to embarrass.
"Big Bells had a lot of talent. He could hit that little turnaround from either side of the lane. He was such a nice guy. His teammates always liked him. He was good with the media. He was a little flaky. That was part of his schtick."
That image followed Bellamy throughout his career. Bob Leonard, who was his teammate in the first season and then coached him in Chicago, didn't think Bellamy was dedicated enough even during that sensational rookie season.
"Walt wasn't a highly motivated player night in and night out," Leonard once said. "He'd have some great games and then he'd have one where he didn't show up. But he was an excellent player."
All of Bellamy's selections for the All-Star Game came during his first four NBA seasons. He was traded from Chicago to Baltimore to New York and spent a little more than two seasons with the Knicks when they thought they could contend with Boston and Philadelphia for the title. Ironically, his greatest contribution to the Knicks came when Bellamy was traded to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere, who became the final piece of the puzzle in New York's first championship (1970).
Bellamy carved a special place in the league annals that year, playing in 88 games of an 82-game season due to an overlapping of schedules by the Pistons and Knicks. It is also notable that while in Chicago he was part of the first team in the NBA to start five black players. He also played a role in getting Jerry Krause, architect of the Chicago Bulls' dynasty, into the league. As a would-be scout trying to get work and hanging around the Packers-turned-Zephyrs franchise, Krause began charting Bellamy's shot from different points on the floor and used the data to cajole Leonard into giving him his first job in the league.
For a player with such a distinguished resume, Bellamy is known more for trivia that titles. Bellamy was traded three times -- mostly because his talent and scoring ability were valued -- and always wound up with expansion franchises or teams in a rebuilding process. He wore seven different NBA uniforms (one game with the New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75). It was 18 years after his retirement when he was finally elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1993.
At another time in a different era, that rookie year -- 31.6 points, 19 rebounds a game -- would have been one to remember. But in a Season of Giants, Walt Bellamy will always live in the shadows.
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