Posted Jan 9 2012 2:44PM
Season of Giants: 1961-62
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The statistics are cold, stark and almost otherworldly. In a way, the huge numbers piled up by Wilt Chamberlain and all the records he set work against him. They can make the things he did seem so unreal.
Fifty years later, there comes a time when you have to look beyond the numbers to the players, the friends, the teammates, the rivals who played with him and against him to get an understanding of the man who averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds during the 1961-62 season.
• Billy Cunningham -- The Hall of Fame forward and 76ers icon was a teammate of Chamberlain's for three years in Philadelphia, including the 1966-67 championship season. He returned as coach to lead the Sixers to their last NBA title in 1983.
"Growing up in Brooklyn, of course, I had heard of Wilt and all the things he did, but didn't see a lot of the early things that he did. I followed the Knickerbockers and watched some games on TV. Then I went to North Carolina for college and there was virtually no NBA presence down there at that time.
"I'll never forget seeing him for the first time. I was a rookie in the 76ers training camp and one day here comes Wilt pulling up that Bentley. What was it, purple? You're thinking to yourself, 'Oh my goodness, this big fella really is different.'
"Wilt took a liking to me early. Maybe because I was from New York and he was living in New York. At that time Philadelphia was the most boring city on the planet. There was absolutely nothing to do there. So as soon as the games were over, Wilt would get dressed and ask me if I was ready and we were off up the turnpike. Sometimes I'd go out with him in New York. But most of the time, he'd drop me off at my parents' house in Brooklyn. He'd go to his club in Harlem or to his apartment and a day or two later, he'd be back to pick me we'd drive back to Philly for practice or the next game. Those were some great rides great times.
"For all the things he did in the game, all the records he set, Wilt is unappreciated, no question. The truth is it's hard for anyone to relate to him today because no one has come along to even get close to a lot of his records. I mean, 100 points in a game? Averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds for an entire NBA season? Those numbers are so hard to comprehend that I think it's easier for people to dismiss them.
"When people say Wilt was playing against inferior competition, who are they kidding? You're trying to tell me that Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Bob Pettit, Walt Bellamy were inferior competition? Later he played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wes Unseld.
"When Wilt came into the league there were only eight teams in the NBA. That means you had people on every team up and down the roster who could play. You had 80 to 90 players compared to more than 400 today.
"The truth is there were better centers throughout the NBA. Today there are practically no centers in basketball or people wouldn't be going crazy over Dwight Howard. Plus the game isn't nearly as physical as it was back then. Big guys, strong guys like Nate Thurmond and Wayne Embry were able to put two hands on Wilt and do anything to push him out of the post. He played the Celtics with Bill Russell 10 times every year just in the regular season. Are you kidding me that the level of play wasn't good?
"You could actually turn the whole argument around and ask the question about today. I watch the game now and if you're a forward or a guard, you're crazy not to go to the basket. There are no big centers there to block your shot. Nobody can hand-check you. It's silliness to even try to make that argument.
"If you're a great player, I don't care what era you come from. You adjust to the conditions of your time. I hear players complaining that they might have to play three games in three nights once this season. Back then, we did it all the time. We got up at 5 in the morning and flew coach. You picture Wilt Chamberlain in a coach seat on a plane and then getting 50 in a game and tell me he wasn't special.
"The truth is that Wilt spoiled everyone by being so good. I remember plenty of times when he'd score 40 points and get maybe 25 rebounds and nobody in the locker room would even bother to say, 'Good game, Big Fella.' It was just what he was expected to do.
"I'll never take a single thing away from Bill Russell. He was phenomenal. But I think he had better teams. And don't forget that he had Red Auerbach as his coach. If Wilt had the opportunity to play for Auerbach in that environment of the Celtics, everything about everybody's perception might be different.
"But name me a player that forced the league to make rule changes to stop him. They widened the lane. They stopped letting you throw the ball over the top of the backboard on inbounds plays. They stopped him from dunking free throws. If you have to freakin' change the game to stop somebody, well, he was the best one I've ever seen."
