What the Hell Happened to...Bobby Wilson?

WTHHT is all about perseverance. We've seen it so many times before.  Guys come out of nowhere, against all odds, and wind up playing for the Boston Celtics.  Brett Szabo and Ronnie Grandison did it.  Hambone Williams, Bill Dinwiddie and Conner Henry did it too.

But sometimes the stories are so incredulous you can't even believe it unless you heard it from the person himself.  Imagine being just the 10th man on your high school team and just a couple years later, competing for a final spot on the USA Men's National Olympic Team.  Imagine not having any Division 1 colleges recruit you out of high school and there you are, in the NBA, a few short years later, sharing the floor with Jo Jo White and John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.  And Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan and Bob Love.

Sometimes you just have to hear it from the man himself to understand just how difficult the odds were to overcome.  For the third time in our history (after  Erick Strickland and Bob Nordmann) we hear from the man himself, Bobby Wilson, who was kind enough to take some time (ok it was more like 2 hours worth of time) out to give us an inside look at his career, including his time with the Celtics.

Without further ado, the exclusive Celticslife interview with Bobby:

Celticslife Let’s start off by going to your high school days.  I believe you attended Shortridge HS in Indianapolis, correct?  Tell us when you began playing basketball and whether any colleges recruited you out of high school.
Bobby WilsonI'll tell ya, in high school my grades had originally caused me to be ineligible and by the time I played as a senior, I was actually about the 10th man on a 15 man team.  I did not have any colleges recruit me; what happened is my good friend and teammate, who also had my name, Bobby Wilson, he had been recruited by several major schools.  He was Robert Wilson and I was Robert E. Wilson (laughs).  Well the Pasadena Community College coach agreed to it, and that's how I ended up there.

CL What was it like at Pasadena? Did you spend two seasons there?
BW: Well it's a two year school but my first year in California, the rule used to be you had to sit out that first season.  My coach found a way around the rule so I actually wound up appearing in 8 games.  Soon enough, other schools began to protest so I had to leave.  I then went on to San Jacinto Community College (also in California).  It was not as well-known a school as Pasadena Community; it was a smaller school.  In my first 10 games there I averaged 31 ppg.  Then the protests began happening there as well and I was forced to sit out.  So I left San Jacinto.  That summer, I worked really hard on my game and I had another friend at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. That summer the coach from there saw me play and was impressed.  The coach was Roy Edwards at the time and he told me he couldn't give me a scholarship but he could give me a work-study.  So I took it.

CL Tell us about Northeastern Junior College.  Is that where you began thinking you actually had a chance to make the pros?
BW: I did have to sit out that first year upon transferring but when I did play the following season, I was a first team junior college All American.  Coach Edwards was one of those disciplinarian coaches.  He actually told me I might have a future in basketball.  But nevertheless he kept a tight rein on me, made sure I got a tutor and got good grades.   As for making the NBA, I was never really one of those guys that used to think about it.  Back then, I took one day at a time and let my game do the talking.

CL After Northeastern then is when you transferred to Wichita State.  What made you choose Wichita State?  Were there any other schools you were interested in going to or other colleges that recruited you heavily?
BW: Yes, actually I was recruited by UCLA, USC, Colorado State, Utah State and Louisville in addition to Wichita State.  I'll tell ya, what sold me on Wichita State was a couple of things.  It reminded me quite a bit of Indianapolis and I had loved growing up there.  I came from a pretty close-knit family (there were 8 children) and when I visited Wichita State they gave me that similar warm and fuzzy atmosphere, the team and players were really nice and took me under their wings.  Secondly when I was about to make my decision my good friend Jim Price who played at Louisville (and was drafted by the Lakers and played a while in the NBA) had told me that there were always a lot of scouts at the games in the Missouri Valley Conference so it meant I'd get some additional exposure. 

