The two-week pursuit ended with a telegram to the Spectrum addressed to Harold Katz, the 76ers owner who had flown across the country a week earlier to chase an idea that 40 years later seems like a fantasy.
“Thanks for the beautiful offer to come out and play, but I decided that this is not the time,” the message said.
In February of 1982, the Sixers — similar to the current team — were in the market for a backup center, someone to log limited minutes and fill the void left by Darryl Dawkins’ fractured fibula. But Katz did not have a buy-out market or G League to use the way Daryl Morey has this season in his search for a suitable backup for Joel Embiid after trading Andre Drummond to Brooklyn.
So Katz crafted the lofty proposal of luring 45-year-old Wilt Chamberlain out of retirement after being out of the league for nine seasons.
If Katz had his wish, it would have been a dream pairing of the player who led the Sixers to the 1967 title with the group of players — Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and Andrew Toney — who would win the championship in 1983.
Chamberlain lived in a Bel Air mountain-top mansion in Los Angeles and stayed in shape by playing volleyball, racquetball and pickup basketball. It had been 20 years since his 100-point game and only one player — 46-year-old coach Nat Hickey, who played two games in 1948 for the Providence Steamrollers — played in the league at an older age.
But the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain was as long on confidence as he was on height.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if I wanted to come back, I could come back,” he told The Inquirer 10 days before sending that telegram to Katz. “I led the league in blocked shots and rebounding when I quit, so I wasn’t exactly a dog then. I quit on top. I led the league in three of the top five offensive categories that year and there is no doubt I would lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots right now. If that sounds egotistical, well, that’s the way it is.”
But not everyone was as confident in Chamberlain as he was. Erving, the team’s captain and reigning league MVP, said in 1982 that the move could have been “counterproductive” and wondered if a legend like Chamberlain could assimilate into the Sixers.
Coach Billy Cunningham, who played three seasons with Chamberlain and won the ‘67 title with him, wasn’t buying it, either.
“Harold was more serious than I was,” Cunningham said last week by phone. “It was tough because of my relationship with Wilt as friends. I just didn’t see at that point that he was going to be able to take us to the promised land. I know he was upset with me initially, but it was the best for both parties.”
Chamberlain said he scrimmaged with UCLA and played in a Los Angeles summer league that featured NBA stars. His play there, Chamberlain thought, was proof that he could still play.
“I know who controlled the boards in those games,” he said. “They all wanted to try and dunk on Wilt Chamberlain. I took three or four of those young boys from UCLA and played some of the pros. You ask them if I’m an old man.”
Michael Richman, one of Chamberlain’s longtime attorneys, said Chamberlain loved playing dominoes and cards, anything that could scratch his competitive itch during his retirement.
“I think that’s probably why he wanted to get back into professional basketball,” Richman said last week. “He always stayed in great shape. One day, we were going to a doctor’s office and I’ll never forget this. I was following him up the steps and I hit his leg for some reason, and it was like hitting a telephone pole. It was solid as can be.”
Cunningham agreed that his old friend loved a challenge — and was perhaps drawn to the money being made by the stars of the 1980s — but the NBA was a different animal than the pickup games he found in L.A.
“Being away from something for nine years, not in that basketball shape, it would be pretty tough,” Cunningham said. “It appears that Ben Simmons is 25 and he’s having a tough time coming back right now.”
Cunningham told Katz that bringing in Chamberlain would create a media circus and cause a distraction in the final months of a season that would end with the Sixers falling to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
“If Wilt didn’t retire and kept playing, I think physically he might have been able to play at 45 if he kept the same regimen,” Cunningham said. “If there wasn’t that nine-year space and he kept playing, it might have been quite a different story. Because he really didn’t have many injuries. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went into his 40s . But he kept playing. That was the biggest downside to Wilt coming back.”
Chamberlain wrote in his 1992 autobiography, A View From Above, that at least six teams tried to lure him out of retirement. He said none of the offers — from the likes of the Suns, Bulls, Knicks, and Nets — was as strong as the one made by Katz.
The owner said money would not be an issue and he would help him in land endorsements. Katz, who bought the team in 1981, even considered offering Chamberlain a contract to play just home games. Pursuing Chamberlain, Katz said, was not for “hype and nonsense.”
“It created a hubbub,” Pat Williams, the team’s general manager, said last week. “Harold enjoyed all that kind of stuff. Harold, in his own way, was a showman, and that was a big-time show.”
Chamberlain ultimately declined Katz’s proposal, squashing any dreams of The Big Dipper playing alongside Dr. J. The Sixers found their new center seven months later by trading for Moses Malone, who proved to be the missing piece of the team’s title aspirations. Dawkins was traded to the Nets after the 1981-82 season and played just two more full seasons as injuries derailed his career.
“Would I like to be in Detroit and Cleveland again? Would I like to go back to eating at 12 midnight, watching TV in the room, catching all those early flights? Hell, no,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t know how I could deal with all the mental pressures again. Physically, I know I could still do it.”
The Sixers’ pursuit of Chamberlain was not yet finished. Years later, the team floated the idea of signing Chamberlain before the 1989-90 season so he could have played in five decades. This move, former GM John Nash said last week, was probably more of a publicity stunt than the offer Katz had made.
There were no recruiting visits to Los Angeles or a telegram to the Spectrum this time; instead, a quick reply from Chamberlain’s attorney that the former Overbrook High star wasn’t interested. Even Chamberlain, who started his NBA career in 1959, wasn’t bullish enough to think he could play in the NBA at 53.
“My mother called,” Chamberlain told the Daily News after sending his telegram to Katz in 1981. “And she told me not to. She said, ‘Son, you’ve done what you had to do in that part of your life. It was enough. It’s time to live the rest of your life and enjoy it.’”