A 17-year-old Wilt working as a bellhop and playing for Red Auerbach

A 17-year-old Wilt working as a bellhop and playing for Red Auerbach

Haskell Cohen was working public relations for the NBA in the 50s when he spotted a kid playing ball in Overbrook High in Philadelphia. He knew a player that spectacular is just what the NBA needs, so he set him up with the best position a high school kid in need of development could get. A job as a bellhop on a resort in the Catskills. Wilt Chamberlian was 17 years old, 6 feet 10 1/2, and been playing against older players, doing quite well.

“I thought I was pretty hot stuff.”

Wilt Chamberlain

It sounds weird, but those summer jobs were the closest thing to an AAU circuit back in those days. A lot of college players would get summer jobs in such resorts, and they all had teams. Work during the day, play when your shift was over. Wilt was still in high school, but he could handle the college players. But, his coach didn’t like the way Wilt played defense. His coach was “the man with the cigar,” Red Auerbach. That’s right, one of the greatest coaches and GM’s in basketball history was coaching Wilt’s summer resort team.

Looking back on it. I think maybe it was my attitude that first touched off Auerbach. You know, I wasn’t exactly the most modest kid in town, and I had a lot of moves for a high school freshie playing with the big boys. And when Red would call practice he would sort of talk to me in that voice that catches you right here, right between the ribs. He especially didn’t like the way I played defense.
“Don’t you think, Chamberlain,” Red would growl, “that it might be sort of a good idea to defense your man from in from of him instead of behind him? What the hell are you doing back there?” But I went on defending the guys from behind, reaching around with my arms to get the ball, waiting to fall on them when they wheeled around to shoot.

Wilt Chamberlain

When it comes to character, Wilt was the complete opposite of everything Auerbach believed a basketball player should be. We know that for sure because we saw what Bill Russell did with Red and how they played. So a game against Shawanga Lodge was the perfect opportunity for Red to teach Wilt a lesson in humility and team-first basketball. Shawanga Lodge had B.H. Born on the team, an All-American from the University of Kansas. Red announced the game by saying Wilt that Born “is going to make chopped chicken liver out of you.”

“At the half-time break I had scored 30-some points and Born had scored exactly two. And I came ambling back into the dressing room and flopped myself down on the training table and folded my arms behind my head. I was whistling, you know, doe de doo de doo, and sort of looking side-wise at old Red while he looked back at me with a steely stare.”

Wilt Chamberlain

Red had to acknowledge that Wilt was special. All it took was a simple gesture of respect from the great Red Auerbach. He started the halftime talk with “Now, Mr. Chamberlain, may I please have your attention for a moment?” He got Wilt’s attention. Chamberlain did what most coaches talk about being crucial – he allowed himself to be coached. Wilt started playing defense the way Red wanted him to play defense, and he learned a lot that summer. 

Auerbach, being Auerbach, knew it was time to recruit Chamberlain. He would let Wilt serve him drinks and cigars while he was playing poker at night, building a relationship with the young man. Then he made his move.

“Why don’t you go to Harvard. kid?” he said. “And then I’ll be able to pick you off in the territorial draft for the Celtics.”

Wilt Chamberlain

The drinks and cigars did work. Wilt went to Kansas to play for Phog Allen, whom he admired, and later to Philly and the Lakers. Wilt on the Celtics? I can’t process that.