By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Mar 26 2012 2:11PM
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When the subject is Wilt Chamberlain the conversation almost always comes down to the numbers. The 100-point game. The 55-rebound game. The 50.4 scoring average.
There is the 1961-62 season when Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes per night -- more than the time in a regulation NBA game -- because he was on the floor for every second of 79 games, except for the eight minutes when he was tossed out of a game against the Lakers by referee Norm Drucker.
There is Chamberlain as the only center in history to lead the league in total assists (1967-68), the all-time career leader in rebounds per game (22.9) and the only double-triple-double ever when he rang up 25 points, 22 rebounds and 21 assists on Feb. 2, 1968 against the Pistons.
There is also the grandiose braggadocio number of 20,000 women that the big man said he'd slept with in his 1990 book, A View From Above. The sheer number of numbers is enough to make your head hurt.
But if one number can make shake your head in utter disbelief, it is this:
0 -- The number of times Wilt fouled out in his career.
"That can't be possible," said Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. "Can it?"
Chamberlain played 14 seasons, 1,045 regular season games, 160 playoff games, 55,418 total minutes and never once was disqualified from a game.
"I learned early from one of my very first coaches a very fundamental lesson," Wilt once said. "You can't help your team if you're not out on the court."
Dwight Howard is in his eighth NBA season and has fouled out 31 times, including six games in the playoffs.
"It's a different time, a different era, a different game today," Howard said. "I don't think it would be possible for a big man to go through his whole career and not foul out of a game. You're talking about different players today."
Different and more difficult to play against than Bill Russell? Nate Thurmond? Clyde Lovellette? Zelmo Beatty? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? If anything, the game back then was much more physical, more brutal, more often a survival course of trying to dodge wildly thrown elbows, pushing, shoving and constant jostling.
"I wasn't even aware of that stat until somebody told me a few years ago," said referee Joey Crawford, a veteran of 35 NBA seasons. "Those aren't the kinds of conversations that officials have.
"When I first came into the league, all the guys that brought me along -- the Joe Gushues, Jake O'Donnells, Earl Stroms -- ever said about Wilt was that he was such a smart player. He always knew what he was doing in the game. He was strong. And he never gave those guys any crap.
"The only things I can figure is that that offensive players stopped, took mid-range jump shots, took 5-footers, 6-footers, something like that to avoid challenging him. I don't know what they did, what they were thinking when they brought the ball into Wilt."
The style of play has changed. Chamberlain was rarely seen setting up with the ball down in the low post, turning and trying to use his immense size and brute strength to back his defender down.
"It used to be open to the individual interpretation of each different referee about what was called and what wasn't called down under the basket with the big guys," Crawford said. "Now we have rules about what is and isn't a foul and we're expected to follow."
Joe Borgia was an NBA official for 10 seasons and now is vice president of NBA referee operations. His late father, Sid, was an NBA referee from the league's inception from 1946 to 1964 and later was the supervisor of officials.
"I think it would be extremely difficult in today's game to never foul out for 14 years," Borgia said. "Obviously back in the '50s, it was a different game. And the difference in players was probably more extreme. What do I mean by that? This comes from stories and what I remember from watching as a kid. But Wilt was truly the first big man. Everybody says it was (George) Mikan. But Wilt came in at 7-foot-2 and with the kind of speed and strength that nobody had ever seen before.
"I think you're just talking about an incredible separation between Wilt and the rest of the big men in the league that enabled him to stand apart literally in so many ways. Hey, when you have to change the rules of the game sort of for one player that tells you something."
Vern Mikkelson of the Minneapolis Lakers (1949-59) is the all-time leader in disqualifications, fouling out of 127 games. In the modern era, Shawn Kemp was DQ'd 115 times and, between shattering backboards, "Chocolate Thunder" Darryl Dawkins also hit the century mark by fouling out an even 100 times.
