Jim & Wilt Chamberlain:
Their unlikely trip together
to basketball's Hall of Fame

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basketball + tapeWilt and Jim — page 4

ilt and I had one more tangential connection a few years later when he was a Los Angeles Laker.

Jack Kent Cooke, the one-time encyclopedia salesman turned Canadian tycoon, had just begun his sports empire by purchasing both the Los Angeles Lakers basketball franchise and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. Cooke immediately began building a sports arena that would put all but the Roman forum to shame, calling it, of course, The Forum.

jack kent cookeTo insure a winning hoop tenant for his coliseum, Cooke recruited a hot young talent named Bill "Butch" van Breda Kolff who had just brought Princeton to national attention as a basketball power (helped by the undergraduate presence of a future U.S. senator named Bill Bradley).

Around the same time, in Springfield, Massachusetts, America's first professional sports walkout occurred. The Springfield Indians, a minor league hockey team in my home city, pulled wildcat strikes on their skinflint and abusive owner, the legendary Eddie Shore. Tired of the conflict, the aging Shore sold the players and franchise lease to Cooke, giving the latter a farm team for his Kings.

Iwas working then for the Springfield Daily News as a writer and cartoonist. Those were the waning hours of what was once a popular attraction in newspapers—the sports cartoonist. The last of the breed were inking their final nibs—Karl Hubenthal on the west coast, Willard Mullin in the east. Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News was the last one standing when he passed away in 2011. I'd grown up adoring Mullin and Gallo and occasionally turning my hand at the trade during my 20 years with the paper, at least until I realized the shortage of space (caused by the lack of advertising caused by the dominance of TV advertising) would eventually extinguish the art form.

Cooke saw some of my artwork while visiting his new team in Springfield and offered me a job with his staff in Los Angeles. As a 27-year-old, I was reasonably flattered by the offer but not enough to be blinded. Cooke's reputation was that of an owner who disposed of personnel the way the rest of us use tissues. Although I couldn't have predicted then that in the ensuing years he'd accumulate four wives (one he'd marry twice, one he would divorce for the then-Guinness record sum of $49 million, and one knot would be dissolved after just 73 days), I did know one thing: ours would never be a heavenly match. I thanked him for the generous offer and declined.

Cooke then offered me the freelance job of drawing the covers for the Kings and Lakers home-game programs in that inaugural season of The Forum, something I could do from the East coast without having to deal with his mercurial ways, and I happily accepted. I was too naive to understand that Jack Kent Cooke wasn't used to being turned down. Years later, the Washington Post's Frank Ahrens described Cooke's Washington Redskins abode this way: "The invitation to Cooke's private box, which is poised halfway up the stadium above the 40-yard line, has been the second most prestigious social invitation in Washington, after a White House dinner. Sitting in Cooke's box, however, is a more high-profile honor than dining with the president. People know you've been to the White House only if they read the invitation list. Box-watching at RFK Stadium has been the closest thing Washington has had to genuine celebrity-spotting, as Cooke's roost is visible from most of the stadium."

In any event, the year after I drew the Lakers and Kings covers, Cooke decided to go for broke to end the jinx Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics seemed to have over the Lakers: He obtained Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers. The problem was that Chamberlain came west with baggage, not the least of which was a reputation for doing things "his" way and for "dogging it" when the mood wasn't right. If anyone could manage this prima donna pro, Cooke thought, it would be van Breda Kolff who had finessed those Princeton kids to national honors.

s the annual Westminster Dog Show approached in 1968, I drew the cartoon shown at the bottom of this page for the Daily News, combining the dog show language with the Chamberlain-van Breda Kolff standoff. It would take another four years for the Lakers to win the NBA title, Wilt's final year as a pro, 1972, but the championship came not under van Breda Kolff but under a former Celtic named Bill Sharman.

By 1978, Cooke had abandoned Los Angeles for Washington, DC and the Redskins where he'd spend 19 years with an assortment of wives, win three Super Bowls with Joe Gibbs, and build a $160 million stadium complex he never lived to occupy, dying four months before it opened, at age 84. (For an assortment of views on Cooke, see the Washington Post special section observing his death.

Looking back on it now, I realize how once upon a time Wilt and I kept crossing paths in a star-crossed sort of way. Just recently the NBA's entertainment division interviewed me for an hour as they assembled a film on Wilt's famous night. Still, our only real connection was the reel-to-reel recording of that Friday night in March 1962. Considering how much of a help he'd been in my English class back in 1956, it's nice to have been able to return the favor so easily.

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Jim Trelease © 2006


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