Like other NBA fans who never saw them play live, I’ve always had a fascination with some of the older players from the 1950s and 1960s. Often, the footage that is available tends to underwhelm me. We also know that the stats of the early 1960s are particularly inflated by a run-and-gun style. Still, even knowing all these facts, the numbers make an impact. One player in particular who has always fascinated me was Walt Bellamy. Bellamy put up raw numbers his first two seasons that look Shaq-like, combine those states with a few black-and-white photos of Bellamy dunking on much smaller players that are etched in my mind, and he seems almost like an unknown monster of the pre-historic NBA days. I hadn’t really thought much about Bellamy lately until I was reading through Bill Simmons’ new book on the NBA, “The Book of Basketball”, which re-articulated the common refrain, that Bellamy was a decent stat guy but not a winner. According to Simmons’ editor (who is quoted copiously in footnotes for the book): “Walt Bellamy had the smallest head of any seven-footer ever. He was built like the Washington Monument. And played that way.”
Despite this sentiment, there is remarkably little written about Bellamy just an unspoken understanding of his worth by the basketball powers that be. Even “Tall Tales”, the seminal book on the 1960s basketball, only mentions Bellamy in passing. I thought we could run through Bellamy a little better and see if we could learn something new about Bellamy the player, how this common knowledge developed, and whether it is actually accurate.
Bellamy grew up in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, which was probably not the easiest of times. Bellamy was known as laid back and perhaps too calm demeanor and even NBA.com’s biography on Bellamy opines that this “may have reflected his laid-back southern nature similar to a fellow native Tar Heel and jazz musician, John Coltrane.” Bellamy grew pretty big and ended up playing at Indiana University and leading the school in rebounding and being a an All-American as a junior and senior.
Bobby Knight, who played for Ohio State, described going against Bellamy in college in his autobiography “My Story”: “Bellamy had the ball above his head, and I came in from behind, went up, and grabbed the ball, The problem was he had a good hold on it, too, He shook me like a dog shaking off fleas, but I held onto the ball, and that wasn’t a good idea. He was so strong he ripped the ball away and in the process sent me flying through the air –I ended up on my ass, out of bounds. This whole thing started at the free-throw line. I can remember sitting on the sidelines and saying to myself, ‘Wow!’” In addition to tossing Bobby Knight around like a rag doll, Bellamy was part of the 1960 Olympic gold medal team (with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson).
The Brief History of the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs
Bellamy graduated in 1961 and was the first overall pick of the 1961 draft by the expansion Chicago Packers. Back in 1961, the draft was far from an exact science, as the number two pick Tom Stith played only 25 NBA games and several of the first rounders barely played or didn’t play at all in the NBA (three of the nine first rounders played 58 or fewer career games). Bellamy ended up being the best player in the draft, which featured several decent but no great players like Bill Bridges, Don Kojis, Tom Meschery, Ray Scott, and Kevin Loughery.
The Packers were not good but Bellamy was. The 1961-62 Packers went 18-62 and were, by far, the worst team in the NBA. Despite this fact, Bellamy had a dominant year: 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, a 26.3 PER. Bellamy also led the league in shooting and he along with Wilt Chamberlain, were the first two players to shoot over 50% in an NBA season. Despite this great year, Bellamy did not make the first or second team All-NBA because this was Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 50 ppg season and Bill Russell was the second team center. Bellamy’s statistical dominance for the Packers seemed to be a confluence of two factors: (1) the NBA scored a ton of points in 1961-62, and (2) the Packers were ungodly terrible.
-The early 1960s was the highest scoring environment in NBA history. In 1961-62, the average NBA team scored 118.8 ppg, the highest average of any season. The Packers scored 110 ppg. On a team that scored only 100 ppg (we can’t really calculate per possession because turnovers were not a stat back then), Bellamy would’ve accounted for 28 ppg,
-The Packers were terrible. No one of the roster outside of Bellamy had much more of a career left and most of the players didn’t make it to even one more season. In fact, the Packers were last in the NBA in field goal percentage and scoring. Chicago scored 110.9 ppg, the lowest output in the NBA by 4 ppg, and the team wasn’t great at rebounding either. It made sense to feed Bellamy as much as possible when Slick Leonard was the only viable scoring alternative.
In 1962-63, the Packers changed the team name to the Zephyrs and picked up rookie Terry Dischinger, who put up 25.5 ppg and the team improved marginally to 25-55. This time, Bellamy’s numbers were good but not quite as good (27.9 ppg, .527 FG%, 16.4 rpg, 24.9 PER). Bellamy was essentially the same player but between Dischinger, who could actually score, and the decline in league scoring (the average fell to 115.3 ppg) Bellamy’s number dipped slightly. Chicago was then sold to a new ownership group based in Baltimore and immediately moved the Zephyrs to Baltimore to become the Bullets.