• Oscar Robertson -- The Hall of Fame guard is the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season (1961-62), was named MVP in 1964, a 12-time All-Star and won the championship with Milwaukee in 1971:
"I say Wilt Chamberlain saved the NBA when he came into the league (in 1959). If he didn't come along at exactly the time that he did and do all of the things that he accomplished then, I'm not sure the league would have survived and we'd be talking about pro basketball now.
"First off, Wilt had to live up to expectations and demands not just from the teammates he was playing with and the fans he was playing for, but the demands from the entire NBA. The owners of the time were looking for someone like that, a guy who could be the attraction that everybody had to see, who could sell tickets and fill buildings. And when you did that, then you couldn't take a night off and disappoint people and for a lot of those years, Wilt never did.
"It's a helluva thing to score 100 points in a game. I applaud averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds over a season. If it's so easy to do just by going out there and taking all the shots, why hasn't some other player on a bad team ever gone out there and done those things? Don't you think they would attract as much attention and do the same things for attendance and TV ratings today?
"No, Wilt Chamberlain is not appreciated for what he did. But none of us who played in that era are appreciated. It's all about marketing. You can't sell history to today's market. But I'm looking out there at the NBA of today and who are you gonna tell me is a dominating center? Dwight Howard? That's one. I don't think there is another one.
"When people ask me to name the single greatest basketball player ever, I tell them I don't know. I think you can really only judge and compare players within their own era. Was Michael Jordan the greatest? Is LeBron James the greatest? Bill Russell won 11 championships, but team play and having a great bench means a lot there.
"So in the end, I can't name one single player and say that he's definitely the guy. But I thought the things Wilt did no one else ever could."
• Jerry West -- The Hall of Fame guard was a 14-time All-Star, the only player from the losing team ever named MVP of the NBA Finals (1969) and a teammate of Chamberlain's for five seasons with the Lakers, where they won a championship in 1972.
"Playing against him for all those early years, Wilt was the guy who towered above everyone in points and rebounds and blocked shots and he was constantly putting up numbers and records that were so big that you came to take them for granted.
"Playing against him was so much different than when I got to play with Wilt late in our careers. You expected him early in his career to do those amazing things every night. It was superhuman and it probably wasn't fair. To watch how his career progressed, when scoring became more difficult, when age and minutes began to catch up to him, it made him so much easier to play either. I used to wonder how you would be a teammate of a guy scoring 50, 60, 70 points a game. But when we were together, he was looking more to fit in.
"When people have asked me the question, I've always felt that the best player I've seen is Michael Jordan. The reason for that is during his career Jordan was the best offensive player in the hands, no question. And during the peak of his career Jordan was also the best defensive player in the league and he was able to be both of those at the same time.
"I've always said Wilt was probably the greatest athlete in the world for his time. You're talking about someone who loved track and field more than he liked basketball. He could have been a decathlete. The thing is that he was able to be that incredible on his athleticism alone. Remember, nobody had the training that players have today -- the weights, the nutrition, all of the specialists. Wilt just did it all on his raw athleticism.
"I don't know that Wilt could score 100 points in a game today. For one thing, the game was played faster than. Most entire teams are only taking 100 shots today. The game is guard dominated. It's controlled much more by the coaches. Also, politically it's a different game than in the past. I don't know if the politics of teams today would let him score 100 or average 50.
"But I'll tell you, he would have overpowered people today. Look at the dearth of big men today, real back-to-the-basket big men. Trust me, anyone who says he didn't have competition doesn't know what they're talking about. There were more good big guys then.
"The about Wilt is that he was always very sensitive, insecure. He was probably the most sensitive person I ever met. It was like he was always searching for a way to feel insulted on some level. He always talked about nobody liking Goliath and I guess that's something he had to deal with his whole life, the burden of expectation that came with his size.
