Two Franchises, Bound by Philadelphia, Hall of Famers

by @SixersHistory's Curtis Harris

Wilt Chamberlain and Alex Hannum are two of the greatest figures in 76ers history. Their union as player and coach in 1966-67 produced the franchise’s first title in Philadelphia, and was perhaps the best team in NBA history.

Chamberlain’s achievements are well known, but Hannum deserves credit for helping unlock the most devastating version of Wilt possible.

Hannum enjoyed an eight-year playing career in the NBA—including two seasons with the Syracuse Nationals—before beginning a Hall of Fame coaching career in 1956-57. But for our story here, we’re zooming in on Hannum’s coaching in the 1960's because that’s when he and Wilt made their hoops connection.

Here’s a handy timeline of Hannum’s coaching stops in this period:

  Syracuse Nationals: 1960-63

  San Francisco Warriors: 1963-66

  Philadelphia 76ers: 1966-68

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

In Hannum's first season as Nats coach, his club ran into Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors in the playoffs. The Big Dipper ran wild in the series with 37.0 points and 23.0 rebounds per game, but Hannum’s Nationals swept Philadelphia 3-0.

The secret sauce for Hannum was a belief in egalitarian scoring and movement on offense. During the regular season, Syracuse had six players average between 13.0 and 24.0 points. The trend kept up in the playoffs, with eight players contributing between eight and 24.0 points.

For the 1961-62 season, the Nationals and Warriors again met in the playoffs. This time, Wilt’s Warriors won the series, 3-2. The Nats did well considering their leading man Hal Greer was injured for the series. Chamberlain put an exclamation point on the series with 56 points and 35 rebounds in the decisive Game 5.

Now this is where the story gets tricky. So carefully wrap your mind around the following:

  The Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco in the summer of 1962

  The Nationals moved from Syracuse to Philadelphia - becoming the 76ers - in the summer of 1963.

  Hannum was hired as San Francisco Warriors coach in August 1963

This meant that for the 1963-64 season, the basketball world would see how Hannum’s views meshed with the single greatest scorer in league history.

GAME CHANGE

During his first four seasons, Wilt averaged 42.9 points, 26.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. However, Hannum’s prodding had an impact on the Big Dipper. Chamberlain’s scoring average fell to “just” 36.9 points while his assists jumped up to 5.0 per game for the 1964 season, as he actively worked to involve teammates in the offense.

Just as important, Hannum—a former Marine—hit the right note of both respecting and seeking his star’s opinion, but not letting the star player disrupt the team’s needs. Hannum was there to coach, not dictate or be dictated to.

Chamberlain respected his new coach’s approach immensely. Here Wilt recalls his first season playing under Hannum:

“I was still scoring a lot—I had over 50  ten times that season—but Alex had us moving more and looking for the open man, and he helped me in developing my passing ability, as well as my scoring ability. Because I’d always been so big and strong, coaches hadn’t figured it was necessary for me to work on finesse and some of the subtle fundamentals necessary to be a good passer. I guess they thought scoring and rebounding was enough of a burden for me. Not Alex. He wanted me to do it all, and he was the first coach who really encouraged me to work on my passing in practice and use it during the game.”

Accordingly, the Warriors’ record bounced from a subpar 31 wins in 1963 to 48 victories in 1964. Reaching the NBA Finals, the Warriors were outclassed—as most clubs were in this era—by the Celtics in five games.

Hannum’s vision and Wilt’s implementation of it carried the Warriors far, but it all fell to pieces in 1964-65.

The central problem was Chamberlain having a puzzling health scare over the summer that kept him hospitalized for nearly a month. As Chamberlain remembered, “I had three regular doctors—Dr. Good News, Dr. Bad News and Dr. No News. Dr. Good News kept telling me I’d be out water skiing in a week. Dr. Bad News would tell me I might never play basketball again. Dr. No News just walked around the room shaking his head.”

