Houston was another possibility I considered. The NBA was committed to an orderly expansion, with its 11th franchise to be awarded for the 1968-69 season. I decided to take a short-term coaching contract after leaving the Warriors as coach in '66, so I would not be tied down then, and could bring Houston into the league. Boston was almost the city I went to. Red Auerbach called. He was quitting, and said Bill Russell was sitting next to him. Russell had agreed that he could play for me. The Celtics were then losing in the playoffs to Cincinnati, and it was agreed that if they were eliminated, Marvin Kratter, the owner, and Auerbach would fly out to see me in Kratter's jet. I told everybody I would not commit myself till after the playoffs. That cut me out of the Celtics' picture, because they beat Cincinnati to stay alive, and even before they won that series Russell began to get his own ideas about coaching. Kratter's jet never arrived.
Cincinnati entered the picture briefly, and then Irv Kosloff, the Philadelphia owner, called. I would not talk to him until he told both Dolph Schayes, who was his coach, and myself that he definitely would not rehire Schayes, Only then, and after Boston beat Los Angeles in the playoffs, did I go to Philadelphia to negotiate with Kosloff. I asked for a one-year contract and to be in charge of the front office but was turned down. I accepted instead a two-year contract, which would still let me out in time to move to Houston, with an agreement that Kosloff would consider my nominees for general manager, Schayes or Gottlieb, or he would consult with me if he wanted to select someone else. With that one understanding, I agreed to sign.
A few weeks later, at Kutsher's in the Catskills, Kosloff came down for breakfast and, beaming, told some friends of mine: "Well, I didn't have a coach and now I have two." Translated for me, that meant he had signed Jack Ramsay, the coach at St. Joseph's, to be the general manager. I was furious. As I look back on that situation now, I realize that Kosloff had a certain organizational setup in mind that he couldn't achieve if he asked me what to do. I must add, too, that, as it turned out, I found Jack to be a fine person and a fine general manager.
That first season at Philadelphia became the most successful of my coaching career—maybe of any coach's career. The 76ers were the best team of all time and they spent the year proving that. Besides, Kosloff and Ramsay left me in full control of the team and of scouting. If I did not have ambitions beyond coaching, I would have had no reason to leave Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, my future plans were getting blown to bits. The ABA came into existence and put a team in Houston, which cut that city out of NBA plans at the time. To fight back, the NBA not only accelerated its careful expansion scheme but doubled it, authorizing two teams for '67 instead of one for '68.
It was about this time that I had my first real contact with the ABA. It came about when I was doing a little undercover work. I wanted to find out who was after my Philadelphia players. One person I talked with was George Mikan, the ABA commissioner, whom I had coached and played against. In fact, I remember one time when George got loose on a layup in a playoff game in St. Paul and I went after him with everything I had, knocking him sprawling. He picked himself up, took off his glasses and started coming at me—and that is one of the more terrifying sights I have ever seen.
George did not mention that incident but invited me to look in on the possibility of an ABA franchise in Denver. I rationalized that I could legally do this if it was as an owner and general manager but not as coach, since my contract to coach was still in force with Philadelphia. But that never came to serious consideration as the situation in Denver was a mess. I settled for winning a second championship in my last season in Philadelphia.
Certainly, we should have won again last season. The 76ers were such a strong team that I honestly believe the best coaching virtue I showed with them was patience. Just sit and wait and eventually the power would exert itself. We lost to the Celtics for two major reasons and one sadly special one.
First, and without qualification, Boston played well and played us exceptionally well. Second, Billy Cunningham's loss because of a broken wrist in the preceding series finally told. Johnny Green filled in well for Billy but he had a broken finger. Since he could not shoot well with the injury, the Celtics sloughed back off him to clog the middle and double-team Chamberlain. This gave them an edge off the boards.
I had to keep the starting forwards, Luke Jackson and Chet Walker, in longer, and they tired. In addition, Luke had a hamstring pull and Chet had a touch of the flu. And Chet particularly was drained emotionally by the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.