Remembering Len Chappell

Certain records are relics of their era.

Two that immediately come to mind are from 1941, when Ted Williams was the last player in Major League Baseball to bat better than .400 and the 1961-62 NBA season when that force of nature named Wilt Chamberlain was the last to average better than 50 points for an entire season.

I’ve lived 65 years and hope for many more, but I never expect to see either of those records seriously challenged.

Closer to home, one record that at least appears unassailable is averaging 30 points over an ACC basketball season. That was last accomplished in 1961-62, and was last seriously threatened by the Great David Thompson of N.C. State, who averaged 29.9 over his senior season of 1974-75.

In the years since, no one has come closer than the 27.7 points Dennis Scott averaged for Georgia Tech in 1989-90.

The last man to average 30 in a season was a two-time ACC Player of the Year, a first-team All-ACC performer in all three seasons of varsity eligibility who was the go-to star for the only Wake Forest team to ever play in the Final Four the same season (1961-62) he became the school’s first consensus All-American.

Len Chappell, the greatest Wake player born in the mainland United States, died Thursday. I got the sad news last night when I returned from a long, relaxing day at the beach.

In that he played well before I arrived at the Winston-Salem Journal in 1978, I didn’t know Len well. But I did have the pleasure of talking with him a few times during my days as the Deacons’ beat reporter.

Anybody who knows anything about Wake basketball history knows what a monster Chappell was on the court. A rugged but deft 6-8 center from Portage, Penn., Chappell averaged 24.9 points and 13.9 rebounds over the three seasons he was eligible while shooting 50.7 percent from the floor. During the three seasons he and his running mate and sidekick Billy Packer were on the court, the Deacons won 62 games and lost 27.

Most of what I wrote about Chappell can be found in my two forays into the publishing industry, the first being Tales From the Wake Forest Hardwood and the second The ACC Basketball Book of Fame. It should go without saying Chappell figured prominently in both.

And most of what I know about Chappell came from two people who knew him well, the crusty but unfailingly helpful Packer and this delightful character named Charlie Bryant, who somehow survived – with bottomless sense of humor intact — serving as assistant coach for both Everett Case at N.C. State and Bones McKinney at Wake.

Packer repeatedly told a story that he maintains McKinney told him, about how he and Chappell ended up at Wake in the first place. McKinney, upon succeeding Murray Greason as head coach limped home with a 6-17 record in his first season of 1957-58, so he needed talent and he needed it fast.

As the story goes, he got on the scent of two all-time greats during a visit to see a good friend named Harold Bradley, who also happened to be head coach of rival Duke. During the visit Bradly was said to have left the room without taking the precaution of erasing the blackboard.

“Posted on that blackboard were the names of guys who Duke was recruiting,’’ Packer recounted. “They had Chappell’s and Packer’s names up and that’s how he contacted us.

“That was his story. He always said that’s how he got our names.’’

Though I never had the opportunity to see Chappell play, it sounds like I missed a great one.

“In those days, 6-8 was pretty tall for a center,’’ Packer explained. “But he weighed 255 pounds and it was all solid, and he was an incredible shooter. And he had really good speed and he was a great rebounder – although he was not a great jumper. He had terrific hands.

“He was not a playmaker, and he was not a finesse player, but he could shoot and he could rebound and he could score, and he could shoot from inside and outside. And he more than held his own defensively. He was by far and away the best big man in the league.’’

Given that one of the ACC’s most colorful characters, McKinney, ran the show, those were madcap years at Wake. Packer himself was known to be quite the instigator of all kinds of merriment and mayhem.

But a man needs a plan, and Packer had a fool-proof method of getting what he wanted.

“Packer was the ring-leader of that bunch,’’ Bryant recalled. “He led them around. If Packer wanted something, he would always have Len upfront to do the dirty work.

“And they generally got it.’’

But that was not to say that Chappell was anybody’s fool. He was quiet by nature, and perhaps even a tad shy, but Bryant says it was easy to detect plenty of bytes on the old hard drive.

“Len was a sharp guy,’’ Bryant said. “Everybody thought Len was a dummy. He wasn’t. He was very sharp.

“But Len was just a dynamite player. He had the best touch for a big husky guy I’ve ever seen.’’

I’d forgotten what an impressive nine-season NBA career Chappell forged after being drafted by Syracuse as the fourth player picked in the 1962 draft. He scored more than 5,00 points and made the 1964 All-Star team.

Wake has endured other downturns in his basketball history, though none have been as deep and as long-lasting as the one the program is currently experiencing. In every previous instance, the coach and his staff have been able to go out and recruit the kind of talent needed to pull the Deacons from the doldrums.

In 1959, it was Chappell and Packer. In the mid-70s, when Carl Tacy was endeavoring to get the program back up and running, he brought in Skip Brown and Rod Griffin. Dave Odom wasted no time restoring the program to its previous status when his first full recruiting class included Rodney Rogers and Randolph Childress.

Can incoming freshman Jaylen Hoard be the Len Chappel, Rod Griffin or Rodney Rogers of his day, and if so, will he hang around longer than one season to see that the job of restoration is done right?

Who knows? But to paraphrase one of my favorite songwriters, Paul Simon. . .

Where have you gone Len Chappell?

Wake basketball turns its lonely eyes to you.

One thought on “Remembering Len Chappell

  1. Unfortunately I never saw Len Chappell play in person, having graduated from Wake Forest in 1954 and then living wherever the U.S. Navy chose to send me. However, I did see a few games on TV, enough to convince me that he was one of the two best players ever to wear the Old Gold and Black, Tim Duncan being the other.
    RIP Len.

    Liked by 1 person

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