THE WILT EFFECT: HOW HE CHANGED PHILLY, THE NBA, THE SIXERS AND TEEN-AGED DAVID RICHMAN

In 1963, childhood friends Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff (left with Dolph Schayes) bought the Syracuse Nationals franchise and moved it to Philly, where they became the 76ers, filling the void the Warriors left when they moved to San Francisco the year before. Two years later, Richman, an attorney who represented Philly legend Wilt Chamberlain, negotiated a trade that brought Wilt back to town. In December 1965 Ike died of a heart attack at courtside in Boston while he was watching a Sixers-Celtics game. The rest is history, as in the 1966-67 76ers, voted the greatest team in NBA history. Ike’s son David Richman’s book, “Wilt, Ike and Me,” available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Wilt-Ike-Me-David-Richman/dp/1975914252 recounts the story of the trade, the title and the friendship that developed between teen-age David and the greatest NBA player of all-time. Excerpted by permission.

By David Richman

As the months went by, every part of my life kept getting better and better. I was enjoying senior year of high school with my term as president, and my teenage love affair with Sally was in full bloom, quickly becoming the best thing that had ever happened to me.

And the 76ers were absolutely on fire.

Wilt was still the same charismatic, larger-than-life figure as always, except for one thing. Now he was the undisputed king of the NBA, and the championship was finally within his grasp. By the end of the season, we posted a 68-13 record, which was unheard of at the time. And most of the victories were by more than 10 points.

When the playoffs came, finally this year, the contest with the Celtics was never in question. We blew them out in five games. In the clincher, which was at home, with a few minutes left, the crowd started chanting, “Boston is dead! Boston is dead!” They kept it going, over and over, stomping their feet in rhythm. In one way, there was something a little sickening about it, like being in the Roman Colosseum at a gladiator fight. But at the same time, it felt great because we were finally breaking a ten-year curse.

Anyway, we went on to play San Francisco for the title. It was a surprisingly tough series, but in the sixth game, we finally wrapped it up out there. So, just three years after he formed them, and a year and a half after his historic trade for Wilt, my father’s transplanted team, with the name he chose, the Philadelphia 76ers, were now the Champions of the World.

 

In 1967, Philly was one of those serious sports towns with a devoted fan base that hardly ever got to celebrate a championship. Including baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, this was only the fourth time in over sixty years that we had finished on top. The entire city was ecstatic.

Author David Richman

The next day, when the team flew back to Philadelphia, my brother and I went to the airport and joined about five hundred fans to welcome home our heroes. We were standing with Vince Miller, Wilt’s closest friend, and the rest of the team’s front office, along with the players’ wives and families. There were about fifty of us, gathered in a special area.

As we waited for the plane to land, I thought about my father and all the aggravation he had gone through that led to this point. In the beginning, the fans couldn’t have cared less about the team and nobody came to the games. Now here we were, NBA champs, with the greatest record in league history and the whole city about to explode with pride. It was a shame he couldn’t be there.

The plane finally landed. A few minutes later, the double glass doors opened, and the team came walking into the airport lobby to a huge cheer. Wilt was in the center, leading them. A constant stream of flashbulbs exploded from the press cameras, and he looked like a giant, walking through a lightning storm. I could see he was carrying a basketball in his hands.

As soon as he spotted my brother and me, he walked over to us, leaned down, and handed us the ball. “Give this to your mother for me,” he shouted above the pandemonium. “And give her my love.”

Later, I read that in the locker room after the championship game, the team had voted to give Wilt the game ball. He accepted but said that it really only belonged to one person – Clare Richman. He was going to give it to her. Nobody disagreed. He took careful custody of it and held it on his lap the whole flight home.

He stood there with us for another moment, then, he turned to walk away. But he turned back and grabbed me with his huge right hand, pulled me next to him, leaned down and whispered in my ear. “We did it, Davy. And we did it for him.”

He patted me on the back, tousled my hair, and walked off into the adoring crowd

 

The championship reign of the 76ers only lasted for that one season. In 1968 something changed. The magic was gone, and once again, the Celtics beat us in the playoffs. And then unexpectedly, Wilt demanded to be traded to the Lakers. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but he didn’t want to play for Philly anymore. The trade was executed, and the City of the Angels welcomed him with opened arms.

