SI Vault
Jack Olsen
September 23, 1968
Bill van Breda Kolff, who will be coaching Wilt Chamberlain this year, loves his beer and a good time, but he is a mighty serious fellow when it comes to pro basketball
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September 23, 1968

Hedonist Prophet Of The Spartan Game

Bill van Breda Kolff, who will be coaching Wilt Chamberlain this year, loves his beer and a good time, but he is a mighty serious fellow when it comes to pro basketball

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"Sure, it's true that if they started playing the game the right way, certain successful players would become unsuccessful players. But then you'd find other guys that can't even make the league now but would be very nice to watch. They have the quickness, the agility, the shooting and the passing and everything else except the muscle. But maybe this poor guy is only 6'5" and 180 pounds, and if you put him up against somebody like Bill Bridges what's he gonna do? They'll just take him to the inside and bull him to death.

"So often it seems like I'm out there fighting the referee, but I'm not really. It's their philosophy that I'm fighting, the way they make it almost impossible to play defense and yet allow almost anything that makes for baskets. Somebody is telling those referees how to officiate, somebody 'up above.' It's whoever's 'up above' that I'm fighting, and by that I don't necessarily mean Walter Kennedy. He's just a sounding board for the owners. He calls them the way the owners see them. That's his job. But if the owners could just get it into their heads that the game could be a better game.

"When we played in Boston and I met Bill Russell for the first time, right after I'd been fined $250 for saying things like this, Bill said, 'Welcome to the league. I read what happened. I just want you to know that I agree 100% with everything you said.' I said, 'Fine, Bill, from now on you say it and you pay the fine!' "

The fine followed a column by Robert Markus entitled This NBA Coach Thinks Pros a Bore. The writer said that Van Breda Kolff feels "the officiating is ridiculous," and immediately the post-office department began to feel an upsurge in gross receipts. Owner Dick Klein of the Chicago Bulls mailed the column air special to Jack Kent Cooke and observed that such remarks "could better be left unsaid, particularly in Chicago where seven pro basketball teams have experienced financial and artistic flops." Commissioner Walter Kennedy dispatched his own air special letter to Van Breda Kolff, in which he said, "It would seem that your good judgment would dictate that you should keep these opinions to yourself, or discuss them with me personally, on your trips to New York."

There were some who suspected that the fine Italian hand of Boston General Manager Red Auerbach might have been behind the fine. But Kennedy made it plain that neither Auerbach nor Klein nor any other front-office figure was the gray eminence behind the penalty slapped on Van Breda Kolff. "I'm the person behind the fine," Kennedy said, "and he had it coming to him all the way. Late last summer and early in the exhibition season he was publicly criticizing our officials, and this is against our regulations. I sent him a letter telling him I wanted him to stop. I told him if he had criticism of the referees he should take it to Dolph Schayes, the supervisor of officials. We simply aren't going to have abuse of our officials."

The fine had its effect on Van Breda Kolff, though not necessarily the full impact that Kennedy might have desired. "Nowadays when people ask me certain questions I have to say, 'Look, I answered that question once and it cost me $250,' " the coach says. "Of course, I haven't changed my mind. I can't change. Sometimes during a game, if Walter Kennedy were there, I'd get that $500 fine they've been threatening me with. I'd take that $500 fine. I've got to get some things off my chest. I mean business about this. I do like the pro game. I never in my life told anybody that the pro game was boring, though I might have said certain aspects of it could become boring the way things are going."

As disturbing to Van Breda Kolff as the calls is the trend toward the giant, the man whose shots travel down to the basket, but even before the Lakers landed Chamberlain—or Chamberlain them—he was quick to admit that he is no closer to a solution than anyone else in the league. "What're you gonna do?" he says. "You can't legislate them out of the game. Right now I understand there are 50 seven-footers playing college ball. Some of them'll wind up in the league. One of them certainly will. Lew Alcindor. And don't you think the league isn't staying up nights trying to figure out what to do about that! Fact is, nobody will be able to stop Alcindor. He'll turn a losing team into a championship team, you wait and see."

Chamberlain might represent something more than mere capitulation on Van Breda Kolff's part to the bulling game. Even last year the Laker coach was speaking of Chamberlain in a way that made you wonder what sort of a player he would be if he were on the Lakers. "Wilt could do the same as Alcindor," Van Breda Kolff said, "but Wilt is different. If Wilt were mean, nobody could stop him. He can pass well if he wants to. If he wants to he can play better defense than anybody in the league. If he wanted to he could be two Bill Russells on defense. But Wilt's always been celebrated, he doesn't know the word work. It's not his fault. That's just the way things are with him. But Wilt doesn't fracture the game the way Alcindor will. See, Wilt is a good-natured giant. Alcindor is serious. He's quick, he can run, jump, shoot, he's agile. When a guy like that plays, it's not really fun for the rest, not even for his own teammates.

"So what can you do about it? I've suggested jokingly that each of the 14 teams in the league should give him $10,000 a year not to play. We should say, 'Here, kid, here's 10 grand from each of us. Get lost! Go to the beach for a few years.'

"Boy, that would solve a lot of headaches! Imagine what happens at draft time. There'll be five or six teams trying to finish last so they can draft him! I'm not kidding. You'll see the first nothing-nothing game in league history! It's that important. Alcindor could turn a losing franchise into a winner, at least for a while. The way it looks now, a new franchise team will get him. But is that fair to teams like Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, clubs that lose money or barely break even and live on the hope that a guy like Lew will come along and lead them out of the wilderness?

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