Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: Books

Circumstances concerning the return of Wilt Chamberlain to Philadelphia

While reading Rick Barry’s odd and awkward 1972 autobiography Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, I ran into the story of Wilt Chamberlain being traded by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965 for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and cash. It wasn’t just the lopsidedness of the trade that caught my attention, but the thou-doth-protest-too-much explanation from then Warriors-owner and trigger man of the deal, Franklin Mieuli (page 87):

“As great as Wilt Chamberlain was, he wasn’t a big draw. He carried a big contract with him. He forced us to play a great center, Nate Thurmond, at forward. Everyone figured we’d have to sell or trade Thurmond and bid on him. I figured maybe Chamberlain was the man to unload. If we’d have gotten off to a fast start the next season (1964-65) I might have stood pat, but we got off to a terrible start. We lost 17 straight. No one wanted to buy a ticket. The new operation in Philadelphia was willing to take Chamberlain back. I let them have him for Lee Shaffer, Connie Dierking, and Paul Neumann, plus some cash.”

There’s truth and variations, obfuscations, and alternative interpretations of what happened with the Wilt deal and much of it is contradictory to Mieuli’s retelling from 1972. Long-time sporting scribe for the New York Times, Leonard Koppett described the morass as, “Under the surface, moreover, lies such a labyrinth of interlocking interests, motivations and dependencies that even the conscientious basketball follower needs a refresher course to make subsequent conversation possible.”  Here are the key characters involved in the deal:

  • Wilt Chamberlain – basketball player and author of Wilt: Just like any other 7-foot black millionaire who lives next door
  • Franklin Mieuli – San Francisco Warriors owner, purchased team with a Diners Club group in 1962. Sold team in 1986.
  • Eddie Gottlieb, aka Gotty – NBA lifer, Philadelphia native, described as being the “shape of a half-keg of beer.” Knew Chamberlain from his teenage playing days in Philly, pressed league hard for territorial draft (teams would get rights to college players in their loosely-defined “territory”) in order to secure the services of Chamberlain and ultimately selected Wilt after his high school graduation. Purchased Philadelphia franchise in 1952 for $25k, sold it in 1962 for $875k.
  • Ike Richman – described by Wilt in his autobiography as, “more than a friend and attorney and prospective employer to me; he was like a second father.” Richman purchased the Syracuse Nationals franchise from Danny Biasone (creator of the shot clock) and moved the franchise to Philadelphia.

There are a few themes in the loop of Chamberlain’s journey to San Francisco and back to Philadelphia: Obviously Chamberlain himself, the league’s walking calendar Eddie Gottlieb, and money.

The amount of speculation around why Mieuli dealt the mercurial “Big Musty” is legion. One of my favorites is NBA coach Alex Hannum’s, who says in Barry’s book, “I remember once when we had won the pennant with Wilt, Wilt suggested we be given something unusual like diamond stickpins instead of the usual rings. Mieuli gave rings. Later, Wilt got sick. When he rejoined the team, Mieuli met him at the airport with a diamond stickpin. Wilt looked at it and asked, ‘What’s this piece of ______?’ That’s why Wilt got traded, no other reason. You can win with Wilt. I did. Wilt is unfairly regarded.” (The blank is unclear in Barry’s book, but imagination can certainly be used.)

While Hannum’s explanation is the most colorful, it seems unlikely. Mieuli had killed his center’s trade value by making it clear to everyone at all-star weekend that he was available and while he was insistent on moving Chamberlain, it seems unlikely he was so insistent over a diamond stickpin and Wilt doesn’t mention said stickpin in his book. In his autobiography, Chamberlain, a frequent embellisher, describes Mieuli’s behavior at the 1965 all-star weekend: “when we all went to St. Louis for the January 13 all-star game, Mieuli told him (Hannum), ‘I’m not leaving St. Louis till I get rid of that son-of-a-bitch.’ … Mieuli wound up running around from hotel room to hotel room in St. Louis, trying to swing a deal for me, and he finally made it—at 12:30 in the morning, during the post-all-star-game party, on the winding staircase of Stan Musial’s restaurant. I understand it was one of the least confidential, most slapstick negotiations in NBA history.” This accounting is contrasted by Dave Lewis of the Long Beach Independent who wrote, “Hannum played a vital role in the deal by convincing the Warrior brass they’d be better off in the long run without him.” If there’s any accuracy to Lewis’s statement, it’s two-fold: 1) it makes the diamond stickpin story more of a tool for Hannum to absolve himself of any role in the trade and 2) Hannum had previously coached Shaffer and, according to Chamberlain, believed he could convince the AWOL player to come to San Francisco even though he was already on his way out of pro basketball.

Other explanations seek the conspiracy route and this was a thread that, given the incestuous components of the Philadelphian participants, was somewhat believable but when set alongside Gottlieb’s long-term position in the league, is ultimately unsubstantiated. From The Philadelphia Enquirer’s Fred Byrod on January 19th, 1965 (this link, and others that will appear, require subscription or free trial for access):

“A neat, three-way solution was arrived at, so the story went: San Francisco shipped Chamberlain back to Philadelphia instead of paying Gottlieb. Philadelphia gave the cash it announced it had paid for Wilt to Biasone (former owner of the Syracuse Nationals who sold the franchise to Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff). For his part, Gotty was handed a piece of the 76ers. Depending on your viewpoint, this explanation either contradicts, or agrees with, another rumor widespread ever since Richman and Kosloff brought the Syracuse club to Philadelphia—that they were really just fronting for Gottlieb, then on the coast, rolling in his new wealth, in his new role as GM of the Warriors. After a decent period of waiting on the coast, Gottlieb was supposed to reappear on the Philadelphia front and take over the reins from Richman, his longtime lawyer, and Kosloff, his one-time school pupil in South Philadelphia.”

Byrod then goes on to quote Gottlieb,

“San Francisco paid me half the purchase price ($425k) in the first place. I was to get the rest in four payments over five years, and I’ve received every cent due me thus far. I’m still a stockholder, as well as eastern consultant, for the Warriors. That’s a matter of record. The league wouldn’t let me have interest in two clubs at the same time. I’ve had three or four offers from other clubs, in case I leave the Warriors, in the last year. Don’t you think they would find out about it if I had money in the 76ers? Would they want me then? Get it straight, I never had any money in the 76ers. I don’t have any money in them now. And the way things are, I never expect to have any money in them.”

With the emphatic mic drop, Gottlieb seemed to be telling the truth. With Gotty’s role with the Warriors reduced to the vague “eastern consultant,” and the triangle of relationships (business and personal) between Chamberlain, Gottlieb, and Richman, it’s not a stretch to believe Gotty was angling for a way back in Philadelphia NBA ownership, but if so, it never materialized on paper or in any official legal capacity. He would eventually become a consultant for the league and personally created the schedule by hand up until the late 1970s.

That doesn’t fully address Mieuli’s thought process. After all, business is and always has been built on relationships. So let’s focus on the money. In my readings, it was reported that the money Philadelphia sent to the San Francisco franchise ranged anywhere from $75,000 to $300,000 (per Lewis, Long Beach Independent) and lots of observers had opinions how much money and in whose pockets it landed:

  • Theory #1: See above for Fred Byrod’s recapping that suggests the money went to Danny Biasone (former Syracuse owner).
  • Theory #2: Abe Saperstein, Harlem Globetrotter founder and one-time associate of Gottlieb, as retold by the San Francisco Examiner’s Prescott Sullivan: “Abe saw the so-called $300k deal as a cashless transaction. ‘I don’t believe any money changed hands. I think what happened was the Warriors gave up Chamberlain so as to square the books with Eddie Gottlieb who, in my opinion, has never been too far away from Philadelphia.’” (Worth noting Gotty and Saperstein, per Sullivan, “have not been on friendly terms for years” and it was speculated that this loss of friendship was a result of Saperstein’s view that Gotty had blocked his entry into NBA ownership.)
  • Theory #3: Terry Pluto in Tall Tales: “All that mattered was the bucket of bucks; the other guys were just bodies. The amount was $150k, which doesn’t sound like much now, but you could pay an entire starting team for $150k in 1965. Also the Warriors deducted Chamberlain’s $200k salary from their roster.”
  • Theory #4: Wilt Chamberlain, in his autobiography: “It was announced that Philadelphia gave Mieuli $300,000 … for me, but the figure was actually much lower—and most of it went to me, not Mieuli. He was behind in my salary, and suspect that’s another reason I was traded—I kept bugging him for my money.”