"Wilt and Bill Russell were two completely different people and both great guys. But we relish winners so much in our society and think that's what makes people unique. So we have a lot of players and coaches who have had a lot of success in this league and never won championships and somehow they get devalued. Are you going to tell me that Karl Malone, John Stockton and Charles Barkley weren't great players because they never won a championship? It's the same thing just comparing Wilt's championships to Russell's. You're missing a lot."
• Red Auerbach -- The late Hall of Fame coach and architect of the Celtics' dynasty first met Chamberlain when he was a high school phenom, working and playing in the summer basketball camp at Kutsher's Resort in the Catskills (N.Y.). He desperately wanted to draft Wilt out of college at Kansas for the Celtics, but Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb had already staked his claim through the NBA's territorial draft when Chamberlain was still at Philadelphia's Overbrook High School:
"Wilt was a giant among giants, a great athlete. But he should have been so much better. Bill Russell was a better player because he played with his head, was better motivated and, most of all, had a bigger heart. Bill Russell was the greatest rebounder who ever lived, and don't give me any of that crap about Chamberlain's statistics. Those are just numbers. When the game was on the line and the ball was up for grabs, Russell had no equal."
• Bob Cousy -- The Hall of Fame point guard was the 1957 MVP, six-time champion, the "Houdini of the Hardwood" and maybe the leading showman and gate attraction in the NBA until Chamberlain entered the league in 1959.
"Wilt's incessant search for individual records indicated to me that he never really understood how the game should be played. Russell had much more intensity than Wilt, and skills that were better-suited to basketball. Russell made us better players. Wilt, in my opinion, had the opposite effect."
• Wali Jones -- Attended Chamberlain's high school alma mater Overbrook in Philadelphia, was a third-round draft pick of the Baltimore Bullets in 1964, named to the All-Rookie team in 1965 and was a teammate of Wilt's for three seasons in Philly, including the 1966-67 season when the 76ers won the NBA championship.
"Wilt was a mentor to kids like Walt Hazzard and me at Overbrook. He'd come around to the gym at Haddington where he learned to play and he'd watch us and give us tips. He'd take us to his house to hang out and listen to records, get us pairs of sneakers, anything to take care of us.
"He was a thinking man, an academician. He joined the Globetrotters and toured all around the world with them and used it not just as a chance to make money and play basketball, but to take in the cultures and learn about the world.
"When I got to the NBA, I learned right away what it was like to play with real pros, guys who were special and could play. I was a rookie on a team with Bailey Howell, Walt Bellamy and Gus Johnson and I thought that was as good as it could get.
"Then I got traded to Philadelphia and when Larry Costello blew out his Achilles halfway through that '66-'67 season, I wound up in the starting lineup of the 76ers with a frontline of Wilt, Luke Jackson and Chet Walker and Hal Greer as the other guard. We had guys like Billy Cunningham, Dave Gambee, Matt Guokas, Billy Melchionni and Weiss coming off the bench. As far as I'm concerned, until that Chicago team with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper came along, there was never another NBA team that came close to us playing defense up and down the lineup, especially not with Wilt in the middle.
"It was a time in his career when Wilt had already scored all the points, set all the records and got all the headlines for doing some of the greatest individual things in history. The only thing he was interested in then was winning a championship and handing out assists. That year we worked a lot like Portland did in 1977 with Bill Walton. We would pick and rotate like a wheel. It was a fun way of playing basketball.
"That season Wilt was about giving out assists, blocking shots, getting rebounds, playing defense. I think what he got a real kick out of was finally playing on a complete team where you could go up and down the roster and see that we were a match for Boston. That season it wasn't like we were hoping to knock off Boston. We knew we were as good as the Celtics or better and we proved it.
"Wilt and I were always good friends and always stayed in touch after our careers were over and I know he always felt best about team in Philly in '67. When I think about Wilt, I remember it as the first golden age of basketball with all of the great things he did and all of the records he set. But when he was averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds, he wasn't winning a championship. That came when he felt confidence in the teammates around him and was willing to give up a lot of his game. That was his greatest satisfaction.
