When he graduated from high school all those years ago, Dennis Chapman was not unlike any other teenager of the times. He had a plan for the immediate future, but no idea about the direction his life would take down the road.
For sure he didn’t have a clue that he would be teammates of Hall of Famers in two different sports and the answer to a trivia question occasionally popular this time of year. That is especially true whenever an underdog team, like Saint Peter’s, makes an unexpected run during March Madness. It tends to spur many “remember when” stories of yesteryear.
One such story took place 52 years ago, when the NCAA Tournament was still considered a “little sister” to the National Invitational Tournament, which by name alone lent to a more prominent pedigree. When an unheralded but surprisingly strong University of Massachusetts team got its first-ever postseason invitation to the NIT, it was a big deal throughout New England.
The unquestioned star of that team, himself an unknown at the start of the season, was a sprawny, still growing sophomore forward named Julius Erving. The generation of Chapman’s grandchildren might recognize him from the Coca-Cola commercials that ran during March Madness. But those familiar with the game’s history know him better, as those commercials attest, as the one “who became a doctor without even going to school.”
Which is where Chapman, 74, fits into the trivia pursuit equation in this story as “the other forward” who played opposite Dr. J on that historic UMass team more than half-century ago.
“First time I met Julius was during his recruiting visit,” Chapman recalled, “and he was a skinny, 6-foot-3-inch player from Roosevelt High School in Long Island, and you wondered how he could be a top recruit.”
They didn’t wonder long.
Now the founding owner and CEO of an Ellicott City-based consulting firm that bears the family name, Chapman was a three-sport standout before graduating from Calvert Hall in 1965, when he might have been part of baseball’s initial amateur draft class had it not been for the lure of college basketball. He excelled in soccer in addition to basketball and baseball.
A hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, Chapman played four years for the nationally-ranked Leone’s team and let it be known that his intentions were to play basketball and baseball in college.
“The White Sox talked to me about an offer than would’ve included college tuition,” he said, “but in those days you couldn’t be a pro in one sport and play another in school, and I wanted to play basketball in college.”
Before he started that journey, however, Chapman spent the summer as a teammate of Reggie Jackson, who spent the summer of ’65 playing for Leone’s.
“He played center field for us and I remember one story in particular. We played a game at Aberdeen [Proving Ground] which Reggie couldn’t play and Gene Brabender, who later signed with the Orioles, beat us 1-0 or 2-0.
“We had never seen pitching like that but when we told Reggie, he showed his ego and said, ‘I could hit him.’ So Walter Youse [the coach and scout who signed Brabender] arranged a second game. The first pitch Reggie saw he just dropped his bat and had an amazed look on this face. Then he dug in and hit the next pitch about 450 feet over a light tower. That’s when I realized he was something special.”
It didn’t take much longer to recognize the greatness in “The Doctor” either, even though there were some fun incidents along the way. Chapman had made his way to UMass in a roundabout way — he played the two sports at Washington College for a year before attending Baltimore Junior College and considering other four-year opportunities.
In between, he played in the Arbutus Basketball League, which featured a lot of former college and some pro players. He was coached by Bucky DeVries, whose relationship with UMass coach Jack Leaman led Chapman to a tryout/workout, a scholarship and eventual pairing with one of greatest players in history.
“I remember him being all arms and fingers at first,” Chapman said. “Coach had this drill where he’d roll the ball to the center of the court and call out two names — and all I remember is this long arm with really long fingers go in and get it — without tumbling on the floor.”
Chapman also learned during rebounding drills that one needed a lot more than position.
“Those drills were no fun when you were blocking out Julius,” he said. “His elevation was nothing I had ever seen or experienced. He was up, up and away — and eventually an arm with long fingers snatched the ball from the air.”
As a transfer student, Chapman sat out one year and, in an era when first-year students were not allowed to play varsity, Erving was on the freshman team the following season before the two paired up in 1969-70 (the year former O’s lefthander Mike Flanagan was on the freshman team).
That 1970 team made its mark in New England, but it was a one-and-done loss in the NIT that cemented its reputation.
“We lost in the last minute to Marquette, the No. 2 team in the country behind UCLA,” Chapman recalled, “and after the game [coach] Al McGuire came into our locker room to shake hands and said that game would be their toughest — and he was right. They went on to win the tournament. We got an NIT gold watch.”
One of the coolest things for Chapman, and the rest of that team, is how Erving has kept them in the loop throughout the years. “We still keep in touch, maybe not as much as we all would like, but those days at UMass, and even afterward, were special – not just because of Julius but because of all the players and friendships made.”
There are two specific times in Erving’s Hall of Fame career, however, that particularly stand out.
“Sitting at the front table during Julius’ induction into the Hall of Fame and being recognized as his teammates is something you never forget,” Chapman said. “He actually asked to spend time with all of our kids that weekend — they never forgot shaking that large hand (with those long fingers)!”
Erving had reached out on another specific occasion, this one before the Hall of Fame induction, and perhaps as meaningful.
“We all, families included, went to his last game at the Spectrum,” Chapman said. “What an awesome night — we have tickets and video they gave us as mementos.”
As for his own career, Chapman has made his mark as much more than the answer to a trivia question.
“I had some options to play [professionally] in Europe,” he said, “but I had an ROTC commitment first — and a job waiting at Xerox when I finished.”
After Xerox, he spent time with ROLM/IBM and as a top executive for a software company in D.C. before founding The Chapman Group in 1988. He knows the answer to a trivia question. He’s been teammates with Mr. October and Dr. J and has Fortune 500 companies as clients.
If he hasn’t touched them all, you might say Dennis Chapman has covered all the bases.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Dennis Chapman