I’ve written before about the absurdity that Walt Bellamy’s career faced. Unfairly maligned for having his scoring average drop over the first seven seasons of his career, the circumstances of Bellamy’s career should be taken into account.
As a rookie in 1962 Bellamy was absolutely fantastic, averaging 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds, and 51.6% shooting from the field. That field goal percentage was the highest yet in NBA history. Those averages are all the more remarkable when you consider just how awful the Chicago Packers were that season. As the NBA’s first expansion team in a decade, they were the whipping post of teams around the league who all had at least two all-star caliber players.
Over the next three seasons, Bellamy continued with the Packers franchise, which moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets in 1963. The club would improve slightly, but would for the most part be in chaotic shambles for years. To illustrate the point, Bellamy played for five different coaches in his 4+ seasons with the franchise. Mercifully for Bellamy, he was traded to the New York Knicks just a few games into the 1965-66 season.
Teaming with Willis Reed to form a devastating one-two punch in the frontcourt, in 1967 Bellamy was able to help pull the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 1959. The next year, New York achieved its first winning record since that 1959 season, too.
The team was clearly benefiting from Bellamy’s stern defense and rebounding. His offense had simmered down to the 19-point range, but on a team becoming stacked with players like Reed, Dick Van Arsdale, Dick Barnett, and Cazzie Russell, not one single super scorer was needed. What the Knicks were lacking most of these years was a true point guard, and a resolution to the Bellamy-Reed problem.
The point guard solution would come via Walt Frazier‘s arrival in the 1967-68 season, but that didn’t fix up the fact that Bellamy was playing center and Willis Reed was stuck at power forward. The two men got along, but Knicks management decided that a true power forward was needed and that the older center in Bellamy would be the center sacrificed.
Midway through the 1968-69 season, Bells was sent to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere. The trade turned the Knicks from a good team to a title contender. Bellamy languished in Detroit for one unfortunate season before being shipped to Atlanta, where he finally seemed to find some basketball peace.
For the last four years of his career, he left the scoring duties to Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson, and focused on what the team sorely needed: defense and rebounding. Those Hawks clubs would make the postseason three times under this stellar trio before Bellamy retired in 1974.
By that point, the boundless athleticism of his early days was gone. He once was able to perform some of the most rim-shaking dunks the NBA had yet seen, including one where he glided baseline and put in a reverse slam. He was always tremendously strong and imposing, standing a shade under 7’0″. None of that made him the greatest center of his era, but he’s certainly more than just a big man who put up big numbers. He is one of just of several players throughout NBA history to languish in unfortunate circumstances, like a Mitch Richmond, despite personal greatness.
In the end, Walt Bellamy’s career is one that reminds us that basketball is a team sport. No one player or person, even a Hall of Famer, can dictate a franchise’s ultimate course.
Seasons Played: 1962 – 1974
Rookie of the Year (1962)
4x All-Star (1962-’65)
NBA – 1043 Games
20.1 PPG, 13.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 51.6% FG, 63.2% FT
FG% Leader (1962)
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1962 – 1974)
4th Points, 20th PPG,
3rd FTs Made
5th FGs Made, 3rd FG%
2nd Rebounds, 10th RPG
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played