Former Basketball Star Now Shoots Films Instead
Chet (the Jet) Walker played with Wilt Chamberlain on the champion '76ers; today he's an Emmy winner and author
PEERING out from beneath a Yankee baseball cap, Chet Walker, a retired National Basketball Association star, says he does not conform to preconceptions some hold about movie producers.
"When they say it's not normal for a professional athlete to become a filmmaker," he observes, "what they're saying is, it's not normal for a professional black athlete to do this."
Walker says his current pursuit should seem no less out of the ordinary than that of Bill Bradley, a white man and former NBA opponent who is now a United States senator from New Jersey.
Walker produced "A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story," an Emmy award-winning TV movie about the mother of basketball player Isiah Thomas, who stood her ground against Chicago youth gangs. More recently he worked on "The Glass Shield," which focuses on police corruption.
In person, Walker comes across as thoughtful, politically opinionated, very aware of social issues, but not angry. Nonetheless, during an interview he says he used his new autobiography, "Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete's Coming-of-Age in America" (Grove Press, $22), written with Chris Messenger, as an escape valve for pent-up feelings.
"One reason I wrote the book is that I had to get rid of a lot of anger," he volunteers. "I would advise young players today, if you have something to say, find a public forum and get it out."
At the same time, he acknowledges that circumstances make it difficult for sports stars to speak out on sensitive social issues. He and an NBA teammate once signed an anti-apartheid petition seeking to stop South African planes from landing at New York's Kennedy Airport. Soon a team executive approached them with a message: "You guys should be careful."
The complicating factor, Walker says, is your livelihood. Prominent sports figures "belong to the people. Everybody who comes to the games relates to you. In the professional ranks your livelihood depends upon how many people come to see you play, and you don't want to alienate those people."
Walker's 13-year NBA career with the Syracuse Nationals, Philadelphia 76ers, and Chicago Bulls ended in 1975, or 10 seasons before Michael Jordan arrived in Chicago. Why did Walker take so long to share his story in print?
"I always had the book in the back of my mind," he explains, "but it wasn't until the last three years that I was able to see the complete picture."
Walker says his work with screenplays allowed him to visualize his autobiography. His story begins in rural Mississippi, moves with his family's migration to Benton Harbor, Mich., in the early 1950s, and continues in Peoria, Ill., where he played college basketball at Bradley University.
Eventually, Walker landed in the pros as a sharpshooting, 6 ft., 7 in. forward - Chet the Jet - who averaged 18.2 points a game.
The highlight of his career was playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia in 1967, when the 76ers won the NBA title with one of the greatest teams in history. Typical of the insights in his book, Walker observes that not one black player from that team ever was asked to join Philadelphia's management. "When we took off our 76er uniforms," he says, "we became invisible."
After beating nemesis Boston that season, Philadelphia won an almost anticlimactic playoff final against the Warriors in San Francisco. At dawn on the morning after this victory Walker sat on a hotel balcony and surveyed the Bay area with its two prisons - Alcatraz and San Quentin. "Great athletes populate our prisons," he thought, "many as good or better than the players who've made it in professional sports."
Walker decided to end his national book tour at San Quentin, not to sell copies, but to talk "to the brothers to see what's going on." For his next movie project, he plans to look at young African-American men on death row. "If you find out how these crimes are committed, you may have a way of preventing them," he says.
Movies have intrigued Walker since he saw the 1959 remake of "Imitation of Life," a powerful drama starring Sandra Dee and Lana Turner that concerns racial matters. "It was such a moving story," Walker remembers. "I thought, 'How can I tell a story like this?' "
As a pro basketball player, he frequented matinees and sometimes would be the only one in the theater.
He refused hotel confinement. Too often, he says, star athletes "live in an isolated world, and that's not good. You don't grow unless you're able to communicate with people."
One person Walker greatly admires, and wishes he had met, is tennis player Arthur Ashe. "He was interested in all the right things that need to be said and said them in a way that was not threatening," Walker says.
"What we need in our society more than anything else - white people and black people," Walker adds, "is to have people be able to understand other people better. That leads to communication, and then we won't be so hostile toward each other."