Portage mourns loss of legend Chappell

Great athletes who dream big and earn sports stardom can come from anywhere or any sized town, something Len Chappell proved five decades ago when he made it big from the small town of Portage.

Chappell, a basketball legend at Wake Forest University and an NBA All-Star, died Thursday in his home state of Wisconsin. He had taken a fall in recent weeks and suffered a stroke during his rehab, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. He was 77.

“To me it’s greatness, a small-school guy that did it the right way,” Portage boys basketball coach Travis Kargo said of Chappell’s legacy in the town. “When you look at his accolades, they’re second to none. It’s awfully impressive.

“It’s amazing to think of the NBA, one of the top 50 players ever in the ACC, which is arguably the greatest basketball conference in history. It’s amazing he’s from here.”

Chappell played at Portage in the late 1950s, then went on to become one of the greatest basketball players in Wake Forest history. He played three seasons there, from 1959-62, and averaged 24.9 points, including 30.1 points his senior year in 1961-62.

He led the Demon Deacons to the school’s only Final Four in 1962 and was named ACC Player of the Year each of his final two seasons. Wake Forest later retired his No. 50, and he still ranks third in program history in points (2,165) and rebounds (1,213).

Don Ellis Sr. was a senior at Portage when Chappell was in ninth grade, and although they weren’t on the varsity team together, Ellis could easily see Chappell’s talent.

“I scrimmaged with him a lot,” Ellis said. “Unbelievable guy. Almost like Atlas, he was built like a powerhouse.

“When he was in ninth grade he was a young guy, but he was big, and he just loved that game. This guy was the real deal. And one of the nicest guys.”

Following his college career, Chappell was the No. 4 overall pick in the 1962 NBA draft and went to the Syracuse Nationals. He averaged 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for the New York Knicks in 1963-64 and was an All-Star that season.

Chappell played nine years in the NBA and one in the ABA, scoring 6,227 points in his career.

The fact that he came from a small town like Portage, which now has a population of 2,600, is a testament to his incredible basketball skill and dedication to become a star.

“Dreams can be made if you’re willing to put the time in and sacrifice and do it,” Kargo said. “It takes a lot of hard work. But if you’re willing to dedicate yourself to it, it’s out there for anybody.”

Kargo can talk to his current Portage players about Chappell’s success as motivation for them.

“In our school district, obviously our gym is named after him, and there’s a banner up in the gym with his accolades and all those accomplishments,” Kargo said. “Sometimes I sit and read it, and you pinch yourself to think he’s from here, he’s a Portage grad.

“He never forgot where he came from, which was really special for us.”

Chappell made a point to come back to Portage on occasion over the years. He was there six years ago for a ceremony celebrating all of the basketball program’s 1,000-point scorers.

“He wanted to be part of it and really made it a special night,” Kargo said.

Chappell’s legendary basketball career has been synonymous with Portage for decades, with so many people recalling his exploits and enjoying his success.

“We’re proud of him,” his sister-in-law, Millie Chappell, said. “I can’t express how we all feel. It’s just wonderful that someone in the family went so far.”

Chappell had two sons who went on to play college basketball — Jason at Wisconsin and John at South Carolina. The Winston-Salem newspaper reported that Jason had come back to Wisconsin from his home in Europe to see his father the day before he died.

Chappell’s longtime friend and former teammate at Wake Forest, Dave Budd, told that newspaper he got a message from Chappell’s wife, Joanne, a week ago.

“She says, ‘He’s not doing well, but I think he wants to hang on til Jason comes home,'” Budd said. “And a day after Jason landed, he passed away at 11 o’clock (Thursday) night.”