A player doesn't have to be large and lumbering to foul out frequently. Satch Sanders did it 94 times, the graceful Olajuwon 80 times, Billy Cunningham 64, Elvin Hayes 53, Clyde Drexler 33, Kobe Bryant 18, Larry Bird 11 and Magic Johnson 5.
Russell fouled out 24 times in 963 games and even Michael Jordan had to sit 11 times in 1,072 games.
Despite the fact that every big man who has ever come along echoes a variation of Wilt's "nobody likes Goliath" line, the referees insist it is the rules that treat them differently, not the men blowing the whistles.
"It's the rules of the game," Borgia said. "On the perimeter you cannot have an extended forearm touch the player with the ball. It's an automatic foul. But you're allowed to have a forearm, a hand and your knee in a guy's ass in the post and it's not a foul. People think that's inconsistent. But at one end it's a perimeter game and the other end a half-court game. It looks inconsistent, but by the rules we're consistent. Big men normally play closer to a basket where you're allowed more legal contact to maintain your position."
Yet despite his size, despite going in for dipper dunks, despite frequently reaching double figures in blocked shots before it was an official stat category in the NBA, Chamberlain kept himself out of foul trouble.
"He was aware of it always," said former teammate Matt Guokas. "Not fouling out was something he took pride in. But Wilt was not the kind of guy who was challenging players body to body. He used his size and his length and his leaping ability to go over players to block shots."
"I think what you've got to do is give your due to Wilt Chamberlain, because I think Wilt Chamberlain was smart enough not to get that sixth foul on him," said Crawford. "He was smart enough not to put himself in jeopardy. The referee is going out to call the plays.
"If you had somebody in the league just started refereeing, they're just trying to get the plays right. You're never gonna walk out onto the court saying, 'Boy, Wilt hasn't fouled out of a game for 14 years.' Something like that would never affect a call.
"Who in our world would ask, 'Aren't you the referee that fouled Wilt out?' In our world it's not applicable. We're trying to call the plays. Everybody thinks we actually care about the kind of stuff. We don't. It doesn't have anything to do with our job description. We're trying to get the calls correct.
"What I think it proves is all the stuff that Joe Gushue, Jake O'Donnell and Darell Garretson and all those other guys ever said was right. They said Wilt was as intelligent a guy as they ever reffed."
At the same time, Chamberlain was often paying a physical toll, getting slapped, elbowed, poked, pulled and scratched himself.
"The things I saw guys to do him was unbelievable," said teammate Al Attles. "Clyde Lovellette hit him with that elbow that drove Wilt's lower teeth up into his jaw and put him the hospital and caused an infection. That was the worst of it, but he was always being beat up and abused."
It is the constant complaint of every big man from Wilt to Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal to Yao Ming to Howard: Big guys get calls against them that little guys don't.
"It's not intentional," said Bob Delaney, who retired in 2011 after 24 years as an NBA ref. "I think people give us more credit than we deserve. We don't react to the star player or the bigger player, just to what is in front of us.
"Speed, quickness, rhythm and balance are four things that we look for. Once the speed, quickness, rhythm or balance is interrupted, that's a foul. The difference is, take Shaquille and Wilt as examples, and a lot of times it wouldn't appear that those things were affected. But there were time when I would go back and look at tape of Shaq after a game and say to myself, 'Man, he got hit.' "
It is the difference between running into a mattress and running into a wall. The wall doesn't give.
"Those strong, big people are probably not given all the fouls that are taken on them," Delaney admitted.
Conversely, when the big man reached out to make a play on a smaller opponent, he more easily alters speed, quickness, rhythm and balance. Still, through 14 seasons and more than 1,200 NBA games, Wilt never fouled out of a single game. Not in college at Kansas or at Overbrook High in Philadelphia.
You can't help your team when you're not on the floor.
"I've read a lot of the records and I've heard most of the numbers," said 38-year-old Marcus Camby, veteran of 16 seasons in the trenches. "And I might have to say that Wilt never fouling out of one game might be the most impressive of them all.
"Wow! That's crazy. Stop and think. Zero. It's the only record you can really say will never be broken."
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