Sports Legend Revealed: The Philadelphia Warriors drafted Wilt Chamberlain while he was still in high school
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BASKETBALL LEGEND: The Philadelphia Warriors drafted Wilt Chamberlain while he was still in high school.
STATUS: Effectively True, Technically False.
In 1971, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Haywood v. National Basketball Association, which involved NBA Star Spencer Haywood, who left college after his sophomore year at the University of Detroit and was eventually outright signed by the Seattle Supersonics. At the time, the NBA had a rule that stated that no player could join the NBA until four years after they graduated high school (they adopted this rule soon into the NBA’s existence). So, naturally, the NBA took issue with Haywood playing for the Sonics and the Sonics countered by backing Haywood in an anti-trust suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 that players should be allowed to be drafted sooner than four years after graduating high school, although the rule was predicated on the player in question being able to demonstrate economic hardship that required him to pursue a professional career right away. The 1971 NBA Draft saw the introduction of a special ‘hardship draft’ for these players.
This was not the first time the NBA saw a player join the league before he finished college, though, as back in the 1962 Draft, the Detroit Pistons picked prep star Reggie Harding out of high school. The league disallowed Harding to play for the Pistons, but eventually agreed that he could play in the NBA after waiting one year after his high school class graduated, provided that the Pistons spend another draft pick on him in the 1963 Draft.
So Harding had to play in a minor basketball league for a year before finally entering the NBA in the 1963-64 season. Harding’s personal problems in his short NBA career (including a number of run-ins with the law) likely led to the NBA going back to a strict interpretation of the ‘no player can play in the NBA sooner than four years after graduating’ rule that led to the Haywood lawsuit.
But even earlier, in the 1950s, the NBA saw a high school player effectively be drafted out of high school, as the Philadelphia Warriors basically drafted Wilt Chamberlain right out of high school with their territorial pick!
In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, since the very early days of the National Basketball League (heck, before it was even CALLED the NBA - the idea began in 1946 with the Basketball Association of America before they merged with the National Basketball League in 1949 to form the NBA) the league had a special draft rule called ‘territorial picks.’ This rule said that certain players would not enter the regular NBA draft be open to be drafted by any team, but rather that teams would be allowed to pick players that played for colleges within their ‘territory.’ The reasoning behind this rule was twofold - 1. The NBA at the time was not nearly as popular as collegiate basketball, and the NBA was really in a state of constantly eking out a living, so anything that could give the league a boost in attendance was taken seriously, and having collegiate stars play for their hometown NBA team was seen as just such a sales boost. Fans who adored Oscar Robertson as he starred for the University of Cincinnati would logically wish to follow him to the NBA to play for the Cincinnati Royals (or so the logic went) and 2. As you would imagine, the ‘territorial picks’ tended to be the very best and the brightest players in the draft, so if a team was already assured that they were the ones who were going to get a certain player then there was less of a chance of teams bidding against each other for players (in a similar way that goes on to this day in the Major League Baseball draft, where players fall from spots where they normally would be drafted because teams don’t think they would be able to afford them, so they slip to teams that are willing to pay them bigger bonuses).
So that’s what the NBA did for the first few years of its existence. The very first three territorial picks are all in the National Basketball Hall of Fame (1949 saw Ed Macauley picked by the St. Louis Bombers and Vern Mikkelsen picked by the Minneapolis Lakers and 1950 saw Paul Arizin picked by the Philadelphia Warriors), although the next few were not as successful. Now, in 2010, I’m sure you smart readers out there have already figured out a way for someone to manipulate this system, and the basketball executives of the 1950s were just as smart as you were, so when outstanding high school center Wilt Chamberlain graduated high school in 1955, every team in the NBA wanted Chamberlain to play for a college within their territory so that they could use their territorial pick on him in 1959. When you add in the fact that over a hundred colleges wanted the star player ANYways it became an almost circus-like atmosphere with numerous charges of bribery being thrown around and lots of cynical jokes being made across the country (like ‘when Wilt Chamberlain goes to the NBA, he’ll have to take a pay cut!’).