"Look, you can't tell me about great big men of today, because there aren't many of them. I was around long enough to see big men like Russell, Bellamy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Wes Unseld, Darell Imhoff, Luke Jackson, Gus Johnson, Willis Reed and I don't get into debates with people about who was the best. All you have to do is look at record books."
• Matt Guokas -- The Philadelphia native was a first-round draft pick, a key sub on the 1967 championship team, a teammate of Chamberlain for two seasons and later became coach of the Sixers and Magic.
"By the time I became his teammate, Wilt was past all that stuff with the scoring and the numbers. He was tired of having all of the fingers pointed at him and all he was interested in was winning.
"He said in training camp that he wanted to lead the league in assists. He thought that would be cool. Of course, we all thought that would be cool too. But he didn't want us to run. He wouldn't throw outlet passes off rebounds. Only Billy or Chet were allowed to run out and score on the fastbreak if they got long rebounds.
"Wilt wanted to be involved in every half-court play, so he stood there in the middle and all of us would run around him and he tried to pile up his assists. You've got to remember that assists were kept much more strictly back then. There was none of this stuff like today where you can take three dribbles and a head-fake and it counts. You got assists if you caught the pass and made the shot. So that meant Wilt would only pass it to guys who could catch and shoot -- Luke, Billy sometimes, Wali, Hal and me. In my case, he'd try to get me to just go backdoor for a layup, because he didn't trust me to do much else. And he'd never pass it to Chet Walker, because Chet always had to be pump-faking or use a dribble and take away the assist.
"Wilt's mind was incredible. I don't know if it was a photographic memory, but he could keep all kinds of numbers in his head. I always remember we'd be sitting in the locker room at halftime and our coach, Alex Hannum, would want to talk to us about what to do in the second half and Wilt would just be waiting for (statistician) Harvey Pollack to come in with the box scores.
"Wilt always had a pancreas problem, so he constantly had to eat, and he'd be sitting there putting away half of a T-bone steak at halftime, with his mouth full, and he'd be arguing with Harvey over assists or rebounds that the stat crew missed. It was always good theater for the rest of us.
"Was Wilt the greatest ever? I'm not saying that. He wasn't a good outside shooter and he struggled from the foul line. But Russell was Russell and if so many people regard him as the greatest, then Wilt was right there, maybe a notch behind.
"He was the strongest ever, that's for sure. Later in his career, his legs got thicker and he was more into weights and by that time nobody could move him out of the post. Big guys like Russell and Nate Thurmond were leaning on him with their whole body weight and they couldn't get him to budge. And his upper body was amazing and nobody would ever try to foul him when he went up for a dunk. Only guys like Luke Jackson or Bill Bridges would even think about it. For everybody else, you'd be sacrificing an arm.
"I always heard all the stuff that Wilt never retaliated and never got into fights against guys who constantly beat on him, because he didn't want to hurt anybody. But I remember one season were played about 17 exhibition games up and down the West Coast.
"One night against St. Louis both teams were feeling worn out, I guess, and Zelmo Beattly decided he'd had enough of Wilt banging him around. So he decides he's going to get physical with Wilt. We were all shocked and even Wilt says, 'Hey Z! Knock it off!' and finally the two of them squared off.
"Just then, Chet jumps out of the seat next to me on the bench, runs onto the court and takes Zelmo down in a wrestling move. Nothing happened. Everything calmed down and the game went on.
"When Chet got back to the bench, I asked him what that was all about. He said, 'The big fella can't fight and I didn't want to see him get embarrassed.'
"The thing about his 100 point game is that the Knicks might not have been a great team, but they weren't stiffs either. And it wasn't like they weren't trying to stop him. Over the years I've heard so many of those Knicks players passing the buck. Darell Imhoff says, 'I fouled out of that game early. He didn't get them all on me.'
"I don't quite get all that anger. Wilt was an awesome player, a spectacle, someone who stood head and shoulders over his time. Could he do all of those things now? I don't think so because of the changes in the game. It's so much slower. I don't think he would have liked today's game."