The above theories vary in their believability and when you consider Wilt frequently wrote about being paid more than his official salary, (page 172 in his autobiography, “Although I’d been making more than $100,000 for several years by then [1965 when he was traded], this was the first time any clubowner publicly admitted he was paying me that much,” and his disclosure (page 185) that Richman (friend, lawyer and “second father” Richman) “had promised me a piece of the team … Ike promised me half of his half—25 percent,” it’s difficult to sort through the murky waters of self-serving explanations and land on a definitive clarity. It’s fair to speculate that the number was well-under $300k (per Pluto and Wilt). Those funds likely went directly to Mieuli who paid Chamberlain any back payments. This corroborates Wilt’s narrative, and a degree of Pluto’s while discounting Byrod’s retelling of the cynical rumor and Saperstein’s likely uninformed and potentially jaded view (although in the same piece with Saperstein, he claims, “Wilt broke into pro basketball play for me on the Globetrotters. I have been more-or-less his advisor ever since.”).

Money was a real motivator for Mieuli who had experienced a rocky first few years as an NBA owner: the franchise bled money its first season (62-63), made the finals in its second (63-64), and had the worst record in the league its third season while trading the league’s most recognizable player in Chamberlain (64-65). In the New York Times piece linked above, Leonard Koppett wrote that “San Francisco, apparently, was not ready for pro basketball … In 1962-63, the team was a total flop financially.” This is in line with Mieuli’s statement above. The other piece, again from Koppett, that speaks to an unsustainability in the pro basketball model of the 1960s, provides this historical context, “Gottlieb (as owner of the Philadelphia franchise), under present tax laws, could not afford to go on paying Wilt’s salary, since basketball’s gate receipts have a built-in low limit. He tried to sell Wilt to New York, but the Knicks weren’t interested. So he sold the whole franchise, for some $800,000, to San Francisco.”

The notion (from Mieuli) that Wilt wasn’t a draw is likely true, but also likely rooted in the struggle of pro basketball to land in San Francisco in the early 1960s as it wasn’t a topic that I’ve seen in subsequent Chamberlain narratives. Lewis from the Long Beach Independent somewhat contextualized this, “Wilt has always been a good drawing card in his hometown,” but clarifying that, “He (Chamberlain) attracts the biggest crowds on the road and in the NBA the home teams keep the entire gates.” Mieuli took it a step further in a piece written by Roland Lazenby: “the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, and Wilt is neither. He’s easy to hate, and we were the best draw in the NBA on the road, when people came to see him lose.”

Despite the lack of clarity on the details of the deal and the sketchy intrigue of its Philadelphia participants, both of the principals (Mieuli and Chamberlain) agreed it was a sensible deal in spirit and concept that was ultimately a bad dead in its execution:

Wilt: “Trading me really wasn’t such a bad idea for San Francisco. Nate (Thurmond) was 23 then, five years younger than me, with his whole future ahead of him. If the Warriors could get some other good, young players for me, they figured they might have the nucleus of a helluva good team. But Mieuli was so anxious to dump me, he made a lousy deal.”

Mieuli: “I could have gotten a lot more money for Chamberlain, but I wanted the players I got … People forget that Shaffer could have been an all-pro for ten years. But he was a flake. … Shaffer never reported. That alone made it a bad deal. Still, I’d make it again.”

And ultimately, both men landed in better basketball situations. The Warriors picked up Rick Barry in the 1965 draft. Mieuli unceremoniously dumped Hannum after the 1966 season and hired Bill Sharman who pushed a fast team faster (127.4 pace) and helped elevate the young team to the NBA finals. Of the three players in the Chamberlain deal, only Paul Neumann was still with the team. He played 78 games as their point guard before retiring at the end of the season, at 29-years-old. In retrospect in 1967, Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia News wrote of the trade, “Neumann is still playing a lot of guard for the Warriors, but Dierking is playing center for Cincinnati, Shaffer is operating a trucking line in North Carolina and the cash has been spent.”

Chamberlain would be bounced twice more by the Celtics including a game-seven heartbreaker in 1965 after the trade, but he would eventually be reunited with Hannum in 1966 for what turned out to be one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Buying into Hannum’s team-centric approach, Chamberlain helped lead Philly to a then NBA-record 68 wins. They knocked Boston out in five games and in the clincher, Wilt went for 29-points, 36-rebounds, and 13-assists. Beating Boston was a special achievement in itself and made the finals against Mieuli’s Warriors something of a footnote. Philly won the series in six games.

Did some funny business happen to ultimately grease the wheels of Chamberlain’s return to Philadelphia? Between the weak ass return Mieuli got and the tight relationship between the Chamberlain-Gottlieb-Richman triumvirate, the answer is an unconfident, “probably” and that probably watered down by an acknowledgment that, if the chicanery did occur, it was likely a low level infraction at worst. I come away from the whole investigation most interested (or entertained, perhaps) by two components: 1) Alex Hannum’s damn diamond stickpin story. I love it and want it to be true. 2) Lee Shaffer. A fifth overall pick in 1960 out of UNC who was taken ahead of Lenny Wilkens and Satch Sanders, he was a 17-ppg scorer in 196 career games, appeared in zero games in 64-65 when he was traded, and vanished into the North Carolina trucking business like a non-homicidal Keyser Soze shaking off that limp. Lee Shaffer wasn’t likely a ten-year all-pro or good enough to swing the fortunes of the deal for the Warriors, but he was an effective player who retired at 24. Lee, if you’re reading this, I’d love to talk about your decision. I’m guessing it’s a lot simpler than what my imagination makes it out to be.

***

Epilogue (on Lee Shaffer)

Lee Shaffer did not vanish into thin air. A mild amount of research led me to this Reddit thread on r/VintageNBA which references a no-longer-available piece by basketball historian and deep well of encyclopedic knowledge, Curtis M. Harris. According to the thread, the original Harris piece, and comments on that piece,

“Lee Shaffer wasn’t hired away from the NBA to be a trucker. Lee Shaffer was hired away by Tom Kenan, whom was his college roommate. The Kenans are an old and storied North Carolina family with huge interests in trucking, oil, land and many members of the family are full time philanthropists.

Lee Shaffer retired almost a decade ago as the Chairman of Kenan Advantage Group. His son lettered in football in UNC and is now VP of operations in the trucking branch of Kenan Advantage Group, one of the largest, if not the largest chemical transportation companies in the NA continent. Quitting the NBA to go into business with his college roommate was the right call.”

I won’t presume to creep into the cranium of Shaffer and assess the rightness or wrongness or indifferentness of his decision to leave professional basketball, but I will include some anecdotes from a story by Mike White of the Post Gazette (Pittsburgh) on its unknown homegrown, Shaffer:

  • Shaffer on Tom Heinsohn: “We just missed out on playing the Boston Celtics in the playoffs one year and they didn’t have anyone who could guard me, either. They would put Tom Heinsohn on me, but he couldn’t guard his grandmother and you can tell him that.”
  • Shaffer scored 41 points in a high school playoff game as a 15-year-old senior.
  • Shaffer broke his leg during the 63-64 season which contributed to his premature retirement.
  • Shaffer claims, “Bill Russell was the best player there ever was. There can’t be an argument. But Oscar Robertson was the best player I ever saw. There’s a difference.”

1963: Lee Shaffer poses for a picture during the 1963 NBA season. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1963 NBAE (Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images)

Swee’Pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and other Playground Legends – a review

Lloyd Daniels entered my consciousness sometime in the early nineties. I don’t know if it was in 1992 when he made his NBA debut with the San Antonio Spurs as a 25-year-old rookie or if it was sometime before when he flirted with NCAA eligibility and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV program. As a 12-year-old, I was perplexed about why there was this hoopla around a guy who averaged under ten points and hadn’t played on any college team I knew of. Whenever I first heard of Daniels, it was absent awareness of John Valenti’s 1991 book (co-written by Ron Naclerio), originally titled Swee’Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball; later republished as Swee’pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Basketball Legends.