Chamberlain attended high school in Philadelphia, so naturally, Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb was familiar with him, and he was determined that he would get Chamberlain. What really scared Gottlieb was other owners manipulating the system to gain Chamberlain. The man who scared him the most was Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach, who (as I detailed in a Sports Legends Revealed here) was already quite well aware of how great Chamberlain was from seeing him play in summer games at the Catskills between his junior and senior years of high school. Auerbach had greater access to Chamberlain than any other NBA executive, and Gottlieb was rightfully terrified by the idea of Auerbach convincing the young star to play for a college in New England.
Therefore, at a owners meeting in 1955 (before Chamberlain graduated), Gottlieb suggested that he be allowed to use a territorial pick on Chamberlain NOW. That he, Gottlieb, would certify that no matter what happened to Chamberlain during college Gottlieb would still use his 1959 territorial pick on the center. Gottlieb’s theory was that A. Chamberlain was a special case, as he was already a star in Philadelphia just based on high school play, so shouldn’t that go along with the spirit of the territorial pick rule? and B. If the league was afraid of teams bidding against each other for players, then this would rule that out. Yes, it benefits him this time around, but next time it could benefit another team!
The owners were torn on the point, but Gottlieb, as one of the original owners of the league, had a lot of sway. They basically seem to have agreed on a sort of ‘let’s see where Chamberlain decides to go to school - if it is in no one else’s territory, then I suppose we can let you have him.’ It really was not as official as passing a new rule, and in fact, Auerbach spent the summer still trying to convince Chamberlain to go to Harvard so that he could contest Gottlieb’s claim. For his part, Gottlieb was recommending the University of Kansas to Chamberlain because it was outside any team’s territory (which would help Gottlieb with his plan) and it would also keep Chamberlain out of a local Philadelphia college (which would hurt the attendance for the Warriors). Chamberlain eventually did agree to go to the University of Kansas, but who knows how much of an effect Gottlieb had on his decision (I tend to doubt Wilt would have let Gottlieb affect his thinking THAT much, but who can really say what he was thinking at the time?).
The ‘false’ part of the story is that often this story is reported as ‘The Warriors used their 1955 pick on Chamberlain,’ which clearly isn’t the case, as they not only made a first round pick in the 1955 Draft, but they specifically used a territorial pick, picking up future Hall of Famer Tom Gola from La Salle. No, they did not officially draft Chamberlain until the 1959 NBA Draft, although Gottlieb did try to lure Chamberlain to the NBA when Chamberlain left Kansas a year before graduating. Gottlieb argued that he was sure he could get the NBA to waive the rule that said players had to wait four years after graduating high school - which, looking at the Reggie Harding case, likely WAS true. Gottlieb was outbid by Abe Saperstein of the Harlem Globetrotters, who got Chamberlain to play for the Globetrotters for a year before being drafted by the Warriors in 1959.
The only other player ‘chosen’ under this new high school ‘rule’ was Ohio high school star Jerry Lucas, who the Cincinnati Royals made a similar claim in the 1958 season. As it turned out, Lucas ended up going to Ohio State so it did not matter and the Royals would have been able to use their territorial pick on him ANYways. So, really, in the two instances that this ‘rule’ was used, the situation never really arose where any other team would be in a position to challenge it, so I can’t say what would have happened had, say, Jerry Lucas attended St. Johns or if Wilt Chamberlain attended Harvard.
In any event, yes, the story is effectively true, but as it is often reported (including by Wilt himself) as ‘Wilt Chamberlain was drafted while in high school,’ that’s a bit misleading, but basically true.
Thanks to Terry Pluto’s classic Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA for the most comprehensive look at this ‘rule’ (most other sources are fairly vague on the details).
-- Brian Cronin
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