The Spirit of 76
The NBA was a broken record from 1959 through 1966. In fact, instead of being called the National Basketball Association, it should have been renamed the National Boston Association. The Boston Celtics were the New York Yankees of professional basketball, winning 8 straight titles and 9 out of 10. Plain and simple, the Celtics were the NBA.
But this book is not about the Boston Celtics. This book is about the man and the team that finally beat Boston when nobody, nowhere, nohow, thought it could be done.
The man was Wilt Chamberlain. The team was the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers personified "power basketball" in that era. They actually created the term and defined it. Wilt Chamberlain was no longer just an automatic scorer and rebounding machine. Oh, he could still do those things whenever he wanted to, but his power increased dramatically with his willingness to surrender the ball to his teammates in the name of victory.
The first true power forward in pro basketball emerged on this team. Luke Jackson was lethal working next door to Wilt.
Add the shooting and poise of Hal Greer and Chet Walker, the instant energy of Billy Cunningham and Wally Jones, and the steady, stirring leadership of head coach Alex Hannum, and the power of this team was palpable.
It translated into 68 wins, the most ever in the NBA at that point in league history. It resulted in the demolition of a dynasty.
Had the 76ers existed in the 24-hour sports, mega-media world of today, their story would have been wall-to-wall every day on the television sports highlights shows. Their exploits would have been showcased and heralded by the national papers, the big-time magazines, the major broadcast networks, and the cable sports channels. They were rewriting the record books each time they took the floor. They were the team that dared to make a run at the super Celtics. They were David to Boston's Goliath. They were giant killers--and giants in their own right.
Unfortunately, the media spotlight never shone on this team. In a sense they became somewhat forgotten, or at least overshadowed. Perhaps it was because they only won one NBA title. Perhaps it was because Boston quickly regrouped and won two back-to-back championships in 1968 and 1969. Perhaps it was because of the dominance in the '80s of Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers. Perhaps it was the Michael Jordan-Chicago Bulls double hat trick of NBA crowns in the '90s.
But the 76ers' story should not be forgotten.
For it is a triumphant tale of courage and camaraderie, force and finesse, destiny and dominance. Their ultimate victory over the Celtics and then the San Francisco Warriors brought Wilt andthe 76ers their first rings. It pumped new life into what had become a stagnant, Celtics-controlled NBA.
Ironically, that new life was jump-started by a sudden, tragic death. And that's where the story of the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers really begins.
Ike Richman died in the middle of his dream.
His dream was to bring professional basketball back to the city of Philadelphia, defeat the mighty Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy, and then capture the National Basketball Association championship.
In the spring of 1963, the first part of it came true. He and partner Irv Kosloff bought the floundering Syracuse Nationals NBA franchise and moved it to Philly as the new 76ers. But Ike Richman wouldn't be around to blow out the final two candles on the cake. In the winter of 1965, as he sat at the press table adjacent to the 76ers' bench during a game in the hated Boston Garden against the hated Boston Celtics, Ike Richman collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. He died right there--in front of his coach, his players, the opposition, and the Garden faithful.
A moment earlier he was screaming at the referees like he always did. "He's traveling." "It was charging." "It was the other way." He was yelling at the 76ers' players, too. "Keep your hands up ... lotsa hands, lotsa hands." The Garden fans near courtside were all over him, heckling and telling him to shut up once and for all.
A moment later, he fell onto the shoulder of a reporter sitting next to him. Richman's eyes were closed, and he was gasping for breath.
Sixers coach Dolph Schayes began hollering, "Get a doctor, get a doctor." Play was stopped. Boston coach Red Auerbach and his trainer Buddy Leroux raced from the other end of the court. Theyhelped lay Richman on the floor behind the Philly bench. Leroux joined 76ers trainer Al Domenico in trying to revive Richman as Celtics team physician Dr. John A. Doherty arrived in about 30 seconds.
But all of their help came too late. The doctor said Richman had no pulse, no blood pressure, no signs of heart activity. They tried cardiac massage, oxygen, and adrenaline shots. Nothing worked.
That fast, Ike Richman was gone.
The crowd was stunned and silent. The 76ers were in shock. The scoreboard stood frozen with the two teams tied at 13.
But that was more than an unlucky sign--it was unthinkable.
