WILT CHAMBERLAIN: 1936-1999
Wilt Chamberlain: An Appreciation
Wilt Chamberlain was Goliath, a larger-than-life figure on and off the court who changed the game of basketball and the perception of athletes. He was the most dominating force the sport has ever seen, perhaps any sport has ever seen, a colossus whose impact is felt to this day.
A generation of fans grew to love the game of basketball by watching Chamberlain duel Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, seemingly every Sunday on ABC's Game of the Week in the 1960s, with Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman at the microphone. There have been other great rivalries in sports Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus, Williams-DiMaggio, Bird-Johnson, Affirmed-Alydar, fill in your own favorite, even McGwire-Sosa but none greater than Chamberlain-Russell, Chamberlain's Philadelphia teams against Russell's Celtics.
"Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of the NBA," said Red Auerbach, the Celtics' long-time coach, general manager and president. "His dominance, power, demeanor and the rivalry with Bill Russell says it all."
Another ex-Celtic, Hall of Fame forward Tom Heinsohn, put it succinctly: "There would be no NBA without Wilt."
At least not the way we know it.
Chamberlain is the reason the NBA's foul lane is 16 feet wide. It was 12 feet when Chamberlain entered the league in 1959, and the 7-foot-1, 275-pounder captured both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors by setting up shop in the low post, then using his strength to lean in on opponents and lay the ball in the basket with his soft finger-roll.
After five years of watching Chamberlain score virtually at will, the powers-that-be added four feet to the width of the lane to make it a little tougher on him. Chamberlain responded by perfecting a turn-around jumper.
Chamberlain is responsible for changes in rules as well as court dimensions. When he was playing college ball at Kansas, his teammates' favorite play was to lob the ball toward the basket, hoping simply to get it in the vicinity of the rim. Chamberlain would roll to the hoop, catch whatever came within his enormous wingspan and slam it home. His rivals couldn't stop him, so the rules-makers outlawed offensive basket interference, preventing Chamberlain from touching the ball in the cylinder above the rim. That rule remains in effect to this day, in both the college and pro games, though it is widely ignored in today's offense-starved NBA when it comes to alley-oop passes, many of which are caught in the cylinder.
Rulemakers also banned the practice of lobbing the ball in from the baseline directly over the backboard so a player read: Chamberlain couldn't catch it near the basket in position for an easy score.
Chamberlain was an athlete of magnificent ability and mammoth ego, one of those rare figures who truly transcended his sport. "He is Babe Ruth all over again," said Eddie Gottlieb, the long-time president of the Warriors and one of the NBA's founders, who convinced some would say finagled his peers into allowing Philadelphia to obtain the rights to Chamberlain as a territorial pick when he graduated Overbrook High School in 1955, even though it would be four years before he would be eligible to play in the league. "You can have my first-round pick four years from now; I want Chamberlain," Gottlieb told them, knowing Chamberlain would be worth the wait.
Indeed, Chamberlain redefined basketball the way Ruth redefined baseball. He stretched the dimensions of the game, expanded its possibilities.
"Maybe if I had been from California, I'd have been a decathlete," he once said. "If I'd been from Oklahoma, I'd have been a football player. But fortunately, I lived in Philadelphia and it was a basketball city."
"He was one of the world's greatest athletes," said Hall of Famer Alex Hannum, who coached Chamberlain in San Francisco and Philadelphia. "He could have been great in any sport. Luckily for all of us in basketball, he chose basketball and dominated our sport."
Chamberlain's strength is legendary. He once was asked to trade his sneakers for boxing gloves and enter the ring against Muhammad Ali. Though the idea certainly appealed to his ego, Chamberlain opted to remain on the hardwood.
Bob Lanier, himself a Hall of Fame center of considerable proportion, recalls "when Wilt Chamberlain lifted me up and moved me like a coffee cup so he could get position." And Heinsohn likes to tell of Chamberlain plucking a driving K.C. Jones out of the air "like he was a fly. K.C.'s legs were still moving in the air."
Chamberlain's statistics and achievements defy belief. Of the 68 top scoring games in NBA history, Wilt has 49. Of the top 45 rebounding games, he has 25. He averaged 30.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game for his career, winning MVP honors four times, NBA Finals MVP and NBA All-Star MVP awards once each. He's the NBA's all-time leading rebounder and second-leading career scorer. In his 14 seasons he led the league in scoring seven times, rebounding 11 times, field goal percentage nine times and assists once.
Even today, when a jaded public yawns at the falling of yet another sports record, Chamberlain's marks stand tall, more impressive with each passing year. His 100 points, vs. New York on March 2, 1962, and 55 rebounds, vs. Boston on November 24, 1960, are NBA game standards unlikely ever to be topped. He scored 50 or more points 118 times in his career, with Michael Jordan a distant second on the list at 30. Besides averaging 50.4 points per game in 1961-62, Chamberlain also averaged 48.5 minutes per game, a remarkable feat when you remember that a regulation NBA game lasts 48 minutes. Philadelphia played seven games that went into overtime that year for a total of 10 extra five-minute periods, and Chamberlain played 3,882 of a possible 3,890 minutes, including 79 of 80 complete games.
He was the mainstay of two of the greatest NBA teams of all time. The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers went 68-13 and ended the Boston Celtics' streak of eight consecutive championships, while the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers won a record 33 consecutive marks en route to a 69-13 record and the league crown. Those were the two best records in NBA history until Jordan's 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Chamberlain never silenced his critics. They belittled his notoriously poor (career .511) free throw shooting, and constantly pointed out how his two championships paled in comparison to Russell's 11 conveniently ignoring the fact that the Celtics' roster was studded with Hall of Famers and it wasn't until the second half of his career that Chamberlain enjoyed similar support.
The slings and arrows clearly bothered him, though he tried to shrug them off. "It's human nature," he would say. "No one roots for Goliath."
Nonetheless, Chamberlain was justly proud of his accomplishments and content with his place in history. After he retired from the NBA in 1973, a year in which he led the league in both rebounding and field goal percentage, Chamberlain neither faded from the spotlight nor let himself get out of shape. He lived on a hill in the exclusive Los Angeles enclave of Bel Air and enjoyed the celebrity lifestyle of Tinseltown. He posed on the cover of the 1983 swimsuit issue of Women's Sports, his body chiseled and toned at the age of 46. He was still in shape for the cover photo for his 1991 autobiography A View From Above, where he looms over a shot of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center.
Every few years, even when he was in his 50s, stories would surface about how some team or other was trying to lure Chamberlain out of retirement, figuring he could still give them 15 -20 minutes of solid play as a backup center. Chamberlain never accepted any of the offers, though clearly he loved the attention and the fact that many thought he could still compete against athletes half his age.
Perhaps that is why news of his death at the age of 63 came as such a shock.
"I always thought Wilt was indestructible," said Walt Frazier, the former New York Knicks star.
"You just don't think things like this are going to happen to people of his stature," echoed Jerry West, the Lakers executive who played against Chamberlain for many years, then with him on the great '72 Lakers squad.
"He was the most unbelievable center to ever play the game in terms of domination and intimidation. There's no one that's ever played the game better than Wilt Chamberlain. This was a man for all ages."
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