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Moments before the opening tip-off of the season, the arena where the ABA's new San Antonio Spurs play was dark except for a spotlight illuminating a great papered hoop at one corner of the floor. The words "San Diego Conquistadors" inscribed on the paper were torn into illegible shreds as Tim Bassett burst through the hoop. He was followed by George Adams, Caldwell Jones, Jerry Pender, Billy Shepherd and other non-legends in their own time who, by recourse to the program, could be identified as San Diego basketball players. The last Conquistador to appear had to duck to fit through the hoop. The spotlight reverentially escorted him as he jogged down the darkened floor, the tails of his glen-plaid suit coat flapping behind him, an immense gold amulet swinging across his almost-bare chest, swirling tongues of purply light reflecting off his patent-leather shoes. Just before he reached the San Diego bench, he saluted the crowd with a restrained wave of his left fist. Then Wilt Chamberlain, holder of more than 40 pro basketball records, four times the NBA's Most Valuable Player and the reputed bane of eight different pro coaches, gathered his new club around him. On this sticky night in South Texas, Chamberlain joined a profession to which he has long been considered least likely to accede: coaching.
Several days later Bill Russell stood in the center circle of the gym inside Building 46 at Seattle's Sand Point Naval Air Base surrounded by the sweating, puffing members of the SuperSonics. His head jutting forward in his familiar condor-like pose, Russell spoke so softly that his words were indistinct to the handful of onlookers at courtside, but it was clear from the actions of the players, who looked down at the floor and pawed it with the toes of their sneakers, that what he said was less than flattering. After two or three minutes the practice resumed with the Sonics doing 10 laps, running them outside the black boundary lines of the court, then returning to the passing drill that had so displeased Russell. This time their long, baseball-style throws were harder, lower and more accurate.
Like Chamberlain, Russell is now a coach. And like Wilt, he is finding the job fresh and challenging, even though he has three seasons of coaching behind him. These were spent at the helm of the Celtics, a team of experienced players and confirmed winners, not the least of them Russell himself. And while Russ coached Boston to two NBA titles in his three seasons, there was always Red Auerbach lurking behind the nearest cloud of cigar smoke whenever advice was needed. Now, after four years away from basketball as an itinerant lecturer, broadcaster and trick-shot artist for Ma Bell, Russell is on his lonesome with a team whose owner has been known to tender advice as readily as Red, but with none of Auerbach's expertise, and whose players, some of whom are very talented, won only 26 games last season.
That Chamberlain and Russell now have the title of coach in common does not mean that they have grown any more alike than they were when playing center. Back then they were the Yin and Yang of pro basketball, and more than anything else the dramatic confrontations between Wilt's offense and Russell's defense made the game a big-league sport. They have both been hired by owners who hope to latch on to some of that old magic. But beyond that there are few similarities in the parts they are being asked to play.
At 38 Russell has come to Seattle as a coach and more. He is also the general manager—or better still, the general factotum—who is supposed to keep the strong Sonic franchise flying upright. It almost nose-dived last season on account of abrupt coaching changes, the loss of the exceedingly popular Lenny Wilkens in a bad trade, the interference of Owner Sam Schulman and an agent who represents several of the players, and dissension among teammates.
On the other hand, Chamberlain, who at 37 says he can play another 10 years and sometimes seems to mean it, was hired primarily as a player. How soon Wilt will suit up for San Diego depends on how fast Owner Lenny Bloom is able to resolve a contractual hassle with Chamberlain's erstwhile employer, Jack Kent Cooke of the Lakers. Whether Wilt starts playing sooner (perhaps as early as next week) or later (next fall when the option year of his old Los Angeles contract expires) he is still responsible for coaching the young Qs, upon whom the future of the team rests.
The idea of Chamberlain-the-coach is one which until lately was deemed out of the question by most pros, including Wilt himself. In his recently published autobiography, he wrote, "I just don't have the temperament to be a good...coach..." and "I won't take a coaching job...A coach has to suffer through the same regimentation and time-consuming commitments that a player does—and that doesn't interest me...."
Beginning with the Lakers' defeat in the playoffs last spring, events began conspiring to change Chamberlain's mind. "When the Knicks beat us we were an old, tired team, and I admit I felt pretty old and tired, too," he says. "Looking ahead to another year with the Lakers wasn't that exciting to me. Then I began to think it might be fun to be with a young, inexperienced team.
"I had been talking on and off with Len Bloom for a year or so. I liked him as a friend but I never thought anything would come of it. The ABA kept coming up with these deadlines I had to sign by, and I kept saying, 'Cool it.' I just wanted to spend my usual relaxed summer playing volleyball and traveling to Europe. But I felt pretty sure that my decision wouldn't be between the Lakers and San Diego. It would be between retiring and San Diego."
Any lingering notions Chamberlain might have had of remaining with the Lakers were foreclosed late last summer when Cooke left Los Angeles and moved into New York's Waldorf Astoria to take a direct hand in attempting to revive the financially troubled TelePrompTer Corp., of which he is the largest stockholder. In the past, Cooke personally negotiated the contracts of Laker superstars, but TelePrompTer's problems took precedence. According to some estimates, by the time trading in TelePrompTer shares was halted on Sept. 10, Cooke had paper losses of $50 million since early 1973.