CL Tell us about your experience at Wichita State.
BW: I  should probably point out that it was right before Wichita State that I had one of my proudest moments.  I participated in the tryouts for the Olympic Team in '72.  I was one of just 8 JUCO players to try out for the team and I was coached by Bobby Knight.  Basically the teams were split-up there and Coach Knight was my coach.  Afterwards Coach Don Haskins (who was an Olympic assistant under Henry Iba) had told me that I was pretty much the last person cut and would be a phone-call away from joining the team if anyone else got hurt.  Tom Henderson wound up being the only JUCO player to make it.  That was a really great experience.
CL Wow I had no idea about that. That was the team that lost the controversial gold medal game to the Soviet Union?
BW: Yes that was them.

CL Regarding Wichita State you put up amazing stats.  1973 All MVC First Team, averaged 17ppg as a junior and 20 ppg as a senior and were a starter in both your junior and senior seasons.  You also cracked the 30 point club a couple of times.
BW: Actually the 17 ppg as a junior was off the bench believe it or not.  Wichita State had got caught up in a recruiting scandal when they got Rudy Jackson a 6'9 forward who could handle the ball and play guard and Len Elmore's brother Bob Elmore.  Basically records were falsified for them to get in.  Before that season they had us ranked as a Top 10 team in the country but once the allegations came out it turned out that the guys were ineligible.  Their grades in high school didn't qualify for them to be Division 1 players (both guys were freshmen that year).  As a result Wichita State was banned and disqualified from post season play. 

Overall I must say my WSU experience was a positive one.  I was so thankful to have a scholarship and to have people there that were genuinely concerned about my education and well-being.  The NBA was in the back of my mind while I was there but since I didn't have the press and accolades that came from a standout high school career, I wasn't quite sure it could happen.  I just took one day at a time and promised myself not to get caught up in the hype and let things fall where they may.

CL: You were selected by the Bulls in the 3rd round of the 1974 draft, the 52nd overall pick (meaning you easily would’ve been a second round pick in today’s draft).  The draft is a much different event today than it used to be, where did you find out the news?
BW: My friend (laughs) Robert Wilson had called me and told me about it.  Back around the time of the Olympic trainings, Ed Badger (former Celtic scout) had come up to me and told me that I really had a chance to make it.  It was one of those invitational tournaments at Vanderbilt where there were a bunch of seniors participating from the Pac-10, ACC, MVC and WAC. I wound up winning the MVP of that tournament.  Bob Cousy was actually my coach which was a really terrific experience.  I suppose it began to dawn on me then.

CL Were you drafted by the ABA as well?
BW: I actually was, after my junior year, the Pacers had drafted me in the 9th round of the ABA draft.  Slick Leonard was the guy handling things there at that time and he contacted me telling me they'd love to give me a chance.  But I told him I preferred going back and finishing school.
CLYou played two seasons with the Bulls, 1975 and 76 under head coach Dick Motta.  In your career you had fancied yourself as a transition player yet Coach Motta was very rigid in his offensive sets.  What was it like to play for Coach Motta?

BW: Coach Motta was a student of the game and the knowledge I gained from him was invaluable.  He had a thing about playing rookies back then.  Back then we didn't distinguish between the point guard and the off guard; you were just a guard.  But Norm Van Lier, who was our starter, was holding out with his contract, looking for more money.  So I had the chance to start.  My first night with the Bulls I had 21 points and 8 assists.  Soon enough Norm did get that contract and when he returned he jumped right back into the starting lineup.  I began to back him up.  I didn't get a lot of consistent playing time back then, which was a bit tough but even with the limited minutes I was happy to be there.  I always worked hard in practice and stayed ready.

CL: It was during the 1975 season where you played in the NBA playoffs, 10 games during the Bulls run that year.  In your first series you knocked off the Kings in 5 games, 3 of which were decided by 7 points or less.  They were a pretty talented bunch led by Tiny Archibald and Jimmy Walker.  They also had future Celtic Scott Wedman as well as two names a lot of guys will recognize today (as coaches): Mike D’Antoni and Rick Adelman.  Tell us about the level of intensity of the NBA playoffs and how it differs from the regular season.
BW: Jerry Sloan and Bob Love and Norm Van Lier, those guys and their intensity on defense...wow, I mean these guys had arguably the greatest defensive intensity I've ever seen.  Remember Tiny was a prolific scorer but in that series both Norm and Jerry took turns defending Tiny and making it really hard on him.  I learned a lot from both Norm and Jerry.  Norm told me once "if you play defense, your offense will come."  It's a quote I've always remembered. 

