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Pre-Washington Wizards: The Chicago Zephyrs


Chicago Zephyrs Don Nelson and Jeff Slade

Credit: Sports Memorabilia


Before being known as the Washington Wizards, for a season (1962-63), the team was known as the Chicago Zephyrs. In the season before, the Zephyrs were known as the Chicago Packers as a tribute to Chicago's meatpacking industry, but fans did not like the name because it was similar to the Chicago Bears' rivals, the Green Bay Packers.


The Bears and Packers are NFL teams, so I don't know why NBA fans were upset to the point that it warranted a name change.


The team probably chose "Zephyrs" because it means "a soft, gentle breeze." The word is perhaps a nod towards one of Chicago's most well-known nicknames, the Windy City.


The 1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs were not good. In fact, they were the second-worst team in the league. The team went 25-55 (31.3 W/L%) and were the last seed in the Western Division. The only team that was worse than the Zephyrs were the Knicks with a 21-59 (26.3 W/L%) record.

 

The Coaches: Jack McMahon and Slick Leonard

For the first 38 games, the Chicago Zephyrs were coached by Jack McMahon. Before he became a coach, McMahon was an NBA player. He was a 6'1" point guard that the Rochester Royals drafted as the 58th pick in the 1952 NBA draft. McMahon played for the Royals and the St. Louis Hawks in his eight seasons. He was a decent role player, averaging 8/3/4 (points, rebounds, assists) throughout his career, and won a Championship with the Hawks in 1958!


As a coach, McMahon was average. He was a head coach from 1962-71 and ended with a 300-343 (46.7 /L%%) record. His first season as a coach was with the 1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs! Unfortunately, this was also his second-worst coaching record. With the Zephyrs, he went 12-26 (31.6 W/L%). His worst record was in the 1967-68 NBA season with the San Diego Rockets. They went 15-67 (18.3 W/L%).


Slick Leonard coached the other 42 games. Like McMahon, Leonard also played in the NBA.

He was a 6'3" point guard that the Baltimore Bullets drafted as the 10th pick in the 1954 NBA draft. He only played seven seasons in the NBA since he served in the military during his first two seasons. Leonard's career stats are very similar to McMahons, having averages of 10/3/3 while shooting 34.9% from the field.


Leonard played for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs throughout his seven-season career! Leonard was a player/coach for the Zephyrs! His first season as a coach was his last season as a player (1962-63).


As a coach, Leonard was excellent. He was a head coach from 1962-80 and ended with a 573-534 (51.8 W/L%) record. After the 1963-64 NBA season with the Baltimore Bullets, Leonard would move to the ABA and coach the Indiana Pacers from 1968-80. Leonard would coach them to THREE championships (1969-70, 1971-72, 1972-73)! In 2014, Leonard ended up being inducted into the Hall of Fame!


Despite his coaching success, Leonard's time with the Zephyrs as a coach was even worse than McMahon's. Leonard went 13-29 (31.0 W/L%). To both Leonard and McMahon's credit, the Zephyrs did not have any guaranteed superstar or star-level players.


The Two Best Players: Walt Bellamy and Terry Dischinger

The Chicago Zephyrs did not have a Big 3. They only had two good players, Walt Bellamy and Terry Dischinger. The third-best player was Woody Sauldsberry, and he only averaged 13/7/1 while shooting 38.4% from the field. 38.4% from the field is horrible, but this was an improvement from Sauldsberry's career field-goal percentage of 34.8%. His shooting is so bad that he has the lowest win shares in NBA history (-7.9).


However, there was a time where Sauldsberry was good. He was the Rookie of the Year in the 1957-58 season, becoming the lowest-draft pick to be Rookie of the Year (60th) and was an All-Star in the 1958-59 season, but in the 1962-63 season with the Zephyrs, he was already 28 and ended up retiring the next season.


The best player on the Chicago Zephyrs was Walt Bellamy. He was a 6'11" center drafted by the Zephyrs (when they were known as the Packers) in the 1961 NBA draft as the first pick. In his rookie season, Bellamy was averaging 32/19/3 while shooting 51.9% from the field. This was as a ROOKIE. To no surprise, he was the Rookie of the Year and an All-Star.


As a Zephyr, Bellamy's stat-line was slightly worse but still impressive. He averaged 28/16/3 while shooting 52.7% from the field and was once again an All-Star. He was Top 10 in every statistical category this season besides free-throw percentage and assists. His best game was on November 9th, 1962, against the San Francisco Warriors, where he put up:


46 Points, 22 Rebounds, 4 Assists

20/36 FG, 6/6 FT

47 Minutes


Bellamy would never be an All-Star again after his first four seasons with the team. It was not because he was bad. It's just that the centers during this era were outstanding. By the end of Bellamy's career, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame!