The Misunderstood Journey of Walt Bellamy

Walt Bellamy

Walt Bellamy had one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NBA history. His 31.6 points per game remain the 2nd-highest ever for a rookie behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6 in 1960. His rookie rebounding average of 19.0 is behind only Wilt’s 27.0 in 1960 and Bill Russell’s 19.6 in 1957. His field goal percentage of .519 was the highest a player had ever shot from the field up to that point in the NBA. He was big, strong, agile, durable and ran a pick-and-roll perhaps better than any center of his era.

He could go toe-to-toe with the Big Dipper:

Wilt Chamberlain won a personal scoring duel with Chicago rookie Walt Bellamy in the opener [of a double header] as the Philadelphia Warriors topped the Chicago Packers, 122-108.

Chamberlain scored 55 points. Bellamy dropped in 47.

He could throttle the Russell-led Celtics defense:

Walt Bellamy scored 35 points and grabbed 30 rebounds Wednesday night to lead the Packers to a 103-90 triumph over the Boston Celtics to break a seven game losing streak.

But what he couldn’t do was escape the shadow cast by his spectacular debut season.

Bellamy was the 1st pick of the NBA draft in 1961 taken by the expansion Chicago Packers. As is typical of an expansion franchise, the team stunk. They finished with 18 wins and it’s a miracle they got that many. Bellamy was the only above average player on the team. This explains why he shot a gaudy 24 field goals a game. Given that defenses didn’t have to worry about his teammates it’s amazing Bellamy connected on a then-record 51.9% of his shots.

This “opportunity” to score at-will and necessarily dominate the glass to the tune of almost 20 boards a night would come to haunt Bellamy. As he slowly found better teammates in his career, his averages predictably fell as he needed to handle less of the burden. His scoring average fell through the years as he teamed with better teammates and the Packers/Zephyrs/Bullets as a team improved.

Just compare these rosters. I’ve given you Bellamy’s top 5 teammates, who played at least 1000 minutes, based on player efficiency rating (PER) for each season he was with the Chicago/Baltimore franchise.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – Andy Johnson (PER 13.6), Slick Leonard (12.2), Charlie Tyra (10.8), Horace Walker (10.3), Ralph Davis (9.9)

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – Terry Dischinger (20.8), Charlie Hardnett (16.2), Don Nelson (13.9), Si Green (11.4), Mel Nowell (10.5)

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – Terry Dischinger (19.6), Gus Johnson (16.3), Rod Thorn (12.9), Don Kojis (12.6), Si Green (11.6)

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – Bailey Howell (18.9), Gus Johnson (16.6), Don Ohl (13.5), Kevin Loughery (11.6), Si Green (11.6)

Now let’s check back with Walter’s PER, scoring, rebounding and shooting average for these seasons.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – 26.3 PER, 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, 51.9% FG

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – 24.9 PER, 27.9 ppg, 16.4 rpg, 52.7% FG

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – 23.3 PER, 27.0 ppg, 17.0 rpg, 51.3% FG

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – 21.7 PER, 24.8 ppg, 14.6 rpg, 50.9% FG

So as the teammates improved, Walter’s numbers appropriately declined. It’s some perverse culture of hero ball that leads people to think Bellamy should have stymied the following players their chance to shine:

Gus Johnson – 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA, 2x All-Defense, Hall of Famer

Don Ohl – 5x All-Star

Terry Dischinger – 3x All-Star, 1963 Rookie of the Year

Bailey Howell – 6x All-Star, 1x All-NBA, Hall of Famer

Bellamy looking around and giving in to some “alpha male” bullocks would have been nonsense. It would actually be antithetical to his nature. He was a thoughtful, introverted individual interested in politics and spent his free time registering African-Americans to vote in the 1960s. And really, a player averaging at least 24.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in all these seasons getting a bad rap is absurd. His quiet nature was misunderstood as apathy but couldn’t be further from the truth. Upon his retirement he scored over 20,000 points and grabbed over 14,000 rebounds but it was the 38,940 minutes played and only 12 games missed in a 13-year career that gave him the most pride (and notice his deferential tone):

“I look back on the number of coaches I had who permitted me to log the sixth most minutes [as of his retirement in 1975] of all time. The statistic I treasure the most is my playing time.”

By 1965, the Bullets made the playoffs, upset the St. Louis Hawks in the 1st round and then gave the Los Angeles Lakers a tussle in the Western Division Finals ultimately losing 4 games to 2. Then Bellamy was traded to the New York Knicks where he tagged-team at center with a young Willis Reed. But the Knicks were a mediocre-at-best franchise. They had finished in last place 9 of the previous 10 seasons in the Eastern Division. However, Reed and Bellamy got the team to the playoffs twice in their 3 seasons together (1966-’68), including the 1st winning season for New York since 1959.

But eventually one center had to go and it was the older Bellamy, shipped to Detroit for power forward Dave DeBusschere . The Knicks went on to win two titles and Bellamy continued to accrue a “can’t win” label, which overlooks the emergence of youngsters Walt Frazier, Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley for those Knicks teams concurrently with the DeBusschere trade.

The “can’t win” label became nearly branded on Bells after Detroit parted with him after just a season and sent him to Atlanta. But with the Hawks, Bellamy would find some redemption in the twilight of his career as the defensive and rebounding anchor for a team that made four straight postseasons and featured flashy Pete Maravich and smooth Lou Hudson.

But that rookie season in 1962, Bellamy never could shake it. There’s just something off-putting seeing a player who had 13 seasons rack up his career high in PPG and RPG in his rookie year. And not just career highs, but staggering career highs. You look at his player card or a table of his career stats and it just looks like a long-steady decline. But this is why you move beyond the snapshot and take in the full view.

Athletes in the 1960s did not determine their lot in pro sports, they merely made the best of it

Maybe if he had fallen into a better situation, on a team more loaded early in his career, he would have had a more “natural” career arc. The rookie who delivers the slight edge to a veteran team to make noise in the playoffs. Then as the vets slough off, he emerges as the team’s best player and either a) keeps the good times rolling or b) suffers a martyr’s death trying to save the franchise.

Chamberlain parachuted into Philadelphia in 1960, a team just 4 years removed from a title and still with Hall of Famers and all-stars abounding. Russell arrived in Boston in 1957. No title yet for the Celtics, but they had Cousy and Sharman and Heinsohn. Nate Thurmond arrived with the Warriors in 1964, lost in the Finals that year, kind of stunk when Chamberlain left and then got Rick Barry and another Finals appearance.

Walt Bellamy was the great center of his era with the bad fortune of being taken by the 1st expansion team in a decade and had 5 different coaches in his first 5 years in the league.

That’s a particularly bad lot, but Bells certainly made the best of it.

Especially in that magnificent rookie season.

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