Chet the Jet joins basketball greats in the Hall of Fame
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-- Sam Smith: Former Bull Chet Walker going into Hall of Fame (02.24.2012)
Chet Walker was Michael Jordan for the Bulls back then, though a more demure version. Chet didn’t have the shoes. Heck, he wore the same ones everyone did, the Chuck Taylors named for a shoe salesman. He didn’t display the spectacle, the splashy flash of an explosive takeoff that left a public and media aghast. But the production was there, as were the results.
Until Jordan came along, no one else in Bulls history but Walker had scored more than 50 points in a game. No one still has but Walker and Jordan. Only Jordan, Bob Love and Walker averaged more than 20 points per game during their Bulls careers among players with at least five seasons with the team. No one other than Jordan—and more recently Derrick Rose—affected winning with the franchise more than Walker.
In Walker’s first season with the Bulls, they set a franchise record for wins and then went on to win at least 50 games in his next four seasons. In his six combined seasons with the team, the Bulls averaged 50 wins. They never did that before or until the 1990s with Jordan. The season after Walker retired despite Love, Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier still with the franchise, the Bulls fell to 24 wins, though Sloan played just 22 games before he retired.
Walker was the No. 3 scoring option behind Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer when the Philadelphia 76ers won the 1967 championship with what many believe was the best team ever. In the 76ers’ last season with Walker, they won 55 games. They didn’t win 50 games again for eight years.
Though just 35, Walker retired from the Bulls after the 1974-75 season as something of an ironman in missing fewer than 20 games in his 13 seasons. In that final season, the Bulls won the division title and lost a heartbreaking seventh game in the conference finals to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. The Bulls missed the playoffs the next season and made the playoffs just twice in the nine seasons after Walker retired.
The Bulls didn’t win a division title again for 16 years after Walker retired and it was 13 years—in Jordan’s fourth season—before the Bulls again won as many games as they did in Walker’s final season.
And when there was a basket to be scored for that great, albeit underappreciated Bulls team of the early 1970s, it was Chet the Jet who was generally called upon, the closer even when he played with Wilt.
“I pulled a lot of games out of the fire,” Walker admits with some prodding. “I guess I’m most proud that we laid the foundation for (pro) basketball in Chicago. We sure scared a lot of people (if not ultimately succeeding with a title). At the time, we were in the Western Conference. You had Milwaukee with Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), the Lakers with Wilt (Chamberlain), Golden State with (Rick) Barry and Nate (Thurmond), a lot of good teams. We were beating them and never felt we got the respect, even in Chicago.
“We just didn’t have the (big) names,” says Walker. “Not doing any of that stupid stuff, but just playing hard and tough. But not the glamour names. I remember when I came to Chicago, Bill Gleason (the late Sun-Times columnist) said to get used to losing. I remember saying I wasn’t used to losing and we weren’t going to lose. That I came from a world champion, that we competed with the great Celtics teams for years. He said the Bulls reputation was to play just hard enough to lose. Yes, we were underdogs. But we competed every minute of every game. And no one will forget that.”
The opponents never forgot—Phil Jackson when he played for the championship Knicks said they most hated playing against the rugged Bulls of that era—and finally the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame remembered.
Walker will be inducted Friday, September 7, as a member of the Class of 2012 along with the likes of Reggie Miller, Jamaal Wilkes, Don Nelson, Ralph Sampson and Mel Daniels.
It’s an honor many deem long overdue, though it perhaps is symbolic of that Bulls team that really never got the acclaim it deserved after being thwarted mostly by Wilt and Kareem.
Hall of Famer Wayne Embry, who is scheduled to be one of the presenters for ABA star Daniels, said Walker was one of the players to revolutionize the scoring forward position.
“He was one of the early, mobile small forwards who also could rebound, much like Elgin Baylor,” said Embry. “There weren’t many as mobile as the Jet. He probably could have played guard the way he handled the ball. Deceptively quick, smart. There was Elgin Baylor and then guys like Chet, the players who were so creative. He was a load, hard to guard. He could beat you inside, put it on the floor, pull up.”
No less than Oscar Robertson, whom many of the old timers like Embry still regard as the greatest guard to ever play the game, say it’s stunning it took this long for basketball to truly honor Chet.
“That he had to wait so long when so many other players of lesser ability and less production are in is a shame,” said Robertson. “Chet’s starting for Philly and Billy Cunningham is backing him up. Then after Philly makes the trade (of Walker) they never were the same for a long while. He goes to Chicago and they become a great basketball team.”
Chet is now 72. Yes, he says he wishes more of his 10 siblings and friends from his days at Bradley University were alive to join him in the celebration in Springfield. And having endured the virulent racism of the south as a kid, Chet knows life can be unfair. His health remains good, and he’s done reasonably well for himself, charting a career in films in Hollywood following his premature retirement. It came after 13 seasons averaging 19.2 points per game and still ranking among the league’s most accurate shooters in the final of his 13 seasons.
