Playing conservative ball
Richard Nixon, ‘Negroes,’ ‘law and order’ — and the 1968 presidential election that had Wilt Chamberlain feeling like a black Republican
Five days earlier, the civil rights leader had been assassinated — King was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He’d been set to lead a march and citywide work stoppage in conjunction with a lengthy and organized strike of black garbage workers in the city.
Chamberlain and close friend and career rival Bill Russell clamored to postpone Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between their two teams — to no avail. Chamberlain and teammate Wali Jones voted not to play, (contractual obligations made cancellation a pipe dream), but the day after King’s murder and a day before the beginning of the Baltimore riots, basketball’s greatest rivalry resumed in the Philadelphia Spectrum amid grief, anger and despair.
Still overcome with grief, Chamberlain closed his eyes and attempted to gather himself before making his way through the tunnel. He knew his country was on the brink of chaos. Civil rights was the theme of the decade in which he became a household name. And growing resentment about the war in Vietnam continued to rip through the nation. Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers would go on to blow a 3-1 series lead to Russell’s Celtics, and a chance to repeat as NBA champions. Weeks later, Chamberlain would be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, forming a big three with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Prior to King’s death, Chamberlain — who would have turned 80 on Sunday — rarely publicly addressed the social, cultural and political topics of the day. His life — born and raised in Philadelphia, national superstar at the University of Kansas, NBA-bound at the age of 23 after a yearlong stint with the Harlem Globetrotters — was a movie and he had his own stunts to worry about. His 7-foot-1 frame made him impossible to ignore. His athleticism made him a real-life Goliath.
Chamberlain was booed mercilessly on the road. He quickly became a favorite of hecklers as he towered over and dominated the great majority of players in the NBA. Many wanted to see him score points by the dozens and grab rebounds by the handful. But seeing Chamberlain lose, and blaming him for it — for many black and white fans and the media, this morphed into an athletic aphrodisiac.
Fellow players mocked his shortcomings. Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes ridiculed his low free-throw shooting percentage, saying “any high school kid could do better.” St. Louis Hawks coach Paul Seymour called him “tall but without talent. And in an April Fools’ Day brawl in 1962 between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia Warriors — a game featuring five ejections and two fans being arrested — it was Chamberlain who came off in newspapers as public enemy No. 1. While it was his jawing and physical play with Boston’s Sam Jones that kick-started the animosity, Chamberlain never threw a punch, never got ejected. “One thing I wish is that people didn’t always cast me as a villain,” he said. “Just once, I wish somebody would root for me.”
No player in NBA history dominated the game like Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain. He had the tenacity of a military tank, yet was as smooth as a Louis Armstrong solo, and as nimble as a track star (track was Chamberlain’s first love and perhaps best sport). There are basketball records Chamberlain holds that will never be broken. He was the precursor to phenomenons such as Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James, yet, in 142 head-to-head meetings with Russell, the man (and fraternity brother) to which his life is inevitably synced, he won only 57. And in a sport obsessed with equating championships with immortality, Russell’s 11 titles to Chamberlain’s two is often unfairly used to critique The Big Dipper’s place among the game’s greatest.
The Molotov cocktail of athletes and activism predates Chamberlain — and is currently a hot topic. From the days of boxer Jack Johnson and later track and field icon Jesse Owens, the fight for freedom and societal equality has historically manifested itself in and on fields, courts and stadiums. Athletes who spoke out often risked their professional careers. And Chamberlain’s NBA domination put him on par with Jim Brown in football, Muhammad Ali in boxing or Russell, but that’s about where the comparisons stopped. Those three, along with sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, became the faces of black athlete activism in the ’60s, a decade defined by political assassinations, church bombings, riots and a swelling tide of black liberation. “The best way to help integration,” Chamberlain once said, “is to live a good clean life.” Chamberlain made financial contributions to the NAACP and to the National Urban League, but held back from publicly venting or demanding change in the ways that made Russell, Brown and Ali black superheroes — separate from their day jobs.
Chamberlain, in his second season in the NBA, declined John F. Kennedy’s request to help him campaign in the 1960 presidential election. When players such as Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Tommy Heinsohn threatened to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game for what they deemed unfair labor practices by owners, only Chamberlain voted to play — out of fear the young NAACP, far from the cultural statement it is now, would ever recover. “Tell [Lakers owner] Bob Short to go f— himself,” Baylor reportedly said of his team’s owner, who’d demanded he play in the game.
