Waite Bellamy isn’t mad or bitter or resentful, although he acknowledges that he was born 30 years too soon, and that’s not because of all the millions of dollars he could be making if he was in his basketball prime.
There is, however, one big disappointment.
“Back then, nobody filmed anything and, of course, today they film everything,” Bellamy said. “And that’s the one thing I regret – never, ever getting a chance to see myself play on film. Everyone used to tell me how good I was, and I wish I had the opportunity to see that for myself.”
Back in the 1960s, Bellamy was the best player on the best team in the Eastern Basketball League, the Wilmington Blue Bombers.
We wrote about the Bombers a month ago, and the response from readers made us decide to dig a little deeper.
In case you missed that article or are too young to remember the Blue Bombers, they were a bunch of very good players who weren’t quite good enough to play in the NBA or stick in the NBA, which had just nine teams and about 100 players back when Bellamy started playing with Bombers in 1963.
Today, there are 30 teams and more than 500 players, so the competition for rosters spots isn’t nearly as competitive as it was then. And, of course, those 500 players make a heck of a lot more money than the 100 did.
Bellamy also had to deal with the racial issues of the times. He starred in football and basketball at segregated Jefferson High in Florida – in 2008, Bellamy was inducted into the National Negro High School Basketball Hall of Fame – and in those days major colleges in the South didn’t recruit African-American players, so Bellamy ended up at Florida A&M and became a star at that level, too.
He was good enough to get drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in the fourth round (32nd overall) in 1963, but not good enough to stay with them.
“I knew going in that I didn’t have a real shot at making the team. And, in fact, nobody they drafted that year made the team,” Bellamy said. “Their roster was loaded with guys like Cliff Hagen and Bob Pettit and a bunch of other stars. That was the reality of the NBA back then and there was no use complaining about it, and I never did.”
Bellamy is approaching his 80th birthday and life is good. He spent 30 years as a teacher in Florida before retiring and now he and his wife, Dorothy, stay active. That includes being members of an RV club that goes on camping trips throughout the South. He also fishes and does wood carvings and just enjoys life in general.
And even though he doesn’t dwell on the past, he does enjoy reminiscing about it.
“We had a good team and we got great crowds [at Salesianum] and it was a lot of fun,” he said of his Blue Bomber days. “The crowds were really into the games and that was a very physical league, so it was pretty intense. Plus, I made life-long friends like Maurice McHartley and Freddie Crawford and John Savage. We had a great bond on that team and I still talk to those guys every once in a while, and we always end up talking about our days in Wilmington.”
The Blue Bombers played on weekends – Saturday nights on the road and Sunday nights at home – and the most Bellamy ever made was $150 a game, which made him the highest-paid player on the team, even though he was the league’s leading scorer and MVP.
That, of course, wasn’t enough to live on and all of the Bombers had day jobs – Bellamy was a physical education teacher at Ferris School for Boys and held other teaching jobs over the years.
During his time in Wilmington he lived in a house on Adams Street, and that wasn’t a particularly good time to be living there, at least if you were looking for a little peace and quiet – I-95 was being built and the new interstate cut right through the heart of Wilmington and right next to Adams Street.
“I watched them build it and saw and heard all of the blasting and all of that stuff,” Bellamy said with a chuckle. “It was quite an experience.”
During his time with the Blue Bombers, Bellamy had chances to try out for other NBA teams, including the New York Knicks, where one of his roommates was Phil Jackson, an average player who became a Hall-of-Fame coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
“They brought a bunch of guys in, even though none of us really had a legitimate chance to make the team – we were just there in training camp so the Knicks players would have somebody to practice against,” Bellamy said. “Phil Jackson was a nice guy — we used to drive to practice in this old Mercedes he had — but he was very quiet and didn’t say much. He really just kept to himself.”
When Bellamy’s playing days were over, he returned to his native Florida, got a job in education, raised two sons and got on with his life, his basketball glory days behind him. But he has received some later-in-life honors, including a big one – recently, Florida A&M retired his jersey number along with another Rattler great, Clemon Johnson, who was a member of the 76ers’ 1983 NBA championship team.
“A lot of people tell me that, that I was born in the wrong era, but that’s all right,” Bellamy said. “I’m not too driven by money. I like to be happy and comfortable and everything, but I’m not envious of the money these guys in the NBA make today. A lot of time, money corrupts your thinking and gets you off-balance, and it doesn’t take much for me to be happy, as far as money.
“I just loved the game and I would have played just for expenses,” Bellamy added. “And the most important thing was that I wanted to play with a good group of guys who played the game the right way, and I got that in Wilmington. So, I have no regrets.”
Bellamy paused and then added “Except for the video thing. I would love to see myself play.”