Philadelphia News & Search
By Kevin Callahan
Growing up in West Philadelphia during the 1950’s, Fran O’Hanlon was already looking up to a larger-than-life figure before his neighbor became a NBA legend and led the 76ers to their first league title.
“When I was in first grade, Wilt used to walk up 59th street, that’s where my school (St. Rose of Lima) was and all the kids would run to the fence and look at him, we didn’t know him at the time, we just knew that he was a basketball player at Overbrook High School,” recalled O’Hanlon, who went on to become a star guard at Villanova University and has been the head basketball coach at Lafayette College for the last two decades.
“We would be at the fence saying, ‘look at the size of this guy.’“
Wilt Chamberlain’s legend continued to grow from the shadow he casted when walking the streets of West Philly, to globe trotting the world with the Harlem Globetrotters, to Hershey, Pa. where his 100-point game is still a mystical mouthful to say and then back to Philadelphia where 50 years ago this season he was like a mythical man mountain in the middle for perhaps the greatest team in NBA history.
With grown men gazing upwards in awe, Chamberlain and the 1966-67 world champion 76ers posted a NBA best record at the time of 68-13 on the way to snapping the Boston Celtics’ eight-year stranglehold on the league title.
Wilt was the league’s Most Valuable Player on coach Alex Hannum’s star-studded team that averaged a staggering 125.2 points a game.
O’Hanlon, who grew up to win a Catholic League title in 1966 at old St. Thomas More High School in West Philadelphia, not only remembers being in awe seeing Wilt stroll in the neighborhood, but as well as watching him dominate during the 76ers’ championship season.
“I would walk into Convention Hall and you come in on the ground floor and you walk right in and you would see everybody right there,” said O’Hanlon, who also coached Monsignor Bonner to the Catholic League championship in 1988. “You would stand there right at courtside and then the ushers would come over and say, “come on guys, you have to get a seat.’
“We would walk in on the ground floor and see Wilt and everyone else.”
The 7-foot-1 Chamberlain, who started at center for one of the highest-scoring teams in league history, was flanked upfront by power forward Luke Jackson and small forward Chet Walker while shooting guard Hal Greer and point guard Wali Jones started in the backcourt.
If you didn’t get to old Convention Hall to see the 76ers like O’Hanlon did, well, you didn’t see the 76ers play often during their magical season five decades ago.
“They weren’t on TV as much as they are now,” recalled Fran Dunphy, who grew up in Drexel Hill and played at Malvern Prep and La Salle. “So you didn’t see them as much.
“It was on Saturday afternoons as I recall, the NBA game of the Week, and every once in a while you would see the 76ers, but it was more often other teams that you saw,” said Dunphy, who was a freshman at La Salle during the championship season.
“We were probably on as a college basketball locally more than the 76ers were.”
Dunphy, who was the head coach at Penn where he was assisted by O’Hanlon and is now the Temple coach, does remember what he saw back then and how he felt. Understandably, “Dunph” was amazed like “Frannie O” and the kids who ran to the fence to see Wilt walk the streets of West Philly.
“Chamberlain was a bigger than life,” Dunphy said.
Interestingly, what also stood out for Dunphy, and not surprisingly for a coach who has won over 500 career games and became just the fifth coach to win over 200 games at two schools, is the unselfish play of forward Billy Cunningham.
“I think the biggest thing that struck me was Billy Cunningham, probably a guy that talented and that good coming off the bench and being the sixth man on that team and just accepting that role,” Dunphy said. “Now that I’ve got older and understand the dynamics of teams more, somebody of that caliber of player, one of the top 50 players of all of the NBA, had no problem doing that and sacrificing for the team and doing what he could do to make his team better and obviously they were NBA champions that year and a lot of it had to do as much with his attitude as with his play.”
Cunningham, who was the coach of the 1983 NBA champion 76ers, is one of four players from the ‘67 Sixers who are in the Hall of Fame along with Chamberlain, Walker and Greer. Hannum is in the NBA Hall as a coach.
Dunphy also remembers trying to emulate Greer, who used to wear a pad on his left thigh.
“I thought if I could get something on my thigh, I could shoot like Hal,” Dunphy said with a laugh. “But I never had anything to put on it.
“It was almost like a wooden pad, I don’t think he needed it past his first year, but I think he was superstitious like a lot of us and he kept wearing it and obviously he kept making shots so it was a good deal for him.”
Dunphy and O’Hanlon enjoyed the good fortune of being teammates in the Eastern Basketball Association for the Cherry Hill Rookies and being coached by Greer.
“It was pretty cool,” Dunphy said playing for Greer, a player he tried to imitate just seven years earlier.
The Rookies lasted only two seasons playing at the old Cherry Hill Arena. The South Jersey franchise in the unstable EBA only played against the Hazleton Bullets, Allenton Jets and Scranton Appollos for both seasons. The Rookies went 5-22 in 1973-74 and 9-17 in 1974-75, but the memories were great playing for Greer.
“Hal was tremendous, a really good guy,” O’Hanlon said.
O’Hanlon was also connected to a 76ers’ world champion from his youth.
“Wali was from my neighborhood, he was my favorite player,” said O’Hanlon about Jones, who also played at Overbrook and then Villanova. “I used to sneak into Overbrook all the time.”
O’Hanlon remembers watching Jones play at Tustin Playground on 57th Street and Lancaster Avenue across from Overbrook.
“I tried to emulate his jump shot, the jackknife jumper,” O’Hanlon said. “I would go into the corner and just jackknife because that was Wali. It was great times.”
It was Jones who was the leading scorer in the clinching game of the finals against the San Francisco Warriors with 27 points in Game 6.
“That’s one of the reasons I went to Villanova, because of Wali,” O’Hanlon said. “I told Wali that I played against him in a Baker League game and he said to me, “Fran I really liked watching you play this year” and then he beat the crap out of me.
“I thought that it was awesome that Wali would beat the crap out of me, he had that kind of respect for me,” added O’Hanlon laughing.
Amazingly, Overbrook also produced future NBA players Walt Hazzard, Wayne Hightower and Hal Lear from when O’Hanlon watched as a kid, as well as Andre McCarter, Lewis Lloyd, Mike Gale and Malik Rose from later years. Interestingly, “The Brook” also produced Will Smith, the famous actor, rapper and producer, who is a co-owner of the 76ers.
“Growing up in the inner city, I was working my tail off trying to be really good,” O’Hanlon said. “And you are trying to be the best in your neighborhood and it was really hard. You don’t realize your neighborhood was as good as you are going to find.
“You don’t know that at the time. You weren’t as well traveled as kids today. You kind of grew up in your own bubble and you didn’t know how good that little bubble was at the time.”
Dunphy also commented on how life has changed, but remembers the Philly Pride coming out when the 76ers brought home the NBA championship 50 years ago.
“Again, times were different than they are today and there weren’t the same celebratory thoughts, so if it would’ve been close to where the Phillies were in 2008, that would’ve been awesome,” Dunphy said about the reception of the ’67 team. ”It just wasn’t how it was.”
But it was a time when kids in West Philly could see Wilt walk down the street and imitate Wali’s trademark leg-kicking jumper and where a kid could think about wearing a thigh pad just to be like Hal.
“When we started seeing people from other cities we talked about how good the 76ers were and how they won it that year,” Dunphy recalled, “and they almost won it the following year, maybe if Cunningham doesn’t break his arm … maybe we would’ve repeated.”
Philadelphia News & Search