But it was during the procession after King’s Atlanta funeral, with the cold reality of King’s dead body present, that made Chamberlain speak up.
“I kept asking myself, what can I do to help America — and particularly my people — reach the mountaintop and see the promised land that Dr. King so often talked about,” Chamberlain said in July 1968 to the black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel. “Something came over me at that precise moment. As I walked with thousands of others from the Ebenezer Baptist Church to his final resting place, I quietly walked up to former Vice President [Richard] Nixon, and told him I liked his program and wanted to join his team.”
The basketball player and the politician had hit it off on a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles years earlier. While impressed with Nixon’s foreign policy views, Chamberlain also found his spirit animal in Nixon. Both, Chamberlain believed, were perceived by the public as being dumb. “Why? Because he wasn’t very loquacious, he didn’t speak smoothly and eloquently,” Chamberlain wrote this in his 1973 memoir Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door. “You run across the same thing in sports … People say Muhammad Ali is smart, for example, because he’s such a good talker. Well, Muhammad’s a good friend of mine, but if you get him off two subjects — religion and boxing — he doesn’t know enough to string three intelligent sentences together.”
Chamberlain saw a piece of himself in Nixon’s political shortcomings. “I suspect I was … subconsciously influenced to back Richard by several things he and I had in common,” Chamberlain said in his memoir. “Throughout his political career, he’d been called a ‘loser’ — the guy who could never win the big one. Me too.” Chamberlain was not alone in his decision to align with the Nixon campaign. He convinced other athletes to join him: former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, Bennie McRae of the Chicago Bears, and former UCLA All-American Walt Hazzard of the Seattle SuperSonics.
This was 1968, a year in American history that has been referred to as ‘the unraveling.’ Political assassinations, church bombings, riots in Watts, California, Detroit and Baltimore, mounting anti-Vietnam protests and the charge for civil rights and human equality — this was the year that encapsulated the rage of the decade. After having supported the Republican Party following the Reconstruction era, blacks fled the party in the ’60s. By 1968, Democrats had become the party of liberals, which was garnering large percentages of the black vote, thanks in part to their perceived commitment to civil rights.
“You could still be a liberal Republican in ’68,” says Aram Goudsouzian with a laugh. He’s the department of history chair at the University of Memphis and author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. “But it was just getting really hard to. The party was definitely animated by what happened with [Barry] Goldwater running in ’64. The new right … rising. Racial resentment [was] one factor in that sort of new conservatism. You see blacks voting in overwhelming numbers for Democrats. First in ’64 because they support [Lyndon B.] Johnson, but even more they are terrified of Goldwater. But by ’68, the Democrats have kind of become the party of liberal reform.” Goldwater is after all considered to be a godfather of the tea party, and the tea party is forerunner to the candidacy of 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Nixon desperately yearned for the votes of black people. In the elections of 1964, 1960 and 1956, Republican candidates failed to garner 40 percent of the nonwhite vote. “I hope I can score half as many points in the black community for Mr. Nixon as I have been able to score in basketball,” Chamberlain said in July 1968 to the Sentinel. Many in the black community shunned Nixon, convinced his “law and order” policies were racist. And though blacks had been creating businesses and economies for themselves since emancipation, and had been terrorized when those businesses were successful, Chamberlain openly endorsed Nixon’s idea of black capitalism.
He traveled to black neighborhoods across the country in hopes of spreading the Nixon gospel. Chamberlain recalled that while visiting a black neighborhood in his hometown of Philadelphia with Nixon in July ’68, a black “militant leader” told the presidential hopeful, “Man, you are a swinging cat. Too bad my people don’t know it. You better take that giant with you wherever you go.” In August 1968, Los Angeles Sentinel journalist Brad Pye Jr. provided a full script to Chamberlain detailing how to sell “Nixon Is The One” to black communities across the country. This included a plan to plant stories in Ebony and Sepia magazines as well as pre-written radio pitches.
“This is Wilt Chamberlain … I asked to join Richard M. Nixon’s team because I truly believe that he is the one who will earnestly and sincerely work for equality for black men, brown and yellow men,” the script read. “And, Mr. Nixon believes in black power the same as I do … Listen as the next president of the United States … Mr. Richard Nixon … tells why he believes in Black Power and how he hopes to help it grow. This is Wilt Chamberlain again … Black is beautiful … Richard Nixon is a vote for black people to determine their own destiny.”
