"I admit there might have been some chance I'd have gone back to the Lakers if Cooke had been around," says Wilt. "He's a graceful, eloquent talker and a master of negotiation."
The event that sealed Chamberlain's decision to jump to San Diego came in mid-September when the Lakers, concerned that Wilt would not return, traded Forward Jim McMillian to Buffalo for young Center Elmore Smith. "I had already pretty well made up my mind," says Wilt, who sarcastically calls Smith Elmo, "but that made it easy to make my decision final. The Lakers never bothered to get my feelings on the deal and they realized it would reflect negatively on me to the fans. I wasn't afraid of Elmo; I can still eat him up. What I didn't like was the way the Lakers went about it. It was a slap in the face."
That might seem like a gentle affront by the time this season is completed. If Wilt is allowed to play he will have to make the very difficult adjustment to the dual role of player-coach, but with Chamberlain in the lineup, feeble San Diego will be a far better team, particularly since the Qs are weak where Wilt is strong: on defense and in rebounding. As a player he may also fill ABA arenas, something he has shown he cannot do as a coach. In San Diego's first three games it drew 5,879 in San Antonio (cap.: 10,146), 5,013 in Denver (cap.: 6,841) and 2,318 for its home opener (cap.: 3,200).
Assessments of Chamberlain's coaching potential by his old mentors have not been harsh, even that of Bill van Breda Kolff, whom Wilt calls the worst coach he ever had. Only former teammate Elgin Baylor has said outright, "I don't think he can coach. He never had any discipline." That is not quite true. Chamberlain is an intelligent man who has occasionally displayed a steely singlemindedness about things that catch his fancy. In midcareer he changed from a scorer to a passer to a defensive specialist and he has become a world-class volleyball player during his spare time.
Wilt hardly seems transported by his new job when he says, "I'm extremely happy about the way it's turned out so far. But I must admit I might not feel that way five months from now." Yet he is deadly serious when he talks of combining the defensive techniques of Joe Mullaney with the tactical savvy of Alex Hannum and Bill Sharman and the psychological touch of Frank McGuire. Chamberlain also knows he has an advantage none of those other coaches had: there are young players on his team who are all but awestruck just being in the same dressing room with him.
So far Chamberlain has responded to the adoration with a fatherly approach. Through the Qs' first three games he grew increasingly vocal on the bench—where he loftily ignored the ABA "recommendation" that coaches wear neckties—and his remarks, except for very occasional asides to the referees, were uniformly upbeat. Even when an angry "What the bleep are you doing?" slipped between an "Atta go, babes" and a "Good play, good play," he invariably followed it up with an "O.K. That's awright. We'll get it next time." And Wilt likes to use physical contact whenever he talks with a player. In fact nothing portrays the Chamberlain style better than the Big Brother poster that shows a tall man with his arm draped gently around the shoulders of a small boy.
"During my European travels I've found the people there particularly warm," says Wilt. "Part of it is that the men are not afraid of touching each other. I think that can be a very supportive thing in coaching."
Perhaps because he has often been rudely criticized during his own career, Chamberlain has added politeness to his rebukes. No two Qs seem to have caught his fancy as much as Shepherd, a 5'10" guard who looks about 13 years old, and Jones, a promising 7-foot rookie center whom Wilt discovered in Philadelphia's Baker League last summer. In one of San Diego's first games Shepherd broke down the middle and passed the ball to Jones when the latter was still a step away from good shooting position. Jones tried to dribble on the run and committed a traveling violation. A moment later Wilt called Shepherd to the bench and said, "Billy, with the big guys you must wait longer before you give them the ball."
"O.K., sure," said Shepherd.
"Thank you very much," concluded Chamberlain without a hint of sarcasm.