He and I stayed in touch with each other. A few years later, I had a summer job with the San Francisco 49ers. When I took a break and went down to LA, Wilt invited me to visit him in his new home. I went out to see him one Saturday morning.

He had leveled off a cliff on the highest point overlooking Bel Air and had built an amazing modern mansion on it. The view was spectacular. From one side, you could see the whole city; from the other, you could see all the way to the ocean.

The house itself looked like a wild jazz improvisation, frozen in stone. There wasn’t a single right angle in the place, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool fed water into a stream that flowed through the living room. All the rooms were gigantic, with ultrahigh ceilings, and it was a real pleasure to see him in an environment that actually fit. He wasn’t stuck in a dollhouse anymore.

When he showed me around the grounds, I noticed that he had a great driveway for a basketball court, but he hadn’t put one up. “No basket?” I asked.

“No. I don’t want any of that here. This is where I relax.” He looked over the vast panorama, toward the ocean. “I don’t want anything to do with work here.” As strange as it may seem, that was the first time it really hit me that basketball was actually Wilt’s job. It was work to him. It might seem completely obvious, but I had never looked at it that way before. To me, it was always a game, filled with glamor, money, and fame. But to him, it was his job. And from the look on his face, it was a hard job, too.

We went back inside, sat down in the den, and for some unfortunate reason, our conversation went straight to politics. The country was in a horrible state of turmoil over the war in Vietnam, and things kept getting worse. As it happened, Wilt and I were on opposite sides of the political fence.

I was in college, and like a lot of kids in my generation, I was going through some radical 60’s changes. I wasn’t a total hippie yet, but I was clearly heading in that direction, in both look and outlook. And to my extreme disappointment, as well as embarrassment, Wilt had endorsed Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. It was big news, and the campaign really hyped it up.

The election year of 1968, had been an absolute disaster. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other. King was killed exactly one year to the day after he announced his opposition to the war. And Kennedy, who was clearly opposed to it, was murdered the night he won the California primary, which had virtually assured him the Democratic nomination. So, two great American lights had been extinguished. On top of being incredibly depressing, it was downright scary.

And now Nixon, who turned into a political ghost after 1960, had come back from the dead, and was running the war machine like a madman at the helm. But Wilt was really impressed with him, thought he had a brilliant mind, was a fiscal conservative, and a genius at foreign affairs. He had all the makings of a great president.

I couldn’t have disagreed with him more. To me, Nixon was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the war was an atrocity, and he was making it worse. Supporting him was absolutely insupportable.

Even though we kept it polite, it kept getting more contentious, and the more we talked, the farther apart we got. Finally, the gulf between us was so big, we had nothing more to say to each other and just sat there in an awkward silence. I felt bad, but I didn’t see any way out of it. We were stuck.

“Hey, I gotta good idea,” Wilt said out of nowhere, flashing me one of his million-dollar smiles. “Why don’t we go out for some pancakes? There’s a great place I gotta show you in Beverly Hills.”

The world of politics evaporated in an instant, and before I knew it, we were riding in this incredible sports car he had. It had been custom-built for him by some company I’d never heard of. He said it had the most powerful engine in the world, and once we hit the freeway, he really let it rip.

People used to criticize Wilt for his expensive taste in cars, but he knew what he was doing. He would drive them for a few years and then sell them while they still had relatively low mileage. Because it was “Wilt Chamberlain’s old Bentley” or “Wilt Chamberlain’s old Ferrari,” they would sell at a high premium. He’d make a nice profit and have a great time doing it. Not a bad operation.

We cruised around with the top down in whatever this thing was and pulled up to the restaurant. As we walked in, I noticed he was carrying something the size of a brick, wrapped in white paper. When he plopped it down on the table, I could see the logo of the Sands Casino printed in gold on it.

We had a great time at breakfast. I think he ordered almost everything on the menu. He asked me if I was still together with Sally. He hadn’t seen her in a few years, and I was really impressed he still remembered her name. Then, he asked about my mother, how she was doing and if she was seeing anyone. I gave him an update. She was coming along well and had taken a full-time job at an engineering firm in town. She had gone out with a few different men, but nothing had come of it. She was still flying solo.

