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1966-67 Sixers: Fifty years later they remain Philly's best team ever

Last year, utilizing a complex analytical formula, statistical guru Nate Silver's website,, ranked the greatest teams in NBA history.

Last year, utilizing a complex analytical formula, statistical guru Nate Silver's website,, ranked the greatest teams in NBA history.

The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers were 18th.

A half-century after arcing so brightly but briefly in the NBA skies, that record-setting championship team, once honored as the league's all-time best, is now a falling star.

"A lot of people out there think basketball was invented with Bird and Magic," said Wali Jones, a starting guard on the 1966-67 Sixers. "After all these years, when they talk about the best teams ever, they don't mention us anymore."

But in Philadelphia, where 50 years ago they made basketball history and, more important, finally cleared the enormous green hurdle that was the despised Boston Celtics, those NBA-champion 76ers still shine vividly in the sports firmament.

What other Philadelphia team, after all, ever had so dominant a season, compiling what was then an all-time-best 68-13 mark?

Who else has statues honoring two of its players? Earlier this month, a bronze replica of Hal Greer was dedicated at the 76ers' Camden practice facility, joining one of Wilt Chamberlain that has stood outside the Wells Fargo Center since 2001.

And what subsequent, spontaneous celebration has ever tasted as sweet as the joyful explosion they ignited in smoky Convention Hall on April 11, 1967?

That night, in front of 13,007 bloodthirsty Philadelphians, the Sixers dismantled their nemesis, the eight-time defending champion Celtics, 140-116. The lopsided victory was punctuated by vengeful shouts of "BOSTON IS DEAD!" and by the lighting of dozens of cigars in mock tribute to the arrogant victory ritual of former Celtics coach Red Auerbach.

Thirteen days later and 3,000 miles to the west, they clinched the championship with a win over San Francisco in Game 6 of an anticlimactic NBA Finals.

Outstanding NBA teams like the 1985-86 Celtics, 1995-96 Bulls, and 2015-16 Warriors have followed. And after a half-century of progress and change, of three-point shots and zone defenses, of expansion and nonstop TV exposure, there is no objective way to gauge how those 76ers, with future Hall of Famers Chamberlain, Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham, would stack up against them.

The more recent, more familiar, more hyped teams are difficult to compare with one that straddled two basketball eras. The 1966-67 Sixers had the strength and athleticism to compete in the modern NBA, but they also had players who employed peach basket-era techniques such as two-handed set shots and underhanded free throws.

Given all their talent, their championship life span was surprisingly short-lived, limited to a single season by the reawakened Celtics, by a devastating injury to Cunningham, by ill-advised trades and empty drafts, and by Chamberlain's perpetual unease.

But from their Oct. 15, 1966, season-opening victory over the Knicks through the championship they clinched on April 24, 1967, in San Francisco's Cow Palace, the 76ers were the equal of any NBA team in history.

"We were the greatest team I ever played on," said Chamberlain, who died in 1999. "The greatest team I ever saw."

Their 68-13 record was unequaled. Their 46-4 start remains the best ever. They scored a league-high 125.2 points a game, almost 10 points more than their opponents. They led the league in shooting percentage and assists.

Their roster was a potent mix of veterans and youth, of physically overpowering big men and guards who could score and defend. They had the best sixth man, plus a coach they respected.

And, literally and figuratively at the center of it all, was Chamberlain, the most unstoppable and unknowable force in basketball history.

"Wilt transcended everyone and everything," said Bill Melchionni, a rookie guard on the team. "He was one of a kind."

Though the 7-foot-2 Chamberlain, who had averaged 50.4 points a game five years earlier, sacrificed offensively that season - taking 14.3 fewer shots a game than in 1964-65 - he remained a statistical giant.

His 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds, and 7.8 assists a game won him a third MVP award. He not only played in all 81 contests but averaged 45.5 minutes. His .683 shooting percentage was the highest in league history. He shot an NBA-high 875 free throws, though, it must be noted, he missed 56 percent of them.

And if Boston entered the division finals thinking it might once again take down the 76ers, Chamberlain quickly disabused them of that notion. In the opener, he recorded a quadruple-double. In Game 3, he established a playoff record that still stands with 41 rebounds.

"When the big fellow was ready to play," said Cunningham, "nobody was going to stop him."

It started with a loss

That spectacular 1966-67 season arose out of a familiar scenario, another stinging defeat to Boston in a division final.

The 1965-66 Sixers had finished with the NBA's best record, and their exceptional talent led nearly everyone to believe they were destined to push past the Celtics at last. Trades engineered in 1965 by Ike Richman, the co-owner who served as his team's GM, had brought Chamberlain and Jones back home. Drafts had yielded Walker, Jackson, and the rookie Cunningham. Greer was a perennial all-star; set-shooting Larry Costello and forward Dave Gambee were still productive players.

No matter. Boston ousted them easily again, in five games.