In Baltimore, the team continued to improve. The Bullets went 31-49 and Bellamy continued to lead the way with 27.0 ppg and 17.0 rpg, and 23.3 PER. His supporting cast was significantly better now with Dischinger and some good young players like Gus Johnson, Rod Thorn, and Kevin Loughery. In 1964-65, the Bullets improved to 37-43 and made the playoffs, beating the Hawks and losing to the Lakers in the Conference Finals (yes, Baltimore was in the Western Conference for no good reason). The 37-43 record wasn’t as ugly as it seems, as the Bullets were the third best team in the West. Bellamy’s numbers still looked great (24.8 ppg, .509 FG%, 14.6 rpg, 21.7 PER) but overall were declining. Bellamy wasn’t getting any worse but the league scoring was declining and the Bullets now had some real players (Bailey Howell, Don Ohl, Loughery, and Johnson).
Despite this steady improvement the vibe in Bullet Land was apparently not so great. A November 1965 article by Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated reflected a very unhappy Bullets team and didn’t make Bellamy look too great either. The article starts off with coach Paul Seymour’s frustration being interrupted by a loud whistling from Bellamy. Hilarity ensues: “[S]uddenly, skittering through the quite, someone’s whistle began running merrily up and down the scale. Losing, thought [coach Paul] Seymour, was bad enough; he had suffered that condition often as a player himself, though he was never indifferent to it. But this was was too much. He did not have to look far for the whistler. Walt Bellamy, usually about as cheering a sight as a hearse and nearly as big, was just beginning another trill. ‘Walt!’ snapped Seymour. ‘Lay off the birdseed! If you want to perform, just ask. There’s the table, and we can always get a spotlight.’ Bellamy being Bellamy, he received this advice with a customary loud and inexpressive silence.”
An interesting passage to say the least. Three interesting things are learned: (1) Coach Seymour sounds like spastic jerk, (2) Bellamy’s reputation as apathetic is already very well-ingrained, and (3) we see a first recorded instance of a sportswriter describing a mercurial players as _______ being ________, (a good 30-40 years before Boston sportswriter met Manny Ramirez!).
Kram also discussed Bellamy’s talent, his ability to go toe-to-toe with Wilt and Russell but found Bellamy’s lack of intensity to be more frustrating than he was worth: “Seymour’s biggest problem was the personality of Walt Bellamy. Thinking of it brought to his face the expression of a man who has just gulped a hemlock malted. When the effort of watching Bellamy’s laggard behavior on the court became too much for him, he surveyed the stands as if looking for a place to hide….Seymour is by no means the first coach to find it impossible to reach Bellamy. Jack McMahon had him in Chicago and abhorred him. Bob Leonard once wanted to throw him out of a hotel window but settled for fining him $400 for his indolence. [GM Buddy] Jeannette still rolls his eyes at the mention of the name.
By last weekend everyone in Baltimore had had enough. Jeannette arranged a trade with New York that took Bellamy off Seymour’s back….Jeannette called Seymour in and told him the good news. After they exchanged expressions of relief and congratulated each other, Seymour asked who would tell Walt Bellamy. ‘This one,’ said Jeanette, who had suffered longer than Seymour, ‘is mine. I claim the privilege.’”
This is portrait of Bellamy was far from flattering. On the court, the Bullets didn’t miss Bellamy much though, as they had finished 38-42, pretty much the same as the previous year. But trading Bellamy for Barnes was not exactly a dump trades. Barnes was younger and also a number one overall pick, though not quite the player Bellamy was.
Bellamy and New York: Did He Hold Back The Dynasty?
Traditional lore tells us that the Knicks of the early 1970s were held back by Bellamy. True? Maybe. Let’s take a look…In New York, Bellamy came to a non-playoff team and became its main scorer. Bellamy had 23.2 ppg and 16 rpg for a 30-win Knicks team after the trade in 1965-66. In 1966-67, the Knicks improved a bit to 36-45, with the help of a young supporting case around Bellamy. Wills Reed (age 24) had 20.9 ppg and 14.6 rpg, Dick Barnett (who wasn’t so young at 30) had 17 ppg, and Howard Komives (age-25), Dick Van Arsdale (age-23), and Cazzie Russell (age age-22) also were good. For the first time, Bellamy (19.0 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 18.4 PER), however, didn’t lead his NBA team in points or rebounds.
