The Best Team Ever
Wilt Chamberlain didn't mince words when he talks about the ’66-67 Philadelphia 76ers
Wilt Chamberlain was never the type of player to shy away from a daunting challenge, contact under the basket, or, off the court, a strong opinion. So it should not be surprising when he said -- before his death in October 1999 -- without hesitation:
“The best team ever. The best team I ever saw was the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers.”
On one hand, Chamberlain is biased – he just happens to have been the center of that team. On the other hand, he did see them up close and personal, so he should know.
But even more objective observers would not have a hard time defending Chamberlain’s statement. In fact, in 1981, a panel of experts chose the Sixers as the best team in the first 35 years of the league. That was obviously before the great Celtics and Lakers teams of the 1980s and the Bulls of the ‘90s. But it’s nonetheless a noteworthy selection in light of the way the Boston and Minneapolis/Los Angeles franchises had dominated the league’s formative years, combining to win 21 of the league’s first 35 team titles.
The 1966-67 Sixers compiled a 68-13 regular-season record, which ranked as the best in NBA history until the Los Angeles Lakers went 69-13 in 1971-72. That was surpassed in the 1995-96 season by the Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 mark, prompting Michael Jordan’s terse response to the question of best team ever: “Anybody else win 72 games?”
Well, no, but examined within the context of its time, Philadelphia’s achievement was quite remarkable, perhaps as remarkable as Chicago’s.
“There were 10 teams in the league then,” Chamberlain was quick to point out. “We were going up against Boston, the defending champion, nine times a year. Now, win half your games against the good teams and you’ve got 70 wins.”
Like so much of what Chamberlain said during his life, that may well be an exaggeration made for effect. But the essence of his point about expansion remains valid.
In 1966-67 the NBA was a much smaller league that it is today, one where payers played each other often and knew each other well both on and off the court. A generation of basketball fans grew up with the image of Chamberlain’s 76ers battling Bill Russells’s Celtics on national TV as the NBA showcased its marquee matchup seemingly every Sunday afternoon during the winter and spring. By 1971-72, the league had expanded from 10 to 17 teams, the schedule had grown from 81 to its current 82 games and teams faced each other not more than six times. In 1995-96, the Bulls charged through a 29-team league and did not face any club more than four times.
Comparing teams or players from different eras is always difficult, because there are no definitive answers. Is it more challenging to face the same team again and again, or different opponents whose personnel vary? Is it more demanding to travel 2,000 miles on a chartered jet or 200 miles on a bus? Does the media spotlight that shines on today’s NBA bring out the best in its players and teams or uncover their warts? Has modern scouting, with all the computers and videotape, made today’s teams and players better prepared for their opponents, and, if so, who gains the advantage – stronger teams or weaker ones?
These are questions for radio sports-talk shows, family dens and neighborhood taverns, questions that have no definitive answers. As for the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers, one thing is indisputable: They were the best of their time.
Although Boston was en route to its eighth straight title, Philadelphia actually finished one game ahead of the Celtics in 1965-66, winning a league-best 55 games to Boston’s 54. But the Celtics beat the Sixers in five games in the playoffs, a defeat that led to the ouster of coach Dolph Schayes. His replacement was Alex Hannum, who had coached Chamberlain with the San Francisco Warriors and had been the coach of the last team other than the Celtics to win an NBA Championship – the 1957-58 St. Louis Hawks.
Hannum convinced Chamberlain, the NBA scoring champion in each of his seven previous seasons, that the team would prosper if he would focus his attention on other aspects of the game and let the team develop better scoring balance. That Hannum was able to get his point across, and that Chamberlain embraced the role change, is a credit both to the coach’s skill at persuasion and the player’s frustration with not winning titles.
“Never once have I asked him to shoot less,” said Hannum. “He just realizes now that he’s playing with a bunch of players who can put the ball in the basket and that he doesn’t have to do it all himself.”
Chamberlain enjoyed a brilliant all-around season. Though his scoring average dipped by more than nine points to 24.1 ppg, he still was the NBA’s third-leading scorer and shot an amazing .683 from the field, a league record he would surpass six years later. He also led the league in rebounding at 24.2 rpg and minutes played at 45.5 mpg and ranked third in assists at 7.8 apg.
And the 76ers prospered, averaging 125.2 points a game, still the third-highest total in NBA history. They were a team ahead of their time, built on today’s definition of positions, where the role of the point guard is different from that of the shooting guard, and the power forward’s responsibilities vary from those of the small forward. Most importantly, they had ideal players for all those positions, plus solid depth.
