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Sam Smith: Chet the Jet knows it’s about more than basketball

It's such a treat to hang out with guys like former Bull and 76er Chet Walker, the true pioneers of the game, and I just hope he gets to hang out soon at the Hall of Fame, where he so deservedly belongs, writes Sam Smith. Though Walker says that's all fine.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: Chet the Jet knows it’s about more than basketball


The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

One of my favorite things to do every time I get to Los Angeles—after hanging out at Venice Beach some with the other freaks and pumping iron at Muscle Beach, or not—is visit with Chet Walker.

The former Bull and 76er, who won a championship with the great 76ers team of 1967 and was a rock for the Bulls first great era, is the second most deserving person not in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The first, I've long said, is Johnny “Red” Kerr, though more for overall contributions of playing, coaching, being a general manager, pioneer and broadcaster. And then strictly as a player, there's Chet, a seven-time All-Star effectively forced out of the game for his activities on behalf of the players' union for free agency.

As one Hall of Famer told me recently, "Billy Cunningham is a great player and well deserving (being in the Hall). But he backed up Chet."

Chet laughs at the comparison, long accepting the politics of the game and short memories perhaps too large an obstacle to overcome.

"Not being in the Hall of Fame is good in a way," Chet jokes. "It keeps me in the news with people asking, 'Why is he not there?'

"The last time I was up I think I got 14 votes (of 18 needed out of 24)," Chet says. "They called me and told me I got more than 13. Wouldn't say how many more. But they said that was the most anyone got who didn't get in."

Walker shrugs.

We're sitting at a café near the beach and picking over some breakfast. The sun is bright and the temperatures are heading toward 80. Chet's got a meeting later to go over a script treatment he's working up for a basketball story. He's got a development fee, but things move slowly in Hollywood.

Chet the Jet somewhat as well.

He's not that Jet three knee operations later. He turns 69 later this month, and still moves well, though getting up from that chair is more in stages as any athlete will tell you after multiple knee procedures. He says he walks at least a half hour each day, but especially keeps his mind active.

"You have to be productive," Walker says. "You have to have a productive life after basketball. I write all the time. Every day. You have to have a career after sports because once your knees go, it's all over."

Which is why Chet says he's so grateful Barack Obama was a washout at basketball.

"If he had gotten a scholarship and signed a letter of intent, he'd have been put in a box as not very smart," Walker says. "When you are a good player, it's about control. They want to put you in these Mickey Mouse courses so you can maintain a C average and stay eligible. It's not about helping you develop academically. You can see Obama really loves basketball. He'd never have been president if he was a good ballplayer.

"There is a certain stigma attached to us about intelligence, African-Americans basically," says Walker. "I always tried to shake that off, which is why I went into another field, film. I have a college degree and 20 hours on a master's in administration I got at Bradley. But when I left the game I could not get an interview (outside basketball). I was lucky at Bradley because a professor encouraged me in my sophomore year. The coaches wanted me in dance and swimming. You wonder if there were others like Obama whose intelligence is wasted in a situation like that.

"As a kid, you obsess about basketball," Walker says. "Academics are not important to you. Everyone tells you the future is in sports. But you don't want people looking at you like only someone who played sports. That's why, to me, Obama is the ultimate role model. Not because he is black and became president.

"Because he can have an effect on young black players," says Walker. "Now guys can say, 'I can be something else. I don't have to do this.'

"Maybe 90 percent of NBA players don't have degrees," says Walker. "Maybe 25 percent came out of high school and we don't even know if they have high school degrees. Yet, there is so much opportunity to get a degree. Shaq went back. Guys can do that, and it's real important. I know guys think it's so much money, but it can go. You see guys already bankrupt who had these ($20 million and $30 million) contracts.

"I see guys who retired and they're like empty souls," says Walker. "There's nothing for them, nothing to do. Superstars to empty souls."

Walker says he doesn't watch the game that much anymore, but does believe guys work hard at it. He says he enjoys most watching the Spurs and the way they play and has liked watching the Magic this season.

His favorite player today?

"Paul Pierce," says Walker. "He's, to me, the ultimate small forward. Good shot and can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. The kid from New Orleans, Chris Paul. He's a complete player, exciting. He's enthusiastic and brings a lot to the game, like Kobe.

"I concentrate mostly on the forwards," says Walker, who arguably was the fundamental role model of his era, sort of the Tim Duncan of forwards, quiet and effective. "Forward is very important because it's in between. You have to run the break, rebound, play defense away from the basket. I think it's the most talented position in basketball because you have to do so many things. You have to go inside and rebound and then catch up with the guards and fill the lanes."

Walker says, to him, the biggest difference in the game now is the way the floor is open with the three point shot and zone that moves players out of the lane.

"When I played you had Wilt and Russell and Thurmond sitting there waiting for you," says Walker. "You didn't have access to the basket like they have now. Centers stayed inside."

Walker says in his era his favorite player to watch was Earl Monroe.

