Legends profile: Walt Bellamy
Drafted at No. 1 overall in 1961, Walt Bellamy made four straight All-Star appearances to begin his career.
Walt Bellamy’s numbers are indisputable. He averaged 20.1 points and 13.7 rebounds over a career that lasted 13 seasons and one game of a 14th. He is one of only nine players to score more than 20,000 points and grab more than 14,000 rebounds, a group that includes Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Robert Parish, Moses Malone and Karl Malone. He played in four All-Star Games and he was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1962.
Obviously more than beginner’s luck, but perhaps it was too easy for Bellamy at first. His scoring average dropped steadily for six seasons before a mild revival later in his career, and all of his All-Star outings came in his first four seasons. But 20,941 points and more than 14,241 rebounds is nonetheless impressive. Justice was delayed but not denied when Bellamy was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
One thing that followed Bellamy around that may play a part in him having a less-than-legendary legacy was the thought that he was not dedicated. “Walt wasn’t a highly motivated player, night in and night out,” says Bellamy’s first NBA coach, Bob Leonard. “He’d have some great games and then he’d have one where he didn’t show up. But he was an excellent player.”
Bellamy, a native of New Bern, N.C., had a style of play that may have reflected his laid-back southern nature similar to a fellow native Tar Heel and jazz musician, John Coltrane. He came to the NBA after being named a second-team All-American at Indiana University as the first player selected in the 1961 draft by the Chicago Packers (now the Washington Wizards) and he burst onto the pro scene.
He averaged what turned out to be a career-high 31.6 points and 19 rebounds for the Packers, hitting 52% of his field goals. Only Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor averaged more points that season. Bellamy also had 23 points and 17 rebounds in 29 minutes in his first All-Star Game.
Walt Bellamy has one of the most productive résumés the game has ever seen. When he retired in 1974, Bellamy was sixth all-time in scoring, third all-time in rebounding and his .516 career shooting percentage was largely based on his dominating-yet-agile moves in the paint.
Besides his productivity, Bellamy is remembered for several footnotes in basketball history. He was the muse that helped bring long-time Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause into the NBA. Krause, just out of Bradley, was hanging around the Packers’ franchise trying to land a job as a scout, and he came up with a method of analyzing and scouting players by counting how many times players scored when they got the ball on the right side of the floor as opposed to the left. This data as it related to Bellamy convinced Leonard to give him a job.
Also, while with Chicago, Bellamy was part of the first team in the NBA to start five black players. And later in his career, because of a trade from New York to Detroit he played a league record 88 games.
He was traded more because he was such a highly coveted player than anything else. He wore seven different NBA uniforms, yet earned the respect of such contemporaries as Bill Russell and Chamberlain. In all, he played for five franchises and was traded three times during his career. Despite being a wanted player, his value seemed to diminish with each trade and he always seemed stuck with rebuilding or expansion teams.
The first trade, between Baltimore (where the Chicago franchise moved) and New York on Nov. 2, 1965, was a blockbuster. The Knicks gave up Johnny Green, John Egan, Jim Barnes and cash for the center they figured would allow them to compete with Boston and Philadelphia. Barely more than three years later, however, the Knicks traded him and Howard Komives to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere in a move that eventually helped bring two championships to New York. The Pistons, in turn, dealt Bellamy to Atlanta the next season for future considerations as part of a three-way trade.
Bellamy averaged just 11.6 points that season, but he rallied to average 14.7 points for the Hawks in 1971, 18.6 in ’72 and 16.1 in ’73. Each season, the Hawks made the playoffs. He had one more solid season, averaging 13.1 points and 9.6 rebounds for the Hawks in 1973-74. He played one game for the expansion New Orleans Jazz the following season, scoring six points and grabbing five rebounds in 14 minutes, but was waived at the age of 35 after that game.
However, upon his departure from the NBA, there was no tolling at the time for “Bells,” as the call to the Hall of Fame wouldn’t come for 18 years.
Bellamy died in 2013 at the age of 74.