1967 NBA Finals: Philadelphia 4, San Francisco 2
Prolific Sixers Bring Ring to Philly
The 76ers' loss to Boston in the 1966 playoffs cost coach Dolph Schayes his job. "Wilt [Chamberlain] and I never did see eye to eye," Schayes later explained. In his place, Philadelphia hired Alex Hannum, Chamberlain's former coach in San Francisco, who had just been released by the Warriors.
Hannum and Chamberlain had come to an understanding following a flare-up three seasons earlier, in the fall of 1963, when both first joined the Warriors. The coach and his center had almost come to blows during practice and had to be separated by players. Hannum, at 6-foot-7, figured he was big enough to go outside and settle it. The players wanted none of that, and neither did Chamberlain, although he would have won easily. Somehow the incident got everybody on the same wavelength; the two established an amicable relationship and were eager to work together in Philadelphia.
With Hannum coaching, the season promised to be a battle in the East. Boston's Red Auerbach had traded Mel Counts to the Baltimore Bullets for Bailey Howell, a smooth-shooting veteran forward who had played his college ball at Mississippi State. In addition, Boston signed another veteran, 6-foot-8, 255-pound Wayne Embry, as Bill Russell's backup. Once again, Auerbach had found just the right recycled talent to boost the club through the next phase of its transition. The Celtics won 60 games in 1966-67, tying the second-highest total in their illustrious history.
It wasn't good enough this year, however, as Chamberlain and the 76ers won 68. They opened the season by winning 15 of their first 16 games, losing only a road game at Cincinnati. That was followed by an 11-game winning streak, then a loss to the Knicks, then another streak that brought their record to 37-3. After they won their next nine games, their record stood at 46-4.
"That whole season was just magical, something where a team played almost perfect basketball," sharp-shooting guard Wali Jones said years later. "We played as a team/family concept."
If it was a family, it was a prolific one: The 76ers averaged 125.1 points. But for the first time in his career, Chamberlain wasn't the big daddy on offense; he averaged a career-low 24.1 points. As he had in San Francisco, Hannum had persuaded Chamberlain to concentrate less on scoring and more on rebounding and defense. Wilt again led the league in boards at 24.2 per game and shot an incredible .683 from the floor, a league record. He was also third in the league in assists at 7.8 per game.
The Sixers took up Chamberlain's offensive slack with a balanced attack, as seven players scored in double figures. While the backcourt was merely excellent -- Hal Greer averaged 22.1 points and Jones was good for 13.2 -- the frontcourt was awesome. Chet Walker, a fifth-year forward out of Bradley, averaged 19.3 points. Reserve Billy Cunningham, in his second year out of North Carolina, scored 18.5 points per game. And Lucious Jackson did the rest of the power work on the boards, as well as averaging 12.0 points. Jackson was 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, and sported an almost completely shaven skull. In other words, he was the picture of an intimidator.
The Sixers finished the year at a league-record 68-13 for an overwhelming winning percentage of .840. But their real golden moment came when they blew past the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Division Finals.
The Celtics managed a win in Boston, but the fifth game in Philadelphia's smoke-filled Convention Hall brought a decisive end to Boston's string of championships, 140-116. The Philadelphia fans converged on the floor for a riotous celebration, as K.C. Jones and Russell hugged and walked off.
In the Philadelphia locker room, the Sixers were about to break out the champagne when Chamberlain stopped them. The writers had expected Chamberlain to celebrate after years of frustration against Russell. No matter how great this victory seemed, Chamberlain told his teammates, it would only be good if they won the championship.
Later, dressed in his customary black cape, Russell entered the Philadelphia locker room and went to Wilt. "Great," he said softly, taking Chamberlain's hand. "Right, baby," Chamberlain replied. "Great," Russell said once more and left.
In the Western Division, the San Francisco Warriors had bounced back after firing Hannum and hiring Bill Sharman as coach. Sharman found a heavenly team to guide. Five of his players were involved in church work, so Sharman called them his "Sunday school team." The coach made it through the season without having to fine a single player for a rules transgression. They won the regular season with a 44-37 record and dumped St. Louis in the Western Division Finals in six games.
Nate Thurmond had recovered from a bad back to have a fine season at center, but he nursed a broken hand as the Finals began. Even so, he had evolved into a powerful center, capable of holding his own against Chamberlain. Thurmond operated mostly out of a high post, and he had good enough depth to his shot to pull Chamberlain away from the hoop.
Rick Barry, in his second year out of Miami, had stepped in as a superstar forward, averaging 35.6 points. He had just come off a Rookie of the Year season in 1966 and was brimming with confidence. Maybe too much confidence, some observers thought, because the Warriors' offense seemed to rely on him too often. That caused trouble in the Finals, during which he was hampered by a badly sprained ankle. Barry required shots of carbocaine, a local anesthetic, in order to play.
