The letter from the Sixers arrived on a Thursday. That’s how Jimmy Pitts remembers it. They notified Pitts they had selected him in the 1965 NBA Draft and invited him to a training camp in September.
The letter from Emory University arrived the following Monday. Emory congratulated him on his acceptance to a dental school considered one of the best in the South. Classes started in August if he chose to enroll.
Try out for the NBA? Or take his spot in dental school? Pitts had a choice to make.
The NBA was a simpler place in 1965. At tonight’s NBA Draft, the top players will sit in a green room — decked out in designer but sometimes awkwardly-designed suits — wait for their names to get called and hop on stage to shake hands with the NBA commissioner. Everyone knows about the players the Sixers are considering for their first round pick, and the hardcore fans even have an idea who the team might take with their five second-round picks.
Nobody had any idea 50 years ago. Not even those who got selected. Pitts heard from a reporter at his local newspaper the Atlanta Journal before the Sixers sent that letter. Nine teams played back then, the NBA Draft went 16 rounds and there were no Europeans, meaning nearly 150 American college men got selected, nearly three times as many as today. Some would become stars. Most had no chance of making a roster if they even bothered to show up.
In 1965, the Sixers picked players from all over the country, from Mitchell Edwards of Texas Pan-American in the sixth round to Curt Fromal of LaSalle in the 11th round to Dan Anderson of Augsburg College in the 12th round to Pitts in the 15th round. Only three of 16 drafted players ended up making the roster: Bob Weiss, Jesse Branson and Sixers legend Billy Cunningham. Philly sports fans certainly know him.
This story is about the ones who never made it.
“Sometimes,” Edwards says, “it’s not in the cards.”
Pitts had always wanted to play in the NBA and had put together an All-SEC career at Georgia, but he had thought very little about the NBA Draft. He had, of course, been busy applying to dental schools. In those days, neither Florida nor South Carolina had a dental school. Every wannabe dentist from there and from Georgia wanted to get into Emory, and Pitts had.
“I had a mentor that was a dentist in Athens,” he says. “He called me and told me, ‘you don’t even think about it. You go to school, get your dental degree and your future is secure.’”
Basketball players were making about $10,000 a year back then. A career as a dentist was probably the safer, more profitable option. So Pitts listened. When September rolled around, he was taking classes at Emory rather competing in Margate, N.J., for a spot on the roster.
He wasn’t alone in this decision. According to a clip from the 1965 Inquirer, only 10 rookies, of 16 drafted, actually went to that training camp, and three were cut right away. Philadelphia had one of the best returning lineups of any team, with Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and some guy named Wilt Chamberlain who had scored 100 points in a game. Any rookie would have a tough time cracking that roster.
West and Edwards still showed up. Edwards remembers the practices started in the morning with running on the beach. Drills and scrimmaging would follow. Chamberlain held out and wasn’t there for part of the camp. His absence didn’t make things any easier. West remembers intense competition between the guards and feeling like he had little chance to squeeze onto the roster. Still, the Sixers’ head coach at the time, Dolph Schayes, shared some encouraging words after he was cut.
“(He) said, I’d really like to have you guard Jerry West and Oscar Robertson’ — which wasn’t really exciting to think about,” West says. “But anyway he said, ‘you’d need more seasoning at guard.’”
West went to get that seasoning by playing for the Phillips Oilers semipro team in Oklahoma while working for the Phillips Petroleum Company. The Sixers never called back. He went on to coach high school basketball and teach P.E. in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa.
Fromal, another of the 1965 draft picks who never made the team, became an assistant at LaSalle. He lives in Delaware County and still teaches young basketball players. Larry Rafferty, one of the first three cuts at the training camp, founded an investment banking firm. Lehman Brothers bought it in 2002.
Edwards’ life hasn’t turned out as successful. Shortly after not making the Sixers, he was drafted, and served in Vietnam. He spent a year Stateside, and a year over there. Edwards got another tryout with the Baltimore Bullets when he came back. He didn’t make it. Edwards says he was debilitated from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam and has dealt with problems because of it since.
His specialty as a basketball player was shooting long jump shots. He sometimes wonders what might’ve happened at that tryout had the three-point basket existed back then.
“That’s the way it was, the times,” Edwards says. “Today I probably would’ve been drafted as a three-point shooter. Sometimes we’re born too early.”
Pitts started his own dental practice in Smyrna, Ga., and still works there. Both of his sons are dentists, too. He plays basketball with a Senior Olympics team, thankful his knees are still intact.
“It was always a dream to play in the NBA,” he says, “but you have to be realistic.”
Pitts and his wife, Janice, recently returned from a long trip to Portugal. They travel often these days. And 50 years after choosing not to show up for training camp, Philadelphia is still on the list of places Pitts wants to visit.