Skip to main content
Original Issue


Pro basketball's strong-minded Alex Hannum was the last coach to beat the Boston Celtics for the championship, and he is determinedly driving his Philadelphia team to do it again. His moods on the bench—harshness, urgency, concentration—reflect qualities that have pushed the 76ers to the best record in NBA history

It was Mark Twain who observed: "In Boston they ask, How much does he know? In New York, How much is he worth? In Philadelphia, Who were his parents?" That nothing has happened since Twain's day to change things can be supported by remembering Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, beside herself with shame because she had a few drinks with a magazine writer; or thinking about the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, who arrived in town three years ago, starry-pantsed, from Onondaga County, New York. There, as the Syracuse Nationals, they had been practically nobility and were lionized by the citizenry. Philadelphians carefully examined their genealogy and found it wanting. Fans stayed home. Only one of the town's three newspapers deigned to cover the activities of these intruders who dared to sport PHILA across their chests and the 13 stars of independence on their satin shorts. "Look," Owner Irv Kosloff says now, "this is a team that I used to hate."

Compounding the animosity was the fact that the real Philadelphia team, the Warriors, had moved to San Francisco, taking all of the real Philadelphia players. That is, Local Boys. In Philadelphia, Local Boys are absolutely essential. If the Battle of Waterloo were fought again in its entirety on roller skates in Fair-mount Park, while overhead a host of angels sang ragtime, and good seats were a quarter apiece, the gate would hit about a buck and a half—unless Local Boys were employed in some substantial capacity. And Philly's Local Boys had gone West—Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, even Wayne High tower. Tom Gola was commuting to New York for games with the Knicks. Not so rash as that, Paul Arizin refused to play any farther away than Camden, N.J., which is just across the Delaware River on a good day. And the original Local Boy, the father of Philadelphia basketball, Eddie Gottlieb, was enduring his own Valley Forge in San Francisco. Without Eddie—"The Mogul"—no Philadelphia team could ever claim legitimacy. The 76ers were properly scorned.

Since those bleak days the team has undergone a slow metamorphosis. Some home-town fans still cynically suggest that the 76ers will forever turn into stooges before the Celtics, but now that the team has acquired the finest coach in the league—Alex Hannum—many are beginning to abandon even that slur. Because, over the same period that they established the required image, the 76ers became the most powerful team in history. This year they are not only running away from the Celtics in the Eastern Division but also have achieved the finest record ever at this stage of the season, 32-3.

True enough, two of those losses were to Boston, and Philadelphia will surely meet the Celtics in the playoffs, in what has become the fiercest rivalry in professional sports. But victory would be even more pleasing this time, since so many of Philadelphia's own would be responsible. The list of Local Boys begins with Chamberlain and includes Wally Jones, Bill Melchionni, Matt Guokas and General Manager Jack Ramsay, formerly coach at St. Joseph's. Hannum, being related to the team on two sides, holds it together like a genuine family. He was Wilt's coach at San Francisco, and before that he coached the Syracuse emigrants—Chet Walker, Hal Greer, Dave Gambee and Larry Costello—up there. Furthermore, The Mogul is back in town, and his patriarchal presence makes the entire operation seem licit and bona fide.

Why, all three newspapers write about the 76ers these days. They have radio and TV coverage, and a toiletry company puts out a whole line of 76er products. You may win some if you have lucky-number program 1776. That gets the buyer a prize at each and every game—certainly a fitting memorial to our Founding Fathers. Attendance is up 50% this year, and crowds average nearly 8,000 in ancient Convention Hall—which, as every schoolchild knows, is either where the Declaration of Independence was signed or where Wendell Willkie was nominated. One of those. Next season a new 16,000-seat arena will be ready.

Philadelphia is, kidding aside, a metropolitan shrine to the sport of basketball. Games are on television virtually every night in the week. Any game. The other day Wake Forest vs. Cincinnati was beamed into town, live and in prime time. It was excuse enough that the Wake Forest coach was a Local Boy. "I have to say it," General Manager Ramsay says. "I think we've just got an ideal situation—the team, the coach, the new arena and the city."

