Chet Walker (Getty Images)
This Friday a wait of over 30 years finally, mercifully, comes to an end as Chet Walker gets inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Chet was one of the premier swingmen of the NBA during his 13-year playing career and his play never deteriorated, but amazingly it ever-improved as he got older.
Through the first seven years of his career (with the Syracuse Nationals, who then became the Philadelphia 76ers) , Walker was good for 16 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes a game all while connecting on 46 percent of his field goals and 74 percent of his free throws. But during the last six years of his career (with the Chicago Bulls), Chet upped the ante to 20 points and 6.5 rebounds in 33.5 minutes a game and shot 48 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line. Retiring in 1975 at 35 years old, Chet was still on top of his game. His field goal and free throw percentage were both the second best of his career while scoring 19 points a game.
But to truly appreciate Chet's greatness, we have to move beyond (or behind) the box score and the seven All-Star game appearances, and see how he played a key role on the 1966-67 Sixers (a contender for the never-known-but-always-argued "best team ever" title) and how he pushed the stellar Chicago Bulls of the early 1970s to new heights.
Chester "Chet" Walker was born in Mississippi in 1940. In a state where half the population was black yet virtually deprived of all opportunity and rights, African-Americans had begun a mass exodus in the 1930s and 1940s. Over 300,000 would flee the cotton belt for employment, and hopefully, opportunity in Northern cities. Chet Walker's family was among the massive northern migration.
Settling in southwest Michigan, Walker endured poverty and hard times, but basketball proved to be his opportunity to better his life. Attending Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois on an athletic scholarship, Walker easily cemented his place as the university's most accomplished basketball player.
(Now before you chortle or scoff, Bradley has also produced Anthony Parker, Hersey Hawkins and the stupendously-named Levern Tart).
In his three varsity seasons, Walker averaged 24.4 points and 12.8 rebounds a game en route to making the AP All-America team each year. Even a glass of bad (supposedly spiked) orange juice couldn't slow him down as he scored 27 points in 23 minutes in the 1960 NIT semifinal. On the strength of these magnificent collegiate years, Walker was selected 12th overall by the Syracuse Nationals in the 1962 NBA Draft.
His time with the Nationals franchise, which the very next season became the Philadelphia 76ers, was marked by subsuming and meshing his ability to score within the wider team frame. Walker knew that although talented, Hal Greer and Wilt Chamberlain were the main attractions of the Sixers and he was there to augment their abilities.
The Sixers would initially be stymied by Oscar Robertson's Cincinnati Royals (first round losses in 1963 and 1964) and then the Boston Celtics on their quest to win a title. In the game best remembered for John Havlicek "stealing the ball" at the last second, Walker scored 24 points as Philadelphia lost by one point in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals in 1965.
The Sixers and "Chet the Jet" took off in 1966-67, however, with Alex Hannum now coaching Philly. The team was a perfect dream of interlocking seamless talent.
Wilt Chamberlain, long-criticized for selfish play, totaled more assists than anyone playing in the NBA that season. Wilt and Luke Jackson controlled the boards. The ageless wonders Larry Costello and Hal Greer maintained their fine backcourt play. Billy Cunningham, Matt Guokas and Wali Jones were the capable bench glue. And Chet Walker was the one-on-one scoring machine able to get a basket when the offense broke down or time was running low.
Patterning his offense off the marvelous game of Elgin Baylor, Walker was excellent at shooting and scoring while drifting across the lane. With impunity the Jet could also beat his man off the dribble, fly all the way in for an easy basket, or if the defense "recovered" he'd be taken down mid-flight but this only served to rack up his free throw tallies. Even the great and lithe Bill Russell could get ensnared in Walker's dangerous attack:
"Walker took a look at the 6-foot-10 Russell and shouted to coach Alex Hannum on the bench, 'I'll murder this guy.' With that, Walker started one of his patented one-on-one drives and Russell fouled. Chet made the free throw and Russell then switched to another man."
The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers engaged in a murderous annihilation of the NBA. They forged a then-record 68 wins and stormed through the playoffs. The team demolished the Celtics in 5 games, including a riotous 140-116 blowout in the deciding game, ending Boston's run of eight straight titles. The San Francisco Warriors fared better in the Finals but ultimately had the same fate. The Sixers bested them in six games and were the champions.
