Chet Walker always seemed to find himself in a behind-the-scenes role. As the “other guy” on an NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers team that starred Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Walker rarely, if ever, received top billing. And when he later pursued a career in Hollywood, Walker opted to become a producer and writer instead of an actor. But whether he was battling an opposing forward one-on-one or going head-to-head with show-business types, Walker more often than not came out on top
“Chet the Jet” was among the best open-court forwards of his day. He particularly enjoyed drawing fouls and then taking his .796 free-throw form to the charity stripe. Walker played tenacious defense and proved remarkably durable. He never missed more than six games in any season, and he became one of the few players to appear in more than 1,000 games (1,032) for his career.
Walker’s teams made the playoffs every year, and he had identical career scoring averages of 18.2 points per game in both the regular season and the postseason. His impact was most evident in Chicago, where the Bulls reached the playoffs in each of Walker’s six seasons but not in the year before he arrived or the year after he left.
When he turned in his duffel bag for a briefcase in 1975, Walker discovered that he could have an impact in the entertainment business as well, even without the benefit of training. He went on to produce a number of television and feature films, and he even picked up an Emmy Award for his role in coproducing “A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story,” a made-for-TV movie portraying the life and travails of Isiah Thomas' mother.
Like Isiah Thomas, Chester Walker grew up in poverty. Born in 1940, he and his family lived in a housing project in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Also like Thomas, Walker battled adversity and won a basketball scholarship. He went on to become an All-America forward at Bradley University in neighboring Illinois. In three varsity seasons he averaged 24.4 points per game and 12.8 rebounds per game and shot .552 from the floor.
The NBA’s Syracuse Nationals, in desperate need of frontcourt scoring and rebounding support, made Walker the 12th overall pick in the 1962 NBA Draft. Walker averaged 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds in 1962–63 and earned a berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
Prior to the 1963–64 season the franchise moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers. Walker began to emerge that year, averaging 17.3 points and a career-high 10.3 rebounds and making his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game. The Sixers, however, struggled to a 34-46 record and an early exit from the NBA Playoffs.
After the arrival of Billy Cunningham in 1965, the 76ers boasted one of the greatest frontcourts ever assembled. In 1966–67, their second year of playing together, the trio of Chamberlain, Cunningham and Walker powered Philadelphia to a 68-13 record and the NBA title. Walker, although often yielding to his frontcourtmates and Greer in the backcourt, posted his finest season with the organization, tallying 19.3 ppg and 8.1 rpg. He also averaged 21.7 ppg in the playoffs. The team was considered by many to be the greatest in NBA history.
Walker put in two more solid seasons with the Sixers after that championship year, but Philadelphia didn’t return to the Finals. Prior to the 1969-70 campaign Walker was traded to a sputtering Chicago Bulls club along with backup forward Shaler Halimon for Jim Washington and a player to be named later. The move was a jolt to the 29-year-old Walker, who had made a home for himself in Philadelphia. He even considered retirement. Luckily for the Bulls, he didn’t follow through on the notion.
Over the next six seasons with Chicago, Walker scored at least 19 ppg every year and played in four more All-Star Games. He helped carry a team that also included Bob Love, Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan to four straight 50-win campaigns. In a 1971-72 tilt against the Cincinnati Royals, Walker tallied a career-high 56 points. He finished that year with a career-best scoring average of 22.0 ppg.
Walker’s six-year honeymoon in Chicago ended in 1975 when management rejected his $200,000-a-year salary demand. They also refused to trade or release him. So Walker went to court, suing the Bulls and the NBA for violation of federal antitrust laws. Walker lost the case. At age 35, coming off a season in which he averaged 19.2 ppg despite tendinitis-wracked knees, an embittered Walker was through. As for the Bulls, their win count plummeted by half in 1975-76, to 24 games.
Over the years Walker had kept in touch with his buddy Zev Braun, a Beverly Hills movie producer. After losing his court case Walker moved to Tinseltown, hooked up with Braun, and embarked on a new career. The transition was not easy, as he told HOOP magazine in 1985: “The adjustment was very difficult. I’ve been out eight years and I’m just now beginning to relax in life. You have to learn there’s more to life than basketball.”
Working with Braun and other producers, Walker ushered through a number of projects. Among them were “Freedom Road,” a 1980 NBC miniseries starring Kris Kristofferson and Muhammad Ali; the 1983 film The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu, the late Peter Sellers’s final picture; “Holy Angels,” an NBC movie of the week and the 1995 film The Glass Shield.
It was “The Mary Thomas Story” in 1989, however, that gave Walker the most personal satisfaction. “I saw Isiah’s struggle growing up on the West Side of Chicago. I found it very frustrating,” he told HOOP. “The story of Isiah’s mother is so similar to my own life.”
The film, shot on location in the Thomas family’s neighborhood, portrayed Mary Thomas’s struggles to raise her nine children without her husband, who had left the home when Isiah was 3 years old. On one occasion she warded off a gang of hoods with a shotgun. “There’s only one gang here, and I lead it,” she warned the youths, who had come looking for Isiah. “Get off my porch or I’ll blow you off it!”
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