Sept 26-1973: Wilt Jumps to the ABA
Wilt Chamberlain finished the 1972-1973 NBA season with a dunk in the final seconds of the New York Knicks 4-1 series victory over the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA Title. The 36-year old Chamberlain had average 13.2 points and a league best 18.6 rebounds per game.
On this day in 1973, however, the American Basketball Association’s (“ABA”) San Diego Conquistadors announced that they had signed Chamberlain to a three-year $1.8 million deal (Chamberlain was making approx. $225,000 with the Lakers) as a player-coach.
The Q’s and Chamberlain
The Conquistadors, which were popularly known as “The Q’s”, were the ABA’s first and only expansion franchise, bringing basketball back to San Diego after the expansion San Diego Rockets move to Houston in 1971. An ownership feud led to the Q’s being locked out of San Diego’s Sports Arena (13,700 capacity) and instead playing at San Diego State’s Peterson Gym (3,200 capacity). In their debut season the Q’s were 30-54 but still managed to make the playoffs where they were swept by the Utah Stars.
When coach K.C. Jones left for the Washington Bullets after one season, Chamberlain was brought in. The Los Angeles Lakers, however, insisted Chamberlain was free to coach but as a player he was still under contract with the Lakers (a point later upheld by the courts).
Chamberlain was not terribly interested in coaching.
Barred from playing, Chamberlain mostly left the coaching duties to his assistant Stan Albeck, who recalled: “Chamberlain… has a great feel for pro basketball… [but] the day-to-day things that are an important part of basketball… just bored him. He did not have the patience.” The players were split on Chamberlain, who was seen as competent, but often indifferent and more occupied with promotion of his autobiography Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door than with coaching. He once skipped a game to sign autographs for the book.
The Q’s moved to Golden Hall (3,200) and were led by rookie Caldwell Jones and the league’s top three three-point shooters. The team finished 37-47 tied with the Denver Nuggest for the last playoff spot. After winning a one-game play off over the Nuggets, the Q’s lost again to the Utah Stars 4-2.
The Q’s drew only 1,900 per game and Chamberlain questioned the continued viability of the team and league.
The ABA was having (financial) problems. They didn’t know if they’d have a next year. [Q’s owner] Dr. Bloom was having problems, too. It was a monetary situation. I couldn’t come back unless it got straightened out. Money was owed, and let’s leave it at that.
Chamberlain retired at the end of the season.
The End of San Diego Basketball
The Q’s finally moved into the San Diego Sports Arena for their third season but finished last and did not make the playoffs. The team was sold and played as the San Diego Sails in 1974. The team folded after 11 games due to weak attendance (2,375 average) and the Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke’s objection to inclusion of San Diego in any ABA-NBA merger.
In 1979, the NBA’s Buffalo Braves became the San Diego Clippers. The Clippers went 186-306 in their six seasons in San Diego never making the playoffs. While the Clippers drew more than the Rockets (who average 5,755), it was still a paltry 7,497.
Like the Q’s, the Clippers made a bold move in signing a major big man, San Diego native Bill Walton, who due to injuries averaged only 34 games played a season. In 1984 the team moved to Los Angeles.
The cumulative record of 14 seasons of NBA and ABA basketball in San Diego is:
Record: 406-677 (.375)
Winning Seasons: 0
Playoff Appearances: 3
Playoff Record: 5-12 (.294)
Basketball is not likely to return to San Diego anytime soon. A study be American City Business Journals ranked 83 sports markets in North America and assessed their capacity to add a team. The study assesses a score with the following scale:
- 100-100+ : sufficient market support for a new team
- 70-99 : borderline
- Under 70 – indicates that an income base is insufficient for a given sport
San Diego’s NBA score is a mere 29.