In 1967-68, the Knicks improved again to 43-39 and lost to a tough Sixers team in the playoffs. Bellamy was pretty much the same player as always (16.7 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 19.1 PER) but his minutes had shrunk to 32.9 mpg. He previously had never played fewer than 38 mpg but with Reed, Russell, Van Arsdale, and Bill Bradley, the Knicks were loaded with good players. The defense was also slowly improving. Without possessions/turnovers, we can only assess more rudimentary raw stats. In this case, the Knicks opponents points per game was near the bottom of the NBA in 1965-66 (8th of 9) but had moved to a more respectable 5th of 12) in 1967-68.
1968-69 became the tipping point for the Knicks dynasty and the nail in the “Bellamy Hurts Teams” mantra. Bellamy was traded early in the season and the Knicks took off and ended up 54-28 with the least points allowed in the NBA. Bellamy played only 35 games with the Knicks that season and was still at the 32 mpg level. His stats, while still good (15.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 17.9 PER), declined from the previous season. Writers, reading in between the stat lines, Bellamy was portrayed as less than his numbers.
In Bill Gutman’s “Tales from the 1969-70 New York Knicks”, he gave the following anecdotes about Bellamy: “Bellamy almost never missed a game, at least physically. What people were beginning to realize is that the same Big Bells didn’t show up every night. When he was going up against a Russell, Chamberlain, or Thurmond, he could be magnificent, showing talent at both ends of the court nearly equal to that of the man he was playing. But when the opponent was…any center of lesser talent, Bellamy often went to sleep. In other words, he played to the quality of the opposition.”
We (actually I) don’t have the box scores, so we can’t go back and trace this assertion. Frankly, it sounds a little manufactured but it is clear that Bellamy’s motor wasn’t as tenacious of some other players. We have some anecdotal stories both ways. There is a story how Chamberlain supposedly didn’t let Bellamy get a shot of for the first half of the first game they played together (this seems like an apocryphal story but I don’t know for sure). There are also stories of Bill Russell saying that Bellamy played him better than any other center (which could’ve been just a tweak at Wilt).
More to the point, Gutman also noted that Reed, who was better than Bellamy, was stuck at power forward with Bellamy and wanted to be a center. Between Bellamy’s apathy and Reed’s desire to be a center, a trade seemed to make sense, especially when the Pistons were willing to trade them the younger true forward Dave DeBusschere in return. The Knicks then went on a run of three NBA Finals (and two titles) in the next four years with DeBusschere at the big forward.
It was clear that slotting the 6′6 athletic DeBusschere at power forward and Reed at center, made the Knicks faster and more athletic. But the Knicks players didn’t seem to hide their antipathy for Bellamy. Phil Jackson takes Bellamy to task in two books. In “Sacred Hoops”, Jackson mentions Bellamy was an enforcer type who was withdrawn and describes Bellamy as the only player on the team not to be part of a brawl with the Hawks. Jackson said that Bellamy “had withdrawn psychically from the team because of a dispute with management.” In “More than a Game”, Jackson said that “Bellamy was not a very coachable player, and Willis [Reed] was unhappy with the fact that Bells didn’t always play hard.”
Jackson wasn’t the only one to imply that Bellamy wasn’t a great part of the team. In Phil Berger’s October 1970 “New York” magazine piece on the Knicks, Nate Bowman said that Bellamy was the only player with a single room on road trips “[u]ntil we started losing a lot of games. Then [coach] Red [Holzman] told him, ‘Well you don’t get any special privileges, because you’re not doing anything special.’ So he took the room away from him.’”
Bellamy’s Twilight In Atlanta
Bellamy was sent to Detroit and was, ironically enough, reunited with Paul Seymour, who had detested Bellamy on Baltimore. We can’t find any articles on Bellamy’s time in Detroit because it was quite brief, with the notable highlight that he played a league record 88 games in 1968-69 between the Pistons and Knicks ( the Knicks had played more games earlier than Pistons at the time of the trade). While Bellamy’s raw numbers on Detroit looked solid as usual, an article from in Sports Illustrated from 1970 stated that by mid-1969-70, Bellamy reached his “nadir” in Detroit and that “he was literally not playing a full minute at the end of his stay.” It should be noted that Bellamy played 79 out of 82 games that season, so this could have been an exaggeration, though it’s clear some coaches were not fans of Bellamy.
Near the end of 1969-70, Bellamy was traded to a pretty good Atlanta team. On Atlanta, Bellamy (now age-30) was the post presence for a good team built around guard/forwards Lou Hudson and Joe Caldwell and rebounder Bill Bridges (and in 1970-71, Pete Maravich). The team was already competitive and the hope was that big Bellamy could help the Hawks counter the elite centers.