Chet knows at times he allowed himself to get pushed around and overlooked.
“I remember my mom saying to me one time,” Walker recalled, “‘Chester, you are like Joe Louis. You are too nice. People take advantage of that. People know you won’t fight back.’ She didn’t want me to get involved with basketball for that reason.”
Chet’s mom, Regenia, was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. The Sabbath is celebrated Friday night through Saturday night. But Chet persuaded her he had to look past that and pursue high school and college basketball to change the financial course of the family.
Chet wasn’t a revolutionary. But he’s always been a man to pursue fairness and stand his ground for principle. It probably was what meant the end of his NBA career at 35 while still in his prime. He joined the Oscar Robertson suit that eventually led to NBA free agency and the wealth players enjoy these days, much to the chagrin of the Bulls owners. He also went on to sue the Bulls in a salary dispute after the bitter ending of the 1974-75 season when the Bulls blew a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals to eventual champion Golden State.
Walker recalls being told he was Bulls property and if he didn’t like it he could quit. Spending his early years in racist Mississippi where his mother was denied the right to vote and a sister died when a white hospital refused to treat her, the comments struck a negative cord with Walker. The Bulls were in turmoil, anyway, with coach Dick Motta in feuds with virtually the entire team and even telling players they should not grant playoff shares to Van Lier and Love because of preseason contract disputes.
“I was making $165,000 at the time, which was grossly underpaid,” recalls Walker. “I was asking to get to $200,000. Motta said I shouldn’t make that. I was just so disenchanted with basketball and everything at the time. I had to get away.”
So Walker retired, and the first Bulls glory era effectively came to an end.
Walker has lived in Los Angeles since, and his TV movie on the life of Isiah Thomas’ mother became an Emmy winner. Isiah will be among the presenters Friday for Walker along with Cunningham, Adrian Dantley and Earl Monroe, the latter another of Walker’s favorites.
"He had those moves like no one else, entertaining moves. You didn't have to be a basketball fan to appreciate and enjoy Monroe,” said Walker, still a lively critic and observer of the game. “Earl changed the game. A lot of players came after him trying to emulate him, guys like Dr. J, who were also entertainers. The other player I loved to watch was Oscar. He was the perfect player. He did everything. He was so perfect he was exciting. And Elgin Baylor, who was the most underrated player to ever play the game. People don't appreciate him as much as they should. I tried to emulate him a lot, going to the middle and hanging like he did."
And Chet isn’t just hanging around. There’s an option out for a story on his life he’s working on, and he’s thrilled to be coming to Springfield.
“Just a great honor,” Chet said. “Not many get there and to be there with legends like Wilt, my teammate, Bill Russell, who was my hero, Oscar, guys I respect so much. It’s an honor to be in that company.”
Never one to give up, Walker’s story one of unlikely success
There are all sorts of hardship stories in sports and unlikely successes. And Chet Walker’s is certainly one of them.
Walker was born and spent his early years poor and victimized in a rural corner of Mississippi, a nowhere junction in the Northwest corner of the state called Bethlehem. Yes, the other one. The miracle there if you were black was merely to survive.
He recalls a house with no windows, no glass, outdoor plumbing and no electricity, a wood burning stove. “Third world,” he called it. He remembers how his mother was denied the right to vote in the fear tactics against blacks in the south in the 1940s.
He saw one of his sisters turned away from a white hospital to die of tuberculosis in her mother's arms. "I will not lose another child to Mississippi," Regenia had vowed before moving the family to live with relatives in Benton Harbor, Mich.
It was in Michigan that Chet began to grow toward his eventual 6-7 and develop the skills of a basketball star. He was fast, but never the jet of his nickname which came at Bradley. It was an era of simple rhymes or alliteration for names, like Dave the Rave (Stallworth), Tricky Dick (McGuire) and Easy Ed (Macauley). So Chet became the Jet, though his moves were more like a clever boxer’s with head and body fakes and feints, shoulder shrugs and shudders, body parts seemingly moving in opposite directions that proved unguardable to opponents.
Chet engaged in memorable prep duels with Dave DuBusschere in high school and then Robertson in college. Chet went on to average 24.4 points and 12.8 rebounds in four years at Bradley, leading the team to the NIT finals twice when the tournament was on a par with the NCAA and the 1960 title over Lenny Wilkens’ Providence team, easily the best player Bradley to attend the Downstate school.
He was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, where he joined Chicago favorite Johnny Kerr. The team then packed up and headed for Philadelphia to be the 76ers. The team acquired Wilt Chamberlain in the 1964-65 season. Then along with Greer, Wali Jones and Lucious Jackson and Cunningham off the bench, the 76ers became one of the great teams in league history.