• Al Attles -- A fifth-round draft pick of the Warriors in 1960, he was a teammate of Wilt's for 4 1/2 seasons in Philadelphia and San Francisco, became a lifelong friend, the second leading scorer (17) on the night that Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks and returned to coach the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA title:
"People have been telling me for years that I can't be objective about Wilt because I was his friend. What does being his friend have to do with the things that happened right in front of my own eyes?
"What bothered Wilt the most about the 100-point game was that he took so many shots (63). What bothers me to this day is that people come up and say, 'Classic Wilt. He scored and 100 and you lost the game.' No we didn't. We won the game.' That was kind of the reverse myth that built around Wilt.
"I played a lot of games with Wilt and I never saw him do anything that said his main goal wasn't to help us win. People talk about the 11 rings that Russell has. I talk to them about the better teammates that Russell had. Put Wilt on a team with Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and tell me he wouldn't win.
"It's a never-ending battle. The more you read it seems the less you know and the more you believe what you don't really know."
• Calvin Murphy -- At 5-foot-9, the Hall of Fame guard might as well have been the polar opposite of Chamberlain throughout a 13-year career with the Rockets franchise in San Diego and Houston.
"Let me tell you, my freshman year at Niagara I averaged 48.9 points a game and I shot the ball every time I put my hands on it. There's a difference in averaging that for a year if that is the only job you do. Wilt averaged 50 points a game for a season with the whole league trying to stop him. He wasn't sneaking up on anybody. He was so dominating there was nothing they could do with him.
"The players from today can't fathom that kind of basketball. There's no question that Wilt, Jabbar, Russell, Oscar, West, all of those guys are under-appreciated by today's players and fans. They don't know who they are.
"Wilt was a very misunderstood individual. History needs to look at the whole person and the situations he was in. How can somebody be that good standing out in his time, no matter what time or what era is was.
"Yes, he was probably 7-3, but there was a whole bunch of big men out there ganging up on him and he still did it every night. The NBA was an eight-team league when he came in, maybe 16 teams when he left. That means the quality was higher and that's when he was kicking ass.
"Can you imagine playing the Celtics nine or 10 times in a season when they had Russell? Or the Lakers 10 times a season and averaging 50? Come on. We ain't playing New Orleans or Cleveland here. These were real teams.
"When I first came into the league, one of the first stories they used to tell about Wilt was his niceness. One time Jumpin' Johnny Green had gone up one time to block Wilt's shot and had his hands over the basket. Wilt was going to dunk it and, of course, he would have probably broken both of his wrists. Wilt came down and took a travel instead of dunking that ball on Johnny Green's hands. That's the kind of nice guy. He was the strongest athlete in the world of his time.
"My own learning experience came in my rookie year. We all knew Wilt couldn't shoot foul shots. So the plan was always if you're around him, you foul him. I was behind him one time and jumped on his back to foul him. But he just went up and dunked and had no idea I was on his back. That's until he came down and looked around and wondered why everybody else was laughing. I weighed 168 pounds and he had no idea that I was hanging on. I said, "Oh (bleep)!
"And don't tell me about championships. What does that have to do with the overall greatness of the man? We're talking about someone who kept the league afloat. People came to see Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain. When you talk about that many championships, you're talking about team, too. He just didn't have the complete teams that Russell had.
"Maybe Wilt never won all the big ones, but he was a winner. In college at Kansas, when North Carolina beat them, five guys guarded him. It was never a one-on-one matchup against Wilt. It was always a gang guarding him, a gang tackling him. Even with the Celtics. It wasn't him and Russell one-on-one.
"Alex Hannum was my rookie coach in the NBA. He told me one night, 'You're getting ready to play in a game with the likes of a Wilt Chamberlain that you will never ever see again in your life. I think you're gonna have longevity in this game. But notice and remember what you're gonna see tonight, young man, because you won't see it anymore.
"Alex was right. I saw a lot of big centers and a lot of talented people. But I never saw another Wilt and I'm pretty damn sure we never will."
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