Sports History Files: Remembering Walt Bellamy

There have been some marvelous tributes over the weekend to Walt Bellamy, the NBA Hall of Famer who died on Saturday at the age of 74.

He had played for five other NBA teams when he joined the Atlanta Hawks I grew up watching, and featured on a team with Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson that helped elevate to some respectability.

bellamycardThose years in the early 1970s came at the end of Bellamy’s career, and I always marveled at how hard he still managed to play, and how he doggedly did the unglamorous work of cleaning up around the basket — rebounding, defending, scrapping away.

Yet he averaged 20 points a game and scored nearly 21,000 points in his career, to go with 13.7 rebounds and nearly 15,000 boards.

Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson got most of the attention on those Hawks teams, which was understandable to a certain degree, but Bellamy just kept on working, an enduring and underrated figure that personified his 13-plus seasons in the NBA.

Writes pro basketball historian Curtis Harris on ESPN’s True Hoop:

At the back end of his playing days, Bellamy enjoyed a renaissance in Georgia. Placed alongside the penetrating and high-scoring combination of “Sweet” Lou Hudson and “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Bells was freed to cruise for sledgehammer dunks and bruise for boards. These talented Hawks pushed Atlanta to the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.

Ben Golliver does a nice job of rounding up how Bellamy was regarded in the NBA during the age of Russell and Chamberlain, and how he was admired by his peers.

“Bells” had a strong resume by the time he became a pro. A native of basketball-rich North Carolina, he was first Indiana Hoosier to be a No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas.

But fate swung against him in many other ways. He was NBA rookie of the year in 1962 for a very bad expansion team in the Chicago Packers (later Zephyrs); the Bulls came to be in 1966.

After winding up with the Knicks and playing behind Willis Reed, Bellamy was swapped to Detroit in the Dave DeBusschere trade. Harris marks that point when “Bellamy’s career perhaps takes its biggest hit.”

Freed from the Pistons and revived with the Hawks, it still took the length of Bellamy’s career, plus five more years, from his retirement to enshrinement in Springfield.

Here’s an official statement from the Atlanta Hawks, which announced Bellamy’s death. He had been active in civil rights work in Atlanta after he was done playing basketball.

My social media friend Clarence Gaines, a former Chicago Bulls scout and also a North Carolina native, ranks “Bells” among his top five best high school stars ever from the Tar Heel State, ahead of David Thompson and Dominique Wilkins.

And here’s a fine highlights tribute from I won’t spoil the last clip, but it was indeed a very sweet one.

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