That was an interesting series though, Coach Motta actually began playing Tom Boerwinkle a lot that series since he was an excellent passer which was conducive to Motta's offensive sets.  I remember Nate Thurmond on the bench one night during that series saying to me "I'd give up my entire salary to be back in the starting lineup."  It was Nate's job that Tom had taken.

CL: After dispatching Kansas City you faced Golden State where you were knocked out of the playoffs (this is when Chicago was still in the Western Conference).  A two-part question for you: How tough of a team were those Warriors to play against?  And historically, where do the 75 Warriors rank as far as all-time great teams?  (This was right around the merger of the NBA and ABA so some think the NBA was not at its strongest since some of the talented players were in the ABA).
BW: I rank those 75 Warriors pretty high.  Rick Barry was a big time scorer, I don’t think I've ever seen anyone that could shoot the lights out like Rick.  He’s really one of the top 5 shooters of all time.  In one of the games in that series he single-handedly chipped away at a 20 point deficit they were facing.  Bob Love couldn’t do anything and Bob was a defensive specialist.  With Phil Smith and Charlie Johnson, a great coach in Al Attles.  Even someone like Derrek Dickey.  I really gotta say that they're one of the top 5 teams of all-time.  When you had them down, they were not going to give up.  That was really one of the things I liked about them. You could tell they had a lot of fight in them, and they gave us more than we could handle once they got down.  I have a lot of respect for them.  Their camaraderie was great.  In my opinion, you got to have a lot of talent to win, but their camaraderie is what really sets them apart and distinguishes them as an all-time great.  
CL:You played with some impressive teammates including Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker, Bob Love, Nate Thurmond, Tom Boerwinkle and Matt Guokas.  Who was your most talented teammate in your two years in Chicago?
BW: I would have to say 3 of them: Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and Bob Love.  Most talented was probably Jerry and Norm. Their work ethic was so hard-nosed and old-school “we’re gonna fight to the bitter end” – those guys were tough as nails, night in and night out.  Because of their tenacity, we were always in games.   Coach Motta knew that those guys would come to play every night and we followed their lead.
Left to right: Van Lier, Sloan & Love

CL:Two other teammates you may have remembered: Rowland Garrett (standout from Florida State who former Celtic Skip Young spoke very highly of) and Eric Fernsten, the future center for the Celtics.  Did you have any relationship with either one?

BW: Yes Rowland and I, we actually stayed in the same complex when I was with the Bulls.  I don’t know if they had the 6th man award back then but if they did, Rowland would’ve won it.  Coach Motta liked Rowland.  He had a great outside shot, one of the prettiest jumpers you saw.  Rowland was steady and could always give us a lift.  And yes I knew Eric as well.  Eric Fernsten was really one of the nicest guys.  Eric came in my second year, he was a good kid, one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.

CL: After two years with the Bulls, it appears you were waived around the time of training camp in October of 1976.  Did that come as a surprise to you?

BW: It was a surprise because Chicago had sent me out to the summer league that year, my contract year, and I performed well.  I was the leading scorer and second in assists going up against guys like Gus Williams.  At that point I had several teams that wanted to acquire me.  I remember I had a conversation with Jerry West and he was interested in me.  So the Bulls eventually send me a contract for 3 years with no raise and no bonus.  I felt that was unfair so I didn't sign it.  With the way I was playing, being aware of all the other teams interested in my services, I really thought the Bulls would place more value on me.  But back then, it was before there was a Players Association so my rights were limited.  

