The Chicago Blackhawks are gearing up for Game 2 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night, attempting to win its second championship in four years after taking a 1-0 lead over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. That 2010 NHL title was the team’s first in 39 years, and though the team maintained a significant playoff presence during that dry spell, a reputation for cheapness tended to continually get in the way of the Blackhawks finding enough to seal the Stanley Cup deal.
The late Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz was considered to be the architect of that parsimony, but a chaotic early 1970s sporting scene also added to the weirdness. Around this time the AFL had merged with the NFL, the ABA was providing a counter to NBA basketball that was thriving in some markets, and the upstart WHA was attempting to unseat the NHL. With only so many nickels to throw around, Blackhawks left winger Bobby Hull was growing more and more frustrated with his salary in Chicago, and reached out to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets as a free agent.
What does any of this have to do with basketball? There are rumors that continue to this day that the Blackhawks were set to trade Hull to the Los Angeles Kings and Lakers’ ownership group, helmed by Jack Kent Cooke, sending Los Angeles Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain to the Chicago Bulls. An unprecedented, two-league deal that the great Bob Verdi explains:
As rumors grew about Hull’s discussions with the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets, Cooke, who always thought big, thought really big. Wirtz owned the Stadium where the Bulls played and was in the process of securing a majority stake in the franchise itself. The Bulls were averaging only about 11,000 per date in Chicago, and the Kings desperately needed a marquee player in Los Angeles.
Instead of tempting fate by allowing The Golden Jet to escape the NHL and provide the WHA instant traction, Cooke had an idea: He would trade superstar Chamberlain to the Bulls, and Hull would join the Kings. That would help both teams and both leagues, and might doom the WHA before it ever established credibility.
Would such a transaction have been possible? It would have been dramatic, for sure. Cooke never denied the proposal and Wirtz never acknowledged it, but those two giants of industry usually achieved their objectives. Cooke and Wirtz were movers and shakers.
Of course, the deal never materialized. Hull signed with Winnipeg and ended up spending the rest of his career in the WHA. The Blackhawks would make up for this separation years later by constructing a statue of Hull outside the United Center, across the street from where the Chicago Stadium once stood. He currently serves as team ambassador, though some disagree with his continued employment in that field.
Wilt, meanwhile, spent one more season playing for Jack Kent Cooke in Los Angeles, shooting a monstrous 72.7 percent from the field and leading his team to the NBA Finals. After a contract disagreement in the 1973 offseason, though, Chamberlain signed on to play for the San Diego Conquistadors.
Because the Lakers filed an injunction, hoping to have their reserve clause on Wilt hold up, Chamberlain was forced to sit out the 1973-74 ABA season. In a desperate attempt to profit from his presence, the “Q’s” (as they were known in local newspaper circles, in order to save headline space) made Chamberlain their coach. Wilt showed up for, well, some of his team’s games, sometimes wearing sandals on the sideline, as future Bulls coach and then-Conquistadors assistant Stan Albeck was forced to do most of the head coaching during that 37-47 (84 games, to be two better than the NBA) season, on a team helmed offensively by Bo Lamar and Stew Johnson.
This … this is how sports were back then. Remind yourself of this the next time you think Metta World Peace’s tweets are the signs of end times.
Chamberlain retired in 1974, and Hull did the same some five years later. The Bulls, Blackhawks, and Kings would not go on to make their league’s final rounds until the 1991, 1993, and 1993 seasons respectively.
That drought may never have existed, and things might have been far different, had the NBA and NHL allowed for the Strangest Trade Ever.