The Hawks won 48 games in 1969-70 and went to the Western Conference Finals. They were promptly wiped out in four straight by the Jerry West/Elgin Baylor/Wilt Chamberlain Lakers. The Hawks made the playoffs the next three seasons (despite winning 36 games in two of the them) but lost in the first round each year. In that time, Bellamy aged gracefully but did decline. He rebounded as well as always but Bellamy could no longer shoot quite so efficiently (with the exception of 1971-72, when Bellamy posted a flukey .545 field goal percentage) but rebounded as well as ever. In 1973-74 (age age-34) Bellamy finally slowed down to 31.7 mpg and had his worst shooting season (.486%) and rebounded at a respectable but lower rate than usual.
Bellamy was let go to the expansion New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75. Bellamy was not happy with the expansion team. Shortly after the expansion draft, Bellamy either didn’t like that he might be relegated to a backup role or suspected that the Jazz weren’t run well (this ended up being quite true). In either case, Bellamy, in atypically animated fashion, called a press conference in June 1974 and told reporters that he would go into “forced retirement” because of a “no care” attitude of the Jazz towards Bellamy, whom he described as non-communicative since the expansion draft. Bellamy ended up going to New Orleans anyway but he played only one game, where he put up six points and five boards in 15 minutes before he was waived, ending his NBA career.
We couldn’t find too much in the way of articles describing Bellamy as cerebral during his NBA career. But Bellamy appears to have been busy post-NBA. According to his own bio, Bellamy was VP of the NBPA during his playing days and since has had a role in the Georgia legislature, was a Democratic delegate in 1984 and 1988 conventions, and is now on the board of directors for an organization encouraging local development in Georgia.
In all, Bellamy had a nice career, but not great career. He made the Hall of Fame in 1993, about 20 years after his retirement. I do recall that at that time, DeBusschere wrote a letter advocating Bellamy’s credentials. After viewing Bellamy’s record, however, I think he’s a marginal Hall of Famer at best. Bellamy’s blessing and curse was the two dominant statistical seasons in Chicago. This was a function of an unprecedented opportunity to play in a fast pace environment on a team with virtually no other options. The fact that Bellamy’s stats fell after that point to good but not overwhelming numbers shouldn’t really be attributed to his apathy.
The only other scorer from the old Chicago Era, Dischinger, had a similar stat line decline. Dischinger went from averaging 25.5 ppg for the Zephyrs in 1962-63 as a rookie and then went straight down the next few years. I don’t see anyone accusing Dischinger of dogging it. The early 1960s NBA scoring environment is probably never coming back. Nor is a team as bad as the old Chicago Packers/Zephyrs (which is a good thing). In “Tall Tales”, Lakers coach Fred Schaus summed up Bellamy pretty well, in explaining how the Lakers tried to get Bellamy as a center to compete with Russell and the Celtics: “Walter was no superstar, but put him in the middle and we would have been a different team.”
As for Bellamy’s apathy, it seems to cut both ways. Mark Kreigel “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich”, an encounter is described when a drunk Maravich ran into teammate Bellamy at their hotel at 3:00 a.m.. Maravich, apparently was “impossibly loud and drunk” and ran into Bellamy: “‘Pete just snapped,’ [teammate Herb] White recalls. He jumped on Bellamy’s back and started to rant [racial epithets at Bellamy]….At first, Herb couldn’t understand why he was saying what he was saying, as Bells was about the most laid-back guy on the team. And as crazy as Pete could, the one craziness he didn’t suffer from was racism….The raving lunatic [Maravich] was strangely sane: his slurs were an incantation, a desperate, profane prayer for release. He wanted out, ‘I hate you,’ he screamed. ‘I hate all of you n——s.’ Bellamy could’ve broke him in half. Instead, he just shook his head. The big man wore a look of recognition, resignation, and finally pity. Pete. ‘Take this crazy motherfucker back to his room.’ [Bellamy] said.”
There you have it. Paul Seymour hated Bellamy’s guts for his detached nature. Ideally, you’re big man plays like a tiger, a la Alonzo Mourning, but that wasn’t Bellamy. It may have limited Bellamy as a player a bit but he ended being a pretty good human being and a good ballplayer. As a player, he probably falls some where in the realm of a Kevin Willis, but with Elden Campbell’s deer in headlights stare from early in his career. Not a Hall of Famer but certainly a very good player in the right environment. Certainly not a star but definitely a guy who deserves to be remembered.