CL: Two months later in January of 1977, the Celtics signed you to help replace Charlie Scott  who was on the injured list at the time.  They had apparently been interested in a bunch of different guards at the time.  They pursued Dave Bing, Tom Henderson and Gary Brokaw by trade, and yourself, Dean Meminger, and Kevin Cluess by signing.  They opted for you.  How did you find out the news?

BW: I was at home and I got a call from Red Auerbach.  I had some of my best games against Boston when I was with the Bulls.  When I first got to Boston, Red must've sat there for two hours the very first time.  He would just talk and made me feel so comfortable.  I can't emphasize it enough: this was one of the greatest experiences I ever had talking to Red about nothing but basketball for two hours.  The Celtics were a first-class organization and it was like night and day (between Boston and Chicago).  The Celtics cared so much about me as a person.
CL:Coach Tom Heinsohn was in his final season as Celtics’ coach and always emphasized transition basketball.  What was he like to play for?

BW: One of the greatest men I have ever met.  His style really suited me and he gave me the opportunity.  Thinking back on it I believe it was my lack of focus that cost me a long term deal with the Celtics.  Coach Heinsohn gave me every opportunity, and I feel I let myself down and let him down because I was worrying about all the wrong things.  I was only signed for the rest of the season and instead of putting myself in the best position and establishing myself on the floor, I was distracted.  That's really what cost me with the Celtics.

CL:One unique story you have in playing for the Celtics is when you went to Chicago to play the Bulls, you had a midnight wedding after the game on March 15, 1977.  Why did you decide to have your wedding after the game?  Did any of your teammates accompany you?

BW My wife Tonda had a lot to do with it.  Tonda had said "Don't think I'm gonna be one of these groupies, following you around, waiting for you to get back."  (Laughs).  So we picked that day and decided to have it right after the game.  The whole Celtics' team came to the wedding. Dave Cowens, John Havlicek; John even flew his wife in to attend.  Coach Heinsohn even let me spend the night in Chicago when they left for Milwaukee, and he let me come up the next day in the afternoon, giving me a little honeymoon.  It was an incredible experience, here I was with guys I hardly knew, since I'd only been on the team for such a short time.  They gave me a thousand dollar gift certificate to Tiffanys and I have lots of pictures with all the guys.  That's what I mean when I say the Celtics were a first class organization all the way.
CL:One question one of our writers had for you was whether there was any friction on the team between Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens when you were there?  This was right around the time that Dave embarked on being a player-coach and there was a rumor that White was displeased with it since he thought he should be the coach.
BW If there ever was a spat between Dave and Jo Jo, I certainly never picked up on it.  Those guys were so classy, always wore suits to the games and always represented the organization with dignity.  Along with John, I've never been around guys with such tremendous character.  I really don't think Red would've allowed any tension between Jo Jo and Dave to take place.  I definitely never saw any tension between those guys, nothing like that at all.

CL: The Celtics released you in April of 1977, towards the end of the regular season to make room for Charlie Scott to resume his spot on the roster after coming back from injury.  You next signed on with the Pacers in August of 1977.  What was it like to play for Indiana?
BW: Well I wasn’t playing for any team in the summer of 77.  Slick Leonard contacted me once again and had said he was going to bring me to the free agent tryout for Indiana.  I did well at the trial and made the team. 
As far as playing for the Pacers well first of all, being home causes a lot of distractions.  I got a lot of ticket requests and family members wanting to come to the games.  The Pacers had just picked up Ricky Sobers and him and Super John Williamson, those were the starting guards I had to compete against.  Basically it came down to a numbers game; Johnny Neumann had a guaranteed contract and Mike Flynn, he had that Indiana Kentucky connection, and Mike had another year on his deal.  So I was the odd guy out. 

Super John Williamson

CL: After leaving the Pacers you apparently were done with the NBA, but not with playing basketball.  This is where it gets tricky for me in that I was able to establish you played for Trotamundos de Carabobo in Valencia in 1984.  Did you play from 1978 to 83 somewhere else?  If so, can you take us through that? 
BW: In Italy and then in France and then in Venezuela.  Also played in Carrocas in Venezuela.  Set many all-time scoring records.  I had a tryout with Detroit during Isiah's rookie season (1981-82) and wound up being the last player cut.  1986 was my last year and I played in Grenoble, France.  My wife ended up getting pregnant and at that point I realized it was time to hang it up.  I just wanted to have my child.