It’s a not a radical title makeover, but it’s enough to raise an eyebrow as the original title and the content within Valenti’s book is flush with the drug abuse and violence that rolled like an avalanche through American cities in the 1980s in the form of crack. Not immune from the drug game and its accompanying violence were New York City basketball players from Earl “the Goat” Manigault in the 1960s to Len Bias and Lloyd Daniels in the 80s.

Valenti and Naclerio are perfectly qualified to tell Lloyd’s story. Valenti, a nine-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter and Naclerio, one of the most decorated coaches in New York’s famed Public School Athletic League with over 700 wins, have the requisite skills and firsthand knowledge (Naclerio had been a Daniels confidant and supporter since the early-80s) to tell Lloyd’s tragic story.

It’s a story that is as much a sociological study of the impact of drugs on the inner-city boroughs of New York as it is an exploration into the city’s playground basketball legends. Unfortunately, the two have been tragically intertwined. In my reading, I wanted more basketball, more stories, more myths, more descriptions. But the narrative we want isn’t usually the one that was lived. And in the 18-to-20 hours each day that Lloyd Daniels wasn’t aweing basketball coaches or fans from Brooklyn to Mount SAC, from a young age, he was skipping school, sleeping in and getting high. That reality wasn’t unique to Daniels and it’s the story Valenti tells here which is why the title shift feels disingenuous.

Daniels was a 6’7” wing player born in 1967 so he came up around the same time as future NBA players J.R. Reid, LaBradford Smith, and Dennis Scott. His mother died at a young age, and his father wasn’t in the picture, so Daniels was passed back and forth between grandmothers. By age seven, he could navigate the city’s boroughs by public transit and by ten he was selling coke and weed and toking up daily. Ten-years-old, no mother, no father, unable to read with undiagnosed dyslexia, a well-developed con necessary just for survival. That same boy who was failed by the education system and failed by his family, was sneaking out night to play basketball in the dark. As Valenti writes,

He taught himself how to dribble on those darkened, glass-strewn courts. Taught himself how to pass, bouncing the ball off the chain-link fences. Taught himself to shoot jumpers in the park, which had no lights, banking them home in the dark. He said it developed not only his eye for the basket, but his feel for it. He’d take a hundred shots. After a while, despite the darkness, he could make 98, 99.

This balance, the drug hustle and basketball, is the delicate tightrope Daniels kept falling off throughout his life and is the backbone along which the content of the book strides. From the time he’s a young kid, barely a teenager, Daniels is swarmed by hangers-on, people who genuinely care for him, but are also pulled in by his prodigious talents. They let him get away with on and off-court crap because he’s just so freakishly talented. This extremely human conflict, a self-vested interest, is a recurring theme in Lloyd’s life where we see these older, typically well-off white men constantly drawn to Daniels’s talent, his likability, and they develop genuine relationships with the young star. Simultaneously, Daniels picked up pretty early that he was a hot commodity because he was good at basketball and developed terrible habits. He used people to get what he needed and into his 20s, had a teenager’s inability to take accountability for his actions.

Original photo posted by twitter.com/JoeMcKinzie here and partial photo here.
That’s Lloyd wearing the hat and former-NBA player Rod Strickland is 3rd from left. Lou d’Almeida, a controversial Lloyd benefactor is the lone white guy.