"No hesitation," says Walker. "He had those moves like no one else, entertaining moves. You didn't have to be a basketball fan to appreciate and enjoy Monroe. He changed the game. A lot of players came after him trying to emulate him, guys like Dr. J, who was also entertainer. The other player I loved to watch was Oscar (Robertson). He was the perfect player. He did everything. He was so perfect he was exciting. And Elgin Baylor, who was the most underrated player to ever play the game. People don't appreciate him as much as they should. I tried to emulate him a lot, going to the middle and hanging like he did."

It's such a treat to hang out with guys like Walker, the true pioneers of the game, and I just hope he gets to hang out soon at the Hall of Fame, where he so deservedly belongs. Though Walker says that's all fine. He's just glad Obama made it and that the players of this generation will have a chance to learn from the experience.

-- The Raptors were blown out at home Sunday by Orlando. And this was after a local columnist called the team's performance in a home loss Friday to the Bucks "lifeless, gutless." It's pretty clear to about everyone around the NBA that Bosh is now the most likely 2010 free agent to leave his team with Amar’e Stoudemire seemingly moving up to a solid second. By the way, you hear more team officials speculating that LeBron James is less likely to leave Cleveland, and perhaps that was why there was speculation in the New York media recently about how great it would be to get someone like Joe Johnson. But the apparent dysfunction in several franchises who have big time potential free agents is leading some general managers with their own free agents to believe they might get a jump on 2010 by adding a star now to their own star. Thus many are looking for the Miami Heat to make a bold move before the trading deadline, and not Jermaine O'Neal. How about Bosh? One rumor you hear going around with league general managers is the Heat might be in position to make a deal now to pair Bosh with Dwyane Wade and take its chances on persuading Bosh to not opt out in 2010. Those who know Bosh says he likes the idea of being the main guy, though the general consensus around the NBA is he's nowhere near good enough to carry a team and needs to play with a star, say, like Wade.

With this meltdown in place and the community and media turning on the Raptors and the team seemingly on the verge of giving up, perhaps the Raptors need to make a move with Bosh now. Here's one scenario I heard speculated about last week: The Raptors trade Bosh to the Heat for Shawn Marion and Michael Beasley. Perhaps the Raptors also throw in O'Neal and get a lesser player and save more money. One catch would be the Heat probably not having its first round pick, though they could throw in a future. The talk among general managers is the rush at this deadline for most seems to be to cut payroll and get picks or prospects. The Heat also has some of the latter. With Bosh not exactly carrying the Raptors and hardly seeming like the most likely candidate to stay, the sooner you make this kind of deal the more you'll get. Wait too long and Bosh could leave you with nothing.

Figure the same thinking is going on in Phoenix with Stoudemire, who is more risky because he doesn't play much defense or care to and has had microfracture surgery. But he was part of a run of 60-win teams and you don't get a shot at players like him often. The other big talk involving the Heat apparently concerns Dallas' Josh Howard, who the word is can be had with every other Dallas player not named Dirk Nowitzki. I can't imagine you'd have to give up much for Howard, who has worn out his welcome in Dallas, though it's hard to figure the direction Dallas takes. The guess is it's a salary cap maneuver like Detroit to get back up in 2010, which is also why that strategy is risky as a lot of teams are beginning to look at that.

Speaking of the Pistons, the biggest internal issue is said to be Rasheed Wallace and his relationship with by-the-book coach Michael Curry. Wallace's contract ends after this season, so the Pistons are not about to take on big salary. But it may well be a chance to get a player as Allen Iverson's deal also comes off the books this season. Wallace still could be that last, missing piece for a good team given his size and shooting ability, and it's no great risk with his contract up. The Pistons could get a heck of a jump on their retooling if someone, as it often happens in February, gets the idea Wallace makes the difference for them.

Nuggets? Hornets? Rockets? Cavs? Would you take a shot with Wally Szczerbiak's expiring deal and throw in a pick and/or player? Would you take Tracy McGrady off their hands until 2010 and maybe you can figure something out to get Luis Scola out of them with some creative cap maneuvering. Doesn't sound likely, but maybe Wallace playing for another deal gives you a good three months.

-- Well, at least he didn't take Emeka Okafor. Some thought the Magic should, but they picked high schooler Dwight Howard in 2004 and the Magic is at least in the NBA championship conversation. GM Otis Smith has gotten plenty of criticism for effectively wasting lottery picks on Fran Vazquez and J.J. Redick. Then he bid against no one for Rashard Lewis and a six-year $118-million free-agent contract in the summer of 2007, and re-signed smurf Jameer Nelson before last season to a five-year deal worth nearly $40 million. And then he tried to hire Florida coach Billy Donovan, who then backed out and probable coach of the year Stan Van Gundy fell into his lap. Better to be lucky sometimes, and now Lewis and Nelson are All-Stars. "I don't know if I stuck my neck out. I just thought Lewis was the player we could least afford to lose," Smith told the Orlando Sentinel. "And Jameer, I always said: Name me 10 guys that are better." We assume he means point guards, and I'd take a shot at that. "I've been doubted all my life: Too small, shoot-first point guard, can't play in the NBA, whatever," said Nelson. "I think there still will be doubters. But I always had confidence."