CL: We had been under the impression that you had a terrific high school career and had reached out to the Shortridge High School to wonder why you weren't in the school's Hall of Fame.  The gentleman we spoke with there claimed to have never heard of you and was there while you were there.  While this seemed ridiculous at the time, based on your modest high school career it also makes sense.  We still believe you should be in the hall of fame because it's not always about what you accomplish in high school at the time but what you achieve afterwards and you reached the highest peak of your profession, one which is extremely difficult to make.  Should we continue pushing for you to be in there?!
BW: (Laughs) Nah you don't have to do that. I do believe only myself and Charles Jordan were the only two to make it from Shortridge and Charles played in the ABA (addendum: it appears there was a third, Herschell Turner who also made it and played in the ABA in the 60s).  That's really for the guys who had all the accolades back in high school.

CL: But you are the only NBA player from there?  Are you sure?!
BW: (Laughs again) Yeah I'm sure.

CL: The second injustice is you’re inexplicably not in the Wichita State Hall of Fame, despite being only one of just 10 Shockers to make the NBA.  From our research the reasons we could think that you’re not in is because your teams didn’t  perform particularly well win-loss-wise(even though you put up phenomenal numbers), you only spent two years there after transferring from junior college, and you preceded the Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, Xavier McDaniel group, and therefore got lost in the shuffle.  What’s your take on that at the time?  We at Celticslife emailed Mike Kennedy on the Wichita State Board who handles inductions.  He didn’t reply to our lobbying for you.
BW: I believe that's something that may take place at some point.  I know someone else on the board there and there's been some discussion recently about it.  The Sports Information Director there told me that I scored the most points in two seasons in Wichita State history.  We'll see what happens. 

CL: As NBA fans we were hoping you could tell us if you had any relationship with any of the other Wichita State players to make the pros, including Warren Jabali, who it appears you just missed out on playing with.
BW: I did actually, Warren and I used to play in the summer in Indianapolis, in the summer league tournaments.  I became very close with Warren and (Freddie Lewis ) playing in lots tournaments. 

CL: Also Celtics' fans gotta ask: any relationship with Xavier McDaniel?
BW: I know of Xavier, have seen him play a lot and am familiar with his game but no, I have no relationship with him.

CL:You played with a bunch of great players in your day.  Who was the most talented player you played with?  

BW: No one had more heart than Dave Cowens.  Dave will go down as an all-time great center.  Havlicek and Jo Jo, those guys were the class of not only the Celtics, but the class of the league. The league was built on those guys’ backs.  Kareem of course who I played against.  Walt Frazier.  Earl Monroe was a great player I went up against.  Also you can't forget Dave Bing.

Dave had the biggest heart
CL:What about the toughest opponent to match up with?  The guy who you knew was gonna be just really tough and give you the ultimate test.

BW: I have to say Dennis Johnson.  One of my greatest strengths was my quickness and yet going up against DJ, he played such great defense.  He was so incredibly-sound defensively.  He was my greatest challenge to match-up against.

DJ was tenacious

CL: What's your most memorable moment from playing?

BW: I'd say after finishing up junior college, the Olympic trials and being selected for the US alternate team.  There were 56 players at that camp, all Div 1 guys, and to be only one of two JUCO guys to make it that far.  It put me on the mind of NBA scouts and really reaffirmed that I could compete at that level.

CL: Since retiring, what have you been up to?

