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Walt Wesley, Other Player Lakers Got in Trade, Remembers

Times Staff Writer

The player who was the smallest part of the biggest deal in National Basketball Assn. history is actually 6 feet 11 inches. And while Walt Wesley is probably too big to be overlooked, he certainly isn’t concerned that many people have forgotten about him.

Wesley said he is convinced that his place in history, however small, is secure.

“I’ll always be in the record book--if they print it right,” said Wesley, 42, an assistant basketball coach at West Point. “They can put an asterisk by my name or whatever, but I was part of that deal and that isn’t going to change. Hey, I was traded with Kareem to the Lakers.”

At the time, Wesley was a 30-year-old journeyman center for the Bucks. He certainly was not shocked at being traded, possibly because it had already happened to him five times before. The Cincinnati Royals’ first-round draft choice from Kansas in 1966, Wesley played with the Royals, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, the Capital Bullets and Milwaukee.

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Sometimes, Wesley played with distinction. Whatever notoriety he now has should not depend solely on the name of the person with whom he was traded. Wesley worked his way into the record books once before the Abdul-Jabbar trade. On Feb. 19, 1971, Wesley scored 50 points against Cincinnati, which still remains as the highest-scoring game in Cavalier franchise history.

He may not be remembered for that one game. He also may not be always remembered for getting traded to the Lakers with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Remembering Wesley hasn’t always been very easy, it seems, from the moment his name first came up as a possibility in the Lakers’ desire to get Abdul-Jabbar from the Bucks.

What did the trade mean to Wesley’s career?

“It ain’t no major highlight,” Wesley said. “Thinking back on it, I thought the whole thing was a token gesture. The trade was for Kareem. Walt Wesley just happened to be a guy who was around.”

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Wesley’s Laker career lasted exactly one game. He appeared on opening night, Oct. 23, 1975, against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, scored four points and was placed on waivers a week later without playing in another game.

The way Wesley became a Laker, how he found his small niche in the record book, is kind of a story about some sort of natural progression. This is how it works: If you are going to be forgotten, first somebody has got to remember you.

Wesley’s name and the word Lakers were used in the same sentence for the first time in an airplane on its way from Denver to Chicago. It was in mid-May, only minutes after a breakthrough meeting at Denver’s Stapleton airport.

Negotiating for the Lakers at that secret meeting were club attorney Alan Rothenberg, General Manager Pete Newell and Vice President/Treasurer Jim Lacher. Their counterparts from the Bucks were Vice President/General Manager Wayne Embry and President William Alverson.

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After nearly five hours, the meeting breaks up. Embry and Alverson head for their plane, Newell and Lacher for theirs. Rothenberg, who had been telephoning Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke with progress reports, called Cooke one last time from the concourse.

“I just suddenly decided I didn’t want to let these guys out of my sight because I knew how much Cooke wanted to do this deal,” Rothenberg said.

“I just yelled at Pete and Lacher, ‘I’m going to Chicago.’ So I’m outta here,” he said. “I get on the plane with Embry and Alverson. We spend a couple hours drinking up a storm, but I can’t get these guys to budge to give me anything or take anything less.

“Finally, I just said to them, ‘You guys like me, right?’ They said yes. I said, ‘You know Cooke. He’ll kill me if I took this flight from Denver to Chicago, he won’t pay me for my time and he won’t even pay me for the airplane ticket. You can’t do that to me.’ I said ‘You’ve got to give me something. With these four players from us, you’re going to have a lot of cuts. Just go to the very bottom of your roster and let me pick a couple of players.’

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“They were just laughing. They said, ‘OK, fine, we don’t want you to get in trouble with Cooke. Here’s the list.’ And I ended up getting Walt Wesley.”

The Bucks held a news conference on a Monday afternoon to announce the trade. Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, who was then the sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal, had a story in that afternoon’s Journal, breaking the news of the trade in Milwaukee before it had been announced there. But when Alverson spoke to the assembled reporters to reveal the trade, Dwyre sat stunned in the audience.

“He never said anything about Walt Wesley,” Dwyre said. “I thought I had had it wrong in the paper. I thought I’d blown it.”

While the press conference went on, Dwyre walked over to Alverson at the dais and questioned him in a whisper about why he had left out Wesley’s name. Alverson stood up and interrupted Embry, who was speaking from the podium at the time, and said: ‘Oh, yeah, Walt Wesley is part of the deal.’

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“Poor Walt,” Dwyre said. “He was such an afterthought, they didn’t even remember they’d traded him.”

And that is how Walt Wesley became a Laker at the same time Abdul-Jabbar did, just in case anyone forgot. Actually, not everyone draws a blank when Wesley’s name is mentioned.

“I remember very, very well,” Cooke said. “He was quite tall, wasn’t he?”

Well, yes he was. Still is, too. Wesley said he was happy to get a shot with the Lakers, but when it turned out to be a blank, he went back to Phoenix, where he had previously played during the second part of the 1972-73 season.

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No other NBA team claimed Wesley, so he retired. He did it quietly and without anyone taking much notice. Wesley enrolled at Arizona State and went to school for a semester and then decided he wanted to coach. His first college job was as a graduate assistant to Kansas Coach Ted Owens.

After three years there, Wesley moved to Western Michigan for four years, the first two under Coach Les Wothke, then on to West Point to rejoin Wothke, who had become head coach. Wesley is now in his fourth year at Army.

Wesley says that most of the people he comes in contact with know about the role in the trade for Abdul-Jabbar. He said they know it’s really only a bit part, but Wesley is not upset.

“Walt,” Wesley said, “he just went along with the Big Fella.”

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So how big were you in this trade, Walt?

“Well, it’s like this,” said Wesley. “Say you go to the store and buy a steak. And the store owner has got an excess of chicken wings. So he says, ‘Here, take some of these chicken wings with you. Take them off my hands.’ I was the chicken wings.”


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