Pro Hoops History HOF: Earl Monroe

Earl Monroe

Whether you called him “Magic”, “Black Jesus”, or “the Pearl”, Vernon Earl Monroe was always going to take care of business on the basketball court.

The shooting guard had a mesmerizing way of dribbling and moving up the court. It rarely seemed he dribbled in a straight line. He was always moving back and forth, forth and back, zig-zag and zag-zig. The constant, unpredictable motion created confusion in defenders who’d likely never seen a man dribble the way Earl did.

After he’d get done putting you in the spin cycle, Monroe found it incredibly easy to raise up for his mighty fine jump shot. As a rookie with the Baltimore Bullets, the Pearl averaged a whopping 24 points. Winning Rookie of the Year, Monroe bolstered Baltimore’s win total from 20 victories in 1967 to 36 in 1968.

Adding Wes Unseld to their core of Monroe and Gus Johnson, the Bullets improved to 57 wins in the 1969 season. That postseason Baltimore was upset by the New York Knicks in a 4-0 sweep. And thus began one of the great, if brief rivalries, in NBA history.

In 1970, the two teams met again with the series going seven games. The Bullets ultimately lost, but the difference between a sweep one year, and a heart-breaking seven game grinder was Monroe. He had averaged 28 points in the 1969 series, but shot only 38% in the process. In 1970 he again hit 28 points but did it on 48% shooting.

For a third straight time the Knicks and Bullets met in the postseason in 1971. With only 42 regular season wins, the Bullets were the underdogs, but shocked the Knicks with a 4-3 series win. The seventh game was decided by a score of 93 to 91 and Monroe led all players with 26 points. The win sent Baltimore to the Finals where they were overwhelmed by the mighty Milwaukee Bucks who had blazed through the regular season with 66 wins.

Monroe NYK

Given the heated history of Baltimore and New York, it was a shock early in the 1971-72 season when the Bullets traded Monroe to the Knicks. After averaging 24 points in his years with the Bullets, Monroe slid into a bench role with the Knicks and averaged just 11 points that first season with them.

And despite the fears, Monroe and his erstwhile on-court rival Walt Frazier got along just fine.

Monroe in fact would go on to become the most dependable Knick of the mid-and-late 1970s after the club captured the title in 1973. Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, and even Frazier, all eventually retired or were traded away. Young stars like Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo were brought in to resurrect the club, but through it all Black Jesus remained.

After his first career act as Baltimore hot shot and his second career act as Knicks role player, Monroe emerged in 1975 as New York’s hot shot. From 1975 to 1978, the Pearl averaged 20 points while shooting 48.5% from the field and 82% from the line. He was better than ever it seemed.

By 1978, though, it was clear that Monroe was relic of a bygone era. As brilliant as his individual play remained, there was nothing he could do in his mid-30s to save those Knicks whose other talent always seemed mismatched or coked out.

It’s been over 30 years since Earl Monroe retired, but the mere mention of his name… or of Magic, Black Jesus, the Pearl, or any of his other aliases… still conjures up images of a basketball wizard at work. A man whose game caused so much ruckus, and yet, somehow, walked softly in the night.

Years Played: 1967 – 1980

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1973)
Rookie of the Year (1968)
All-NBA 1st Team (1969)
4x All-Star (1969, 1971, 1975, 1977)

Statistics

NBA - 926 Games
18.8 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.0 RPG, 46.4% FG, 80.7% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1967-68 season through 1979-80 season)
5th Points, 31st PPG
4th FGs Made
7th FTs Made, 29th FT%
14th Assists, 30th APG
3rd Games Played, 10th Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Gus Johnson

(Baltimore Sun)
(Baltimore Sun)

Although nicknamed “the Honeycomb”, there was very little saccharine or sweet about Gus Johnson. The Baltimore Bullet was a violent force of raw power harnessed with explosive results during the 1960s.

Standing about 6’6”, Gus’s muscles were so chiseled that Greek gods and heroes of antiquity hide theirs in shame. His power game was best exemplified in the amplified force of his dunks. Very few men had ever dunked a basketball with the ferociousness that Johnson exhibited back during the mid-1960s. Certainly none had displayed such ferocity with such regularity. He’d wind up breaking a few backboards with his typhoon-like intensity.

On defense his forcefulness was not the least bit dissipated. In fact, it was likely more intense. Gus delighted in getting all the way up into an opponent’s face and putting both of his strong hands in their chest or back. He would swat your shot and rip the ball right out of your hands. Trying to go one-on-one with Gus was a recipe for disaster.