It is, indeed, quite a team, massive in size and talent. But as the players gather for practice it is their manner that impresses even more. They are winners, and they laugh a lot. The largest of the 76ers, the one they call Norm, arrives, and shortly thereafter Hannum has the team form up in three lines for his favorite drill. Norm's random associates in the exercise turn out to be Kang and Cy (or Clops). "Humdiddy," Norm says. It is his preferred practice expression, one that satisfies every possible emotion.

The drill is a simple weave, up and down the court. In the event that anyone misses the shot at either basket, however, all three must run the maneuver again. Invariably it becomes, as Hannum explains it, "a simple game of chicken." Sure enough, Kang takes a dare from the sidelines and launches a long hook. It misses, comfortably. All three run again. "Humdiddy," Norm says, chugging along. This time, happily, he gets the shot and bangs it fancifully against the backboard. Go again. On the sidelines, Wally Wonder leads the team in squeaky laughter.

This drill, and the accompanying merriment, is the mark of a Hannum team, despite his reputation for being a tough disciplinarian. But the 76ers seem particularly loose. "We're happier," Wally Wonder explains. "We're happier because we're closer. It takes a while to get used to each other." Wally Wonder, who is Wally Jones in the box scores, has speeded the natural course of togetherness by dispensing nicknames all around.

Thus Norm—who is Wilton Norman Chamberlain. Or Bulldog for Greer. Checkmate is Walker. The Phantom is Guokas. Billy Cunningham, long renowned as the great white jumper, the Kangaroo Kid, has had that cut to Kang. Jones tagged Melchionni Cy (or Clops) for his deadeye shooting back when they were Local Boys together at Villanova.

Hannum anticipates a similar gift from Wally Wonder. Last year, at San Francisco, he was Sarge, in honor of his wartime job and the prevailing sentiment at practices that the Army had cast him well. "Now," he says, "I'm just a dumb old bald-headed coach."

He is, of course, a great deal more than that. His colleagues hold his leadership, his philosophy, his technical approach and his general mastery of the art of coaching to be without peer. Nearly everyone in the NBA will start raving about Hannum at the mention of the name. Try Costello: "I've never heard of anyone who didn't like Alex." Walker: "Alex Hannum is the greatest thing that ever happened to us." Chicago Bulls Coach John Kerr: "He's a man's man. If you could pick a father, you'd pick Alex Hannum." Etc.

Last March, San Francisco Owner Franklin Mieuli fired Hannum because he wanted a coach who would devote the full year to working on the franchise; Hannum likes to go home to Los Angeles in the summer and work at his contracting business or play with his custom speed boat (he races in it or behind it on one ski at 60 to 70 miles per hour). The Warrior players were thrown into utter shock at the firing. Eloquently and poignantly, Nate Thurmond explained his feelings. "I cried when I had to leave home for the first time," Thurmond said, "and I cried today when I found out about Alex. I love that man. He was so much a builder of men. He has a way with men. I played a lot of games this year with a lot of pain in my back. I did it for myself, for the Warriors and for my teammates. Mostly I did it for Alex. With the pain, I'm not sure that I could have done it for anybody else."

In the face of such testimony, it is ironic that Hannum is a coach only by accident. He was graduated from Southern California in 1948 with a business degree, but he also had a contract with the Anderson Packers, so he headed East. Anderson loaned him to the Oshkosh All-Stars. That's the way it was in those days. Hannum was 6 feet 8, already balding, and an honest-to-goodness native southern Californian who had no idea, despite his interest in contracting work, what storm windows were until he heard about them up there in Oshkosh. "But I carried a card. I was learning the business," he says. He was a journeyman carpenter, and the adjective served to describe him on the court, too. He never made more than $8,500 a season and rattled around from Oshkosh to Syracuse to Baltimore to Rochester. He quit in 1954, but Ben Kerner called him up and asked him to come to Milwaukee. Kerner paid Hannum by the day. That's the way it was. Then, after a sojourn at Fort Wayne, Hannum went to St. Louis, to which Kerner had spirited his franchise. In midseason, as has been his wont, Kerner fired his coach, Red Holzman. Slater Martin, Hannum's roommate, grudgingly accepted the job but, since Hannum played so seldom, he began to run the team from the bench. The Hawks went on a trip, and Martin threw the whole job to Hannum. "What the hell," he said, "we're on the road. Who'll know who's coaching?" Finally Martin persuaded Kerner to appoint Hannum officially. So he became a coach.