By doing this massive solid for his man Nixon, Chamberlain hoped to bring his passion about other issues to the White House. “All of my black friends were surprised — and angry,” he said in Just Like. But Chamberlain never identified himself as a Republican, but as a supporter of the Republican candidate. In sports, he said, he rooted for individual players. In politics, he said, the man was more important than the party. Chamberlain wanted to add his two cents to the future administration with regard to international problems, while doing more in the rush for equality for African-Americans at home. Chamberlain was also a huge supporter of euthanasia, among other things. “We … need new laws on the ‘victimless crimes’ that don’t really hurt anyone — gambling, prostitution, marijuana and pornography,” he wrote in his memoir. “All of these must be controlled, but not outlawed altogether.”
Many in the black community viewed Nixon as an enemy. Nixon openly denounced busing, and would later implement the “war on drugs,” a war that clearly targeted black people. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” John Ehrlichman, former Nixon domestic policy chief, said to Harper’s Ferry. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war, or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The backlash on Chamberlain and overall political treatment of blacks by Republicans was sharp.
Harry Edwards, leader of the Olympic boycott movement (Los Angeles Times, 1968): “Wilt’s killing his own image. He’s made his own pile. Now, he’s forgetting the ones who haven’t made theirs.”
James Baldwin, novelist and social critic (Esquire, 1968): “You must be joking … I certainly will never vote for a Republican as long as Nixon is in that party. You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it.”
Bill Russell (Los Angeles Times, 1968): “You notice how little [Chamberlain] smiles. That’s not because he’s angry all the time. It’s because he’s lonely. An outsider.”
Milton Gross, New York Post columnist (Los Angeles Times, 1968): “His choice of Nixon seems incredible. He will be so affluent under his new contract, he can afford to be a Republican.”
Jackie Robinson, Baseball Hall of Famer, who had, himself, campaigned for Nixon in 1960, (New Pittsburgh Courier, 1968): “Speaking of black people promoting Mr. Nixon — has anyone heard what happened to Wilt Chamberlain? The last thing we heard from Wilt was a complaint from the West Coast that there was a ‘gap’ between him and the Republican candidate. This happened after His Arrogance, Mr. Nixon, walked out of a meeting of black folk set up for him by Chamberlain and some black associates. That’s one other thing I count on to defeat Mr. Nixon — his arrogance. But I won’t bank on that. I will work as hard as I possibly can to help him retain his title as one of the great all-time losers.”
Shirley Chisholm, first black woman elected to Congress (to the House floor, 1969): “ … I think it would be hard to imagine an assignment that is less relevant to my background or to the needs of the predominately black and Puerto Rican people who elected me, many of whom are unemployed, hungry and badly housed, than the one I was given.”
Bill Russell (JET, 1969): “Black capitalism is like sleeping beauty waiting for Prince Charming to come along … a myth. In order to have black capitalism you have to have some control of an economy and the white man is not going to let the black man do this. It’s a bad joke to play on somebody. Before the black man can be a capitalist, he first must be able to feed himself. The black man has been analyzed, pigeonholed and surveyed, and he is just beginning to prosper. Since the white man has done everything he could think of to the black man now he wants to make him a capitalist. It’s just like having someone beating your head and wondering why you’re yelling.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton, intern in Washington during the summer of ’68, who worked on a last-ditch effort to help Gov. Nelson Rockefeller defeat Nixon for the Republican nomination, on the 1968 Republican National Convention (The New York Times, 2007): “I’m done with this, absolutely. All of a sudden you get all these veiled messages, frankly, that were racist. I may not have been able to explain it, but I could feel it.”
Chamberlain heard the claims — that he didn’t care about poorer blacks, and that he only endorsed Nixon for a paycheck. But Chamberlain’s support of Nixon was authentic. Nixon, he genuinely believed, was the best candidate for black people and America. Chamberlain led the NBA in total assists during the 1967-68 season. But less than a month after revealing his endorsement, the 31-year-old Chamberlain took his newfound political talents to South Beach, Florida. The Republican National Convention was taking place in Miami, and Chamberlain was set for what he expected would be one his life’s biggest assists.
