The GreatestBy Harvey Pollack
As one who has seen every player in my 60 years in the NBA, there is no doubt in my mind who is the greatest player in the league's history. Yes, without any reservations I award that distinction to Wilt Chamberlain.
I had the good fortune to be the publicity director of the Philadelphia Warriors and the publicity director of the Philadelphia 76ers during Wilt's two periods in this city. He and I became great friends during those times, and his relationship continued right to his untimely death.
A look at the NBA record book and a count of the number of times Wilt is still listed as holding NBA records is positive proof of his stature. Remember he last played in 1972 and almost 35 years later his name dominates the record book. He dwarfs the totals of such luminaries as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and the like. My statistical yearbook annually shows the superiority of Wilt over Russell in every statistical category except championships. But the comparison of Wilt with any player on a statistical basis leaves little room for argument.
Wilt was an individual who loved to win regardless of the type of competition involved. He was a special expert in the many card games with his teammates on bus, train or airplane trips. It's been well know that he had an unbeatable night the evening that he scored his famed 100 points in Hershey, PA. Owner Eddie Gottlieb made it a habit to get to Hershey many hours before game time so the players whiled away their time in the arcade in the building. Naturally there was lots of betting going on and Wilt cleaned up both on pinball machines and in shooting down clay pigeons.
Yet he was outstanding elsewhere as a high jumper at high school and at Kansas. When he retired from basketball, volleyball became his forte. Some say he could have been an NFL superstar as a wide receiver. He also was on the verge of fighting Muhammad Ali to demonstrate his boxing skill but fate intervened and the bout never came off.
Wilt as also quite a speaker, and he demonstrated that at the many public appearances he made. I accompanied him repeatedly on those jaunts, and he was at ease in front of audiences of youngsters or adults. He handled every question and never refused to give his opinion on any subject. When he visited children's hospitals, you can imagine the open-eyed reaction of the youngsters as they saw this 7'1" giant come to their bedside and engage in conversation or sign autographs or bring gifts from the team to distribute.
Wilt was a student of the game and observed closely his opponents while he was a player and after his retirement. We had many lengthy phone conversations about statistics in the periods when he was writing his books. One time he asked me, "Do you know that Michael Jordan can't shoot past 15 feet?" I asked him how he knew that. His response: "Don't you watch the games?"
"Not that closely," I said.
He challenged me to prove otherwise. So I gathered material to show what Jordan did that season on every shot he took and from what distance. Guess what? Wilt was right. Jordan shot about 36% from the 15-foot mark back. That taught me not to doubt the big guy again.
I do remember the only time I beat him. Wilt used to complain and rightly so, that he never was credited with his rebounds on the road especially, but even at his home court where I was the statistician. So unknown to me, one night at Philly's Convention Hall, he had his close friend, Vince Miller, keep track of his rebounds in that game. Eddie Gottlieb was in on the ruse. So when the game as over, Gotty came to me at the press table and asked me how many rebounds I had awarded Wilt. He said, "Don't distribute the box scores until I return." Then he got Miller's totals and went up to the Warriors' dressing room and he asked Wilt, "Whose rebound totals do you want to be official, Miller's or Harvey's?" Wilt promptly said, "Miller's of course." Gotty replied, "Well Harvey gave you more than Vince did." That was the last and only time Wilt ever questioned me.
But I decided to help Wilt in another way. So I went to a Boston-Warriors game in the Boston Garden and secretly kept track of the rebounds of both Wilt and Russell. When the game ended, I went to the press table and asked what the rebound totals were for Wilt and Russell. The response: "Russell 35, Wilt 22." My response, "Well my totals are Wilt 34, Russell 21." They sat open mouthed when I produced my evidence of the time and type of every rebound that each player had. A Sports Illustrated writer nearby heard the conversation and asked me what it was all about. I told him and the next week SI had a story about the incident. Wilt and I chuckled on reading it, but Red Auerbach didn't. For many years thereafter he didn't talk to me, but how we were reconciled is another story that doesn't concern Wilt. When Wilt was writing his book, he often called me for information. In fact, if you look at his books, you'll find me credited. He loved talking with me and most times he was the one that initiated the call. I'd love to have the money those phone calls cost him.
He never forgot me. When the NBA had a big anniversary party in New York, he called the NBA and requested that I be invited. That resulted in me being in a hotel room with George Mikan, Julius Erving, Bill Russell and Wilt. My only regret in life is that I didn't have a tape machine to record all the stories that were told about their NBA careers. Wilt was the butt of one of Russell's stories. I just sat there and listened. Finally I asked if I could tell one anecdote. They all agreed. So I said, "Wilt do you remember who you posted your 55 rebounds against?" Wilt said, "I think it was against New York."
"Wrong Wilt, it was Russell," I said. Wilt exploded from his seat and stood up and pointed at Russell's face and yelled, "Now I remember it was you," and everybody in the room roared in laughter.
There are many other portions of Wilt's life to relate and perhaps if I ever write my book on my 60 plus years in the NBA, I'll include them. For the moment, I'm satisfied to go on record as labeling Wilt the greatest and wish he hadn't retired so soon at the age of 35. We couldn't take advantage of the introduction of blocked shots the year after he called it quits. Imagine how many triple doubles he would have had in points, rebounds and blocked shots and how many quadruple doubles he would have in 1967-68 when he led the league in assists.
Happy 70th, Wilt!
Harvey Pollack, author of his own NBA statistical guide, and now a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. as well as 10 others, ranks as the "Last of the Mohicans," being the only individual who worked in the NBA in its inaugural 1946-47 season who is stil working for an NBA team today. Similar to the NBA, Pollack is now entering his 61st season. He started as the assistant publicity director of the old Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State) in 1946-47 and midway through the 1952-53 season, he became head of media relations for the Warriors. He maintained that post until the spring of 1962, when the franchise was sold to San Francicso. During the 1962-63 season, when there was no team in Philadelphia, neutral court games were played here and he did the publicity to maintain his NBA connection. Then in 1963-64, the Syracuse franchise was shifted to Philadelphia and the franchise was renamed the 76ers. He served as the media relations director of the 76ers until the 1987-88 season, when he assumed the duties of director of statistical information for the team, a position he still holds. Throughout his Warriors and 76ers career, he has been in charge of the statistical crew at the team's home games. Because of his proclivity to stats, then Philadelphia Bulletin writer George Kiseda pinned the moniker of "Super Stat" on him in 1966.
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