People don’t take interest unless you’re one hell of a player and that’s what makes Lloyd’s story so damn compelling. This is a player who, as a junior in high school, averaged 31-points, 12-rebounds, ten assists, and five blocks per-game and was named to the 1986 Parade All-American team. He was regularly compared to Magic Johnson and George Gervin because his feel for the game was so natural, the execution so smooth. Just watching this clip from 1996 when Lloyd was 29 and had beaten his body up with years of drug and alcohol abuse and survived a drug-related shooting that nearly killed him, you can see the fluidity and talent that were so magnetizing when he was a teeThat there is so little video of Daniels playing ball is part beauty, part tragedy. Beauty in the sense that myths and legends are food for the imagination. You can choose to believe or not and even among those who saw Daniels as a teenager and then saw him in his mid-20s when he was well-past his basketball-playing prime have waffled on how good of a talent he really was. It’s tragedy in that a talent so vast and unique was underutilized to the point that, despite the availability of video equipment, a relatively small number of people were able to appreciate his gifts. His greatest lives on via oral tradition or in the locked-up memories of those who saw him when. Valenti, via high school recruiting expert and Daniels aficionado, Tom Konchalski captures this fleeting essence in religious tones:

Stories of Lloyd Daniels and his immense and immeasurable talent, remain like those of apparitions of the Virgin Mother at Lourdes and La Salette, at Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe and even Syracuse. That is, that most nonbelievers don’t believe those apparitions existed. But for those who were there, who saw with their own eyes, well … they believe, because they know in their hearts and in their minds what they saw. Truly saw.

Valenti uses a colorful cast of New York ball players to show that, however talented he may have been, Daniels being failed by family and schools and succumbing to temptations was not the exception, but the rule. He uses Tony Bruin III to show that even young men who grew up with a strong family presence and made it to college were still vulnerable to the pull of drugs. There’s the Goat, Richie Adams, Fly Williams, and how many other players who traded the ball for the rock.

On the flip side, there’s Lefrak City’s Kenny Anderson whose uncle was a well-regarded ballplayer caught up in the streets and killed at 27. Anderson’s older brother Ricky, another ballplayer who made a name for himself, but quit in exchange for “other interests.” Anderson is a background character in the broader story, but serves a purpose as a contrast to Daniels. From before he entered high school, Anderson was surrounded by a support team that included Kenny Smith’s brother Vincent, and Archbishop Molloy’s legendary head coach Jack Curran who helped insulate Kenny from all the shit swirling around. It wasn’t different from Daniels having Naclerio, Konchalski, Lou d’Almedia or Arnie Hershkowitz trying to help steer him to places like Oak Hill or Laurinburg; places where, in theory, Lloyd could thrive with discipline and a break from the temptations of the city.

It’s hard to point specifically to what made Anderson and Lloyd different though Valenti, through the stories of Mark Jackson and John Salley, repeatedly points out the steady and influencing role of family that helped some players avoid the street temptations. But it’s not that simple as the Tony Bruin case shows. There’s not always an explanation to why some people succeed and others fail. What makes Lloyd’s story so compelling, and this is no doubt part of the problem, was his rare talent. In July of 1989, just after he had been shot, Lloyd attended the Mike Tyson-Carl Williams fight in Atlantic City and was the toast of the celebrity-filled afterparty. He’s buddy-buddy with Mike Tyson, cool with Rick Pitino and even artist Leroy Neiman, friendly with Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley. He was a defacto celebrity without ever having played in the NBA or the NCAA – that’s how prodigious his talent was.

Swee’Pea is a sociological survey. It’s also a basketball story. It’s a study of human psychology and power dynamics as the substance abusing Lloyd, who was let down by his family and the New York schools, who can’t read, can’t be relied upon for work, can’t commit to putting forth consistent effort, can’t do the basic shit all of us try to do just to get by, is gifted chance after chance at redemption because he has a set of skills that can be packaged up and sold for millions of dollars. On its surface, that’s a miserable, transparent, and heartless exchange. But what makes Swee’Pea worth reading is that it’s not as simple as a heartless exchange. Administration and bureaucracy lead to cold, unfeeling exchanges and on the outer rims of high level basketball, you’re not finding much in the way of administration. It’s not just Jerry Tarkanian using Lloyd to try and better his program or Lloyd conning the owner of his CBA team who took him into his house.

Beyond the brutal zero-sum game of drugs and high caliber basketball are humans worth giving a damn about. That they’re engaged in the endless pursuit of self-interest doesn’t make them different from the rest of us. It makes them more relatable; just sitting at a different table with different stakes, playing games we can all relate to in one way or another.

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