LeBron wasn't the first great to orchestrate a move to the Lakers. Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Bob Ryan on how the trade of one of the best players in basketball history presaged the great era of superstar movement we are living through today.
What's more unfathomable: LeBron James creating the second superteam of his career or LeBron signing somewhere, long-term, without the security of having a superteam in place? At 33 years old and still in his prime, he entered free agency fully capable of changing the course of any franchise he chose. LeBron didn't throw the NBA's competitive balance further off its axis when he inked a four-year, $153.3 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, but it was disorienting: a current powerhouse, LeBron, dovetailed with a historic one.
The Lakers sent five championship banners to L.A. when the franchise moved from Minneapolis in 1960. But Los Angeles as a basketball city—the reputation of tradition and prominence that it has now—couldn't buy a ring from the Boston Celtics until Wilt Chamberlain showed up. On July 9, 1968, the Philadelphia 76ers exchanged Chamberlain for three Lakers: center Darrall Imhoff, who had been drafted a spot after Jerry West; forward Jerry Chambers; and a talented combo guard in Archie Clark.
But the move had only the veneer of a standard NBA trade. In actuality, it was Wilt, then two years younger than LeBron is now and with comparable influence, pulling off a shadow free-agency move, 20 years before unrestricted free agency existed—and in doing so, simultaneously creating basketball's earliest superteam. Before Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson (… and DeMarcus Cousins); before LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh; and before Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen, there was Wilt, West, and Elgin Baylor.
Until 1976, when a lawsuit filed by Oscar Robertson forced the league into a form of restricted free agency, there was very limited occupational freedom of movement. "You were with a certain team," Baylor said when I talked to him over the phone in June, "and if you were with that team, you were their property. And they had the option of keeping you or getting rid of you." At that time, contracts included a "reserve clause"—a standard provision that gave owners the right to retain their players after contracts expired—giving the men playing no say in whether they wanted to stay or leave. Agents were few and far between; even if a player had representation, it didn't mean the front office was required to listen. "Owners didn't particularly care about that, dealing with the agents," said Baylor, because unlike today, they didn't have to.
The closest players came to something resembling free agency came in 1967, when the American Basketball Association formed. Before, all a player could do was threaten to retire, but with the ABA, they at least had the option to hop leagues. The ABA recruited the NBA's most notable stars, and a few, like Rick Barry, went for it. Barry, who was taken to court by the Warriors after joining the ABA's Oakland Oaks, set the precedent for how to legally jump ship: Even then, the player would have to sit out a year for the reserve clause to expire.
In his first exhibition game, hosted in Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the hype materialized—he drew 12,443 fans, the largest basketball crowd in the city's history up to that point—and from there, he was off. Wilt holds 72 NBA records to this day, and he didn't wait on something as trivial as a career to set them. He won his first MVP the same season he won Rookie of the Year; during his sophomore campaign, he snatched 55 rebounds in a single game; by Year 3, he was averaging 50.4 points a game. Existing records were just babies lined up, waiting to be kissed.
If Wilt's reputation as a ladies' man was trumped by his reputation as a superstar, his reputation as a superstar was trumped by his inability to beat Bill Russell in front of the world. And all three were trumped by his defiance. For example, after Wilt's rookie season in 1960, he threatened to retire. (In exchange for more money, he didn't.) And after the Philadelphia Warriors were moved to San Francisco in 1962, Wilt again threatened to retire. (In exchange for more money, he didn't.) Eventually, in 1965, the Warriors' new owner, Franklin Mieuli, wanted so badly to cut ties that he traded Wilt back to Philadelphia, where a new ownership group had purchased the franchise in Syracuse, moved it to Philly, and dressed it up with a new moniker, the 76ers. Wilt threatened to retire, and because of a man named Ike Richman, in exchange for more money, he didn't.
Richman was Chamberlain's close friend and personal lawyer—"like a second father," Wilt wrote in his eponymous 1973 autobiography—and he also happened to own half of the Sixers. According to Chamberlain, Richman promised him half of his share of the Sixers, which would have given him a 25 percent stake in the team, upon Wilt's retirement. (Philadelphia's other owner, Irv Kosloff, shared a 50-50 split with Richman.) The terms were clearly against league rules—and still would be today—so it was a verbal agreement only. It died along with Richman, who passed away from a heart attack in the stands of a Sixers-Celtics game in 1965. The following season, Wilt and Philly finally passed Russell and Boston clear out of the East. And after Philly beat the San Francisco Warriors, he finally brought a championship to his hometown. But there was other losing to account for; Kosloff said he had no knowledge of Richman's promise for 25 percent ownership and wasn't going to honor it.
"Kosloff and I argued about that through the whole summer after we won the championship," Chamberlain wrote, "and I finally decided that I couldn't play for the man any more if that's the way he was going to treat me." They finally came to an alternative agreement, equally unique: Kosloff would settle the dispute by paying a lump sum and tearing up Wilt's three-year contract to sign him to a new one-year deal—with the understanding that after it expired, Wilt was free to go. No reserve clause.
He was sending out feelers even before Kosloff agreed to those terms; in March 1967, Chamberlain, the soon-to-be NBA champion, said he asked L.A. sportswriter Merv Harris to tell Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke that he would probably be leaving Philadelphia soon. (Cooke called Kosloff, who, at that time, denied him permission to speak with his superstar.) A year later, near the end of his one-year contract, Wilt doubled down. "I'd pretty much decided I'd like to play for the Lakers the next season, if possible," he wrote, and he blew the franchise a kiss by dropping 53 points on them in the final week of the '68 regular season. Two months later, in May, he was in Cooke's home in Los Angeles. Wilt's personal free-agency season had opened.
Chamberlain was equal parts player, agent, and front-office executive that summer. Throughout his career, he claimed to have never used representation when it came to negotiating contracts, preferring to go face-to-face with the owner himself instead. But in 1968, he was also seeking out prospective meetings. Once talks had advanced enough with Cooke that both sides' accountants were hammering out contract details, Chamberlain said he let Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman know he was on the market. It was so unorthodox that Schulman, like Cooke, was hesitant at first—but he eventually came around with a recruiting pitch of his own, an offer that was 35 percent more than Cooke's.
Ever the businessman, Chamberlain then decided he'd be wearing green next season. He called Cooke to decline the Lakers' offer, saying, "I won't tell you where I'm going or how much they're paying me." The Lakers brass found out the number, Cooke matched it, and just like that, Chamberlain flipped (though not before meeting a couple of times with the ABA, of whom he asked $1 million salary).
"There was no talk about it, or anything else," Baylor said. "Everybody was sort of surprised." West, on the other hand, said he had "heard some speculation," but that was as close to a Woj bomb that either side would get. Ironically, Chamberlain later wrote that when he was getting traded the first time, from San Francisco, Mieuli had approached the Lakers to gauge interest. But because of his reputation, Chamberlain said, their owner at the time, Bob Short, decided first to float the idea with the players. A vote was cast, participants including his future teammates Baylor and West. It ended in a 9-2 no vote.
By the time Wilt arrived, Baylor's knees were going, while Chamberlain also had injury issues. "I was the youngest," West said, "and if we were all in our younger years, we could have really been a superteam, but injuries and age unfortunately got in the way." The Lakers made four Finals appearances while he was there; Philadelphia wouldn't make it again until Julius Erving arrived years later, eventually declining to a 9-73 record, the worst in history—the wrong kind of record, for a change.