After weeks of thinking he had a major heart issue, Wilt was finally diagnosed with pancreatitis. Still, the ordeal had led to considerable weight loss and Chamberlain missed the entire exhibition slate and the first five games of the regular season.

San Francisco never regained the flow of the previous season, and entered the 1965 All-Star break a miserable 11-33.

Frustrated and suffering financial losses, Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli traded Chamberlain (and his large contract) to the 76ers in February 1965, temporarily breaking up the Hannum-Chamberlain connection.

Nonetheless, Wilt retained his Hannum lessons. He was named league MVP for the 1966 season as he averaged 33.5 points, 24.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. Yet, the Celtics again beat the Sixers 4-1 in the East Finals.

As for Hannum, the Warriors’ future looked bright thanks to Nate Thurmond taking over at center for Chamberlain and rookie scoring sensation Rick Barry. But he had a falling out with Mieuli after the 1966 season and was dismissed as coach.

Fortunately, the Sixers just happened to have a coaching vacancy at that very moment too...

REUNITED

Hannum was brought in as coach of the Sixers for the 1966-67 season. Wilt and he were hungry for an NBA title. Chamberlain had never won the championship and Hannum hadn’t done so since his St. Louis Hawks defeated Boston in 1958.

As Wilt easily won another MVP award, hjis assists surged to 7.8 per game in the 1966-67 season. He still managed a healthy 24.1 points on a record-setting 68.3% shooting from the field.

Wilt’s passing was even more effective, given the Sixers roster at his disposal.

Hannum had previously coached Greer, Larry Costello, and Chet Walker during his stint with Syracuse. So, those three Sixers were used to Alex’s methods. Newcomers Billy Cunningham, Wali Jones, and Luke Jackson got the idea pretty well too. With their powers combined, the Sixers ran out to an absurd 68-13 record and pounded Boston 4-1 in the East Finals ending their dynastic reign.

Once again in the NBA Finals, Hannum and Wilt poetically faced off against the San Francisco Warriors in six hard-fought games.

Opening the series in Philadelphia, Game 1 went to overtime when the Warriors rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Wilt (16 pts, 33 reb) and Thurmond (24 pts, 31 reb) were in a vicious battle down low, while Barry went off for 37 points. Luckily, Chamberlain also added 10 assists helping fuel four Sixers with 20+ points on the night: Greer (32), Jones (30), Cunningham (26), and Walker (23).

The Sixers survived, 141-135, in overtime.

Game 2 was a rout as the Sixers drubbed San Francisco, 126-95. The Big Dipper kept up with Hannum’s advice as he added another triple-double: 10 points, 38 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Game 3 in California was a close match throughout. Barry finished with 55 points on 48 shots. Thurmond muscled his way to 17 points and 25 rebounds as the Warriors claimed a 130-124 victory.

The Sixers’ defense recalibrated in Game 4 and forced the opponent into 35% shooting on the night. Chamberlain had a near-triple-double with 10 points, 27 rebounds, and eight assists, as the Sixers won 122-108 to take a 3-1 series lead.

Game 5 was back in Philly, but the team missed a chance to seal the title at home. The Warriors unleashed a torrential 33-13 edge in the fourth quarter to steal Game 5, 117-109, thus forcing a Game 6.

With the series and championship on the line, Chamberlain went to work scoring 24 points (8-13 fg, 8-16 ft). The free throw tally looks—and frankly is—bad at first glance. However, during the other five games of the series, Wilt shot a stunning 25% from the charity stripe.

Thus, the unexpected hot streak from Chamberlain couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Sixers won by just three points, 125-122, and secured the NBA title.

The victory for the Hannum and Wilt was redemption and vindication.

Hannum could prove his 1958 title over the Celtics wasn’t some fluke. Chamberlain could at long last put to rest the idea he wasn’t a team player. Of course, he too would win another title with the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers.

Three decades later the connection was still undeniable. When Hannum was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, he called Wilt up asking if he’d be Hannum’s presenter. Wilt happily accepted, telling his old coach, “I’m proud to be your sponsor.”

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