Philadelphia natives Wilt Chamberlain and Wally Jones didn't just play for Ike, they were part of his family. They had lived at his house. Ike gave Wilt a chance to come home again to shoot for that elusive championship. Ike literally saved Wally from himself, rescuing him from a self-imposed exile in the Pacific Northwest, where he had escaped to hide from a variety of personal demons. Now, they watched horrified with the rest of their teammates as Ike was carried out on a stretcher, never to return to their sides.
At halftime, Domenico entered the locker room and told the players what they already knew. He had spoken to Ike's wife. Ike was gone. Domenico told them, "If you never win another ball game, win this one for Ike." There were tears and vacant stares, and when the team went back out for the halftime warm-up, players wandered aimlessly around the court, still unable to shake what they had just witnessed.
But when the second half whistle blew, the 76ers quickly found themselves and their spirit--or maybe Ike's. They went on a scoring tear and avenged Ike Richman that night, beating the Celtics for the first time ever in the Garden, and doing it decisively. Ike would have really savored the win, but even more so, he would have loved whathis team was about to become, and how triumphantly they would make the final two parts of his dream come to pass.
In the spring of 1967, the 76ers trounced the Boston Celtics in the Eastern playoffs and captured the league crown in six games over the San Francisco Warriors. And, when it was all over, the titles won and his loser label lost, Wilt Chamberlain knew exactly what to do. Fittingly, Wilt gave the championship game ball to Ike Richman's widow. Ike's dream was finally complete. If only he had lived to see it all.
Wilt Chamberlain was born in the long shadow of the Liberty Bell. But his champion Philadelphia 76ers were not.
In fact, you have to travel about 260 miles to the northwest to find the team's birthplace. It's Syracuse, New York, located at the crossroads of Interstates 90 and 81. It's a city whose basketball history began by way of a bowling alley boss, Danny Biasone. He owned the Syracuse Nationals franchise of the then-fledgling National Basketball Association during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Owning a team in that new, financially unsuccessful league was, as they say in bowling, a difficult spare. Games then were largely yawn-inducing, fan-unfriendly exercises in dribbling, passing, and two-handed set shots from way out.
But Biasone had a better idea and fathered a concept that made the league different, faster, more fun, and more exciting. He invented the 24-second clock, a timing device visible to the players on the floor, which forced them to move the ball up the court more quickly, run their plays, and get off shots before losing possession when the buzzer sounded after 24 ticks. The rule, which would change pro basketball forever, went into effect in the 1954-55 NBA season. As fate would have it, the first team to win the league championship with the 24-second clock clicking every day was Danny's boys, the Syracuse Nats.
But the clock was counting down on Biasone in other ways.Slowly but surely, pro basketball was moving on to bigger and better places. Minneapolis lost its franchise to Los Angeles. Rochester gave up the Royals to Cincinnati. By the 1962-63 NBA season, only 102,000 people filed through the turnstiles in Syracuse to see the Nats, led by third-year coach Alex Hannum and local hero Dolph Schayes. They finished 16 games over .500, but the team was losing money and Biasone was shopping the club.
Enter Isaac "Ike" Richman.
He was a gregarious Philadelphia lawyer who, when the glamorous West Coast beckoned in 1962, helped Philadelphia Warriors owner Eddie Gottleib sell the team to San Francisco interests, reportedly for the then-unheard of price of $875,000. Some said the league let Gottleib make the move and make the money as a reward for being one of the original founders of the NBA.
Richman's son, Mike, now a judge in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, said his dad was an integral part of the Warriors, before and during the team's transition. What he didn't know was that by helping Gottleib, he would ultimately become the owner of his own NBA franchise.
"We all went to the games," Richman said, "and he traveled out to San Francisco a couple of times." Richman was Gottleib's attorney, but Gottleib was family to the Richmans.
Mike still has many pictures of Eddie hanging in the lower level of his suburban Philadelphia home. "What a great man," Richman called him.
Gottleib is considered by basketball historians to be one of the game's leading early promoters. He invented the short-lived territorial draft rule, convincing the league to allow him to clamp on to Wilt Chamberlain of Philly's Overbrook High School even though Wilt was playing college ball in distant Kansas.