BW:  For a while I worked for Attorney Mark Dym and also Attorney Mike Fisher in the sports divisions of their respective law firms. After that I acted as a liaison to the NBA and the players' association in working with The Little City Foundation Fundraisers.  We used to invite former and current NBA players into Chicago to attend dinners to raise money.  The job I've been involved with recently is working for Global Experience Specialists (GES).  They are a global events company that sets up different trade shows throughout a wide array of industries.  So things such as automotive shows or restaurant shows.
In addition to that I've been involved with the Crossroads Basketball Camp in Illinois.  Each summer I hold a basketball camp where we bring in lots of kids that have a lot of talent but not the expenses.  Really what I'm able to do then is leverage my name with the connections I have to get them into different colleges throughout the country.  Most years we have about 75-100 kids and this past year we had a specialty camp with 15 kids, I was able to get one player to try out for the Mad Ants of the D-League and one guy who red-shirted at Northeastern Junior College.  It really inspires me to be able to do this for others and I take a lot of joy in it.  If anyone's interested in hearing any more about this they can contact me at bobbyewilson34@gmail.com

CL: Your NBA career lasted 4 seasons but even by your last year, there were only 22 teams in the league and not even every team carried all 12 players.  Certainly if there were 30 teams back then (and 15 players per team) as there are today, you absolutely would’ve had a much longer career in the NBA.  Any hard feelings that you came onto the scene too soon?
BW: You know I really don’t; I came into the NBA when the Lord wanted me to be there.  I feel tremendously blessed to have accomplished what I did and to this day people still recognize me and remember my career. I think about all the players I played with and against and all the other guys I played with in high school who never made it and I'm just so thankful for having made it and been able to lay the foundation for what it's become today. 

Bobby taking the time out to brighten someone's day

CL: Do you watch the NBA today at all?  If so what’s your take on it?  Do the players come close today to matching up to their predecessors?  Or has expansion and AAU at the amateur level generally diluted the fundamentals of the game?

BW: I think the game today is great.  I don’t think the talent is quite where it was.  When I played all guys from top to bottom could’ve been a starter.  Today it's not quite as much, at least not from the first guy to the last guy.  Of course the Lebron James, the Michael Jordans, Larry Birds, those guys are all outstanding.  With guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Tim Duncan, I think the game is in a good place today.  I think over time the shooting skills have been lost a bit because everyone wants to dunk and has been obsessed with dunking.  So as a result some of the fundamentals are a bit lacking. But overall the game is in very good hands.  I think David Stern has done a wonderful job promoting the game and making it a worldwide game. To be a part of that is fantastic.
Basketball is forever a part of who Bobby is...

...but that doesn't mean he can't dress to impress!

CL: Anything else interesting you'd like to share?
BW:  For the last 27 years I've been a Born Again Christian.

Well just how cool was that?  A stroll down memory lane remembering back to when the best basketball players battled in the NBA.  No league diluted with expansion.  Just the very best basketball players in the world.  Say what you want but just because NBA TV and the internet weren't around back then can you possibly diminish what Bobby was able to overcome.

And I understand and respect his wish not to bring publicity to his cause for induction into Shortridge's HS Hall of Fame (considering he wasn't well known at the time) but my opinion is that it's egregious he's not in the Wichita State Hall of Fame.  Because he transferred and only went there for two years?  He had the highest total points ever accumulated in two years!  And Wichita State has only produced 10 NBA players ever; they're no Duke or North Carolina.  We here at Celticslife feel Bobby should unequivocally be inducted in there!  So much so that we created this banner:

Artwork by EK 

I speak on behalf of Celtics' Nation in that just like Bobby wishes he stuck around Boston longer, Celtics' fans reciprocate the notion that we wished you played here longer.  Bobby is a most gracious and humble individual.  We at Celticslife thank him for his time with the Celtics and the time he took to speak with us and relive his journey.  We wish him all luck with his future endeavors!

*A big shout-out to Bobby's wife Tonda, for helping coordinate this interview.  Tonda is the President & Founder of Glory Cosmetics & Image Consulting.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter @TewgloryE.

**Another shout-out to Shockernet.net, a Wichita State Athletic forum, that helped fill in some of the information on Bobby's collegiate accomplishments.

For a list of all the "What the Hell Happened To" Series please click here.