"I came back next year," he says. "Kerner bought me a suit to sit on the bench with." This time, the season of 1957-58, he won the championship—the last year Boston was beaten—but then he quit, feeling that Kerner would never become enthusiastic about him. Hannum coached for two years in AAU ball and came back for three at Syracuse, always returning to his contracting business in the summer, always figuring it was coaching that was the temporary thing. When the Nationals moved to Philadelphia, Hannum left and took the San Francisco job. Finally, this year, he caught up with his old Nat players. "So here I am." A shrug. "Forty-three years old. Look, things have taken a pattern. I can't get out of this. Now it's the construction business that's hazier than ever." He says it in his soft, beguiling tenor voice. On the bench, it becomes a strident, desperate bark, a constant patter: "Shape, shape it!" "Get back, get back!" "Talk out there!" Over and over, he calls for the defense he wants, designated by color—white, yellow or green-orange—or makes less obscure suggestions to his players or the referees.

Still, for all his tough-guy reputation, Hannum could not succeed as a tough guy if he did not temper that role with contradictory qualities of softness and understanding. He complements all this with a scholar's approach to his job and a positively boyish enthusiasm for basketball. His forte and, indeed, the keystone of his coaching success, is a mother-of-pearl honesty. It is the essence of his character. Alex Hannum is a bald man who does not wear a hat. "You must be honest with your players in this league," he says. "Let them be perfectly aware of your motives. And then be dedicated and firm in accomplishing them. How else can you gain their respect?"

It has often been said that Hannum's greatest coaching achievement was some sort of psychological conquest of Chamberlain that, among other things, results in Wilt's shooting less when he plays on a Hannum team. Hannum maintains that there is nothing Machiavellian about it, that the relationship is based on respect, mutual understanding and common goals. Chamberlain shoots less because the Hannum system encourages balanced scoring, and that is the way for the team, Chamberlain and Hannum to win. Most of his other coaches encouraged Wilt to score. The relationship has not been without conflict, but most of it has been healthy debate—at least, ever since one of their first days together with the Warriors, when Chamberlain carefully intoned, "Alex, you don't know anything about coaching pro basketball."

Chamberlain not only is a natural part of the team, as he is treated by Hannum, but he has even taken it upon himself to assume leadership responsibilities. He can even laugh about it. "I think I overdid it," he confided, worn out but pleased, after a recent practice in which he had egged on his tired teammates by voice and example.

Chamberlain is also another willing believer in Hannum's theory that players should be encouraged to participate in formulating game plans. For instance, the day before Philadelphia last played St. Louis, Hannum solicited strategy proposals. Immediately Chamberlain was on his feet, pacing and explaining. Gene Tormohlen, the Hawks' center, had bombed the 76ers from outside in their previous game. So Wilt suggested that a forward pick up Tormohlen, while he—Wilt—would cover 6-foot-5 Joe Caldwell. Caldwell, Chamberlain argued, was a lesser outside threat, and handling him would permit Wilt to lay back more. Hannum, however, found no advantage in the plan, but Chamberlain—apologetic at his persistence—continued to advocate it. Finally Hannum agreed to try it. In this case he valued backing a player's initiative over his own judgment.

The Philadelphia team is much the best that Hannum (and possibly anybody) has ever had. However often the Celtics beat the 76ers, Boston is unlikely to get much help elsewhere, for no other team can begin to match up against the awesome Philadelphia front court. Chamberlain is only one problem. The 76er forwards have something for everything. Walker is the best, a complete corner man. Jackson is all agile power, Cunningham shifty and a shooter. Gambee is the best defensively.

In the backcourt there is a lack of size, so teams with big guards can gain something of an advantage here. With Sam Jones and John Havlicek, the Celtics often go to their A series, which, in effect, shifts their guards into the forecourt. But there is no guarantee that this strategy will succeed. Indeed, teams like St. Louis and Detroit have beaten Boston by penetrating with their guards, while the 76ers have foiled the same strategy when it is employed against them. Until the rule was changed, Chicago and New York achieved more controversy than success by repeatedly trying to foul Chamberlain (who is hitting only 46% at the free-throw line), instead of allowing him to shoot.