Jim King, a former Laker who had a barber's license, did the playmaking chores and gave the team some outside shooting. He was healthy, but off guard Jeff Mullins, normally a smooth-moving player in the mold of Jerry West, was hobbled by leg bruises. Poetry-writing forward Tom Meschery still worked the corner, but he had a broken hand. The other forward was Fred Hetzel, out of Davidson College, who contributed about 12 points and eight rebounds per game. Al Attles still played a tough defensive guard, and the Warriors got reliable shooting from Paul Neumann off the bench.
In other words, the Warriors were a good team, but they were hurting and no match for Chamberlain and the Sixers.
Philadelphia's Convention Hall was strangely subdued for Game 1; in fact, it wasn't even a sellout. The Warriors took advantage of the lull to force an overtime. Thurmond had 31 rebounds to counter Chamberlain's 33, and Barry poured in 37 points. Philadelphia led by 19 in the second quarter, but they slipped from there on out.
The Warriors caught and tied them in the game's final minute on two free throws by Mullins. San Francisco almost won it with 10 seconds left in regulation. Barry had the ball against Walker and eluded him by going right. Chamberlain moved in to stop the drive, and Barry neatly dished the ball to Thurmond, but somehow Chamberlain recovered and blocked the shot over Thurmond's left shoulder.
Philly took the lead in overtime and kept it for a 141-135 win. The scoresheet afterward reflected surprising competitive balance: Greer led Philadelphia with 32 points, while Jones had 30, Cunningham 26 and Walker 23. Chamberlain finished with 16.
The Warriors shot only 29 percent from the floor in Game 2 and Philly blew them out, 126-95. Chamberlain had only 10 points this time but grabbed 38 rebounds. Greer got another 30 points and Cunningham 28.
The series then moved to the Cow Palace in San Francisco, where the Warriors needed something special to stay alive. They got it when Barry scored 55 points. Just as important, King hit for a surprising 28 points. And once again Thurmond did the job on the boards, with 27 rebounds. Altogether it was good enough for a 130-126 Warriors win, as they narrowed the series gap to one game.
Greer proved to be the Warriors' undoing in Game 4, scoring 38 points and giving the 76ers a tough 122-108 road win. Walker pumped in 33 points, while Chamberlain resumed his low-key offensive game with 10. More importantly, however, he kept Thurmond off the boards.
After years of frustration, a Chamberlain-led team was heading home for Game 5 of the NBA Finals leading three games to one. It seemed too good to be true -- and it was. The Sixers lost 117-109. They had a 96-84 lead heading into the fourth period, but on the verge of capturing the title, they shot 3-for-17 in the final quarter. The Warriors stayed hot and won going away.
Suddenly, the basketball public sensed a choke. Game 6, played on April 24 in the Cow Palace, was a sellout: 15,612 screaming fans. Another 4,400 paid to see the game on closed-circuit television.
The first quarter was an 84-point shootout that closed with Philly leading 43-41. The Warriors held a 102-96 lead at the end of three. The score was 106-102 when young Matt Guokas came in, hit a 20-footer, then followed it with a driving layup. He was knocked into the basket support and out of the game, but his two quick buckets had sparked the turnaround.
"Gook! Gook!" Chamberlain shouted afterward in the locker room. "The rook showed us how."
From that point on it was a defensive battle. Chamberlain and Co. held San Francisco to just 19 points the rest of the way, while Cunningham alone scored 13 of Philly's next 29 to lead the Sixers to the championship, 125-122.
Barry led all scorers with 44 points, but Chamberlain had long ago learned the futility of individual stats.
"Sometimes it's actually easier to play against a team that has one man doing most of the shooting," the 76ers center said. Chamberlain's scoring average was way down, but he had his ring. In Game 6, he had collected 23 rebounds and six blocked shots (with all of his blocks and eight of his rebounds coming in the critical fourth quarter). Hannum had convinced him to concentrate on defense, intimidation and boardwork.
At last, the Sixers got their champagne. They took turns pouring it over Hannum's bald head. Why not? The Philly coach had gotten his second championship (his first had come with St. Louis in 1958), and he became the first coach to win it with two different teams.
The supreme satisfaction, however, belonged to Chamberlain. No longer could the basketball public say that "The Stilt" wasn't a champion.
The final word came from Wali Jones, the 76ers' guard who had grown up in Philadelphia idolizing Chamberlain: "Everyone who knows the game of basketball, knows who really is the greatest."
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