Posted Feb 12 2007 11:21AM
Hear me out, now. This is the kind of thinking that takes place when your cable goes dark at an inopportune time.
You see, I, like much the rest of the 300 million Americans camped out to watch the single best night of television commercials. And, well, okay, there was a football contest going on, too.
But around the time Devin Hester was fielding a first-quarter punt and shedding the initial would-be tackler, my set-top box decided then was an appropriate moment to reboot. By the time the interactive guide finished reloading a few minutes later, the Colts had the ball back. That's fine, I had already given up on the game and turned back to the book I'd been pouring through, Wilt, 1962, by Gary Pomerantz.
(An aside: Were you one of those who rushed out and bought a new HDTV before the big game? And did the water-blotted view look any sharper in high-def? Every time I peered up from my paperback to my trusty 20-inch tube, it looked like there was a coffee filter between me and the playing field.)
The fact Pomerantz somehow managed to fill more than 200 pages about the game itself and its participants is quite remarkable given the little coverage the contest received 45 years ago this coming March 2. Only a couple Philly scribes made the trip to Hershey, Pa. that evening, which is a couple more than those covering the New York team. Philadelphia PR man Harvey Pollack served as the eyes and ears for the wire services. The only photos of the night, including the iconic image of Wilt holding up a piece of paper reading "100", came from an AP photographer who was at the game as a fan and only went to fetch his camera from the car when he realized something special was truly going down. And much of the radio broadcast was lost ( You can listen to the final moments here).
As I read through the descriptions of the Dipper's domination of his undersized competition, I couldn't help but draw the comparison to the Magic's young big man. Each "Dipper dunk" had me picturing the powerful slams of the gents who shaped, and is shaping, the way the game is played in the pivot. (The picture of Howard's dunks will become much more real come Feb. 17 when he takes part in the Sprite Rising Stars Slam Dunk in Las Vegas.)
The first, and most obvious, comparison lays in the stature of the two men. At the time, Wilt was an anomaly, his 7-1, 260-pound frame allowing him to muscle aside his defenders. During the 100-point outing, Chamberlain was guarded for a stretch by the 6-10, 220 pound Darrall Imhoff. When the second-year player fouled out, as Pomerantz notes, the Knicks' five-man unit measured no taller than 6-8, which forced four Knicks defenders to literally hang off Wilt.
Today's NBA features bigger, stronger, faster players than that of yesteryear, but there's no mistaking the 6-11, 265-pound Howard is chiseled by a different sculptor. There's Shaq once (and still?) an immense and powerful force down low. And there's Yao a gigantic presence capable of setting up shop on either end of the floor and altering most any team's offensive and defensive strategies. Then there's Howard, a player the likes of which is not seen on any other NBA roster. Bigger players have difficulty because of his speed and agility. Smaller players get pushed around. Both struggle to keep him land-bound.
Athleticism and bulk, alone, make him an all-together challenging assignment for other bigs around the league. As his game continues to develop in his third year in the league, he's still only 21 years old he could truly dominate the game for years to come, much like Wilt did.
I'm not going out on a limb and saying he'll drop 101 points or grab 56 boards in a game to eclipse some of the oldest marks in the book, those set by Chamberlain in the early 1960s. Those records may be out of reach. In a truly impressive show, Kobe poured in 81 last season to come about as close as anybody may ever, and he still needed another 25 percent of his point total.
But, if Howard can continue to develop and become a reliable offensive option, one who can work in and out of the paint, who's going to contain him?
Chamberlain was unstoppable when he got the ball on the left block, leading to the widening of the lane to 16 feet from 12, pushing him further away from the basket. Even though Wilt knew nobody could stop his dunks and finger rolls, he frequently turned around and banked in a shot for two. Later in his career, he proved he wasn't just a gunner by leading the league with 702 assists during the 1967-68 campaign.
Howard doesn't have that repertoire of skills just yet ... yet. One need only watch his development since his rookie year, when he was seemingly an after thought on the Steve Francis-led Orlando squad, to get a better understanding of what might be in store. Howard put up a shade more than eight attempts a game, despite the fact he converted 52 percent of those tries. It's plausible to believe 3.5 of those attempts came from the offensive boards he grabbed that season.
Now in his third season, and no longer a wide-eyed teenager, Howard is making the most of his touches in Orlando and showing advanced skill in the post. Simply watch how he had his way against Jason Collins, Cliff Robinson and the New Jersey Nets on Friday night. Howard was able to score from a variety of positions on the floor: An alley-oop lob, a jump hook from the right block, a spin move around Robinson on the left block, bulling his way past Collins for the reverse dunk.
The combination of an aging Robinson, not-so-fleet-footed Collins and rail-thin Mikki Moore had no answer for Howard, much like many other teams in the league that have watched him rack up big nights this season. Ranking third in rebounds per game this season, Howard has four 20-plus nights on his resume this season: 25 vs. Golden State, 23 vs. Memphis (minus Pau), 22 vs. Minnesota and 21 vs. Charlotte. By comparison, Shaquille O'Neal has 35 such nights over his 15-year career.
Still young and learning the game, Howard has his ups and downs. A 25-rebound night may be followed, soon after, by a five-board outing, as Howard posted at Phoenix in mid-January. If ever so slightly inconsistent productivity wise, there is one constant to his game: his presence on the court. Howard, much like Wilt, is incredibly durable, most likely because of his amazing conditioning. Howard has logged time in a Magic uniform in each of the 212 games since Orlando made him the top overall pick in 2004. Chamberlain averaged more than 48 minutes a game during the 1961-62 campaign, in which he posted averages better than 50 points and 25 rebounds a night.
It should be noted that other well-honed NBAers fared well over their NBA careers. David Robinson played in 80-plus games in six of his first seven seasons in the league and guided the Spurs until he was nearly 38 years old. Kevin Willis, meanwhile, played on seven different teams in a career that stretched into his early 40s, looking not a day over 25 when he finally hung em up.
For Howard and Chamberlain, however, the comparisons dry up at about this point. There are a number of fundamental differences between the two, primarily their need for the ball.
It only stands to reason any human even considering an assault on the century mark must have an ego that demands the ball. And, as Pomerantz points out in Wilt, 1962, that's just what happened during that 1961-62 season.
"His Warriors teammates had spoon-fed him the ball all season, [Dick] McGuire's orders," Pomerantz writes. "The Dipper knew about their resentments on and off the court. It would be only logical for him to wonder: If he had the opportunity to score one hundred points, how would his teammates react? He did not know the answer until now. They would acquiesce. His talent would bend them to his will, too."
To say another player has the talent to get off 63 attempts in a game of which Wilt hit 36 on that historic night in March would be presumptuous at best. Howard can convert on nearly any trip down the floor. He has to believe so. His teammates must know it. Coach Brian Hill has to sense this is an option. Howard, though, doesn't need the shot attempts or point totals to validate his place in the game.
Again, I'm not alluding to any gaudy individualism on the part of Howard. He's fun to watch. There are many moments he makes you gasp and ask, "Did a (near-) seven-footer really just do that?" And he's re-writing the way the game is played at the center position.
Just as with Wilt, you can't put a lumbering big man on Howard and expect to control him. Likewise, small ball won't get it done because Howard can get up and down the floor. The burden lies squarely on the opposing teams to find a way to stop him, as teams decades ago had to do for the Warriors' star.
"Even Bill Russell had said," Pomerantz wrote, "The only way to stop Wilt and his dunk shot is to lock him in the dressing room ...'"
Judging by the width of Howard's shoulders alone, I'm not so sure there's a locker room door solid enough to keep him from dominating the position for years to come.