When it came time to rebound, again, Gus’ temperament was on full display. He wouldn’t just grab the rebound. He’d corral, snag, snatch… demand the ball from the air. Then he’d kick his legs and swing his elbows about to ensure no one sneaked in and stole his hard-earned board.

(NBA Images)
(NBA Images)

Gus Johnson wasn’t all brute, if skilled, force. He had a graceful jumper that seemed to be the still calm one finds in the eye of a hurricane. After all of his pushing, rebounding, and dunking, the man would loft himself up like a cloud and swish the jumper, before returning to his thunderous ways.

For all of that mythological countenance, Gus Johnson was, however, a man. He muscles were chiseled like a god’s but he was still a mortal. Few players have exhibited the paradoxical duality of awesome athleticism with crippling fragility like Gus ultimately would. His knees were the main culprit and he’d battle to stay on the court for long stretches of his career.

He’d stay healthy enough, though, to make multiple all-star teams and a couple of the NBA’s All-Defensive squads (which only debuted in 1969). In his final pro season in 1973, Gus captured a title with the ABA’s Indiana Pacers as a reserve forward.

Such success and providential ability should make Johnson a household name amongst basketball fans. Indeed, the name “Gus Johnson” is widely known but when invoked it conjures up the aural boom of an announcer’s guttural calls.

Well, for those in the know, “Gus Johnson” should also, and always, invoke the rim-shaking boom of a basketball god’s dunks.

Seasons Played: 1964 – 1973

Baltimore Bullets
Baltimore Bullets

Accolades

NBA -
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1965-’66, 1970-’71)
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1970-’71)
5x All-Star (1965, 1968 – ’71)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1964)

ABA -
Champion (1973)

Statistics

NBA - 581 Games
17.1 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, 44.0% FG, 69.9% FT

ABA - 50 Games
6.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 44.1% FG, 73.8% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1964 – 1973)
24th FGs Made, 27th Points
9th Rebounds, 12th RPG
19th Minutes Played, 38th Games Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Walt Bellamy

(sportige)
(sportige)

I’ve written before about the absurdity that Walt Bellamy’s career faced. Unfairly maligned for having his scoring average drop over the first seven seasons of his career, the circumstances of Bellamy’s career should be taken into account.

As a rookie in 1962 Bellamy was absolutely fantastic, averaging 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds, and 51.6% shooting from the field. That field goal percentage was the highest yet in NBA history. Those averages are all the more remarkable when you consider just how awful the Chicago Packers were that season. As the NBA’s first expansion team in a decade, they were the whipping post of teams around the league who all had at least two all-star caliber players.

Over the next three seasons, Bellamy continued with the Packers franchise, which moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets in 1963. The club would improve slightly, but would for the most part be in chaotic shambles for years. To illustrate the point, Bellamy played for five different coaches in his 4+ seasons with the franchise. Mercifully for Bellamy, he was traded to the New York Knicks just a few games into the 1965-66 season.

Teaming with Willis Reed to form a devastating one-two punch in the frontcourt, in 1967 Bellamy was able to help pull the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 1959. The next year, New York achieved its first winning record since that 1959 season, too.

The team was clearly benefiting from Bellamy’s stern defense and rebounding. His offense had simmered down to the 19-point range, but on a team becoming stacked with players like Reed, Dick Van Arsdale, Dick Barnett, and Cazzie Russell, not one single super scorer was needed. What the Knicks were lacking most of these years was a true point guard, and a resolution to the Bellamy-Reed problem.

The point guard solution would come via Walt Frazier‘s arrival in the 1967-68 season, but that didn’t fix up the fact that Bellamy was playing center and Willis Reed was stuck at power forward. The two men got along, but Knicks management decided that a true power forward was needed and that the older center in Bellamy would be the center sacrificed.

Midway through the 1968-69 season, Bells was sent to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere. The trade turned the Knicks from a good team to a title contender. Bellamy languished in Detroit for one unfortunate season before being shipped to Atlanta, where he finally seemed to find some basketball peace.

For the last four years of his career, he left the scoring duties to Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson, and focused on what the team sorely needed: defense and rebounding. Those Hawks clubs would make the postseason three times under this stellar trio before Bellamy retired in 1974.

