Draft History: Phil Chenier

On Thursday Night at 7:00 pm the NBA will conduct its 62nd annual draft at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Over the years the draft has changed from a small gathering of men looking at pieces of hand scribbled paper into one of the largest events for the league in terms of glitz, glamour and overall media exposure. Over the years the draft rules have been modified to keep up with the changing times. Though the league has made numerous changes, there may have been no more significant evolution than the NBA’s decision to first allow underclassmen to enter the draft in 1971.

Having struggled to acquire top young talent in the late 1960’s and early 70’s due to the ABA’s lax rules on draft eligibility, the NBA created a new draft rule to counter that of the American Basketball Association. Having lost stars like Julius Erving, George McGinnis and Artis Gilmore to the ABA’s early entry policy, the NBA saw the writing on the wall and decided to allow players to enter the draft early if they could give evidence of “hardship” to the NBA office.

While the league made the decision to allow underclassmen to declare, their timing was hardly perfect. The NBA Draft was right around the corner and because of the late decision, the league decided to hold a separate supplemental draft a few months after the NBA Draft known as the “Hardship Draft”.

It was around this time where a 6’3 shooting guard from California-Berkley University was starting to seek out his own options. Having just finished his junior season, Phil Chenier was invited for a tryout to play on the U.S. Basketball Team in the Pan-American Games. Upon arriving in Colorado Springs, Chenier was told by many scouts that there was a strong interest in him if he elected to forego his senior season at California and enter either the ABA or NBA draft. While there was no question in his mind that the NBA was where he wanted to play, any announcement to declare came with a permanent loss of eligibility.

“Applying for the Draft had to be done carefully, because at that time the idea was so untraditional the NCAA didn’t have a time frame like it does now,” said Phil Chenier on the process. “Back then once you said you were going to enter the Hardship Draft, whether you had an agent or not, you lost your eligibility. I came back from the tryouts and I gave it some thought. Obviously it was a dream of mine to play in the NBA and I thought this was a great opportunity. There were several teams that had expressed a strong interest in me and I decided I wanted to move forward."

Despite having several teams interested in him, one team that wasn’t on Chenier’s radar was the Baltimore Bullets. Without a formal workout process, Chenier had received most of his information from his agent and from what he had been told there were two teams interested in him, and neither were the Bullets.

“I really didn’t realize the Bullets were interested in me. I knew Chicago was a team very interested in me. They had said they were going to draft me and that’s pretty much where I thought I was going, with the Lakers also showing some interest.”

Little did Chenier realize that he had been seen by the Bullets’ Bob Ferry at the Colorado Springs tryout and while the Bulls had made their intentions known to many, the Bullets kept their cards close to the vest. With the draft not televised, Chenier recalls how he found out that it was in fact the Bullets and not the Bulls that he would play for.

“On the day of the draft I got a call from Gene Shue, and it’s a three hour difference between the East Coast where they had the Draft and the West Coast where I was. I think they had the Draft around noon so I was sleeping late that day and I was pretty much prepared to hear that Chicago had drafted me and within a few days I was going to go to Chicago. Well I got this call and my mother said 'It’s Gene Shue with the Bullets'. I didn’t think about Gene Shue, I just heard her say a name and when she said Bullets I thought she probably made a mistake and meant the Bulls. So I got on the phone and he goes “Hi this is Gene Shue with the Bullets and he goes on and on.” So I finally said “What team are you with?” and he said the Bullets. So this was the first I had heard of it. So now I was wondering what happened and I wasn’t sure what my future would hold. So I had to switch gears and because of the late draft I didn’t get into training camp until two or three days before the season began.”

Arriving late into camp and moving from the Bay Area to the Chesapeake Bay was tough originally on Chenier, but it didn’t take him too long to show that he was worthy of his draft spot. Playing in all 81 games as a rookie, Chenier helped lead the Bullets to the playoffs by scoring 12.3 points per game. It would be the first of nine seasons with the Bullets which included three All-Star appearances and an eventual NBA Championship in 1978.

“I have to say it really worked out well for me I came to an organization that was a mature organization,” said Chenier. “It had great leadership from top to bottom starting with Mr. Pollin and down to Head Coach Gene Shue who was ideal for me in my first year and helping me get prepared mentally and physically for the NBA. Wes (Unseld) was there, Gus Johnson became my mentor for that first year, and all the guys really helped me. It was a very solid organization that helped provide the support system that I was looking for.”