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Wilt Chamberlain (shown in 1960) is considered by many as the greatest basketball player ever.
Ken Regan/NBAE via Getty Images

50 years later, Wilt's mark on the NBA is unmistakable

By Fran Blinebury,
Posted May 21 2012 12:20PM

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In an age of telephones that think and cars that talk, it is difficult to appreciate what a singular figure Wilt Chamberlain was 50 years ago.

For most of his career, Wilt was the biggest attraction in basketball and its most controversial, a distinction that he seemed to enjoy, if only to break the monotony of dominating the game.

Coaches regularly battled and debated with him. Behind his back, teammates often grumbled about him. But every modern day player who laces up a pair of sneakers that might come with a six-figure endorsement deal owes him a debt, because it was Wilt's talent and Wilt's vanity and Wilt's ability to stand above the crowd, literally and figuratively, that made the game into the global phenomenon it is today.

"Wilt Chamberlain saved the league when he came into the league (in 1959)," said Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. "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 even be talking about pro basketball now.

"For all the people who might know of him or know of his records, I might make the argument that Wilt is underrated."

It is a message worth delivering to the generations of basketball fans who have grown up in the nearly four decades since Chamberlain retired or the dozen years since his death: Forget everything you think you know.

Before Kobe and LeBron and Wade and Durant and Garnett and Jordan and Barkley and Magic and Bird and Erving and Abdul-Jabbar, only one name could truly fill up a marquee.

Big has always been around. Wilt was bigger.

He was always so large and so strong and so many of his feats so utterly overwhelming, it was simply not enough to call him the best player in the land or on the planet. He needed an entire constellation as a description: the Big Dipper.

Wilt was, as the song says, a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. He is the only player ever to lead the NBA in scoring, rebounding and assists, but usually found it difficult to make a simple free throw.

Wilt once averaged 48.5 minutes over an entire season in a game that lasts 48 minutes -- he played all of the overtimes and missed just eight minutes of one game when he was tossed out by referee Norm Drucker -- and yet somehow was constantly having his competitive nature questioned.

Those who played with him and against him readily admitted that Chamberlain was far and away the strongest man in the house every time he walked out onto the court. And still, to many, the enduring image is the giant gentle too soft in the clutch.

Wilt was to basketball what Moby Dick was to whales, what Paul Bunyan was to logging, what King Kong was to Manhattan skyscrapers. Though he played his last NBA game with the L.A. Lakers in 1973, he still holds more than four dozen records.

What would it take today for a single player to have such dominion over the game?

"You'd have to combine the size and power of Shaquille O'Neal with the speed, quickness and leaping ability of Derrick Rose," said Matt Bonner of the San Antonio Spurs. "Then when you're done playing, I guess you go out and take over the world."

His boyhood buddy and lifelong friend, Sonny Hill, says the biggest mistake that Chamberlain made in his career was when he knuckled into the pressure to back away from his mind-boggling offense and stopped shooting as much.

"I told him that he should never do that, because it was only coming from people who wanted to bring him down to their level," Hill said. "For all the records that he holds, can you imagine the numbers if he would have kept scoring, kept pouring it on? Then nobody would ever have these silly conversations about who is the best.

"Listen, I'm a Michael Jordan fan. There's not a bigger fan in the world of Kobe Bryant than me. But I'm telling you, they couldn't have played in Dip's league. Truth is, nobody could."

Frank McGuire was the coach when Wilt played for the Philadelphia Warriors. Prior to the 1961-62 schedule, he called each of his players into his office individually for a discussion on goals and plans for the season.

"When Wilt came in, I asked him how long he'd like to play," the late McGuire once recalled. He said, 'Forever.' I almost fell off my chair. I said, 'No, Wilt, in a game.' He said, 'I don't ever have to come out of a game.' And he didn't."

That was the season of giants 50 years ago when Chamberlain wound up averaging more minutes than are played in a regulation game and also averaged 50.4 points. It was also the season when he scored 100 points in a single game (March 2, 1962) against the New York Knicks. He once made 35 shots in a row without a miss.

On Feb. 2, 1968 against the Pistons, he scored 25 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and handed out 21 assists, the only double triple-double in NBA history.

"Wilt was so dominant that it was almost a joke to watch other players play against him," said Hall of Famer Jerry West. "He was that dominant. He was the most physically intimidating player in the history of the NBA."

"You name it and there's not a single thing that Wilt couldn't do on the basketball court if he wanted," said the late Jack McMahon, who played and coached against Chamberlain for two decades. "He was that much the superior athlete."