By that point, the boundless athleticism of his early days was gone. He once was able to perform some of the most rim-shaking dunks the NBA had yet seen, including one where he glided baseline and put in a reverse slam. He was always tremendously strong and imposing, standing a shade under 7’0″. None of that made him the greatest center of his era, but he’s certainly more than just a big man who put up big numbers. He is one of just of several players throughout NBA history to languish in unfortunate circumstances, like a Mitch Richmond, despite personal greatness.

In the end, Walt Bellamy’s career is one that reminds us that basketball is a team sport. No one player or person, even a Hall of Famer, can dictate a franchise’s ultimate course.

Seasons Played: 1962 – 1974

Accolades

NBA -
Rookie of the Year (1962)
4x All-Star (1962-’65)

Statistics

NBA - 1043 Games
20.1 PPG, 13.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 51.6% FG, 63.2% FT
FG% Leader (1962)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1962 – 1974)
4th Points,  20th PPG,
3rd FTs Made
5th FGs Made, 3rd FG%
2nd Rebounds, 10th RPG
19th Assists
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Wes Unseld

(nba.com)
(nba.com)

The outlet pass and Wes Unseld go together like peanut butter and jelly, like Peaches & Herb.

The moment Wes captured a rebound, wheeled his mammoth body around, instantly surveyed the court, and caught a teammate speeding down court, was the moment the opponent was practically doomed to ceding 2 points.

That moment happened often in Unseld’s career. With an average of 14 rebounds per game, Unseld ruled the glass. He also ruled several other facets of the game. He stood only 6’7″ and his blocks per game are paltry, but Unseld was a stern defender on bigger centers who had trouble maneuvering around and moving the stout Wes.

With four assists dished out nightly, Unseld didn’t just throw a good outlet pass, he was great passing in the half court. Bruising opponents with picks was another Unseld claim to fame. In fact just bruising opponents in the course of natural events was Unseld’s way. The man just physically wore you out with his strength and being.

For the Bullets franchise (in all its various incarnations), though, Unseld is really the only bright moment in their long history.

Prior to Unseld (1962 – 1968): 205 – 358 (.364 win percentage)
With Unseld (1969 – 1981): 618 – 448 (.580 win percentage)
After Unseld (1982 – 2013): 1050 – 1526 (.408 win percentage)

The franchise had 10 winning seasons in Unseld’s 13 years and have had eight in the other 39 seasons. There’s a reason why the NBA went positively insane back in 1969 when Unseld lifted the moribund franchise to a league-best 57 wins. He was not only Rookie of the Year, but also MVP that season. The Bullets made the NBA Finals four times in his tenure and won the title in 1978.

He was one of the best leaders in NBA history and despite claims to his lack of talent and athleticism, the man was filled with plenty of both. His career stacks up favorably with just about any great center you can think of.

Seasons Played: 1969 – 1981

Accolades

NBA -
Champion (1978)
MVP (1969)
Finals MVP (1978)
All-NBA 1st Team (1969)
5x All-Star (1969, 1971-’73, 1975)
Rookie of the Year (1969), All-Rookie 1st Team (1969)

Statistics

NBA - 984 Games
10.8 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 50.9% FG, 63.3% FT
FG% Leader (1976), RPG Leader (1975)
11th All-Time Rebounds, 6th All-Time RPG

Expansion All-Stars: Jerry Sloan

(Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images)

Pre- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1966): 5.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, .415 FG%, .705% FT, 16.1 MPG

“Expansion All-Star” Season (1967): 17.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .432 FG%, .796 FT%, 36.8 MPG

Post- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1968 – 1976): 14.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, .426 FG%, .711 FT%, 35.5 MPG

Last week’s Expansion All-Star was Bob “Slick” Leonard of the Chicago Packers. Well, in an unsurprising development, the next Expansion All-Star also suits up for an expansion teams based in Chicago. The Windy City was a graveyard for major league professional basketball. The Chicago Gears of the NBL, the Chicago Stags of the BAA and the Chicago Packers of the NBA had all failed to survive in the city over the previous twenty years when the Chicago Bulls became the next best hope for pro basketball. Given the history, the Bulls surprisingly succeeded and it’s in no small part thanks to Jerry Sloan.

Sloan’s NBA career began, ironically, with the Baltimore Bullets. This is ironic because the Chicago Packers had packed up their bags and left Chicago in 1964 to become the Baltimore Bullets. The Maryland franchise acquired Sloan in the 1965 NBA Draft with the fourth overall pick ahead of such luminaries as the Van Arsdale twins, Billy Cunningham, Flynn Robinson and future Bulls teammates Bob Weiss and Bob Love.

