Commentary

Bellamy's career often overlooked

Remarkable center played in the shadows of big names

Updated: April 27, 2014, 1:34 PM ET
By Ken Shouler | Special to ESPN.com

Walt BellamyNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesWalt Bellamy's first season in the NBA was the best of his standout career.

Walt Bellamy is hardly mentioned when the names of the great centers are rattled off. In 1973, when Bellamy was in Atlanta playing his 12th NBA season, an article in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that Bellamy was not "for one reason or another" in "the [Wilt] Chamberlain, [Kareem Abdul-]Jabbar, [Nate] Thurmond class."

"Some coaches say he is inconsistent," the article continued, "but he's probably playing his best basketball now and Chamberlain has always respected him."

Less than two years later, in October 1974, Bellamy had played his final game for the New Orleans Jazz and was placed on waivers. No team picked him up, and his 13-year career was over.

What had he accomplished?

When he retired, he was sixth all-time in points, third in rebounds and third in field goal percentage. Since he averaged 20 points and 14 rebounds a game and shot 52 percent for his career, why did it take until 1993 -- 19 years after his retirement -- for him to get into the Hall of Fame?

The answer is that various impressions about him got a foothold and often seemed to supersede his accomplishments. One take is that he ran hot and cold, that he got motivated to play against Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Willis Reed and Thurmond but took nights off against lesser competition. The 6-foot-11, 245-pound center never played on the stage where the light shines brightest, in the NBA Finals.

Despite a good jumper and agility that allowed him to drive around most NBA centers, Bellamy had career accomplishments that got the short shrift and were drowned out by the frequent headlines about Russell, Chamberlain, Reed, Wes Unseld and Abdul-Jabbar.

Bellamy missed making the NBA's 50th Anniversary team in 1996, despite owning far greater statistical accomplishments than some of the big men who were voted in. The snub surprised Unseld, prompting him to ask, "Do you know what Bellamy did?"

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Bellamy was born July 24, 1939, in New Bern, N.C., where he grew up. He was 6-1 by the time he was 14, but his best game was football. As a senior, playing end, he led Barber High to the state championship and earned all-state recognition. But he also had begun playing basketball on the playgrounds, and high school coach Simon Coates discovered him. Soon Bellamy was known as the "goaltending kid" because of his knack for blocking shots. His best game came against Durham in 1956 when he scored 47 points.

Coates introduced him to Indiana coach Branch McCracken, who worked on getting Bellamy to be a more aggressive player. He was an All-American in 1961 and left the Bloomington campus with the school's single-game scoring record of 42 points (the previous record was 41, set 17 years earlier by Hall of Famer Andy Phillip) and a record field goal percentage (51.7).

He was also a member of the legendary 1960 U.S. Olympic team in Rome. Coached by Pete Newell, the United States team included future Hall of Famers Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas and was as dominant as any in history, going 8-0 with the closest contest being an 81-57 thrashing of the Soviet Union. The United States scored 102 points per game and allowed just 60.

Bellamy was thrown out of the final game against Brazil, which the United States won 90-63. A Mexican referee ruled that Bellamy, battling for a rebound, deliberately attempted to injure Brazil's Edson Bispo, who clutched his midsection after being hit by Bellamy's elbow. As the referee threw him out, Bellamy pleaded his case, with tears in his eyes, but was unsuccessful.

The 6-11 center was clearly the best pivot man available in the 1961 draft, and in any other season, New York, which had the league's worst record in 1960-61 (21-58), would have been allowed to pick first. But league owners voted to follow an unprecedented procedure, allowing a new franchise, the Chicago Packers, to choose first. David Trager, owner of the Packers, selected Bellamy No. 1 overall. Abe Saperstein, owner of the Chicago franchise in the American Basketball League, also picked Bellamy first. But Bellamy signed with the NBA.

In his first NBA exhibition game, Bellamy logged 29 points and 28 rebounds versus Boston. From that first game, he took the league by storm. He scored 35 in the home opener in Chicago and scored 35, 37 and 45 over the next three games. In a game against Philadelphia, he scored 45 and Chamberlain scored 55 as the Philadelphia Warriors won.

Bellamy is one of those odd NBA players whose rookie season was his best. He scored 31.6 points per game while grabbing 19 rebounds. He also topped the league in field goal percentage (51.9) and easily took Rookie of the Year honors. In his first of four consecutive All-Star Games, he scored 23 points and grabbed 17 rebounds.