Their battles with the Celtics were legendary, the 1968 conference finals coming down to a seventh game loss after the 76ers were up 3-1. Martin Luther King was assassinated the day before the series began and years later coach Alex Hannum admitted it was his mistake to push the players to play. He recalls Chet never quite being able to cope in that first game loss before the 76ers won three straight in what should have been a sweep. And in 1965 it was Walker the 76ers were setting up for the last shot to win Game 7 of the conference finals when John Havlicek deflected Greer’s inbounds pass headed to Walker in one of the most famous endings in NBA history.
As one of the league’s best shooters—Chet led the league in free throw percentage one season and was a career 80 percent shooter—Walker was often the finisher for the 76ers as Wilt was a poor free throw shooter and didn’t like to be at the free throw line to end games.
The 76ers averaged 60 wins in Walker’s last four seasons with them through 1968-69 as he was emerging among the vanguard of black players who were changing the NBA game. There still was said to be an unofficial quota system to keep a certain numbers of white players on each team, the notion being white audiences would not support black teams. The saying at the time was teams start three blacks at home, four on the road and five if they wanted to win.
Walker continued also to show the pressure performance as he routinely raised his averages in the playoffs and averaged 21.7, almost three above his season average, in the 1967 championship run. He felt settled in Philadelphia.
But Jack Ramsay replaced Walker favorite Alex Hannum as head coach in 1968. Ramsay didn’t want two scoring forwards with Cunningham now starting. So in one of the more curious deals in an era of many, 76ers business manager Pat Williams was given permission to take the Bulls general manager’s job. But only if he’d agree to accept Walker in trade in Chicago for Jim Washington.
Ramsay’s theory was he needed a more defensive oriented, rebounding forward to complement Cunningham even though Walker was a good defender and averaged more than eight rebounds with the 76ers and one season more than 10. Plus, Walker was an ironman, having not missed a game in the previous four years.
“Jack Ramsay was trying all summer to make that deal with the Bulls,” said Williams, who also is being honored by the Hall of Fame this week with the Class of 2012 with the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. “Jack said, ‘If they offer you the job I’ll let you out of your deal if they make the deal.’ He said the deal must take place. I had to somehow make contact with Dick Motta and Jerry Krause, who was scout at the time. They wanted to make the same trade. But the GM job wasn’t filled. So we had a press conference in the morning to announce I was GM. Then in the afternoon we had another press conference to say we’d made a deal with Philadelphia. The media must have been thinking, ‘This guy works quick.’”
And then Chet decided to retire.
“I always loved Chicago as a city when I was playing,” says Chet. “But that Bulls team was in such disarray. There was no general manager, Motta ran out the last guy. It was a mess. But then Pat came in and did a great job promoting and marketing the team and I’d have to say I ended up having my best years in Chicago.”
But at the time Chet was so upset about the trade because Chicago was considered an NBA graveyard. Chet talked either of retiring or jumping to the ABA, where Cunningham had gone as the shared the same agent.
“Motta and I got on plane and flew into Philly that night and went right to Chet’s apartment,” recalled Williams. “He wouldn’t answer the door. But finally we got him to and signed him to a new three years deal at $45,000, $55,000 and $65,000. Then we gave (Jerry) Sloan a new three deal at $60,000, and we were nervous with (paying) those numbers.”
But the investment paid off. Chicago eventually embraced its new team and Walker repaid them. He led the team in scoring his first season, 1969-70 at 21.5 per game. And then the Bulls went on to average 50 wins per season in his six years with the team. Chet made four All-Star teams, and when he didn’t get voted on in 1972 despite averaging a career high 22 points and ranking in the league’s top 10 in field goal and free throw shooting there was a huge outcry.
The reticent Walker didn’t say much. But shortly after that All Star game he made his point on the floor with a 56-point outburst against the Cincinnati Royals, the highest scoring game in franchise history. It broke Bob Love’s team record and would be the most points scored in an NBA game that season.
It was a great, if unfulfilling, run with the Bulls through that 1974-75 season and loss to the Warriors. That one, Chet says, still burns, as does the seventh game loss in the conference semifinals in 1973 to the powerful defending champion Lakers.
The great ones really only remember the losses.
“That was the heartbreaker,” says Walker of the series with the Lakers. “We had them beat in the Forum, up seven with about two minutes left. We came apart down the stretch. Wilt blocked a Van Lier shot, we couldn’t get off a final shot. We should have won that series. I felt we would have won that title. Same in 1975 when we lost to Golden State and they won. We had that one, but we were a team that never gave up and competed.”
It’s always been that way with Chet as well, and now he’ll appropriately be recognized among the immortals of the game.