That Sloan spent only one season as a Bullet and was available in the expansion draft the very next year was revealing of the terrible management involved with Baltimore at the time. Yes, Sloan had not put up amazing stats in his rookie year, but the promise of greatness was certainly there:

“…the Baltimore Bullets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 119-113, in other Wednesday night action…

Rookie Jerry Sloan’s 15-foot jump shot with 15 seconds left was the big play for the Bullets, who trailed by a point with 48 seconds to go. Gus Johnson’s 28 points led the Bullets and Jerry West’s 33 paced the Lakers.”

Nonetheless, the 4th overall pick was put on the expansion draft chopping block and the Chicago Bulls snapped up Sloan. The key to this was that one of Sloan’s Baltimore teammates had retired and taken over as coach of the Bulls. Johnny “Red” Kerr, a venerable presence in the NBA for over a decade, was the man at the helm of the Bulls and Sloan years later acknowledged Kerr’s help in giving him a chance to shine:

“Red was really the reason for me being in Chicago because of the expansion draft. Johnny helped me get an opportunity to play.”

Sloan’s playing time rose from a scant 16 minutes to 37 minutes a game that expansion season and his other stats predictably rose: the scoring reaching 17.5 points a game and the boards topping off at a career-high 9 a game. The averages were nice but so were individual moments throughout that season. In early March of 1967, Sloan and center Erwin Mueller spearheaded the defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers:

“Mueller scored 20 points and held Wilt Chamberlain to 20 as the Bulls pulled away to a 95-84 third-period margin and never were threatened thereafter. Jerry Sloan had 22 points and 15 rebounds for the Bulls.”

Any victory is nice but the expansion Bulls had just handed the 76ers one of their only 13 losses that season. Just a couple of weeks later, Sloan struck again to keep alive Chicago’s playoff hopes against the Detroit Pistons, the very team they were competing with for the final playoff spot:

“The Bulls whipped the Detroit Pistons on the road Wednesday night 98-91 and moved into fourth place in the Western Division a half-game ahead of the now last-place Pistons. The Bulls have two games left to play in the regular season ending Sunday, the Pistons three.

Jerry Sloan threw in 32 points to lead a second half Chicago rally that erased a 69-62 Detroit lead.”

The Bulls would indeed sew up that final playoff spot thanks to the young Sloan and veterans Bob Boozer and Guy Rodgers. The always superb St. Louis Hawks, however, would thrash Chicago in the postseason in a three-game opening round sweep. Not the sweetest of endings, but for an expansion team, that was quite successful to be bounced in the playoffs no matter what the fashion.

For Sloan this would just be the beginning of a long and lengthy career as “Mr. Bull”. In his 1st year as a Bull, Sloan was selected as an All-Star and would garner one more selection to that event in 1969. Even more importantly, though, Sloan’s reputation as a hellish defender would become well justified and cemented over the ensuing years. Making 6 All-Defensive teams, Sloan was the nightmare of any wing player who came his way, especially when he teamed with the demonic Norm Van Lier in the 1970s. Sloan’s 6’5″ strongly wiry and lanky frame made him perfect to harass the perimeter. Sadly, words are the only thing to really do Sloan’s defense justice since steals weren’t logged until 1974, at which point a 31-year old Sloan still captured 2.1 per game.

But the words, nonetheless, do Sloan’s defense adequate justice. Just search the Google news archives for “Jerry Sloan defense” and you’ll get a treasure trove of articles glowingly speaking of Sloan’s inspired, cagey and tireless defense. Although that defense never brought Chicago a title, it did lead the Bulls to a Golden Era of success in the early and mid 1970s with Van Lier, Bob Love, Bob Weiss, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls would secure four straight 50-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals.

As for Sloan, he’d retire in the mid-1970s ranking 3rd in assists and 2nd in points for the Bulls franchise. Meanwhile he led the Bulls in categories typical for him: games played, minutes played, and, of course, personal fouls. Since then, only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have passed Sloan in those categories. On top of all this, he was the 1st Bull to have his number retired. All of the success, all of the defense, all of the tirades began with Sloan’s expansion outburst in 1966.

You really did need to hold Sloan back, the man was a loose cannon.