But Bellamy's season was overlooked, since 1961-62 was the year of the offensive onslaught by Chamberlain, who averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds for the Warriors. That gap between the first and second scorer remains the largest in NBA history.

For the 1962-63 season, few noticed and fewer cared that the Packers' Windy City franchise was renamed the Zephyrs. The franchise was moved to Baltimore and named the Bullets for the 1963-64 season. Bellamy was able to play against the best centers on even terms as now the Bullets had Terry Dischinger, who played in the Rome Olympics, Don Kojis, Rod Thorn and rising star Gus Johnson. Still, the team finished 31-49.

During that season, Bullets coach Bob "Slick" Leonard frequently got on Bellamy for standing around and fined him twice for not hustling. Despite Bellamy's 27-point, 17-rebound output, Leonard frequently, and publicly, vented his frustration on Bellamy. Buddy Jeannette took over in 1964-65 and made Bellamy captain. Bellamy played in his fourth All-Star Game in as many years and led the Bullets past the Hawks and to the conference finals, where they lost to Los Angeles in six games.

After recording 25 points and 15 rebounds a game for the season -- and averaging 28 points a game over his career -- the Bullets cut his salary from $30,000 to $25,000 prior to the 1965-66 season and looked to trade him. The Lakers, forever in need of a center to support the irrepressible scoring duo of West and Elgin Baylor, underbid by offering $100,000 and guard Gene Wiley. Baltimore traded him to New York for Johnny Green, John Egan and Jim Barnes on Nov. 2, 1965.

New York had never had a big man, and the results were plain to see for nearly 20 years. The Knicks had lost consecutive Finals from 1951 to 1953 because they had no one to match Minneapolis center George Mikan. In current times, they could not compete with Russell or Chamberlain inside. Now they had a center, with Reed playing forward and Dick Barnett handling the outside shooting. They won four games in a row for the first time in four years, revealing just how bad they had been.

Converting more than 50 percent of his shots and sharing the rebounding and scoring load with Reed, Bellamy helped the Knicks out of the Eastern Division cellar and into unfamiliar territory, as they reached the playoffs in 1967 and 1968. With Bellamy at center, however, Reed wasn't at his natural position. Carl Braun, former Knicks coach and player, said that with Bellamy and Reed together it was "like Grand Central Station" in the pivot. Moreover, New York general manager Eddie Donovan wanted Dave DeBusschere, the rugged Pistons forward so highly regarded in Detroit that he had been named player-coach in 1964, at 24 the youngest ever to hold that position.

On Dec. 19, 1968, Donovan made the bold move, dealing guard Howard Komives and Bellamy to the Pistons for DeBusschere. In Bellamy's two seasons in Detroit, the Pistons were 32-50 and 31-51. In February 1970, he was traded for the third time, to Atlanta, where he would contribute the same high field goal percentage and double-digit points and rebounds that were his career trademarks.

Walt Hazzard and Lou Hudson were scorers in Atlanta, and with Bellamy, they finished 48-34 and made it to the Western Division finals against Los Angeles. Bellamy logged 24 points and 21 rebounds against Chamberlain in one playoff contest, but the Lakers swept the Hawks.

He teamed with "Pistol" Pete Maravich for the 1970-71 season. The Hawks started 4-11 but recovered for second place in the new Central Division. This time, the Knicks took them 4-1 in the playoffs. With Hudson, Maravich and Bellamy leading the way in 1971-72, the Hawks "Pistol whipped" some teams and impressed for a third straight season, taking the Celtics to six games in the conference semifinals. They again lost in six to Boston in 1972-73 before missing the playoffs in 1973-74. Bellamy finished his career with his fifth team, the Jazz, in 1974.

In 13 consecutive seasons, Bellamy never played fewer than 74 games and in eight of them played every game. In 1969, his eighth NBA season, he set a record by playing in 88 games, an oddity that resulted when the Knicks traded him to Detroit.

Bellamy finished with 20,941 points and 14,241 rebounds, one of only 15 members of the 20,000-point, 10,000-rebound club. Though it took an incredible 19 years after his retirement for the four-time All-Star to make the Hall of Fame, one man didn't hesitate in writing a letter on his behalf. It was DeBusschere, who praised Bellamy's accomplishments as a member of the Knicks.

Ken Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Shouler has also written three baseball books and served as a panelist for the "DHL Presents Major League Baseball Hometown Heroes" project.