After we finished our meal, the waitress brought us the check. Wilt pulled over the Sands package and opened it. I could see two stacks of one-hundred-dollar bills. Each stack had a large band wrapped around it with the number 100 printed on it. In about half a second, I did the math and figured out that he had twenty grand in hundreds sitting on the table in front of us. Even by today’s standards, that’s a lot of cash. Back then, it was astronomical.

He pulled out one of the hundreds and gave it to the waitress with the check. I didn’t say anything, but I must have had a funny look on my face. “Oh, I was playing craps in Vegas the other night, and I didn’t get a chance to go to the bank yet,” he said as he re-wrapped the paper around the bills. It didn’t close all the way, and you could still see some of the money.

 

At that point, he reached over and put his hand on my forearm. “David, I really do owe everything I have to your dad. I really do,” he said and glanced down at the stack of hundreds. “You know how easy it would have been for me to blow all the money that was coming to me? It happens all the time. But your father kept me safe. Did you know he used to give me an allowance? I actually had to report everything I spent to him, like I was his kid. He was always lecturing me about asset appreciation, telling me to – plant your money where it will grow.”

“And you know what?” he paused and polished off his cup of coffee. “Everything he put me in turned into gold. Every single deal. There are so many times when I think, ‘God, if I could just talk to Ike about this.’ And sometimes, I still go to pick up the phone and call him. Then, I remember that he’s gone.” He put his things together and got out his keys. “I know I’ll never meet anyone like him again. He was really something else.”

We got up, left the restaurant and started walking down the street to his car. He was casually carrying the wrapped-up money in his hand as we strolled along. Everybody we passed recognized him but quickly looked away. This was LA, not Philly. Celebrities were all over the place, and it wasn’t cool to make a big deal out of seeing one.

“Don’t you think it’s a little crazy, walking down the street with all that money in your hands?” I asked him, once we got into the car.

“Why?” he asked, as if the question made no sense.

“Well, somebody might want to rob you,” I answered, stating the obvious.

“Oh,” he replied with a blasé tone. “Well, you know what? They’d have to try to take it from me, first.”

He ignited the magnificent sports car and gave the motor a few revs. It roared back at him, like a hungry lion, ready to devour the road. We cruised through some back streets, wending our way to the highway entrance, then took off.

The sun was out and we flew through the wind. As I looked over at him with his dark shades and cool, relaxed smile, I thought of a line I’d read in a great newspaper profile: “One thing you can say about Wilt Chamberlain – He always knows who he is.” It was true. The man had no doubt, and I loved that about him.

 

I didn’t see Wilt again for a few years, when we met at a book-signing party in the spring of 1974. He had co-written a book called Wilt—Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door.

It had just come out and was already a national phenomenon. The publisher was hosting a glamorous premiere party in Manhattan, and Wilt invited us to attend. My brother and Gotty were coming up by train, so my mother and I drove up together.

It was a gala event. When we walked into the reception room, it was filled with a few hundred people, and Wilt was standing down front, autographing books. We started walking down the center aisle toward him. At one point, he looked up and saw us approaching. Suddenly, he got overcome with emotion. It rocked him back on his heels a little and his eyes filled up with tears. He turned away for a couple of seconds and quickly regained his composure. Then he looked back at me.

Nobody else had seen it, but we both knew what had happened. He had been surprised by the sight of my mother and almost started crying. It was our own private secret. And as we looked at each other, it reminded me of old times, when we lived in our own world.

He came over, kissed my mother, shook my hand, and went back to autographing books, laughing and making wisecracks, to everyone’s delight. As I watched him, head and shoulders over everyone else, I realized that all my life, I’d seen some of the strongest men in the world try to push him around on the basketball court. They would lean against him, elbow him, and hit him with everything they had. And as powerful as they were, they could never budge him an inch. Not even an inch.

But the sight of my mother, this petite, middle-aged woman, brought back fond memories of a time gone by, and of an old friend who was no more, and it nearly knocked him off his feet. Nothing moves the body or the mind like the heart.

 

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