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9/26/1973 - Conquistadors sign the "Big Dipper"


Wilt Chamberlain left the NBA in 1973 as the sport's most dominant force. The self-proclaimed goliath was the game's all-time leading scorer, a winner of four MVP's, two NBA titles, and nearly 100 different records. He held the records for points (100) and rebounds (55) in a single contest and had a game so diverse that he once led the league in assists.

There were constant rumors of a Chamberlain comeback. Even into the early 80's, when Wilt was nearing 50 and had been retired for over a decade, teams still took interest in the 7'1 scoring machine. At one point in 1973, his return to pro basketball seemed imminent. In September, "the Stilt" signed with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA to a three-year deal worth $1.8 million. Wilt would act as the Q's coach as well as their go-to-superstar; for a short time the ABA was on top of the world.

That was until the Los Anglese Lakers, for whom Chamberlain was still employed, went to court and sued the Hall of Fame center. A California court ruled in the Lakers favor and determined that Chamberlain could not play for the Conquistadors, though he was still eligible to coach them. Wilt was no stranger to the logistics involving basketball -- he left Kansas in his junior year to enter the NBA draft, but because the league only permitted class graduates to be selected, Chamberlain spent his senior season with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Like that scenario, Chamberlain abided by the rules in place and was relegated as the San Diego coach. That didn't stop the ABA from marketing him. The Q's took advantage of their tiny 3200 seat stadium with a slogan advertising, "The Tallest Coach in the Smallest Arena."

Without being able to get on the court, Wilt's motivation to coach the team suffered. He allowed Stan Albeck, his assistant coach, to run the team's practices and frequently skipped them altogether. Chamberlain didn't make the move to San Diego, rather he flew from his Bel Air estate to the "Golden Hall" minutes before tip-off.

"Every day there seems to be a different movie star at practice," said forward Gene Moore. "Andy Williams was here once, then Archie Moore came the next day... Wilt works out with us, but a lot of times he has to stop and talk to some young lady on the telephone. But the thing we're waiting for is for him to have a team party at his house (in suburban Los Angeles. It has 16 rooms and six bathrooms.)"

Eventually it became pretty clear that Chamberlain, who wore sandals and a jacket on the bench, didn't have his heart in coaching. The "Big Dipper" was once absent for a road game in Indianapolis, something that club officials said was due to sickness. It was later revealed that Chamberlain was in Los Angeles, signing autographs for his autobiography. Wilt also skipped the last two games of the season, later claiming he had a dental issue. Stan Albeck filled in for those three games and won all three. San Diego finished 37-47 (though they still somehow made the playoffs) and were eliminated in the first round by the Utah Stars.

The Chamberlain experiment lasted just one year before he left town. The Conquistadors would exist for another season before the ABA impounded them. San Diego received another ABA team, the San Diego Sails, in their wake. When the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, the Sails failed to make the transition.