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WHEN THE NBA WAS YOUNG
Frank Deford
April 23, 2012
So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas
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April 23, 2012

When The Nba Was Young

So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas

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But here was his professional bugaboo: expectations. He was so overwhelming, so good at almost everything he tried athletically, that he could never please people. I think this was at the heart of the unease he often exhibited. One night, late, he told me that he'd fallen in love only once in his life, and he never contemplated sharing his life for long with anyone. He probably feared that he would let his wife down, the way he had let down everyone else who expected too much of him.

I didn't like Wilt when I started covering him, though. One reason was that I liked Russell, and the basketball world then was divided into Russell People and Wilt People. Russell People said their man was bright and sensitive, a team player invested in winning, while Wilt was a dullard and a loser, interested only in his own point total. Wilt People retaliated that their man was misunderstood and lacked good teammates; he wasn't vain and selfish, only forced to do everything by himself. After all, one-on-one he was bigger and better than Russell.

In 1968, at age 31, Wilt was traded from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. A couple of months into the season I was assigned to write a cover story on how he was doing, especially with the two incumbent Lakers stars, Baylor and Jerry West. This would turn out to be the only time in my life that I personally influenced an athletic event.

I had pretty good contacts on the Lakers, and I wrote that Wilt and coach Butch van Breda Kolff were not getting along, and that while West had graciously accepted Wilt as a teammate, Baylor and some of the other Lakers hadn't; in fact they laughed behind his back because he smelled, and they called him Big Musty. Also, displaying my deep hoops expertise, I wrote that Wilt wasn't going to the basket enough: "There is a growing school of thought that he no longer possesses sufficient moves to make him a bona-fide high-scoring threat." After all, six years ago he had averaged 50 points a game for a whole season; now it had been more than a year since he'd scored 50 in a single game.

Oops. As soon as the article came out—the very next game—Wilt answered me by scoring 60.

Later that season, when I was covering the Lakers in the playoffs against Boston, I was in their locker room before a game. West came over to me. He had always been very friendly, as he was with most writers. Anyway, on this occasion Jerry was obviously uncomfortable; he said he had been delegated by Wilt to tell me that Wilt didn't want me in the locker room, and I should depart forthwith.

I didn't have to, of course (every locker room was open to the press), but the last thing I wanted to do was make a scene, and I could tell that Jerry was embarrassed enough already, so I quickly took my leave. Wilt averted his eyes as I walked past him. You see, he really didn't like confrontation, which is why he hadn't approached me directly—something he had every right to do. After all, I'd written that his teammates said he smelled.

I covered the NBA for one more year, that 1969--70 season that ended when Willis Reed of the Knicks, playing center against Chamberlain, famously came back from injury to lead New York to a heroic victory ... and another defeat for Wilt the Stilt.

And the years passed.

By coincidence, one of my closest friends is Tommy Kearns, who was the playmaker on the undefeated 1956--57 North Carolina team that beat Wilt's Kansas team in triple overtime in the NCAA final in Kansas City, Mo. Carolina didn't have a starter over 6'7" and had no chance to win a tip-off against Wilt, so at the start of the title game Frank McGuire, the Tar Heels' coach, sent out his smallest starter—Kearns, who stands maybe 5'11"—to jump against Wilt, mocking his height and embarrassing him. And it was Kearns who had the ball as the clock ticked down at the end, Carolina up a point. As the frustrated Kansas players rushed to him, Tommy simply heaved the ball high. By the time it came down, the game was over and Wilt had been tagged a loser. After the game he would walk the streets of Kansas City alone and disconsolate.

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