The 76ers' singular problem, then, is Boston and, specifically, the Boston defense. To counteract it Hannum is taking two approaches. First, he is trying to develop team pride in its own defense, and on occasion the green-orange wedge, the pressing defense that Hannum exploited so well at San Francisco, has been devastating. Second, he is introducing new patterns to foil the close Boston guarding. His particular concern is to work the ball in to the forwards. With Russell behind them, the other Celtics are able to overplay their opponents, choke the lead passes and stay between the forwards and the backcourt man with the ball. The problem has been more acute for the 76ers because they have had to adjust to Chamberlain in a relatively stationary pivot. His predecessor, Kerr, the antithesis of Chamberlain, was a roving pivotman who would even come into the backcourt to set a pick and help free one of the guards from a tight defense.

Despite problems such as these, Boston's mastery over Philadelphia is often blithely dismissed as a case of Russell besting Chamberlain. This simplification ignores the existence of the rest of the great Boston defense. Besides, Russell does not contain Chamberlain so much as he inhibits the whole 76er team—a fact that cannot be shown by statistics. "The secret," as Hannum puts it, "is not that he blocks shots. The secret is that he spoils shots."

At any rate, does the Chamberlain-Russell face-off account for the 76er losses to Boston? Since he came back to Philadelphia, Wilt has faced Russell 29 times. (The 76ers lost one game in Boston last year when Chamberlain was out with ptomaine poisoning from a crab salad.) The tally in these games is 15-14 Boston—though, significantly, it was 8-4 in the playoffs. The 76ers won 11 of 13 at home, split two in Syracuse and lost 12 of 14 in Boston, where the Celtic defense is always at its best.

In the 14 victories Chamberlain has been overwhelming—averaging 35 points and 34 rebounds to Russell's 12 points and 20 rebounds. In the 15 Philly losses Russell has limited (if that is the word) Wilt to 27 rebounds and 26 points, while increasing his own rebounds to 26. By itself, this would support the theory that Philadelphia loses when Chamberlain is cut down.

It ignores, however, the fact that the other 76ers must also contend with Russell and his cohorts. Consider, for instance, the second best 76er scorer, Hal Greer, who must face K. C. Jones every time Chamberlain meets Russell. "It is face-to-face the whole way," Greer says. And should he shake K. C., another Celtic jump-switches in front of him. Significantly, Greer's performances slack off in losses (mostly in the games played in the Boston Garden) in just about the same proportion as Chamberlain's do. Greer has shot 47% and averaged 23 points in the wins over the Celtics, but in the losses he managed only 38% and 18 points.

The versatile Boston defense offers an even more striking illustration of its power in the case of Cunningham. A rookie last year, he was not watched so carefully early in the season, and he averaged 18 points for the first six meetings. Then the Celtics clamped down. Thereafter he eked out about seven points a game, and when the Celtics really concentrated on Cunningham in the playoffs he managed a grand total of five baskets in 31 shots.

Hannum realizes that Chamberlain—whether a shooting or a passing Chamberlain—is still only one part of a team that must increase its total effort. Otherwise the 76ers will not overcome the one team in basketball that still can frustrate all their hopes. They could set a season's record, finish 10 games in front of the Celtics and again lose it all to the Celtic defense in the playoffs. All year, every game—in a sense—Hannum and his team are addressing themselves to this point.

And in Boston, where they ask, "How much does he know?" they are aware of what Hannum knows. He probably would have been the Celtic coach this year had Russell not wanted the job. Also he remains the last man to have taken a world championship from the Celtics. Besides, a bald coach with a bearded center traditionally wins the NBA title. At a late hour last night Philadelphia was the only team that possessed this combination.





Way over the rim for a tip-in goes Chet Walker, who has been a big factor in Philly surge.



Wally Jones flips one of his long one-handers.



As sweaty Chamberlain listens, Hannum is typically decisive in a courtside strategy session.