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Chamberlain Bitter, but on National TV Interview, He Wilts

Last week, when Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were guests on KABC radio’s “Sportstalk,” the seventh game of the 1969 NBA championship series between the Lakers and Boston Celtics came up.

Tommy Hawkins, one of the show’s hosts and a former teammate of the three guests on that Laker team, asked Chamberlain if he was still bitter about what had happened in that game.

What had happened was that with the Lakers trailing by seven points, Chamberlain left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury and never returned. The Lakers caught up, but with Chamberlain still on the bench, lost to the Celtics.

Chamberlain had asked to go back in the game, but, according to Chamberlain, then-Laker coach Butch van Breda Kolff wanted to show the world he could win without Chamberlain. The two weren’t exactly good friends.

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Hawkins’ question got Chamberlain going. He said he would always be bitter.

He also said: “I feel sorry for these guys, I mean you guys, because you never stood up and asked Butch van Breda Kolff why the best rebounder and best defensive player wasn’t in the game. And: “No one ever stood up and had anything positive to say about Wilt Chamberlain to the press after that.” And: “You guys let Butch van Breda Kolff get away with a load of crap.”

It was vintage Wilt.

Wednesday night, Chamberlain was back on the air, this time on national TV. He was CBS’ halftime guest during Game 4 of this Laker-Celtic championship series.

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The bright lights were on, the camera was rolling, and there was Chamberlain, decked out in a black tank top.

“What are you doing these days?” asked Brent Musburger.

Chamberlain: “What I’m mainly doing is listening to you on TV talk about guys playing great defense and comparing them to Bill Russell.”

Chamberlain watchers must have thought, “Here we go. He’s going to say something like his grandmother was better than Bill Russell.”

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Not quite. Chamberlain backed off a little. What he said was: “The best shot-blocker I know of was my grandmother, who was only 6-8.”

Musburger, instead of egging him on, said: “Come on, you can’t put Russ down.”

With that, Mr. Controversy became Mr. Nice Guy. “No, no, I’m not putting him down,” Chamberlain said. He wasn’t?

Later, Chamberlain said that Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, whom he has knocked in the past, was the perfect guy to break his NBA scoring record. And when Musburger asked about the 1969 controversy, Chamberlain glossed over it.

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“Elgin says he never questions a coach’s decision and Jerry says he never gets into controversies,” was about all he said.

Here was Chamberlain’s big chance. A huge audience was primed and ready for some hard-hitting remarks. But Wilt wilted. It was as if Bill Russell had showed up to intimidate him.

“Nothing wrong with a little dignity,” Musburger said after the game.

Chamberlain, who left after the interview and went home to watch the second half on TV, was reached by phone Thursday.

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“You thought I was soft?” he said. “I didn’t think so. I said what I wanted to say. The problem was there wasn’t much time. We couldn’t spend 20-25 minutes talking about 1969.”

Too bad. Chamberlain usually has a lot to say. “I’m not controversial, I just speak the truth,” he said.

Mr. Neutral: Commentator Tom Heinsohn, a former Celtic player and coach, showed up for Game 4 wearing a tie that was half green and half purple.

It was as ugly as it sounds.

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Heinsohn said that someone at CBS had made it for him as a symbol of impartiality.

Heinsohn is trying to straddle the line, with more success this year than last. But there are those in Boston who think he’s going too far in his effort to be neutral. They view him as a traitor.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You just can’t win.”

A bright spot for CBS has been Pat O’Brien’s “At the Half” segments. O’Brien was an investigative news reporter for KCBS, Channel 2, for four years before joining CBS Sports in February of 1981.

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When Van Gordon Sauter, former KCBS general manager who now is the executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group, went from KCBS to CBS as the head of the sports department, he took O’Brien with him.

O’Brien, who still lives in North Hollywood, has since become one of CBS sports’ most versatile reporters. For example, in March he spent three weeks in Alaska covering a dogsled race.

CBS tried him as an in-studio anchor during the last college football season. He replaced Musburger, who had chosen to do play by play. But O’Brien will be back in the field working as a reporter next season.

“I really don’t look at it as a setback,” O’Brien said of the move. “Field reporting is my strength. I recognize that.”

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A decision as to who will be the anchorman on CBS’ college football coverage has yet to be made.

Pro football news: O. J. Simpson will return to ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” Don Meredith will not. Meredith’s replacement may be Joe Namath, who reportedly turned down ABC’s first offer.

A source said that Namath wanted some guarantee of job security. Negotiations between ABC and Namath have been reopened, the source said.

NBC has hired former Cleveland coach Sam Rutligiano as a commentator. NBC’s other new NFL commentator next season will be former Miami guard Bob Kuechenberg.

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Former St. Louis Cardinal offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf, who has worked for CBS radio the last two seasons, has been hired by CBS-TV. Dierdorf is a full-time sportscaster for radio station KMOX in St. Louis.

Notes The first part of an in-depth interview with Steve Howe will be televised today at 4 p.m. on the “Dodger Central” pregame show on Channel 11. In the interview, conducted by Ted Green, Howe will talk about his year out of baseball and what he has gone through. “The interview will change how some people view Steve,” said Bill Brandt, the show’s producer. “He talks about some of the things he has not addressed before.” An excerpt: “I was a spoiled brat. If I didn’t get my way, I was mad at everybody. Life just doesn’t work that way.” The second part of the interview will be televised at 10:30 a.m. Sunday before the final game of the Dodgers’ three-game series at Atlanta.

Ratings game: The national ratings for this year’s NBA championship series through the first three games were up 23% over last year’s. . . . Game 4 Wednesday night got a 27.0 Nielsen rating in Los Angeles and a 35.5 in Boston. Last year, Game 4 got a 24.2 in L.A., a 28.2 in Boston. . . . The highest L.A. rating ever for a Laker telecast was a 31.4 for Game 7 of last year’s championship series. . . . The halftime guest for Game 5 tonight will be Julius Erving. . . . The NHL draft June 15, will be shown on closed circuit TV at the Forum, free of charge. The draft is being televised nationally in Canada, beginning at 10 a.m. PDT, and the Kings are picking up the feed to show their fans. The Kings have two first-round picks. . . .


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