Gottleib's brainstorm ensured that the Warriors could make Wilttheir property in 1959 when the physical phenomenon became eligible to enter the NBA. It also kept Wilt out of the clutches of Red Auerbach, archenemy of the Warriors.
But despite Wilt's hometown drawing power, scoring prowess, and early dominance of the sport (including the famous 100-point game in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1962), and despite Philly's rich basketball roots, a group of California investors lured Gottleib and the NBA to the Bay Area, giving birth to the San Francisco Warriors. Whatever goodwill Gottleib had garnered by bringing Wilt back was gone in a second.
Die-hard Philadelphia basketball fans resented Gottleib for taking their team away from them--the team of Joe Fulks, Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Guy Rodgers, Wilt, and others. Besides, the city had a time-honored, much-revered hoops tradition that dated back to pre-World War I. The Philadelphia SPHAs were one of the barnstorming ball-clubs of the early days. The Warriors cut their teeth in the Basketball Association of America--forerunner of the NBA--winning the first BAA title in the 1946-47 season with Eddie Gottleib coaching. The Warriors won the NBA title in 1955-56, making them the only team besides the Minneapolis Lakers to capture two championships in pro basketball's first decade. At the college level, the famous "Big 5" teams of LaSalle, St. Joseph's, Villanova, Penn, and Temple gave Philly a top-shelf basketball reputation.
However, when the Warriors went west--taking Wilt Chamberlain along with them--there was no professional basketball played in Philly during the entire 1962-63 season. It was a void that needed to be filled fast, and the story goes that Gottleib helped fill it. Even while running the Warriors after the deal, he was apparently an intermediary in getting basketball back to the City of Brotherly Love, clueing in the local lawyer who helped him complete the Warriors transaction.
"Eddie Gottleib told my father the Syracuse team was for sale,"remembers Mike Richman. "My father wanted to buy the team. He was a lawyer and doing pretty well, but financially he needed a lot more involvement," Richman added.
Enter Irving "Irv" Kosloff.
Irv Kosloff was a longtime friend of Ike Richman. They were both graduates of Southern High School's class of 1930. While Richman became an attorney, Kosloff entered the city's business world. The relationship continued and prospered as Richman represented Kosloff and the Roosevelt Paper Company that he started and built. Kosloff and Gottleib were also good friends, and Kosloff loyally followed the Warriors as well. But it took all of the aggressive Richman's persuasive powers to get the cautious Kosloff to put up the money needed to buy the Nats.
"It was an important period in my business career," Kosloff recounted in a 1990 interview with his grandson David for a master's thesis entitled, "The Philadelphia 76ers, 1963-1967, The Business of a Championship."
"I was busy with the company, which was growing outside the city.
"Philosophically, I was a great believer, and still am, of having a concentrated approach. Of having all of my eggs in one basket where I can see them," explained Kosloff, who passed away in 1995.
His grandson wrote: "Given his predilection for maintaining a focused approach to his business, it seems that Kosloff would have terminally rejected Richman's sales pitch. Instead he wavered and finally consented to a proposal that seemingly went against one of his most fundamental principles."
Kosloff's son, Ted, who still runs the now New Jersey-based company his father founded in 1932, remembers vividly when the deal came down.
"I was a junior at Penn State," said Kosloff. "It was Mother's Dayweekend in 1963, and my dad came up. We played golf with a friend of mine from Syracuse. Then that night, dad went home, and he gets a call that the Nats were for sale."
In the published interview, the elder Kosloff picked up the story from there: "The drive up to State College [Pennsylvania] and back in those days was devastating. All I was thinking about was getting home and going to bed. The next morning I rose early and drove into the office. When Ike called me on Monday morning with the idea that we purchase the Syracuse Nationals and move them to Philadelphia, I was taken by complete surprise. I was not for it at first. We had never even discussed the possibility of buying a team, and now he was making this passionate presentation on a morning where I was still very tired from the drive the night before. I turned him down. I turned him down three or four times. He was a very strong seller. He finally got me one day on the phone and I said yes."
The deal was done. Danny Biasone had dealt his Nats to the NBA's newest kids on the block for "somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000," according to Ted Kosloff. Ike Richman would be the franchise's front man and Irv Kosloff the so-called silent partner.
