By Randall Brown
“If you see some extra tall men around the streets of Santa Cruz…don’t be alarmed. They are not from another planet.” Santa Cruz Sentinel
Wilt Chamberlain had enjoyed a record-breaking season with the Philadelphia Warriors, scoring 4,029 points, including 100 in a single game. Forty-five years later, these numbers have yet to be matched. His team, however, fell short in the playoffs, losing to the Celtics.
NBA owners agreed to the purchase of the Warriors by a group of San Francisco investors. The Los Angeles Lakers, who had come West from Minnesota, were happy to have a California rival. The San Francisco Saints, of the upstart American Basketball League, were not pleased and after threatening a lawsuit, went out of business.
The man known as “Mr. Warrior” dipped his head as he exited the elevator at Santa Cruz’s Palomar Hotel. Reporters asked the usual questions about his height—7 feet and 1/16 of an inch in his stocking feet. “I’ve been this tall since I was 14 or 15 years old,” he replied, “and I’ve acclimated myself to it.” To accommodate their guest, the Palomar provided a custom-built bed.
On the way to their new home, the Warriors stopped in Santa Cruz for a week of practice before opening day at the Cow Palace. Local fans would be treated to an intra-squad exhibition game at the end of the visit. As the Sentinel proudly noted, it would be the club’s “first official showing in the area.”
Cabrillo College welcomed the team at its brand-new campus. The Warriors would inaugurate the school’s state-of-the-art gym, which offered seating for 1000 fans and glass backboards like those in NBA arenas. The proceeds were enough to provide a generous donation to local high school teams.
To keep the game between the “Whites” and the “Golds” competitive, Coach Bob Feerick split Chamberlain’s time between the two squads. This strategy disappointed fans during the first half, as the star center concentrated on defense and team play, scoring only 9 points. But, in the second half, Wilt took charge, pouring in 33 points. Nonetheless, according to the Sentinel, “the darling of the court,” was guard Al Attles,” whose driving lay-ups were seemingly unstoppable. “Chamberlain Loses; Wilt Wins,” headlined the Sentinel. The Warriors received a standing ovation from a crowd marveling over the hot shooting of the pros,” which produced a total of 283 points.
The Santa Cruz media looked forward to the return of “Wilt and Co.” and on September 17, 1963, the Warriors again convened at the Cabrillo gym. Chamberlain, however, was not among them. Finally, on day three of practice at Cabrillo, Wilt arrived in high style, driving a custom-built Bentley. In the interest of positive publicity, Warrior management overlooked the delay and urged the “Big Dipper” to visit the Boardwalk to promote the upcoming exhibition game at the Civic Auditorium. Accompanied by teammates and a photographer, Wilt complied, clearly enjoying the rides, especially the Giant Dipper.
Some thought that Chamberlain would not get along with the new Warrior coach, Alex Hannum, who believed that the star should play more defense. Preaching “muscle and hustle,” Hannum stressed running. Although admittedly “a little heavy” at over 300 pounds, Wilt, a former track star, responded to the challenge, besting teammates in a series of sprinting matches before losing a “championship” dash on the Cabrillo track to Al Attles.
The Warriors’ 1963 exhibition game took place at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Tuesday, Sept. 24. This time the Whites and Golds were evenly matched, thanks to San Francisco’s top draft pick, 6’ 11” center Nate Thurmond. It was an exciting game. After frequent lead changes, Wilt’s Whites pulled out a 115-111 victory.
The only disappointment was the size of the crowd. There were only 300 paid admissions, so, after deducting the Warriors’ $500 guarantee, there was no money left for local school teams. The Sentinel speculated that the hot weather—nearly 95 degrees that day– “was just too much for the general public.”
The following day the team left for Hawaii, where they played exhibitions against a Laker squad that included Jerry West and rookie (and future coach) Don Nelson.
The San Francisco Warriors did not return to Santa Cruz. The team won only 17 games during the 1964-65 season, one of the worst showings in franchise history. In January, Chamberlain and his league-leading salary were traded to Philadelphia.
Wilt often returned to Santa Cruz after retiring, playing his new favorite sport — beach volleyball.
Randall Brown is an author and historian. He lives in Boulder Creek and works in Felton.