At 7-foot-1 1/2 and 275 pounds during his professional career, Wilt had been a speedy quarter-miler and cross country runner during his high school days at Overbrook High in Philadelphia and an athletic, leaping long jumper and high jumper during his college career at the University of Kansas. His body was such a taut cord of muscles and possessed such power that nobody was so surprised when he came very close to signing a contract to box Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world.

"In terms of power, you'd have given him a chance," McMahon said. "The only question is whether he would have pulled the trigger on his punches. I always said it was a damn good thing that God made Wilt such a nice guy, because if he'd have been mean, he might have killed people."

As it was, Chamberlain merely destroyed most of the statistical standards in the game. The basketball rule writers literally changed the game to try to stop him. The lane was widened to push him farther away from the basket. Inbounding the ball over the top of the backboard, where only he could catch it and drop it through the hoop, was banned. Leaping from the foul line to dunk free throws was outlawed.

When the topic of all-time greatest player was once raised, a fellow named Larry Bird didn't hesitate. "Let me tell you something," Bird said. "For a while, they were saying that I was the greatest. And before me, it was Magic who was the greatest. And then it's Michael's turn. But open up the record book and it will be obvious who the greatest is."

Michael Jordan would come along behind Chamberlain to score 50 or more points in a game 39 times -- the number that Wilt averaged over a full 82-game schedule. When Kobe Bryant scored 81 eye-popping points against Toronto in 2006, he was still 19 short of Wilt's total against the Knicks.

"The trouble with being Wilt was that he set the bar so high for himself that he would always have trouble living up to his own standards," said Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who was a teammate of Chamberlain's on the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers. "There were nights when he'd get 40 points and 30 rebounds and we would barely raise an eye. Just pat him on the back and say, 'Nice game, big fella.' "

The contradictions were everywhere.

In 1968, when America was in the throes of the civil rights movement that sought justice for a long-overlooked segment of the population, Wilt and Muhammad Ali were the world's most prominent black athletes. While Ali was getting notoriety for standing up to the military draft and surrendering his heavyweight championship, Wilt was endorsing Richard Nixon for president.

For all of his imagery as an invincible titan, Wilt was probably too soft at heart, too fearful of his power to injure. Said his long-time friend and rival Bill Russell after Chamberlain seemed to back off against a gimpy-legged Willis Reed in the celebrated 1970 Finals showdown between the Lakers and Knicks: "If I'm the one playing Willis when he comes out limping, it would only have emphasized my goal of beating them that much worse."

The self-professed Casanova, who once made the bold claim that he'd bedded 20,000 women, died at home in bed, alone, never married. Yet one of the passions of Chamberlain's life was supporting women's athletics, whether it was in basketball, volleyball, softball, track and field or whatever.

"When it was announced that we were dedicating his statue a few years back in Philadephia," said Cunningham, who serves on the board of the Wilt Chamberlain Foundation, "I got an unexpected phone call. It was from Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympian. She asked if she could attend the ceremony. I said, of course. She said that she would never have had the career and her Olympic experiences without the support she received from Wilt. Who knew?"

Chamberlain was a founding member of Operation Smile, the international medical charity that repairs cleft palates. He supported rehabilitation programs for inmates at Sing Sing, the maximum security prison in New York.

It is those contradictions that make Wilt so much more than just a great basketball player. Even his off-the-charts, on-court greatness has been warped through the years and the Celtic green prism of Russell, his peer, his friend, his rival. He is the only man who was ever able to bring the agile giant down to size.

As the pair locked in a personal duel all through the 1960s, it was always Russell's Celtics who were superior to Chamberlains' Warriors, 76ers and Lakers teams. To fans watching a sport grow on small, black-and-white TV screens, there were winters full of Sundays when Russell was always doing whatever it took to best Chamberlain at the end of every game, or so it seemed.

Russell won those 11 championships and Chamberlain only two.

Only two?

Think of how many Hall of Fame careers -- Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing -- never had one.

One man knows the inaccuracy of the portrait that's been painted.

"If Wilt were playing today, he would be even more dominant than he was then," said Russell. "I don't see a center out there now that could play against him.

"The reason people don't believe that is because Wilt's numbers were so big, they seemed so impossible that they almost don't seem real. So they try to find a way to dismiss them or devalue them and try to make them not real.

"Nobody seems to appreciate what an incredible player Wilt was. He was the best player of all time because he dominated the floor like nobody else ever could. To be that big and that athletic was special."

Take a look around at the high-flying, star-driven, global-marketing, multi-millionaire-making NBA machine a half-century after that spectacular 1961-62 season.

Wilt Chamberlain made it.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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