While the 1964-65 Wichita State Shockers Final Four team was in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that accomplishment over the weekend, the guys kept talking about how much they admired and respected their teammate, Dave Stallworth.
And it wasn’t just because of his extraordinary basketball skills, which helped him become an All-American in 1964 and one of the best college players in history.
They talked about what a gentleman Stallworth is and about what an unselfish player he was. One of the former Shockers said Stallworth’s skills merited 25 or 30 shots a game, but he instead believed in team basketball. Stallworth said one of the games he remembers most – although he doesn’t remember it specifically – was one in which he scored eight points but played well in all facets of the game.
“I passed the ball really good in that game,” Stallworth said.
Stallworth, 73, is confined to a wheelchair because his legs aren’t as strong as they once were. Certainly not as strong as they were in 1969-70 when he and former Shocker teammate Nate Bowman helped the New York Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games to win the Knicks’ first NBA championship.
A little background:
Stallworth did not play for WSU in the 1965 Final Four in Portland because he had used up his eligibility by the semester break of that season. He was, however, the No. 3 pick in the 1965 NBA draft behind Davidson’s Fred Hetzel and Miami (Fla.) standout forward Rick Barry. Bill Buntin (Michigan-Detroit Pistons), Gail Goodrich (UCLA-Los Angeles Lakers) and Bill Bradley (Princeton-New York Knicks) were taken with territorical selections in the draft ahead of the first round.
Stallworth started his NBA career with a flourish, averaging 12.6 points and 6.2 as a rookie with the Knicks in 1965-66 but losing out to Barry as rookie of the year. Stallworth was even better in 1966-67, averaging 13 points and 6.2 rebounds. But he suffered a heart attack in March of that season and spent the next two seasons recuperating. He spent time in Compton, Calif., where he was living at the time, and in Wichita, where he coached an AAU team.
Eventually, Stallworth started to regain his strength and played some with the Builders, the team he coached. Doctors gave him the go-ahead to return to the NBA and he resumed his professional career in 1969, when he was 28.
It was in that first season back that he played such an important role in the Knicks’ championship and in a thrilling Finals against the Lakers, led by three of the game’s all-time greats: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
The series was tied 2-2 when Knicks center Willis Reed suffered a leg injury in the early moments of Game 5 in Los Angeles. Reed was a great player and was particularly important in this series to help the under-sized Knicks battle Chamberlain, a 7-foot-1 giant, inside.
When Reed went down, New York coach Red Holzman initially went to the 6-10 Bowman to defend Chamberlain and it worked – for a while. But Bowman averaged less than 10 minutes per game during the regular season and wasn’t able to hang with Chamberlain for long stretches.
So Holzman made the decision to use Stallworth and fellow forward Cazzie Russell, with whom Stallworth had a couple of huge battles with in college when Russell was an All-American at Michigan, to guard Chamberlain. They gave up size, but the strategy seemed to confuse Chamberlain and the Lakers.
The Knicks had trailed by as many as 16 points in Game 5 before a second-half comeback, fueled in part by the defensive switch, pulled them close to and eventually past the Lakers. Stallworth and Russell were on the floor for most of the fourth quarter, making big plays and scoring huge baskets. Stallworth’s drive to the basket and reverse layup against Chamberlain with nearly 1:30 left in the game gave the Knicks a 103-96 lead and was referred to by one writer, the New York Daily News’ Wayne Coffey, as one of the most dramatic moments of the Knicks’ season.
The Knicks lost Game 7 in Los Angeles, 135-113, and Knicks fans were anxious about Reed’s status for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. When he limped out of the dressing room before the game, it was a signal that he was ready to at least try to play.
Reed, the MVP of the league in 1969-70, was not nearly at full strength and scored only four points, although they were the first four points of the game. His his presence inspired the Knicks to a 113-99 win as Walt Frazier scored 36 points. Bowman and Stallworth, by the way, had six and four points, respectively, in Game 7.
Stallworth averaged 7.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 1969-70, but averaged 13.6 points in the Knicks’ final 18 games. He spent one more full season with the Knicks before being traded to the Baltimore Bullets, along with Mike Riordan, for guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe in 1971. Stallworth’s NBA career spanned six seasons and 522 games and I still talk to people who believe he would have been a perennial All-Star if it hadn’t been for the heart attack that stunted his career.
But as Stallworth has told me numerous times over the years, he’s not one to look back or the wonder what might have been.
He’s spent most of his adult life in Wichita and worked for years at Boeing. He’s a treasure to us all, the greatest Shocker who ever lived. And it’s always my pleasure to write about him and think about him.