Guard Keith Erickson of the Los Angeles Lakers ambled out onto the court with his teammates to warm up for an exhibition game one night last week and Seattle Coach Al Bianchi called out to him: "Hey, Keith, who's that new guy you got with the beard?"
The new guy was Wilt Chamberlain, the man who once scored 100 points in a regulation NBA game, the man who once took 55 rebounds against the Boston Celtics. He is now a Laker, joining Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to make L.A.—on paper anyway—the greatest basketball team ever. Of the five best pros playing today—Wilt, Elgin, Jerry, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell—the Lakers this season have three. The trade that sent Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers to L.A. (to continue this season of sweeping statements) must rank close to the top of the most astounding deals in the history of professional sport. It is as if the Niblets people traded the Jolly Green Giant to Heinz for a soup recipe and two vats of pickles.
The Lakers coughed up more than that, really—Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers—but it still seemed like a brazen theft by L.A. President Jack Kent Cooke. Now the millionaire ex-Canadian could sit back in his chair at the Forum in suburban Inglewood (where there are lakes—artificial ones, to be sure—on the infield of a nearby racetrack) and watch his hirelings batter all comers.
That at least is how it looked on paper. But National Basketball Association games are played on hard, waxed wood and there the perfect deal looks more like a perfectly ticklish situation for Coach Butch van Breda Kolff. If the Lakers win the title, people will say their Aunt Gertrude or Uncle Jack Kent could have done the coaching. If the Lakers fall short, Van Breda Kolff undoubtedly will be made the goat.
And they could. Despite being the most devastating force in the game when he is in the mood, Chamberlain has been on only one championship team in his nine-year pro career. Russell, Robertson, Baylor and West have never been traded. Chamberlain has been traded twice.
A player of Chamberlain's caliber does not get shuttled around without reason, and there is reason in Chamberlain's case. He often acts like a big spoiled kid—he sulks, he refuses to go hard in practice and he has an insidious way of demoralizing a team. The Lakers last season were a happy group, with Van Breda Kolff performing the difficult trick of being both boss and buddy. But harmony can be a fragile thing among pro basketball troupers, especially on their inhuman road trips.
On the record, Laker players are optimistic about the trade, yet not one of them seems genuinely enthusiastic. "I don't think there will be any problems," said West. "We've always gotten along well and that's one reason the Lakers have always had good records in Los Angeles. Last year if we played well, we had a chance to win. Now if we play well, we're going to win."
Chamberlain talks as if it is a fraternity reunion. "Some of these guys I know so well," he said. "I played with Hawk [Tom Hawkins] when I was with the Globetrotters and he was with the College All-Stars. I've known Elgin who knows how many years. I've known West since he was a rookie. Freddie [Crawford] and I go back to when we played in the schoolyards in New York. I feel relaxed with these guys. This has been a much easier transition than from San Francisco to Philly. After six years with one team, it kind of hurt me. I had friends on the 76ers, too, and I'll miss them, but I've known these guys and it's been easier to adjust to them."
Still, there are nagging doubts about these two Chamberlain trades. The first one was in 1965. Chamberlain had moved west more than two years before, when the Philadelphia Warriors became the San Francisco Warriors. Sports page readers were startled when the Warriors peddled him back to their replacements in Philly, the 76ers.
The truth is, San Francisco was happy to get rid of him. Owner Franklin Mieuli figured that the club had poor attendance anyway and that the potentially excellent Nate Thurmond was rusting on the bench, so why not sell Chamberlain and use Thurmond as the nucleus of a new team, a team identified with the Bay Area rather than Pennsylvania? In return for supposedly the game's greatest player, the 76ers gave half a hill of beans: Connie Dierking, who backed up Thurmond; Lee Shaffer, who refused to report; and Paul Neumann, a good guard.