Looking Back... Wake Forest's Len Chappell had a Legendary Tournament Career
March 14, 2008
The Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament first and foremost is about teams. After all, this is where the official league champion is crowned and where the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is earned. For the first two decades of the league's existence, it was the only route to the NCAAs.
But some individual performances are so compelling that they equal or even surpass the team aspect. Most of the great players in ACC history have been great ACC Tournament players. The list of tournament MVPs includes such notables as Art Heyman, Charlie Scott, James Worthy, Len Bias, Christian Laettner and Tim Duncan.
Four players have won that award twice, an exceptional accomplishment in a league with the talent and history of the ACC. North Carolina's Larry Miller captured the Case Award in 1967 and 1968, NC State's Tommy Burleson duplicated that feat in 1973 and 1974, and Duke's J.J. Redick closed out his career by winning the Case Award in 2005 and 2006.
Redick's 2006 season was a blur of record-setting runs. One of his records came when he passed Wake Forest's Len Chappell to become the leading scorer in ACC Tournament history. But Redick had four years to break Chappell's three-year record. Chappell was the first of the four players to be tournament MVP twice. From 1960-1962 Chappell led the Deacons to a 7-1 record in the ACC Tournament with a pair of titles. The 6'8", 240-pound Chappell came to Wake Forest from the Pennsylvania coal-mining community of Portage.
Charlie Bryant was an assistant coach at Wake Forest in those days. Bryant describes Chappell as "a great big, strong guy, with a big heart. He was a great competitor with a tremendous desire to excel. He had a nose for the ball, strong hands, and could score with people hanging all over him. But he had enough finesse to step outside. We were as comfortable with him shooting from 20 feet as any of our guards."
Chappell averaged 17 points and more than a dozen rebounds per game as a sophomore in 1960, helping Wake Forest to a 12-2 ACC regular-season mark that tied North Carolina for first place. Wake and UNC split their regular-season games, with the Deacons also posting a non-conference win over the Tar Heels in the Dixie Classic.
The eagerly anticipated title match between the two never materialized. North Carolina was upset in the semifinals by Vic Bubas' first Duke team after defeating the Blue Devils three prior times by margins of 22, 27 and 25 points.
Meanwhile, Wake was cruising in the other bracket. The Deacons handled Clemson 74-59 in their opener, with Chappell scoring 24 points and pulling down 15 rebounds.
Wake defeated NC State 71-66 in the semifinals. Chappell had 23 points and 9 rebounds. But there was a complication. Wake senior Dave Budd was a tough forward who asked for no quarter and gave none. He was involved in an altercation with State's Anton Muehlbacher with 18 seconds left in the semifinal and both were ejected. There was a question as to whether or not Budd would be allowed to play, but he was after an appeal to the league's executive committee by Wake Forest. Budd was reinstated for the final shortly before tip-off.
Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney always maintained that Budd's off-again, on-again status took the edge off of his team. McKinney had primed his team to a win-one-for-Budd frenzy but saw the team go flat when he was reinstated. McKinney later wrote that the situation "turned a fighting bunch of Demon Deacons into a confused bunch of pussy-cats."
Chappell as another explanation. "I wanted North Carolina. We all did. When we didn't get them, we had a let down. It was a strange game but Duke played better and just beat us."
Chappell had 19 points and 14 rebounds and ended the tournament with 66 points and 38 rebounds. But Duke won the game 63-59 and cut down the nets. The ACC didn't allow its teams to go to the NIT in those days, so the loss ended Wake's season at 21-7. Bryant laments, "I think this was our best team but we had a letdown at the wrong time. I think we could have gone a long way in the NCAAs."
Wake would do the net-cutting the following two seasons. Chappell emerged as the ACC's top player in his junior season, leading the league with 26 points and 14 rebounds per game. North Carolina finished first in the regular season at 12-2, followed by Wake Forest at 11-3 and Duke at 10-4.
The 1961 tournament had a distinctive twist. North Carolina withdrew from the tournament since it was on NCAA probation. This bumped Wake Forest up to the top seed of a seven-team tournament and gave them a first-round bye.
The Deacons crushed Maryland 98-76 in the semifinals. Chappell scored 34 points, making 10-of-16 from the field and 14-of-17 from the line. He also pulled down 16 rebounds.