Ike and Irv's team now needed a nickname, so the next order of business was to conduct a contest for the fans to pick it. Four thousand entries poured in, containing 450 different names. A special board of judges (probably restricted to Ike and Irv) was commissioned to choose the winning entry.
"We were driving in my father's tan Cadillac up to Kutshers [a New York State resort] for the annual NBA charity game at the country club when he told us," recalled Mike Richman. "He just said it was catchy, fast."
A 48-year-old New Jersey man, with his eyes focused firmly on Philadelphia's historic Independence Hall, took the honors. WalterStalhberg, a quality control statistician from West Collingswood, New Jersey, was one of nine people who submitted the name "76ers." But each entrant had to do more than just suggest a name, they had to explain it, justify it.
Stahlberg put it this way: "No athletic team has ever paid tribute to the gallant men who forged this country's independence, and certainly, Philadelphia, shrine of liberty, should do so."
Kosloff and Richman agreed, saying, "The Spirit of '76 could very well be the spirit of the team that will represent the city this year after being situated in Syracuse for many years. The Nats were loaded with spirit. We expect a hustling club again this year, and the new nickname is certainly appropriate and symbolizes Philadelphia alone."
Although Mike Richman remembered that Stahlberg's winning name won him a lifetime pass, the newspapers said he won an all expenses paid trip to California to see the 76ers play the former Philly--now San Francisco--Warriors. Stalhberg was quoted as saying he attended some Nats games in Syracuse the previous season, becoming familiar with the team while his daughter attended college there.
What about a new logo for the newly named team? No contest needed.
"My father's cousin, Mel, was in the packaging business," Mike Richman related. "He envisioned it with the 76, the flag, the patriotism that was involved. He designed it." The "7" had a sweeping style with two bright red pennantlike shapes forming the number, which stood to the left of a fancy, straight-up-and-down, dark blue "6." Atop the"7"--arranged in a circle--rested 13 blue stars, commemorating the 13 original colonies (see page 257).
Richman added, "At the time, they had just completed the Schuylkill Expressway and my father got so excited when he saw it was Interstate 76. He wanted to find out who was responsible for that to make sure he was properly rewarded."
While the team and logo were brand-new to Philadelphia basketball fans, the coach and players were not. In fact, they were inherited, and worse, they were the enemy. Dolph Schayes, the offensive star who torched the Philly Warriors year after year, was named the 76ers' first coach.
Oddly enough, Alex Hannum, who coached the Nats for the previous three seasons, didn't come along, even after he had posted an overall winning record of 127-112 and led the team to a 48-32 mark in the pre-move season of 1962-63, the second most wins in club history. But early on, Hannum made sure he wouldn't have to stay in upstate New York for too long, even though he was having success there.
"I was coaching Syracuse, and we were hanging on by our fingernails against great teams every night," Hannum recounted from his Coronado, California, home. "Every game was a tough one against Boston, Cincinnati with Oscar [Robertson], and L.A. with [Elgin] Baylor and [Jerry] West. We were competitive every game we played. I got my baptism in Syracuse. Most fun I ever had.
"When I signed a deal with Danny Biasone, I said, 'If I can, I'd like to go back to the West Coast,'" Hannum added. "During the second year in Syracuse, Philly moved to San Francisco. I asked Danny if I could talk to Eddie Gottleib, who was running the club in San Francisco."
Gottleib was interested but told Hannum he was not first in line.
"He told me, 'Alex, love to have you, but I have coach Frank McGuire as my first choice. And if he doesn't take it, I have a local celebrity, Bob Feerick. You are my third choice,'" remembered Hannum. "He hired Feerick, but then I got a call after they had a disastrous year in 1962-63. I took the job, coached Wilt, and went to the finals," said Hannum.
Once again, the San Francisco connection to Philadelphia's future basketball success played out. First, the city lost the Warriors and Wilt in one fell swoop. Then, the coach the 76ers should have had thatfirst year in Philly bolted for the Bay Area to team with Chamberlain for the first time. Together they went to the NBA finals there against Boston, tuning up for another title clash not far in the future.
So the 76ers coaching job went to Schayes, the man who was synonymous with Syracuse basketball. He led the team in scoring for 13 consecutive seasons, free throw percentage for 10 straight, and rebounding for 8 in a row.
