A strange thing happened at a National Basketball Association game in St. Louis early this season. The ball was thrown to the San Francisco Warriors' 7-foot-1[1/16]-inch 290-pound center, Wilt Chamberlain, who was positioned near the St. Louis Hawks' basket, and Chamberlain threw the ball right back out to one of his teammates. This maneuver so unsettled Ed Macauley, a former NBA center and a spectator at the game, that he nearly choked. "Chamberlain threw the ball out," he said, loosening his tie. "He actually threw the ball out!" If Macauley was surprised, so were the Hawks, who stood around in a state of deep shock while one of Chamberlain's teammates, cutting toward the basket, made the layup unmolested.
To understand the loss of composure by Macauley and the Hawks, you must remember that in previous seasons when the ball got to Chamberlain the rest of the Warriors would react as if they were watching a spectacular Pacific sunset. They would be open-mouthed and motionless, because Wilt Chamberlain leads the world in taking shots. But so often did the ball fly back out to a moving teammate that night that Chamberlain scored only 22 points, exactly 22.8 points less than he scored per game last year, and 28.4 less than the year before, when the big center averaged a phenomenal 50.4 points.
All this does not mean that Chamberlain is slipping. A year ago the San Francisco fan, paying his money to see Wilt play, got his 50 points' worth all right, but he still felt like someone who bought a Rolls-Royce only to discover that the horn didn't work. San Francisco fans had every right to expect perfection from such a specimen, but they not only did not get perfection, they did not get to see the Warriors win very often, and no citizen of San Francisco is going to stand for that very long. Eventually they began to leave the Warriors alone in alarming numbers, except when the champion Celtics would come to town, and then they came to root for Boston.
But that was last year. This season there is a new Wilt. The Warriors won their early game with the Hawks, mostly because Chamberlain was doing workaday things. He passed to his no-longer stationary teammates when they were clear, he raced back downcourt in order to block shots when St. Louis got the ball, and he gathered up rebounds on both backboards. Furthermore, Chamberlain has been playing this way for four months now. He is, to be precise, scoring less and having the time of his life.
So are the Warriors, a team that lists on its roster some of the slowest players and worst shooters ever to play in the NBA. With just 14 games remaining in the regular season, San Francisco—in next-to-last place this time last year and until recently the obvious choice to finish there again—is in first place, ahead of the St. Louis Hawks and the defending Western Division champions, the Los Angeles Lakers. There is a related phenomenon: the curious fans of early last year are back, along with quite a few brand-new ones. When they press the horn now they get a sturdy, melodious toot for their money.
There are, to be sure, critics who insist that the Warriors are first only because the Lakers are unlucky. They are right. The Lakers are unlucky. Their two best players, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, have been hurt. When West was lost for two weeks with a broken thumb, they lost eight of their next nine games. But the critics are not right when they say the Warriors' lofty state is a fluke. "No fluke," growls Cincinnati Royal Coach Jack McMahon. "The Warriors are tough. Every game with them is all-out, dog-cat-dog, kick-'em-where-it-hurts warfare. Let up a little and they'll beat you to death." Why? How could such a bad team suddenly become so good? There are two reasons. The first, of course, is Chamberlain, a player Ed Macauley once called the worst in the world because he wasn't doing what he could do. Now he is one of the best because he is doing just that. The other reason is Alex Hannum.
Alex Hannum is a 6-foot-7, blue-eyed fellow who pops into hotel lobbies with mincing steps, grinning as if he were about to spring some outrageous prank like wearing a Beatle wig on his balding head. Hannum's hair first began to disappear in 1957, the year he took over as player-coach of a tired old St. Louis Hawks team and drove it to within two points of an NBA championship, losing to Boston in the seventh game in double overtime. The next year the Hawks went out and did it right, upsetting the Celtics, bringing great joy to St. Louis and a strange sort of tribute from Hawk President Ben Kerner. " Hannum," said Kerner, "is not my kind of guy."
So Alex Hannum went to the Syracuse Nationals, and one year nearly beat Boston in the playoffs. Winning was sweet, but Hannum was homesick for California. When the Nats deserted Syracuse for Philadelphia, Hannum deserted the Nats for Los Angeles and a job as a building contractor. A month before training camp opened, the Warriors' managing director, Eddie Gottlieb, put in a call to Hannum and offered him the San Francisco job.
"Does Chamberlain demand to play the full 48 minutes of every game?" Hannum asked.
"Absolutely not," Gottlieb said.