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It was hardly a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh native Wayne Lynch would become a Philadelphia 76ers fan. Football-crazy Pittsburgh is notoriously apathetic about basketball and is downright hostile toward the big city at the other end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But thanks to the National Basketball Association’s long-since-discarded policy of playing a half-dozen or more games on “neutral” courts, a 16-year-old Lynch was able to see the 76ers play six games in Pittsburgh during the 1966-1967 season—the year that the team won the NBA championship.
“I basically had a boyhood fixation on a team and a player,” recalls Lynch, now 52. “That team happened to be the 76ers, and that player happened to be Wilt Chamberlain.” Lynch asked his mother for $30 to buy tickets to all six Pittsburgh games; he even put together a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and game summaries he clacked out on a manual typewriter. “My high school yearbook in 1967 said under my picture, ‘No. 1 fan of the Philadelphia 76ers.’ So my obsession was pretty well-known.”
After graduation, Lynch enrolled at Kent State University, where he parlayed radio-listening experience into a gig as a play-by-play basketball announcer for the college radio station. He later worked as a journalist in various cities, including Akron and Columbus, Ohio; Baltimore; and Richmond, Va. For the past decade, he has been a senior news executive with NewsChannel 8, Washington’s only local-news cable channel.
Over the years, Lynch’s boyhood love for the Sixers waned—until 1999, when his brother gave him a birthday gift that reignited his enthusiasm: a 1967-1968 76ers yearbook, for the year after they won the title. “I looked at it and said, ‘I’ve got to go back and finish what I had started,’” he recalls. “I felt my teenage crush coming full circle.” He proposed writing a history of the 1966-1967 championship team, and though it promised to be a niche book, his agent managed to sell it within a matter of weeks. Last month, Season of the 76ers: The Story of Wilt Chamberlain and the 1967 NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers hit bookshelves nationwide.
“The team had never been written about before in book form,” Lynch says. “They were almost something of a forgotten champion.” The book’s chief drama is the matchup between the 76ers and the Boston Celtics, and especially between the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain and Celtics center Bill Russell. By the 1966-1967 season, the Celtics had won a seemingly unstoppable eight straight championships, and despite Chamberlain’s statistical dominance in regular-season play, his teams always seemed to lose in the clutch against Russell and the Celtics. But the 1966-1967 team broke that habit, beating the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals and eventually winning Chamberlain his only championship in Philadelphia—the city where he had grown up—and one of only two titles in his otherwise illustrious career. (Russell won 11.)
Lynch spoke with every key player and team official with the exception of Chamberlain (who died as Lynch was writing the book) and Chet Walker (who declined interview requests). “They knew I wasn’t from Philly, but everyone was very cordial,” he says. “I think they just wanted their story told.”
Lynch’s account illustrates how ancient the mid-’60s NBA seems from today’s vantage point. Television broadcasts were rare, and many teams were struggling to survive financially. When the 76ers flew back to Philadelphia after beating the San Francisco Warriors for the NBA title, only a couple hundred fans came to greet them—a small fraction of the numbers that greet returning champions today. “Sports wasn’t a dominant cultural force then, because it didn’t have the same degree of TV exposure,” Lynch says. Even the players’ tight, shiny shorts and canvas high-tops look much more dated than baseball or football uniforms of that era.
For Lynch, Chamberlain remains the team’s most fascinating figure. A few years before his death, in 1999, Chamberlain wrote an autobiography in which he claimed to have slept with 20,000 women. Since then, that outlandish, and unprovable, claim has threatened to overshadow his accomplishments on the court—a development that Lynch sought to counter with his book. Lynch argues that Chamberlain is the NBA’s greatest player ever—edging out Michael Jordan, mainly because Chamberlain’s dominance forced the NBA to expand the size of the key, institute a three-second rule, and stiffen the edicts against offensive goaltending.
Lynch considers Chamberlain’s claims of sexual prowess a natural extension of his habits in basketball. “He was obsessed with numbers,” Lynch says. “He would grab a statistics sheet at halftime just to see how he was doing. I think that he always wanted to show that in any competition, whether it was sex or basketball, Wilt Chamberlain will always hold the world’s record.” —Louis Jacobson