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Jim Murray

Athletes Can Pay Dearly for Stardom

November 19, 1987|Jim Murray

Ever envy the guy getting a million or so bucks a year bouncing a basketball up and down a hardwood court?

Wish you could have been a wide receiver for the Bears at 600 thou a year? Hanker to be a point guard, clean-up hitter, top-seeded at Wimbledon? Yearn to be middleweight champion of the world?

Don't. It is the view of Willie Naulls, who has been there, that the view from the top is not all that great. It may be a hoax. At least, a vacuum. It's like locking yourself in a closet for 10 or more years with only a peephole on the real world. Rip Van Winkle might as well have been an athlete.

Take his word for it. More people have ransomed their futures for athletic "glory" than have provided for it. The world might have gained a few halfbacks but also might have lost a few doctors.

What if Martin Luther King had become a flanker? Jesse Jackson almost did become a Chicago White Sox.

Suppose Thomas Edison had had a good curveball? What if Thurgood Marshall had had a punch? Winston Churchill was better at polo?

Willie Naulls is not speaking from an ivory tower. He was one of the great athletes turned out by the University of California at Los Angeles. He was one of the first of John Wooden's great basketball players. Before there were Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes and company, there was Willie Naulls.

Willie was the original power forward. He played in the first 100-point games the Bruins ever had. He set season rebound records that only Walton and Alcindor surpassed. He scored 661 points in a single season. The only Bruins who ever topped that were Alcindor and Reggie Miller. And Willie never had the three-point play.

He was a great pro. He was also part of what was probably the worst series of trades in the annals of professional sport.

Others remember St. Louis Owner Ben Kerner giving up the rights to Bill Russell to the Boston Celtics for Easy Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Naulls recalls it as a three-cornered deal in which Kerner also gave the rights to K. C. Jones to Boston and Naulls to New York for a playmaking guard, Slater Martin.

St. Louis, Naulls points out, could have had a lineup of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Willie Naulls. "Nobody would have heard of the Boston Celtics!" he says, laughing.

With the Knicks, he was a force. He averaged 21.4 points and 14.2 rebounds a game in 1959-60. In '60-'61, he went to 23.4 points and 13.4 rebounds a game. In '61-'62, he threw in 25 points and drew down 11.5 rebounds a game.

Traded early the next season to the San Francisco Warriors, a team on which Wilt Chamberlain shot the ball 2,770 times in 3,806 total minutes, Naulls' scoring average dropped to 12.9 points, and he decided to retire.

Red Auerbach talked him out of it.

"All my life, I wanted to play for the Boston Celtics," he explains. "It was a dream come true."

The statistics with the Celtics weren't as gaudy as they had been with the Knicks, but the playing time was quality.

"(John) Havlicek was the sixth man. I was the seventh," he says.

Swingman Naulls averaged 9.8, 10.5 and 10.7 points a game in his limited playing time. But the Celtics continued to win an annual world championship.

So Willie Naulls knows the scene. The civic parades, trips to the White House, keys to the city. Scorer-rebounder, even Star with a capital S, he is not sure it was worth it.

"I look at some of my friends who have had a 10-year pro career, and their knowledge of the real world we live in is skewed," he says.

"You get into places other people only dream about. You get to meet the president of General Motors and the President of the country. You hob-nob with people because you're an athlete, not because you're you. You are where you are because of your physique, not your psyche."

You are, in short, a jump shot who talks. You are in the real world but not of it. You tend to sequester yourself. You become one-dimensional. You are, God help you, a celebrity. You are in life's locker room. The worst cases hide in the shower, don't talk even to reporters, become non-people, complicated hermits.

"For instance, you don't know me. You know Willie Naulls, the player," challenges Naulls. "You don't know the real person, you know the cutout. That's all he lets you know. Sometimes he doesn't know who he is himself.

"Now, I take some of my friends who go into other areas of society, into law or medicine or politics or science. They develop as they go along. The athlete has to start from scratch when he joins them at the age of 35 or 40."

But what about the financial head start they get? Naulls played for as little as $11,500 annually. Today's pros draw millions.

"They are economically competitive. But are they psychologically? Besides, we're talking of the ones who have 15- or 20-year careers. What about the ones who devote their lives to sports and have two- or three-year careers? What about the ones who devote their lives to sports and then have no pro careers?"

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