(as always, statistical information retrieved from basketball-reference.com)

The Lowdown: Bailey Howell

Years Active: 1960 – 1971
Regular Season Stats: 951 games, 32.2 mpg
18.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 48% FG, 76.2% FT
Postseason Stats: 86 games, 31.7 mpg
16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 46.5% FG, 73.2% FT
Accolades: Hall of Fame (1997), 2x NBA Champ  (1968, ’69), 2nd Team All-NBA (1963), 6x All-Star (1961-’64, 1966-’67)

We knew Howell was a good player. He had an average of better than 20 points for seven seasons in the NBA. And he played in most of the All-Star games since he’s been in the league. Yet, sometimes you don’t realize a player’s true value until he’s on your side for a while… He’s got the good offensive drive. He’s a real holler-guy on the bench, too. Bailey likes team basketball. Joining the Celtics made him a happy player. He doesn’t care how much he scores. He just wants to win.

- Bill Russell on Bailey Howell, via Dynasty’s End (an excellent book that you should buy now!)

For 7 seasons, Bailey Howell plied his way as one of the NBA’s best forwards. He was a man possessed on the boards, particularly the offensive glass. He had an incessant, fearless zeal to attack the basket and rack up points. Five times he was selected an all-star as reward for his routine output of 20 points and 11 rebounds. Along with this individual success usually came team disappointment or outright failure.

Howell’s first 7 years were spent with the Detroit Pistons (5 seasons) and Baltimore Bullets (2). None of these teams ever finished with a record above .500. The best years for Howell’s clubs in this era were in 1962 and 1965. In ’62 the Detroit Pistons (winners of just 37 regular season games), fell into the playoffs and dislodged Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals in the semi-finals in a 3-1 series win. The Lakers of Baylor and West thereafter bounced Detroit in 6 games in the divisional finals. The ’65 “success” story with the Baltimore Bullets largely repeated this sequence of events: 37-win regular season, dislodge semi-final opponent 3-games-to-1, then lose to the Lakers in 6 games in the divisional finals.

Continue reading

The Misunderstood Journey of Walt Bellamy

 

Walt Bellamy

Walt Bellamy had one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NBA history. His 31.6 points per game remain the 2nd-highest ever for a rookie behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6 in 1960. His rookie rebounding average of 19.0 is behind only Wilt’s 27.0 in 1960 and Bill Russell’s 19.6 in 1957. His field goal percentage of .519 was the highest a player had ever shot from the field up to that point in the NBA. He was big, strong, agile, durable and ran a pick-and-roll perhaps better than any center of his era.

He could go toe-to-toe with the Big Dipper:

Wilt Chamebrlain won a personal scoring duel with Chicago rookie Walt Bellamy in the opener [of a double header] as the Philadelphia Warriors topped the Chicago Packers, 122-108.

Chamberlain scored 55 points. Bellamy dropped in 47.

He could throttle the Russell-led Celtics defense:

Walt Bellamy scored 35 points and grabbed 30 rebounds Wednesday night to lead the Packers to a 103-90 triumph over the Boston Celtics to break a seven game losing streak.

But what he couldn’t do was escape the shadow cast by his spectacular debut season.

Bellamy was the 1st pick of the NBA draft in 1961 taken by the expansion Chicago Packers. As is typical of an expansion franchise, the team stunk. They finished with 18 wins and it’s a miracle they got that many. Bellamy was the only above average player on the team. This explains why he shot a gaudy 24 field goals a game. Given the that defenses didn’t have to worry about his teammates it’s amazing Bellamy connected on a then-record 51.9% of his shots.

This “opportunity” to score at-will and necessarily dominate the glass to the tune of almost 20 boards a night would come to haunt Bellamy. As he slowly found better teammates in his career, his averages predictably fell as he needed to handle less of the burden. His scoring average fell through the years as he teamed with better teammates and the Bullets as a team improved.