Starting alongside Chamberlain on the front line were Lucious Jackson, a 6-9, 250-pound intimidator of a power forward who doubled as backup center for those few moments Chamberlain was on the bench, and Chet “the Jet” Walker, a prototypical small forward who could shoot from the outside or slash his way to the basket and averaged 19.3 points. Hall of Famer Hal Greer was the shooting guard, his deadly jumper accounting for 22.1 points a game, while the ballhandling responsibilities were handled by point guard Wali Jones.
The bench featured “The Kangaroo Kid,” Billy Cunningham, a 6-7 second-year forward who averaged 18.5 points in only 26.8 minutes per game – and how many teams can boast of a Hall of Famer as their sixth man? Larry Costello was a key backcourt reserve, providing an experienced playmaker behind Jones, with veteran forward Dave Gambee and a pair of rookies, guard Bill Melchionni and swingman Matt Guokas, getting what little playing time was left over.
In an effort to stem the tide, Boston brought in veterans Bailey Howell and Wayne Embry to bolster their frontcourt, but it was not enough to hold off a Philadelphia team whose time had come. Although the Celtics won 60 games, the 76ers ran away from them by winning 68. They won their first seven games and 15 of their first 16. Two 11-game winning streaks and a nine-gamer put Philadelphia at 46-4 in late January and enabled the 76ers to coast into the playoffs, where they prepped for their showdown with Boston by defeating a Cincinnati club led by Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas three games to one.
Philadelphia opened the Boston series by winning at home as expected, then stunning the Celtics in Boston 107-102 in a game that saw Russell, the team’s player-coach and cornerstone of basketball’s greatest dynasty, booed by the fans at Boston Garden and harshly criticized in postgame media reviews. Russell juggled his lineup for the third game, inserting John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried into the starting lineup, but Boston still lost, 115-104, as Chamberlain set a playoff record with 41 rebounds.
Although the Celtics saved face by winning Game 4 in Boston, it only delayed the inevitable. Philadelphia brought a decisive end to Boston’s string of championships with a 140-116 victory in Game 5 at Convention Hall. But Chamberlain, despite having won his personal battle with Russell, stopped the expected flow of champagne in the Philadelphia locker room by telling his teammates the victory over Boston would only matter if they went on to win the championship.
The Celtics had nothing but praise for the team that had dethroned them. Russell went into the Philadelphia locker room after the game, shook Chamberlain’s hand and congratulated him on the victory. Said Boston guard K.C. Jones, “They’re playing the same game we’ve played for the last nine years. In other words, team ball.”
Chamberlain and the 76ers got their championship two weeks later, winning a six-game series against the San Francisco Warriors, who had replaced Hannum with Bill Sharman as coach. The Warriors, whose 44-37 record was the best in the Western Division, featured Rick Barry, who averaged 35.7 points as Chamberlain’s successor as NBA scoring champion. Although Barry as nursing a sprained ankle throughout the NBA Finals and several other Warriors were at less than 100 percent – center Nate Thurmond and forward Tom Meschery had broken hands and guard Jeff Mullins had a bruised leg – the team managed to throw a brief scare into the highly favored Sixers.
Philadelphia led by as many as 19 points in Game 1, but the Warriors fought back and tied the game in the final minute on two free throws by Mullins. San Francisco almost won it with 10 seconds left when Barry drove past Walker and fed the ball to Thurmond as Chamberlain left his man to stop the drive. But Chamberlain managed to recover and blocked the shot over Thurmond’s left shoulder, keeping the score tied. Philadelphia then dominated the overtime and escaped with a 141-135 win.
“What really hurts is the way it happened,” said Sharman, “coming back, getting into overtime, then losing. That’s the worst way to lose. We not only get the loss, but we shake them up so that they’ll really be ready for the next one.”
Which is what happened. Philadelphia won Game 2 in a blowout, 126-95, and went on to win the title in six games, twice beating the Warriors on the road. Afterward, the champagne finally flowed as the Philadelphia players took turns pouring the bubbly over the bald head of Hannum, the first coach to guide two different franchises to NBA titles.
“It was a beautiful, beautiful season,” said Greer. “We had everything. We knew we were going to win most of our games – it was just a matter of by how much.”
“That whole season was just magical,” reflected Jones, “something where a team played almost perfect basketball. We played as a team/family concept.”
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