Posted Jul 15 2011 3:15PM
A message to the generations of basketball fans who have grown up in the nearly four decades since Wilt Chamberlain retired or the dozen years since his death: You have no clue.
There has always been big. Wilt was bigger.
He was always so large and so strong and so many of his feats so utterly overwhelming, it was simply not enough to call him the best player in the land or on the planet. Too narrow, too constraining. He needed an entire constellation as a description: the Big Dipper.
Wilt was, as the song says, a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. He is the only player ever to lead the NBA in scoring, rebounding and assists, but usually found it difficult to make a simple free throw.
Wilt once averaged 48.5 minutes over an entire season in a game that lasts 48 minutes (he played all of the overtimes) and yet somehow was constantly having his competitive nature questioned.
Those who played with him and against him always readily admitted that Chamberlain was far and away the strongest man in the house every time he walked out onto the court and still to many, the enduring image is the giant gentle too soft in the clutch.
Wilt was to basketball what Moby Dick was to whales what Paul Bunyan was to logging, what King Kong was to Manhattan skyscrapers. Though he played his last NBA game with the L.A. Lakers in 1973, he still holds more than four dozen records.
Frank McGuire was the coach when Wilt played for the Philadelphia Warriors and prior to the 1961-62 schedule, he called each of his players into his office individually for a discussion on goals and plans for the season.
"When Wilt came in, I asked him how long he'd like to play," the late McGuire once recalled. He said, 'Forever.' I almost fell off my chair. I said, 'No, Wilt, in a game.' He said, 'I don't ever have to come out of a game.' And he didn't."
That was the season that Chamberlain wound up averaging more minutes than are played in a regulation game and also averaged 50.4 points. It was also the season when he scored 100 points in a single game (March 2, 1962) against the New York Knicks. He also once made 35 shots in a row without a miss.
"You name it and there's not a single thing that Wilt couldn't do on the basketball court if he wanted," said the late Jack McMahon, who played and coached against Chamberlain for two decades. "He was that much the superior athlete."
At 7-1 1/2 and 275 pounds during his professional career, Wilt had been a speedy quarter-miler and cross country runner during his high school days at Overbrook High in Philadelphia and an athletic, leaping long jumper during his college career at the University of Kansas. His body was such a taut cord of muscles and possessed such power that nobody was so surprised when he came very close to signing a contract to box Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world.
"In terms of power, you'd have given him a chance," McMahon said. "The only question is whether he would have pulled the trigger on his punches. I always said it was a damn good thing that God made Wilt such a nice guy, because if he'd have been mean, he might have killed people."
As it was, Chamberlain merely destroyed most of the statistical standards in the game. The basketball rule writers literally changed the game to try to stop him. The lane was widened to push him farther away from the basket. Inbounding the ball over the top of the backboard, where only he could catch it and drop it through the hoop, was banned. Leaping from the foul line to dunk free throws was outlawed.
When the topic of all-time greatest player was once raised, a fellow named Larry Bird didn't hesitate. "Let me tell you something," Bird said. "For a while, they were saying that I was the greatest. And before me, it was Magic who was the greatest. And then it's Michael's turn. But open up the record book and it will be obvious who the greatest is."
Michael Jordan would come along behind Chamberlain to score 50 or more points in a game 39 times over the entire course of his legendary career, the number that Wilt averaged over a full 82-game schedule. When Kobe Bryant scored 81 eye-popping points against Toronto in 2006, he was still 19 short of Wilt's total against the Knicks.
Yet for all of his tremendous feats and awe-inspiring numbers, Wilt's image perennially suffered in comparison with his friend and rival in dueling goatees Bill Russell, who won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics compared to Chamberlain's two (Philly and L.A.). All throughout the 1960s, the NBA seemed to exist in black-and-white images on small TV screens to show Russell and his superior Celtics teams outfoxing and outclassing Wilt's Warriors and Lakers.
Russell has been universally acclaimed as the greatest team player in the history of American sports and Chamberlain painted as his taller, stat-piling foil, who constantly came up short in the end.
However, one man knows the inaccuracy of the portrait that's been painted.
"Nobody seems to appreciate what an incredible player Wilt was," Russell said at 1997 All-Star Game when the league named and honored its 50 greatest players. "He was the best player of all time because he dominated the floor like nobody else ever could. To be that big and that athletic was special."
In a sky full of stars, the Big Dipper will always stand out.
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