Just compare these rosters. I’ve given you Bellamy’s top 5 teammates, who played at least 1000 minutes, based on player efficiency rating (PER) for each season he was with the Chicago/Baltimore franchise.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – Andy Johnson (13.6), Slick Leonard (12.2), Charlie Tyra (10.8), Horace Walker (10.3), Ralph Davis (9.9)

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – Terry Dischinger (20.8), Charlie Hardnett (16.2), Don Nelson (13.9), Si Green (11.4), Mel Nowell (10.5)

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – Terry Dischinger (19.6), Gus Johnson (16.3), Rod Thorn (12.9), Don Kojis (12.6), Si Green (11.6)

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – Bailey Howell (18.9), Gus Johnson (16.6), Don Ohl (13.5), Kevin Loughery (11.6), Si Green (11.6)

Now let’s check back with Walter’s PER, scoring, rebounding and shooting average for these seasons.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – 26.3 PER, 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, 51.9% FG

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – 24.9 PER, 27.9 ppg, 16.4 rpg, 52.7% FG

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – 23.3 PER, 27.0 ppg, 17.0 rpg, 51.3% FG

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – 21.7 PER, 24.8 ppg, 14.6 rpg, 50.9% FG

So as the teammates improved, Walter’s numbers appropriately declined. It’s some perverse culture of hero ball that leads people to think Bellamy should have stymied the following players their chance to shine:

Gus Johnson – 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA, 2x All-Defense, Hall of Famer

Don Ohl – 5x All-Star

Terry Dischinger – 3x All-Star, 1963 Rookie of the Year

Bailey Howell – 6x All-Star, 1x All-NBA, Hall of Famer

Bellamy looking around and giving in to some “alpha male” bullocks would have been nonsense. It would actually be antithetical to his nature. He was a thoughtful, introverted individual interested in politics and spent his free time registering African-Americans to vote in the 1960s. And really, a player averaging at least 24.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in all these seasons getting a bad rap is absurd. His quiet nature was misunderstood as apathy but couldn’t be further from the truth. Upon his retirement he scored over 20,000 points and grabbed over 14,000 rebounds but it was the 38,940 minutes played and only 12 games missed in a 13-year career that gave him the most pride (and notice his deferential tone):

“I look back on the number of coaches I had who permitted me to log the sixth most minutes [as of his retirement in 1975] of all time. The statistic I treasure the most is my playing time.”

By 1965, the Bullets made the playoffs, upset the St. Louis Hawks in the 1st round and then gave the Los Angeles Lakers a tussle in the Western Division Finals ultimately losing 4 games to 2. Then Bellamy was traded to the New York Knicks where he tagged-team at center with a young Willis Reed. But the Knicks were a mediocre-at-best team. They had finished in last place 9 of the previous 10 seasons in the Eastern Division. However, Reed and Bellamy got the team to the playoffs twice in their 3 seasons together (1966-68), including the 1st winning season for New York since 1959.

But eventually one center had to go and it was the older Bellamy, shipped to Detroit for power forward Dave DeBusschere . The Knicks went on to win 2 titles and Bellamy continued to accrue a “can’t win” label, which overlooks the emergence of youngsters Walt Frazier, Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley for those Knicks teams concurrently with the DeBusschere trade.

The “can’t win” label became nearly branded on Bells after Detroit parted with him after just a season and sent him to Atlanta. But with the Hawks, Bellamy would find some redemption in the twilight of his career as the defensive and rebounding anchor for a team that made four straight postseasons and featured flashy Pete Maravich and smooth Lou Hudson.

But that rookie season in 1962, Bellamy never could shake it. There’s just something off-putting seeing a player who had 13 seasons rack up his career high in PPG and RPG in his rookie year. And not just career highs, but staggering career highs. You look at his player card or a table of his career stats and it just looks like a long-steady decline. But this is why you move beyond the snapshot and take in the full view.

Athletes in the 1960s did not determine their lot in pro sports, they merely made the best of it

Maybe if he had fell into a better situation, on a team more loaded early in his career, he would have had a more “natural” career arc. The rookie who delivers the slight edge to veteran team to make noise in the playoffs. Then as the vets slough off, he emerges as the team’s best player and either a) keeps the good times rolling or b) suffers a martyr’s death trying to save the franchise.

Chamberlain parachuted into Philadelphia in 1960, a team just 4 years removed from a title and still with Hall of Famers and all-stars abounding. Russell arrived in Boston in 1957. No title yet for the Celtics, but they had Cousy and Sharman and Heinsohn. Nate Thurmond arrived with the Warriors in 1964, lost in the Finals that year, kind of stunk when Chamberlain left and then got Rick Barry and another Finals appearance.

Walt Bellamy was the great center of his era with the bad fortune of being taken by the 1st expansion team in a decade and had 5 different coaches in his first 5 years in the league.

That’s a particularly bad lot, but Bells certainly made the best of it.

Especially in that magnificent rookie season.