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Chet Walker, Chicago Bulls Hall of Famer who helped initiate change in the NBA, dies at 84

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Chet Walker spent less than half of his 13 NBA seasons that led to a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bulls.

And yet his durability and scoring dependability over those six seasons for one of the franchise’s most memorable eras cemented his status as one of the Bulls’ all-time greats.

Walker, who averaged 20.6 points while missing just 18 games and making four All-Star teams while in Chicago, has died, the Bulls confirmed to the Tribune on Saturday evening. He was 84.

Nicknamed “The Jet” for his agility, Walker teamed with fellow forward Bob Love to form a potent scoring pair. Along with the fiery backcourt of Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan and anchored in the middle by Tom Boerwinkle, the Bulls posted four straight 50-win seasons and advanced to two straight Western Conference finals under Dick Motta at a time the fledgling franchise became more identifiable with the blue-collar, hardworking city.

“That basically laid the foundation for basketball in Chicago,” Walker said during his 2012 Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Springfield, Mass.

The Bulls acquired Walker in a September 1969 trade from the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he had started on what some consider one of the best teams of all time. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham, the 1966-67 76ers went 68-13 and defeated the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals, only to be broken up two years later.

With his strong face-up game, devastating pump fake and knack for clutch scoring, Walker quickly put to rest any whispers that the 76ers traded him because his game was in decline. He averaged 21.5 points his first season in Chicago, helping the Bulls make the playoffs.

All 13 of Walker’s teams advanced to the postseason.

“He was as clutch a player as you could have,” Boerwinkle once told the Tribune.

Walker was inducted into the inaugural class of the Bulls Ring of Honor in January.

Photos: Meet the 13 Chicago Bulls’ inaugural Ring of Honor class

Born Feb. 22, 1940, as the youngest of 10 children in rural Mississippi, Chester “Chet” Walker was raised by a strong, single mother who moved the family to Benton Harbor, Mich. Walker overcame poverty to earn a scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, where he earned two All-American nods and won NIT titles in 1957 and 1960.

The Syracuse Nationals, who moved to Philadelphia to become the 76ers, drafted him in the second round. Walker made the All-Rookie team and eventually played in seven All-Star games.

Walker averaged 19.2 points in 1974-75, his final season, and didn’t enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame until 2012 via the veterans committee. In several interviews, Walker attributed the wait to his leadership role with the players union, which included a lawsuit against the Bulls and NBA.

“I think I was blacklisted,” Walker matter-of-factly told the Tribune in 2007, alluding to both the end of his career and wait for the Hall of Fame.

Motta, with whom the soft-spoken Walker never got along, rejected his star forward’s contract demands before that season. Motta and Bulls ownership also refused Walker’s demand that he be traded or released.

So Walker sued the Bulls and NBA for violation of federal antitrust laws. Walker reached a settlement but never played again. Along with union President Larry Fleischer and prominent player representatives Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy, Walker also played a leading role trying to block NBA owners who wanted to limit bidding wars for players by merging with the upstart American Basketball Association.

Though the merger ultimately happened in 1976, provisions were allowed for free agency that began an economic renaissance for players — just not Walker. Meanwhile, the Bulls’ golden era ended. The franchise plummeted from 47 victories to 24 without Walker.

Following his playing career, Walker moved to Hollywood and began a career as a movie producer. He won an Emmy award for his made-for-TV movie, “A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story.” The film focused on Isiah Thomas’ mother’s strength in raising nine children as a single mother on Chicago’s West Side.

Walker has said in many interviews that Mary Thomas reminded him of his own mother’s sacrifices. Isiah Thomas stood on stage as one of Walker’s presenters during his Hall of Fame speech.

“People would come into the old Chicago Stadium, and it was so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think,” Walker said during the induction. “I love Chicago — great city, great town, great people.”

K.C. Johnson is a former Chicago Tribune sports reporter.

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