From time to time, Supersonicsoul tries to highlight players from the beginnings of the team's history, rather than just the heroes of the last 20 years. The following is a reprint of an article on an original member of the Sonics, George Wilson, who turns 72 today.
I’ve always been curious about the “winner” label that gets affixed to athletes.
Bill Russell had it – he won with the University of San Francisco, then with the Celtics, so much winning that people started thinking he was incapable of losing.
Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird – they were all winners at multiple levels.
So much of it is nonsense – Cousy, Jabbar, Pippen, and McHale had more than a little to do with those first four gentlemen’s successes, right?
It’s funny, though, you never hear about guys who won a lot before turning pro, then failed when they got there.
You know, like George Wilson.
George Wilson came to the Sonics by way of the 1967 expansion draft, arriving in town after the Sonics selected him from the Bulls. A 6’8” or so center/power forward, his career in the NBA never amounted to all that much – 5.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg in 400-odd games – but before he turned pro, Wilson was a winning machine, with a record even Bill Russell himself would envy.
At Marshall High School in Chicago, Wilson led his team to two state titles and was named a national All-American in the process. From there, he went to the University of Cincinnati, where he teamed up with the great Oscar Robertson and won yet another championship.
Not satisfied, Wilson turned to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, winning a Gold Medal after sinking two crucial baskets in the final moments of a nail-biting win over Yugoslavia – the closest the US had come to losing in Olympic history.
In the span of six years – from 1958 to 1964 – Wilson had accumulated two high school championships, an NCAA title, and an Olympic Gold Medal.
Let’s say, at this point, George Wilson, rather than John Thompson, gets selected by Boston in the 1964 draft, gets another half-dozen rings on his fingers as a reserve big man for the Celtics, how do we then view George Wilson? Isn’t it possible, just possible, that rather as a forgotten undersized center from 40 years ago, he becomes a “winner?” Isn’t it possible that the Hall of Fame starts thinking about adding him to their ranks?
But enough about that speculation, let’s look at what really happened to George Wilson, member of the 1967-68 Seattle Sonics.
George Wilson was born in Meridan, Mississippi back in May of 1942. Because of the racism prevalent throughout the south at the time, Wilson’s family split while he was still young, eventually winding up in Chicago with his mother and stepfather.
By the time he reached Marshall High School in Chicago, an all-black school, Wilson was already a talent, but a raw one. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he learned to shoot a hook shot, and his career took off. Averaging 26 points a game during the next three seasons, the 6’8” Wilson dominated games, and took the Commandos to the State Title twice, the first all-black team to do so in Illinois.
With colleges around the country coveting him, Wilson opted for Cincinnati because of his admiration for Oscar Robertson. After spending one season on the freshman team while the varsity won the NCAA tournament, Wilson became a key member of the squad his sophomore year as Cincy captured its second consecutive title.
By the time 1964 rolled around, Wilson’s skills were evident to those that put together the Olympic team, but because of an arcane rule that limited each school to no more than one member on the team, Wilson’s chances at travelling to Tokyo seemed slim as his teammate, Ron Bonham, the team’s leading scorer, had already been selected.
Luckily for Wilson, he was selected for an AAU all-star team that wound up playing against the Olympic team in a tournament. His 19 rebounds persuaded the selectors to put him on the squad, and just like that, he was headed for Tokyo.
Wilson made sure they wouldn’t regret it.
When George “Jiff” Wilson joined the US Olympic Team in Tokyo in 1964, he wasn’t the biggest name there. (How did he get that nickname? Oh, it’s a delicious story. Turns out that Jiff peanut butter came out with a kangaroo mascot around that time and George’s teammates thought he could jump higher than the kangaroo. Laugh if you will, but Wilson was much better off than his 6’5”, 270-pound teammate, John “Joe Camel” Franklin).
Walt Hazzard, Bill Bradley, Lucious Jackson, Larry Brown … those were some of the other names, and I’m guessing that during the pre-game show on ABC (or whoever was broadcasting it back then, although I’m willing to bet a small fortune that Jim McKay and/or Lindsay Nelson were involved), the only time you heard Wilson’s name was when they were showing one of those super-duper graphics they used to use back in the day.
Anyhow, after four games Wilson had 18 points and 12 fouls, and while they didn’t have uber-statisticians back then to tell us how to think about what we were watching, it’s not a stretch to imagine that he wasn’t up for any trophies at the end of the Olympics.
Considering they had just come up obliterating Uruguay 83-28, confidence was a bit high going into the Yugoslavia game. The Yugos, though, had other ideas, and they were within four points of the US with two minutes to go.
Wilson held the ball, all his teammates covered. With the shot clock near zero, he fired one up, hit it and heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Less than a minute later, the situation repeated itself. Again, the Yugos sloughed off Wilson, he waited, waited, waited … and hit another jumper.
