Friday, March 2, 2012

Wilt Chamberlain: An Appreciation

March 2, 1962—50 years ago today.  Jon Bon Jovi was born in Sayreville, New Jersey.  In response to Soviet atmospheric nuclear testing, President John F. Kennedy announced the US would likewise resume above-ground testing.  Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” was riding high on the charts.  The release of Bob Dylan’s classic, eponymous debut was still 17 days away.  A gallon of gas cost 25 cents.  And Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game for the Philadelphia Warriors against the lowly New York Knicks in front of 4124 fans in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  That astounding feat (see the fine article about the game by Mark Kram of the Philadelphia Daily News here) is one that likely will never be duplicated in my lifetime.

I have watched and followed basketball for almost all of the 50 intervening years.  I have watched hundreds of players.  I have seen Russell, Baylor, Robertson, Jabbar, Erving, Bird, Johnson, Duncan, O’Neal, Bryant, and James.  Yet there are only two who, in my opinion, legitimately vie for the title of the greatest player ever—Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.  When, in the fall of 1964, I first started following basketball in earnest, Chamberlain was already a legend.  He was then in his sixth season, and had led the league in scoring in each of the preceding five seasons.  He had led the league in rebounds four of the previous five seasons.  The NBA even widened the “paint” from its former key-like shape because of Wilt alone.  Those of us who, like Chamberlain, counted Philadelphia as their hometown, knew of his exploits dating back to 1953, when as a Sophomore he scored 31 points per game and led Overbrook High to the Public League championship.

The first time I was privileged to watch Chamberlain play was on television in December 1964, shortly after Wilt had his nose broken in a game against the Celtics.  I still recall vividly his playing with a clear mask over his face, which gave him—at least to my young eyes—a mystique to go along with his 34 points-per-game scoring average.  When, on January 15, 1965, Chamberlain was traded back to Philadelphia from the then-San Francisco Warriors, I was in basketball heaven.  That season the team was the very definition of mediocrity, finishing with a 40-40 record.  But in the playoffs the Chamberlain-led Sixers hit their stride, taking the champion Celtics to the brink before finally losing, 110-109, when John Havlicek famously stole the ball.  That remains one of the greatest games I have ever seen.

The next three years the Sixers, behind Chamberlain, finished in first place in the Eastern Division, winning the championship in 1967 after posting a then-record 68-13 record.  My brother and I were taken to multiple games at the old Convention Hall and, in 1967-68, the new Spectrum, to see Chamberlain and the Sixers play.  The great Dave Zinkoff’s exclamations of “Dipper dunk” continue to resonate in my mind all these years later.  I watched many more games on UHF channels on grainy, black-and-white TVs.  The Sixers had great players like Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham, but Chamberlain was far and away the most dominant player I had ever seen.  But alas, after three and a half years, it was all over.  After the 1968 season, the team refused his offer to become player-coach and, in typical Phialdelphia fashion, traded him to the Lakers for Darrell Imhoff—the very center against whom he had scored 100 points—and a pretty good, though forgettable, guard named Archie Clark.  This trade presaged the dark ages that overtook the franchise until they bought ABA superstars George McGinnis and Julius Erving in the mid-70s.  Chamberlain proceeded to lead the Lakers to four finals appearances and one championship in his five years in Los Angeles.

The 1966-67 NBA Champion Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers.
 This is the most dominant basketball team I ever saw play. 

Chamberlain’s statistics, especially early in his career, were otherworldly.  He averaged 50.4 points a game during the 1961-62 season.  Of the ten highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history, Chamberlain is the author of six of them.  Only five players have ever scored 70 points in a game.  Chamberlain is the only one who has ever done it more than once—and he did it five times, four times during the 1961-62 season alone.  He averaged 30.1 points per game for his career, second only to Jordan.  He led the league in rebounds in 11 of his 14 seasons, averaging an unbelievable 22.9 a game for his career.  In 1960-61, he averaged 27.2 rebounds a game.  He once had 55 rebounds in a single game—a game in which the opposing center was none other than Bill Russell.  Starting with the 1966-67 season, he drastically changed his approach to the game.  In that championship season he averaged 24.1 points (on only 14.2 shots per game), 24.2 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game, shooting over 68% from the field.  The next season he led the league in assists, and remains the only center to have done so.

Chamberlain dunking on his greatest rival, Bill Russell

During his career, Chamberlain was somewhat underappreciated.  As he famously said, “No one roots for Goliath.”  He was, and still is, often compared unfavorably to Bill Russell, because the Boston center won eleven championships in a twelve year span, and Chamberlain only beat Russell once in a playoff series (the 1966-67 championship season).  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Russell.  Of all the players I have seen, only Jordan approached his level of defensive intensity and ability to intimidate opponents.  Russell was a consummate team player who never gave a toss about individual statistics, and always did what he thought needed to be done to win.  Nevertheless, the Celtic center was limited offensively, and certainly would never have led most of Chamberlain’s teams to championships.  People tend to forget that Russell played with Hall-of-Famers like Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek, whose prodigious offensive skills made up for Russell’s deficiencies in that regard.  Jones was my childhood hero, a famously clutch shooter with a deadly bank shot and 25-foot range, and—like Russell—11 championships on his resume.  But does anyone seriously claim he was greater than Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, the latter of whom lost five championships to Jones’s Celtics?

I have likewise heard people claim that Chamberlain would never be as dominant today as he was back in the 60s.  No offense, but such an opinion is rubbish, or—as St. Paul might say—skybala.  Chamberlain was slightly taller than 7’0”, and weighed 300 pounds during his days with the Lakers.  Dwight Howard?  Please.  Shaquille O’Neal?  At least the mention of his name isn’t insulting.  But Wilt would have schooled him big time.  Though not as bulky as Shaq, the “Big Dipper”—so called because he often had to duck to pass under door frames—was at least as strong, benching 500 pounds. And he was far quicker and more agile.  He was also a track star both at Overbrook High and at the University of Kansas, specializing in the 440, shot put, triple jump, and high jump (he won this event for three straight years at the Big Eight track and field championships).  His 48 inch vertical jump would still be envied today, and I have never seen a center run the fast break as well as Chamberlain.  Simply put, Wilt ranks with Jim Brown and no one else as the greatest all-around athlete I have ever seen.

Chamberlain has been gone for more than 12 years now, the victim of heart troubles that plagued him during his final years.  But he is one hometown hero that I, and everyone one else who loves real basketball, will never forget.  If only I had been old enough to listen to that game in Hershey 50 years ago …


  1. I agree with you. I saw wilt play at KU and he is the best I ever saw. You are right when you say no other center would hold a chance! NONE! Even Bill Russell said he was the greatest of all time and hated playing against him because he was in fear of being schooled. My all time team is Wilt at center, Larry Bird as left side forward, Kareem at right side forward, Magic at point and Jordan at shooting. They might never lose a game!

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