Chet Walker, as a champion in Philadelphia (Getty Images)
The 1967 Sixers returned all the principal players, but their principled cohesion had dissipated. Although racking up 62 wins in the regular season, they couldn't repeat their championship feat. A commanding 3-1 series lead was squandered to Boston in the Eastern Division Finals and that offseason Wilt Chamberlain was traded. Ostensibly, this might have meant an expanded role for Walker, but his most prodigious scoring years weren't initiated by the Big Dipper's trade to Los Angeles, but his own in 1969 deal to the Chicago Bulls.
After turning 30 and becoming a Bull, Walker never again averaged below 19 points a game, a plateau he'd only topped once before as a young man in his 20s in Philadelphia. He defeated Detroit's Dave Bing in a down-to-the-wire duel in 1971. Bing's 31 points paced the Pistons, but Walker zoomed ahead with 44 points including the game-winning basket in overtime to lift Chicago to a 115-114 victory. Chet's gaze then turned to his teammate Bob Love in 1972. The Jet shattered the Butterbean's team record of 47 points in a single-game -- the poor Cincinnati Royals were the actual victim of the Jet's 56-point outburst.
Outside these episodic explosions, Walker's merciless drives to the basket were becoming more and more unwieldy for opponents to handle as his free throw shooting reached William Tell accuracy:
"Chet Walker's 44-for-45 foul shooting spree in four Chicago victories last week has sent the Bulls' veteran to the head of the free throw class, providing the lone change among [NBA] statistical leaders. Walker, who celebrated his 31st birthday Monday, surged past Milwaukee's Oscar Robertson and Seattle's Dick Snyder into the free throw accuracy lead with an .861 percentage…"
The Bulls never quite made it to the NBA's summit like the Sixers, but Walker's experience there was tremendously successful and the halcyon days of Chicago basketball until Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen began three-peating. Walker, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love and the ever-exciting Tom Boerwinkle were a spectacular crew that were three times defeated in heart-breaking Game 7s. Twice, the loss would be at the hands of the Lakers in the conference semis, but the defeat at Golden State's hands in 1975 is the hardest of them all.
That particular contest was in the Western Conference Finals and was one of the grimiest, defensively bruising series of the NBA's history, replete with hotheads Jerry Sloan and Rick Barry. In the seventh game, the 35-year old Walker gave Chicago the best he could muster and led the team with 21 points. However, Jamaal Wilkes, with 21 points in the second and third quarters, and Rick Barry (fourteen fourth quarter points) ultimately erased the Bulls' 14-point lead and the Warriors prevailed 83-79.
This searing loss would be the last game of Chet Walker's NBA career. Not because of any diminished skills, but because of a nasty dispute with Chicago's management that Chet wasn't afraid to sound off about:
"I truly believe the people who manage the Bulls think I'm an idiot — a dumb black man with no pride or principles. I ruined my health for this team, played all last season with a bleeding kidney when the doctors said I could have sat out and drawn my salary…
"When I went into the hospital to get it cleared up, management refused to pay the $470 bill… After all these years in the NBA, they still treat me like a machine — paid a certain amount of money in exchange for forfeiting my rights as a human being."
Under the archaic and repugnant "reserve clause" a team still retained a player's rights for one year after their contract expired. The Bulls refused to negotiate with Walker on a new salary, and then refused to trade or release him. He was held in limbo and his lawsuit to free himself from the Bulls eventually failed. Refusing to play for the Bulls, Walker's career thus came to its inglorious yet principled end.
Not that he had anything left to prove on the court. He left the game as the NBA's ninth all-time leading scorer. In 13 seasons he made the All-Star game seven times. Also, in those 13 seasons his team never missed the playoffs. In 1974, he became just the eighth NBA player to play in 1,000 games and he was proud not of the achievement itself, but of what it symbolized:
"I feel real good about it, because it shows I worked hard and earned my pay… I really had no Idea about the 1,000 games. I'm not aware of records and statistics. I've put in a lot of hours, though and worked hard."
And that hard work gets immortalized this Friday in Springfield, Massachusetts. It's a long time coming and certainly well-deserved.
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