-- I'm not much of a fan of rookie coaches as Coach of the Year with guys like Van Gundy, Nate McMillan and Jerry Sloan without such honors. But if I were so inclined, I'd have to seriously consider Miami's Eric Spoelstra, who is doing the most with the least this season. Yes, he has Dwyane Wade playing like an MVP. But it's a poor roster of washed up veterans, rookies and role players. Yet, the Heat, even after Saturday's bad home loss to Dallas, is 25-21 and tied for fifth in the East and just a game and a half behind Atlanta for fourth after beating Atlanta last week. "It's been a shock to a lot of us the way he's been," Wade told Florida media of Spoelstra. Without any real defensive specialists perhaps other than Shawn Marion, who's been hurt of late and subject of constant trade talk, the Heat is one of the league's best defensive teams, fifth in defensive field goal percentage and among the best in steals and protecting the ball, just a solid team without, seemingly, the appropriate talent.

-- The Hornets are somewhat of a disappointment this season, though more for raised expectations. They've had injuries with Tyson Chandler out through the All-Star break and some back stepping on defense by Chandler and David West, though West still made the All-Star team. And their bench has been missing with James Posey shooting 36 percent this month. But Chris Paul is making a heck of a case to steal LeBron James' MVP award. Paul may be the most valuable single player to any top team and in January twice came within three steals of the NBA's statistical grail, the quadruple double, reached four times in league history and once with steals, that being Alvin Roberston in 1986. Paul got Dallas for 33 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and seven steals and Philadelphia for 27 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds and seven steals, perhaps the two most remarkable all around games this season, especially for a guard stretching to reach six feet.

-- It's all Stephon all the time in New York, despite a remarkable season from a vastly undermanned Knicks team. As the media there says, "Don't bother us with actual events, like games." The New York Post quoted Dwyane Wade saying he could play with Marbury, who supposedly has interest from the Celtics, Mavericks and Heat if he is bought out. While the New York Daily News the same day quoted NBA types saying the Celtics would never take on a disruptive type like Marbury. The Hall of Fame reportedly is asking for Marbury's ego... ... Elton Brand confirmed to Philadelphia media that general manager Ed Stafanski talked to him about trade rumors and apparently confirmed Brand is not leaving the 76ers. "I haven't been in a lot of (rumors), and I know that if we were 30-10, this wouldn't be the case," said Brand, now likely the 76ers starting center with Samuel Dalembert hurt. "But we're playing pretty well and I want to continue that, whatever it takes. There's no doubt in my mind that I can get back to that level, to be a difference-maker."... How's that for in your face. The Lakers won Saturday in Memphis, the Grizzlies 12th straight loss and 20 of 22 with the Lakers 58-14 since acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis, a 66-win pace.

-- Tony Parker to the San Antonio Express on the last time he played with a selfish team: "The French national team. Then I go back to earth." That being the remarkably unselfish and committed Spurs. Yes, it's all about leadership. "Me and Manu, I think, adopted Timmy's attitude," Parker said of Tim Duncan. "We share. For a lot of years in the fourth quarter, we've run a lot of plays for Manu. It doesn't matter who takes that last shot." Quietly (what else would you expect), the Spurs have emerged as perhaps the only true threat to the Lakers in the West this season. ... One of the more curious decisions all season—of many, as usual—has been Washington's. Going nowhere, the Wizards still refused to give rookie JaVale McGee a chance. When he played in November, he scored in double figures in four of the seven games he played at least 20 minutes. Then inexperienced Ed Tapscott took over and rarely ever played him while losing at a franchise record pace. So he finally put McGee back Saturday and McGee had 18 points and nine rebounds in a rare Wizards win. ... How about this statistic for those teams who may be thinking about possible free agent Carlos Boozer: Since Boozer signed, the Jazz have played 376 regular-season games. Boozer has missed 125 of those games. That's one of every three for those who missed fractions. ... Deron Williams with some harsh words for the injury depleted Jazz (Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko) in the Salt Lake Tribune: "The bottom line is we've got to stop being so soft as a team. We come out soft, teams push us around, we don't push back, we don't fight back, we just lay down." Sounds like another shot at Mehmet Okur, like in the playoffs a few years back, and it's interesting with Kirilenko electing for surgery now.

-- No wonder the Bulls didn't want Sean Williams in that aborted Larry Hughes/Bobby Simmons deal. Williams returned to the Nets because the D-league team didn't want him around as too disruptive to the other players. That should be a career ender. See ya, fella. ... Great honor for one-time Bulls coach and TNT broadcaster Doug Collins. He will be prominent in a statue at Illinois State's arena with his late coach, Will Robinson, the first African-American coach in Division 1. The statue depicts them as they were in a newspaper photo before that season: Robinson kneeling and Collins standing behind him with a hand on the coach's shoulder. ... How come Ben Wallace never was this funny in Chicago? Talking about how disappointed the Cavs were that Mo Williams wasn't selected for the All-Star game, Wallace said: It's a tragedy. I think it's an injustice. It's a fraud. We've got the best record in the league, and we've only got one guy going. You always make it the next year, after the year you were supposed to make it. It's a travesty and a sham and a mockery. It's a shamockery." Watch out Conan; you hay have competition for Leno's spot.