The defending champion Blue Devils were waiting in the title game, having easily handled Virginia and South Carolina. Duke returned every player of consequence from 1960 and had added forward Art Heyman, the nation's top sophomore and Chappell's closest challenger for best player in the ACC. Duke had a pair of talented senior post players, 6'9" Doug Kistler and 6'6", 220-pound Carroll Youngkin. Chappell toyed with the Duke big men. He remembers, "We were disappointed that North Carolina had dropped out but we were motivated for Duke. We were very confident. I wasn't really concerned with them. I had one of my best games. It was almost like they weren't there."
Wake led 42-33 at intermission and cruised down the stretch, winning 96-81.
Chappell had another spectacular shooting game - 13-of-20 from the field, 7-of-8 from the line - for 33 points. He also grabbed 14 rebounds and held Kistler, the 1960 tournament MVP, to a mere two points. Heyman led Duke with 26 points.
Chappell scored 67 points with 30 rebounds in Wake's two games. He made 23-of-36 from the field and 21-of-25 from the line, a dominating tournament performance rarely, if ever, matched.
Wake began the 1962 season ranked third nationally. They struggled early, going 7-7 out of the gate. But Chappell and guard Billy Packer were seniors, while guard Dave Wiedeman and 6'10" Bob Woolard were juniors. Talent and experience are always a formidable combination and Wake got it together mid-season and finished the conference regular season at 12-2. Duke at 11-3 and NC State 10-4 were close behind.
Again, the tournament yielded some stunners. Sixth-seeded Clemson shocked State to face Duke in the title game, still the only time the Tigers have advanced to the finals.
In the other bracket, Wake opened against eighth-seeded Virginia. Chappell had produced a 50-point, 24-rebound masterpiece against Virginia a few weeks earlier but was held to 18 points against the Cavaliers this time. His explanation? "Disinterest. It was a matter of not getting up. It was the only bad tournament game I ever had." Still, there was a reason why Virginia was seeded last. Wake easily won 81-58 and Chappell pulled down 16 rebounds.
Chappell was back on his game against South Carolina, whose tallest starter was only 6'5". Chappell made 12-of-17 field goals and kept South Carolina's under-sized front line in constant foul trouble, going to the line 17 times. He made 14 free throws, ending with 38 points and 10 rebounds.
Wake Forest was in the same situation in 1962 as they had been two years earlier, playing a Cinderella in the title game. But Chappell says, "You learn from your mistakes. We kept our emotions steady and didn't take anything for granted this time."
The Deacons dominated the title game, leading 43-28 at intermission and maintaining a working margin throughout the second half. Chappell had a streak in the second half when he scored 15 of Wake's 16 points to keep Clemson at bay. The final was 77-66.
Chappell fouled out for the first time that season and was held to two rebounds. But he made 10-of-16 field goals and 11-of-15 foul shots. His 31 points gave him 87 for the tournament.
The big senior was an easy choice for ACC Tournament MVP, adding that award to his second consecutive ACC Player of the Year award and recognition as a consensus first-team All-American.
The Deacons continued their run deep into March. They survived an upset bid by Yale in their NCAA opener, winning in overtime. They then defeated St. Joseph's in overtime and beat Villanova 79-69 to win the East Regional and advance to the school's only Final Four.
After losing to Ohio State, Wake edged UCLA in the consolation game, the last team to beat the Bruins in the post-season until NC State ended their title run in 1974. Chappell averaged 30.1 points and 15.4 rebounds per game in 1962. No ACC player has averaged 30 points per game since then, with only State's David Thompson in 1975 coming close.
Chappell, Miller and Redick share the distinction of winning the ACC Player of the Year award and the tournament Most Valuable Player Award (it became the Case Award in 1965) twice. Chappell scored 220 points and pulled down 96 rebounds in 8 ACC tournament games, with averages of 27.5 and 12.0 respectively. He made 70-of-138 field goals and was 50-of-84 (59.5%) in his last two tournaments. Even more impressive is his 80-of-95 free-throw shooting, the 84.2 percentage showing his smooth shooting touch and the almost 12 free-throw attempts per game are a vivid indicator of how tough he was to guard.
Charlie Bryant says Chappell's effectiveness in the ACC Tournament was no surprise. "The bigger the game, the better Lennie played," says Bryant. "He just got better and stronger as the season progressed. After 1960, he was determined not to let anyone else upset us again. Lennie made sure that we beat the teams we were supposed to beat."
Chappell, who played 10 seasons in the pros, agrees with his former coach. "I was the kind of player who got up for games we needed. And every game in the ACC Tournament was a game we needed. The 1960 ACC Tournament was painful and I didn't want it to happen again. After that I was really up for winning the tournament.
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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