Bulls' Chet the Jet finally lands in Springfield
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It perhaps was the most symbolic moment of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony Friday for the Class of 2012, and not surprisingly it was former Bulls All-Star Chet Walker still being the unselfish teammate.
The entering 2012 class in the ceremonies in Springfield, Mass., featured the Pacers’ Reggie Miller, coach Don Nelson, Jamaal Wilkes and Ralph Sampson. It also included ABA MVP Mel Daniels, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, Olympic gold medalist Katrina McClain, Soviet women's coach Lidia Alexeeva, NCAA referee Hank Nichols and the late Don Barksdale, who broke the color barrier on the U.S. Olympic team. Also honored were the All-American Redheads, who were known as the female Harlem Globetrotters.
There was, as usual, much thanks and much biographical reminisces.
Walker, who starred for the Bulls from 1969 through 1975, was recounting his basketball life playing a high school championship game in Michigan against Dave DeBusschere’s team, his unanimous first team all-American status at Bradley University, and then talking about the roster of what he considers the greatest team in NBA history, his 68-13 1966-67 76ers that won the NBA title. It was such a great team, Walker pointed out, that Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham was sixth man. In a film shown before Walker’s comments, Wilt Chamberlain, that team’s center, called Walker the “greatest one-on-one player I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing or playing with or against.”
But as Walker finished extolling the virtues of the players on that roster, he stopped and asked Cunningham to speak. That was unusual since the presenters for each incoming Hall of Famer—Walker had Cunningham, Earl Monroe, Isiah Thomas and Adrian Dantley—are asked to stand by and not speak.
Michael Jordan appeared as a presenter for Knight earlier in the program.
But Walker asked Cunningham to come to the podium for comments because, to the delight of the audience, Chet said he couldn’t talk so much about himself.
It was typical and classic Chet, a star without the trappings of stardom, which perhaps was one reason that great Bulls team of the early 1970s has been so overlooked in NBA history.
“We were a hard working blue collar team,” said former teammate and Bulls ambassador Bob Love, who was in Springfield along with long tenured Bulls financial vice president Irwin Mandel to support Walker. “We didn’t have the Hollywood type guys. We played together as a team and I loved it.
“But I think if you talk to anyone about that Bulls team, they can name every one of those starters,” said Love. “I don’t think you hear that even about the Celtics. Everyone knew Walker, Love, Van Lier, Sloan and Boerwinkle.
“Chet meant everything when he came to us,” said Love. “He was the vet (with a title) and we needed that one-on-one guy and it was Chet. You knew the defender’s eyes got big as silver dollars against Chet. He knew he was being taken to the baseline, pump once, pump twice and there you go.”
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
And that’s one thing Cunningham went on to talk about. He said the opposing coaches would scream for their players not to go for Chet’s pump fake. Everyone knew it was coming. It is generally considered one of the best in NBA history.
“You knew what he was going to do,” said Cunningham, ”and you couldn’t stop the man. As a player, a teammate, he was No. 1. He sacrificed so much for his teammates. You saw when he went to Chicago. He had to be their go to guy down the stretch and look at the players they had. It truly was an honor to play behind him on the 76ers. He is a special man.”
It was a long time coming for Walker, who had long maintained that unpopular designation as the most deserving player not in the Hall of Fame. And it made it ever so much sweeter for Walker for the honor to finally arrive with his health still good at 72 even if, as he said, only two of his nine siblings survive.
Chet had some fun in his comments, but given his serious side he also took time out to send a message to the kids of the game.
He noted he was earning about $18,000 a year for the 76ers.
“Basketball was not where it is today,” he said. “I listened to all the prosperity and success of the people (who spoke) tonight, but there was a time it was not true. We had no free agency. There was no retirement (plan), it was second class. It was not a job to buy $20 million homes in Beverly Hills. But we, and I say Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy and the late Larry Fleisher, went to court and filed a law suit and eventually won free agency. That meant players can make more money; if they felt like it they could take their talents to Cleveland.”
It got a laugh as LeBron James was in the audience as a guest for Knight and a wince from LeBron. Though Walker said it in fun as he is a big fan and supporter of James. Chet has long condemned the media for its negative treatment of James because James’ move to Miami was what those players, including Walker, fought so hard for all those years.
Chet went on to say how the Bulls were in such disarray when he was traded to the Bulls in 1969. But he credited general manager Pat Williams, who received the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement award in ceremonies Thursday, for helping turn that around and Chet said before he left the Bulls the old Chicago Stadium was exploding so loudly you could not hear yourself think.
“We had a six year run that was incredible,” Walker said. “We scared a lot of people. That basically laid the foundation for basketball in Chicago. Just a great city, great people.”
Walker retired after the 1974-75 season and moved to Los Angeles. He became a movie producer and his film about the mother of Isiah Thomas, Mary Thomas, won an Emmy award. That’s why Thomas was one of his presenters.
Thomas said he remembers waiting after games to get autographs from Walker and those Bulls and loved to practice Chet’s moves.
“We all used to imitate his pump fake, across the lane, up and under,” Thomas recalled. “He was so clutch. He immortalized my mom. It’s not so much about what you do on the court as what you do for others off the court. What he did for the Thomas family will live forever. My mom never would have had a street (a stretch of Homan Avenue) named after her if Chet had not noticed her in the community and brought her story to life. That’s him being the type of person he is to look at someone else’s life.”
It also was the type of player Walker was, doing what was necessary for the success of the team. Sometimes it was the last shot; sometimes it was a pass to the open man. Whatever it took.
But this time it was finally all about Chet.
“I could feel the love and support tonight,” he said afterward surrounded by nieces and nephews.
It was well deserved. The "jet" finally has landed in Springfield.