After 15 years on the floor, he moved to the head of the bench, despite the fact that as a rookie he had declared that while he loved playing the game, when he was through, that would be all. Coaching, he said, had too many headaches.
Those words turned out to be prophetic.
The 76ers started out with Schayes and several talented on-court veterans like Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Johnny Kerr, Larry Costello, Dave Gambee, and Paul Neumann. But there was no star player. Success in Philadelphia--artistic and financial--would not be a slam dunk. The team went from 16 games over .500 in Syracuse to 12 games below in Philly. They lost to Cincinnati in a five-game playoff and had only the college draft ahead to salvage the season.
Published reports had Ike and Irv dropping somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000 in year one, with attendance well below expectations. For example, only 5,800 fans turned out for one of the highlight games of the year in November 1963, when the Warriors and Wilt returned to Philly for the first time. The 76ers won a tough overtime battle, 106-102. By Valentine's Day, 1964, it was quite clear that there was no love affair between this team and its new city. That night marked the 26th consecutive non-sellout since the franchise had arrived.
There was an added factor to this popularity problem, and that was the Philadelphia press. For reasons still unclear to this day, two of the major newspapers, the Daily News and Inquirer, instituted a press blackout of sorts against the new team.
Irv Kosloff said the reporters from these two papers were covering a Philly game against the Knicks in New York early in the season when, mysteriously, they were all called back to Philadelphia. Following that incident, Kosloff attested that these papers never wrote about the team except for three lines after a loss and only two after a win.
"Pre-Wilt days, the Inquirer wouldn't print anything," said Mike Richman. "The Sixers would go out and beat the snot out of the Celtics. You pick up the Inquirer the next day--box score! Drove my father crazy, probably contributed to his early demise. Nobody at the games. They would get meager crowds. It almost drove the team bankrupt," Richman remembered.
"The Inquirer and Daily News were owned by Walter Annenberg," said Richman. "Annenberg wouldn't see [Ike]. No matter who he called, Annenberg would have nothing to do with him." Richman offered an explanation, saying that Annenberg was angry at his father because he believed Richman was trying to steal the popular sportscaster Les Keiter from Annenberg's Philadelphia-owned television station to be the new general manager of the 76ers.
"Many a night I can remember my father sittin' there pullin' his hair out, what little he had left, over that," Richman laughed. "Don't know what brought it back, but as fast as it went on, it came off and they started writing."
Dolph Schayes offered a different theory. Schayes suspected that the Inquirer refused to cover 76ers games because Eddie Gottleib was still involved with the franchise.
After investigating the issue in his thesis, David Kosloff concluded: "Since Gottleib had just sold the Warriors to a group of investors in San Francisco, it would have been somewhat shady if he were to have been involved with the new team as well. The fact that Inquirer owner Annenberg had been a minority owner of the Warriors with Gottleib gives some credence to Schayes' proposition. It might bepossible that in order to thwart what they perceived to be a scam job on the city, Annenberg and others used the press blackout to deprive the new team of much needed publicity and legitimacy. This, of course, is just a theory offered by Schayes and may not be wholly accurate. However, it is certain that the press blackout was a premeditated act and not just a short-lived whim."
Thus, the combination of former foes on the court, no publicity, and a rash of injuries sent the 76ers into a tailspin that lasted the entire season.
"The public wants a winner. But you can't win consistently when you are deprived of first-string players [through injury]," said Ike Richman in a 1964 newspaper interview. "I realize the fans don't want to know why a team isn't winning. But all we want is acceptance," Richman added. "You have to figure at least two years [for acceptance]. I feel we have a solid core of one thousand loyal fans. Next year this should increase to about two thousand five hundred for every game. Then we should be on our way," Richman predicted.
Richman didn't know the half of it.
The fortunes of professional basketball in Philadelphia were going to get a whole lot better, and very soon. Yes, there would be enough frustration to go around for everybody before the big payoff. There would be plenty of pain before the pleasure. But the 76ers were on brink of something big. Ike Richman would help orchestrate the biggest parts of it before he left this earth, but his partner Irv Kosloff would carry on. One at a time the men who would make pro basketball history were being assembled and sent forward toward that special season of the 76ers.
Extract on pp. 144-146 reprinted by permission from the April 13, 1967, edition of The New York Times © copyright 1967 by The New