Chamberlain was the star of the four-day extravaganza in Florida’s most flamboyant city. His celebrity trumped that of the Rev. Billy Graham as well as former movie star, then California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Photo requests from delegates poured in. Most left shocked at how well-informed Chamberlain was “on virtually every subject they wanted to discuss,” reported Brad Pye Jr. — who traveled with the hoop superstar on the campaign trail — for the Sentinel in August 1968. Chamberlain entertained conventioneers in his three-bedroom hotel suite, and on Biscayne Bay cruises — courting delegates and hyping his man Dick Nixon at every turn.
But Chamberlain’s primary responsibility was convincing the 78 black delegates and alternates to vote for Nixon. The task proved more daunting than topping Russell’s Celtics. As importantly, it was up to Chamberlain to convince black delegates from vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew’s home state of Maryland not to go through with a planned walkout. This so Nixon and the party would not be made a fool of on national TV. Chamberlain believed in Nixon. Chamberlain didn’t, however, rock with Agnew. Agnew was the governor of Maryland, and would resign the vice presidency in 1973 following disbarment, as well as charges of conspiracy and tax fraud.
The relationship between Agnew and black Marylanders had taken an ugly turn. During 1968, students at the historically black Bowie State College (it became a university in 1988) occupied the administration building in the hopes of bringing awareness to the dilapidated conditions of their campus. In ’68, Maryland’s college systems were legally segregated along racial lines. Agnew not only sent police to the administration building, but when the students took their cries to the state capital of Annapolis, the governor had them arrested, and the college temporarily shut down. Following King’s assassination, Agnew called a meeting with some of Maryland’s black leaders, calling them racial agitators. “He talked to us like we were children,” a black senator in attendance said. Knowing all of this, Chamberlain very reluctantly did the Maryland part of his job in Miami.
Following the convention, Chamberlain maintained his support of Nixon, but fell back on proactive campaigning. He loathed the way Agnew used the word “Negro” and the phrase “law and order,” and how Agnew seemingly spoke down to the black community. “I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists. This, so far, you have not been willing to do,” Agnew said in a statement on April 11, 1968, a week after King’s assassination and in the thick of the Baltimore riots. “I call upon you as Americans to speak out now against the treason and hate of Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown. If our nation is not to move toward two separate societies— one white and one black — you have an obligation, too.”
Agnew’s words made Chamberlain cringe. He knew many in the black community were enraged. Agnew and Chamberlain, a few days after the Miami convention, held a meeting in San Diego with a group with several prominent black people. Of that meeting, Chamberlain wrote in his memoir: “Do you know that dumb f— must have said ‘Negro’ and ‘law and order’ 10,000 times? I’m sitting right there, looking at him, and sliding further down in my chair every minute. I finally walked out. I didn’t do too much campaigning after the convention. I was disillusioned by Agnew.”
As quick as Chamberlain’s foray into national politics had begun, it seemed all but over. He set his sights on his first season as a Laker and, reportedly, on work behind-the-scenes alongside new teammate Baylor to help Ali “get things straightened out,” The Philadelphia Tribune reported on Sept. 21, 1968.
The tenor surrounding the ’68 election seems similar to the current political climate. Thanks in part to a Democratic convention in Chicago more explosive than its Republican counterpart, Nixon defeated Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in the November election — a damaging victory nearly 40 years later, The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen noted in 2014. He did so with virtually no support from the black community, tallying a meager 12 percent of the nonwhite vote. And there was very little support from Chamberlain himself in the final weeks of the campaign.
The NBA superstar would receive cards for stellar games or championships from the president, but Chamberlain admitted in his memoir that he “had about as much opportunity to influence him as I have had to influence the pope.”
Journalist Bomani Jones co-hosts ESPN’s Highly Questionable and hosts The Right Time podcast. He believes Chamberlain was caught up in the moment, believing his involvement would reverse a process that cared very little about Chamberlain and the interests of those the same color as Chamberlain. “The issue that Wilt had to remember,” Jones says, “is it’s politically valuable to politicians to get votes from black people.” But, “It has never been politically expedient for a politician to be seen as serving the interests of black people. Even the black president can’t get away with being seen as serving black people.” It’s, as a great man has said, “Politics As Usual.”
Chamberlain convinced himself he could have input in a Nixon-led White House on social and political issues. He admitted to being naive. Though he never did hold much of a grudge. Chamberlain discovered politics was, is and will always be a dirty game. He said politics reminded him a lot of the groupies and gofers who hang around sports arenas. “The biggest lesson I learned was that politics isn’t much different from anything else human beings do. It’s no mystic, saintly art. It’s just life.”