MARGATE — The third time would be the charm for the Philadelphia 76ers when the team’s rookies and veterans took to the basketball court at the Jewish Community Center in Margate in mid-September 1966. It was the third consecutive year the team had come to Atlantic County for training camp and it marked the start of a championship season that would put the team in the NBA record books.
Rookie Billy Melchionni was no stranger to the region. He had starred at Bishop Eustace Prep in his hometown of Pennsauken and was one of the top scorers at Villanova University before the 76ers chose the 6-foot-1 guard in the second round of the NBA draft.
“The facilities were somewhat spartan,” recalled Melchionni of the Margate gym. He had considered playing professional basketball in Italy before signing with the 76ers.
The talent on the court was first-rate, even with the absence of center Wilt Chamberlain, who was dealing with the aftermath of a fire that heavily damaged his San Francisco apartment. The lineup included future Hall of Famers Hal Greer at guard and Billy Cunningham at forward. All-star forward Chet Walker, prototype power forward Luke Jackson and guard Wali Jones, a teammate of Melchionni’s at Villanova, were also part of the roster.
Initially, Melchionni was a bit in awe of his new teammates. “I had grown up watching some of these guys play,” he said, referring to Greer and Chamberlain.
Overseeing the squad was new coach Alex Hannum. A future Hall of Famer, he was brought in to get the team over the hump after losses to the Boston Celtics in the 1965 and 1966 playoffs.
“Alex had been around as a player and coach,” Melchionni recalled of the 6-foot-7 Hannum, who coached the St. Louis Hawks to an NBA title in 1958. “I found him to be very strict, but very fair, a no-nonsense type of guy.”
Hannum used training camp to instill discipline and order, emphasizing that basketball was a team game.
“We practiced in the morning and afternoon,” said Melchionni, who was 22 at the time. “I was always exhausted after practice. The veterans knew how to pace themselves and eventually I learned.”
While no exhibition games were held in Margate, the 76ers held a series of intrasquad games in Margate and at the Holy Spirit High School gymnasium in Absecon when the Jewish Community Center gym was closed because of the religious holidays.
Unlike the practices, the games were open to the public, who got a chance to meet and talk with the players and obtain their autographs.
It was a different era in professional basketball, Melchionni pointed out. “When we flew, we went coach, not first class. There was just the 10 of us [players] and the coach and trainer. There were no entourages.”
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