This time ownership responded decisively. Its No. 1 priority was stabilizing their volatile and enigmatic superstar.

For whatever reason, Chamberlain never seemed able to stay content for long. His incomparable career was marred by frequent trade requests, holdouts, funks, and threats to give up basketball for track and field, boxing, or football.

"For all Wilt's talent, his charm, his intelligence," the late Jack Ramsay, the general manager of the '66-'67 Sixers, said in 1999, "he was also one of the most enigmatic people I've ever met."

He'd feuded privately and publicly with Dolph Schayes, so after the '65-'66 season, the 76ers fired their coach. Kosloff replaced him with Alex Hannum, a no-nonsense leader who had coexisted peacefully with Chamberlain when both were in San Francisco.

One hurdle down, Kosloff and Hannum then persuaded their star, who had been commuting from New York, to move to Philly, a task made easier by the Ben Franklin Parkway penthouse the team secured for him.

Finally, the 76ers hired the superstar's closest friend, Vince Miller, to be a scout, statistician, and Chamberlain-tender.

Yet when training camp opened in Margate, Chamberlain, who'd signed a three-year, $370,000 contract the previous summer, wasn't there. He contended that Richman, who had died Dec. 13, 1965, and who was his personal attorney, had promised him equity in the team. If Kosloff wouldn't give him that, he wanted a new deal.

Kosloff held firm, refusing to confirm or deny Richman's alleged promise. But on the eve of the season, he and Chamberlain agreed on a new, one-year deal for an estimated $200,000.

"Wilt held out for a couple of weeks," said Melchionni. "Then, all of a sudden, he showed up for one of our last exhibition games in Allentown."

It was about then that he and the 6-7 Hannum squared off in a locker-room confrontation players now point to as a turning point.

"Everybody was sitting there, and they started," Cunningham recalled. "Alex never backed down. I think the way the coach handled it told us who was going to be the boss."

Hannum convinced his superstar that, surrounded by so much talent, he no longer needed to do it all by himself.

"Wilt wanted to play all the time, like he did when Frank McGuire coached him on the Warriors and he averaged more than 48 minutes a game," said Melchionni. "But Alex wanted him to do things differently. He said, 'We've got a lot of really good players here. We don't need you to score 50 a game.' "

Desperate for a vindicating championship, he agreed. In doing so, Chamberlain eased locker-room tensions. The 10 players, one coach, and trainer-traveling secretary Al Domenico developed a tight and lasting bond.

On the court, Greer's shooting ability and Walker's gift for improvisation kept defenses from sagging on the big man. Jackson, a talented center moved to power forward to accommodate Chamberlain, was a physical force inside. Cunningham brought energy and points off the bench. And Chamberlain dominated at both ends.

It all worked just as the lyrics to a song written later to honor the team's championship would suggest:

"There's Hal and Larry, Matt and Bill

"And Wali Jones to pass it.

"Luke and Billy, Chet and Dave

"And Wilt to guard the basket."

The '66-'67 Sixers won their first four games. In the fifth, at home, they sent an emphatic message to a Celtics team that had captured nine of the 10 previous NBA titles, a 138-96 thrashing that was the worst loss in Boston history.

They rolled on. At midseason, Costello suffered a debilitating leg injury. Jones replaced him as a starter, and Penn Stater Bob Weiss was signed as backcourt insurance.

Through 50 games, the 76ers were an unprecedented 46-4.

"It was a beautiful thing to watch, the way we were playing, going on all cylinders," recalled Jones. "There wasn't anybody in the league who wanted any part of us."

In addition to Chamberlain's 24.1 points a game, Greer averaged 22.1, Walker 19.3, and Cunningham 18.5. Jackson added 12.0 points and pulled down 8.9 rebounds a game.

They blew through Cincinnati in the opening round of the playoffs, three games to one. Then came the five-game Boston massacre. So satisfying was that long-awaited redemption that Philadelphians didn't even fill Convention Hall for the NBA Finals opener against San Francisco, a franchise relocated from here only five years earlier.

Behind league scoring leader Rick Barry, the Warriors managed two victories, including Game 5 in Philadelphia. That Sunday afternoon loss meant the Sixers had to fly cross-country to San Francisco for a game the next night.

The unexpected home defeat unnerved Philadelphians. Whispers that the team and Chamberlain were going to blow it yet again grew louder, so loud that before Game 6 someone felt compelled to scribble four words of motivation on the Cow Palace locker room's blackboard:


This time they wouldn't. With Jones scoring 27 points and Chamberlain and Jackson combining for 44 rebounds, the 76ers prevailed, clinching the NBA title with a 125-122 victory.

"The whole season was just magical," said Jones. "We played almost perfect basketball."

In 1980, when the NBA celebrated its 35th anniversary, it not only honored the greatest players from those 31/2 decades, but the greatest team.

It chose the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers.

"Everyone who's forgotten," said Jones, "can just go and Google us. What you find might amaze you."