US lead: 8 points.
From then on, the US cruised to victory in every game, earning Wilson and his teammates a gold medal.
"To this day, I wonder what would have happened had I not made those jump shots," Wilson told UC Magazine in an interview.
"When they put those gold medals around our necks, I don't know how I could have had a bigger smile," he says. "I think I cracked the corners of my mouth smiling so big. I was like a little kid at Christmas."
Passed over in the regular NBA draft, Wilson wound up being a territorial selection by the Cincinnati Royals in 1964, where he would again join Oscar Robertson and two other UC grads (Tom Thacker and Jack Twyman).
The Royals were good, but not good enough, earning playoff berths for three straight years and getting knocked out in the first round in each of them. In November 1966, the Royals decided to start unloading some of their local talent, and Wilson’s 20% FG percentage didn’t exactly endear him to the front office, so off he went to Chicago, a truly dismal team, and he ended the season with the Bulls.
Come that spring, the Bulls were about as impressed with Wilson’s skills as the Royals were, so they exposed him in the expansion draft, where the Sonics swiftly snapped him up.
“He is definitely a center,” Sonic GM Don Richman told the Seattle Times, assuaging any doubts people had about the 6’8” Wilson while also announcing he had signed the new Sonic to a two-year deal.
Like the rest of the newly formed Sonics, George Wilson’s expectations were mixed heading into the 1967-68 season.
On the one hand, a new team offered the opportunity for increased playing time. On the other, an expansion team meant losing – and lots of it, something Wilson hadn’t experienced much in his basketball career, although that losing would be tempered by, well, we’ll let Wilson explain:
"We had nice uniforms, I always remembered those," Wilson told the Seattle Times 40 years later. "We always at least looked nice."
So there was that.
Regardless of how they looked, Wilson could at least count on more minutes, for as late as mid-September he was ticketed to share the center duties with Dorie Murrey. Unfortunately, rookie Bob Rule proved to be better than either Wilson or Murrey (including a remarkable 31/21 performance against the Knicks in November), and wound up playing almost more minutes by himself (2,424) than the two veterans combined (2,730).
Wilson, playing only 16 minutes a night, still put up the best numbers of his career, with 6.1/6.1 in points and rebounds. Still, his low FG% (35.9) offset his strong rebounding and defense.
Still, there were bright spots, such as an early February night in Seattle when the Sonics took on Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the rest of the mighty Lakers.
Trailing by 19 points behind pathetic 22% first-half shooting, the Sonics were dealt another blow when Bob Rule found himself ejected following a punch of LA’s Erwin Mueller (a future Sonic and a former teammate of Wilson’s from Chicago).
With Dorie Murrey in foul trouble, the Sonics had to lean on Wilson the rest of the way, and he delivered. Rallying behind Wilson’s 19 rebounds in 28 minutes, to go with 10 points and five assists, the Sonics came storming back. Seattle held a 107-104 lead late, but even then the Seattle Center faithful had to hold their breaths after a missed shot attempt fell into the hands of Baylor.
Thinking quickly, Wilson knocked the ball out of the former Seattle U’s hands, and, as the Times Gil Lyons’ described it, “while flat on his back, flipped a pass to Tom Meschery for a layin.”
Seattle’s 87 rebounds set a club record (later broken), and were 23 more than the Lakers’, thanks in no small part to Wilson’s efforts.
Unfortunately, that would prove to be one of the highlights of George Wilson’s time in Seattle. By the time spring rolled around, he found himself once again picked in an expansion draft, this time by the Phoenix Suns. His time in Seattle spanned less than a calendar year.
Wilson would bounce from Phoenix to Philadelphia (via trade) and finally to Buffalo (once again, via expansion; Wilson may be the only player in NBA history to have been selected in no fewer than three expansion drafts; hey, at least somebody wanted him).
In Buffalo, Wilson got frustrated at management’s double-dealing (they told him he’d be a center, then tried to make him a forward), telling the University of Cincinnati magazine in 1984:
“I was very angry and bitter then. They had something like nine guys with no-cut contracts, then I got cut even though I’d outplayed some of the other guys in camp.”
Rather than keep banging his head against the wall, Wilson retired, and pursued a variety of other interests in his post-playing days, ranging from the restoration of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Museum in Ohio, working as a YMCA director, for 5 years with a neighborhood youth corps, taught at-risk kids in the Cincy school district for 10 years, then finally “retired” in 2002, although he continues to operate his own consulting company, worked with the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, gives speeches, and is active with the NBA Players Association. When he wasn’t busy with that, he helped raise three children with his wife, Jean, whom he separated from and later remarried, creating a blended family of six children. His son, Derek, played basketball professionally in Europe, but in reading stories about George, you can tell he’s most proud of the fact his children are all good people.