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Remembering Wilt Chamberlain (1936-1999)

When most people mention the greats of basketball, you will always here the name Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Rarely, you will hear Wilt Chamberlain’s name mentioned consistently.  Why is that?  With all the achievements that Wilt ’The Stilt’ Chamberlain accomplished, it should be a clear no-brainer that Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest and most dominant basketball player that has ever played the game!      

We understand that most of today’s growing NBA fan base is youngsters – attracted by today high-flying, tomahawk dunking athletes in the NBA’s hip hop culture.  The NBA gets plenty of exposure these days, equipped with the all the flash and pizzazz of from abundant media coverage, and a multitude of lucrative advertising contracts.  Young fans of today just don’t know about the evolution of the one of the most popular sports league in the world.  Despite superficially hearing the names and feats of Bill Russell’s, and his 9 championships with Boston, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s amazing longevity and 4 championships, relatively little coverage is devoted to Wilt Chamberlain.  Although Chamberlain won only 2 championships in his illustrious career, his awe-inspiring, hard-to-believe individual accomplishments, is what sets him apart from other basketball players.    

No other player in NBA history has spawned so many myths nor created such an impact.  With the NBA growing more big and athletic, it is not far-fetched to say that Chamberlain would not have been as effective.  But there is no doubt in my mind that he would still have been a legendary force, and the crown jewel of all the NBA’s stars.  Although his feats were often credited to his tremendous size, Chamberlain was a true natural who possessed exceptional speed, agility, stamina and strength. 

He was irrefutably basketball’s most awesome offensive force the game has ever seen.  During his career, his dominance precipitated many rules changes.  These rules changed included widening the lane, instituting offensive goaltending, and revising rules governing inbounding the ball and shooting free throws - Chamberlain would leap with the ball from behind the foul line to deposit the ball in the basket.

Born on August 21st, 1936, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chamberlain drew national attention playing at Overbrook High School, already becoming a legend.  In his tenure there, some of Chamberlain’s accomplishments include leading his school to two city championships (1954, 1955).  He also amassed an amazing 2,252 points.  Such highlights include scoring 90 points, including 60 in a 12-minute span, against Roxborough High School.  He averaged 44.5 ppg in his senior year.  It was also during this time that one of his nicknames, ’the Stilt’, was coined by a local newspaper writer.  When graduating, Chamberlain was the most hyped high school recruit, where he opted to go to one of the most storied basketball programs – the University of Kansas. 

He opted for the storied basketball program at the University of Kansas.  Chamberlain made his debut for the Jayhawks’ varsity squad in a game against Northwestern on Dec. 3, 1956.  He set a school record when he scored 52 points in an 87-69 victory.  Chamberlain proceeded to guide Kansas to the 1957 NCAA title game against top-ranked North Carolina.  Although North Carolina beat Kansas by one point in triple overtime, Chamberlain was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. 

At Kansas, Chamberlain found himself guarded by as many as three players at one time.  And, when opponents weren’t gang-guarding him, they held the ball for long stretches.  Frustrated by these tactics, Chamberlain decided to forego his senior season at Kansas, opting instead to turn pro.  Chamberlain could not enter the league right away, since an NBA rule that prevented college players from playing in the league until their class graduated.  He then signed a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1958-59 for a salary reported to be around $50,000, an astronomical sum at the time.

The following year, Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors, who had selected him in a territorial draft the previous years.  At 7-1, 280 pounds, Chamberlain, who had always been behemothly strong, was a veritable Tower of Power.  The basketball world eagerly awaited the young giant’s debut - and he didn’t disappoint.  In his first game, against the New York Knicks, he pumped in 43 points and grabbed 28 rebounds.  In a sensational rookie year, Chamberlain averaged 37.6 points and 27.0 rebounds and was named NBA Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game Most Valuable Player and NBA Most Valuable Player as well as being selected to the All-NBA First Team.  Only Wes Unseld, from the then Baltimore Bullets, would duplicate Chamberlain’s feat of winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season (1968-69). 

With Chamberlain, the Warriors vaulted from last to second and faced the Boston Celtics in the 1960 NBA Playoffs. The series saw the first postseason confrontation between Chamberlain and defensive standout Bill Russell, a match-up that would grow into the greatest individual rivalry in the NBA and possibly any sport.  During the next decade, the pair would square off in the playoffs eight times. Chamberlain came away the victor only once. In that initial confrontation, Chamberlain outscored Russell by 81 points, but the Celtics took the series, four games to two.

In his rookie year, and for throughout his career, opposing teams simply didn’t have an effective strategy to defend him.  It would take a team-defense concept to slow him down.  Because of this, Chamberlain was the recipient to many hard fouls, which took a heavy toll.  After the postseason loss to Boston, the rookie stunned his fans by announcing that he was thinking of retiring because of the excessively rough treatment he had endured from opponents. He feared that if he played another season, he would be forced to retaliate, and that wasn’t something he wanted to do.

Despite his astonishing strength, Chamberlain never did retaliate, despite the continuation of hard fouls he would receive on a nightly basis.  One indication of this was the amazing statistic that not once in his 14-year career, in more than 1,200 regular and postseason games, did he foul out. 

In his second season (1960-61), a virtual repeat of his rookie year, he poured in 38.4 points and 27.2 rebounds per game in 1960-61.  However, Chamberlain’s third NBA season (1961-62) would prove to be his benchmark year – where he accomplished some of the most startling feats in basketball history. 

On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain set a record that may stand forever.  In a game against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pa., he scored 100 points in four quarters to help the Warriors win the game, 169-147.  Despite the fact that Chamberlain had reportedly stayed out all night the previous evening, he obviously came ready to play against the Knicks.  Chamberlain was so in the zone that he even made 28 of 32 free throws, despite being a career 50% free throw shooter.  Over the course of the season, Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes, and a staggering 50.4 points, and 25.7 rebounds per game.  He became the only player in history to score 4,000 points in a season.  This was one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of sports. 

In 1962, Chamberlain moved with the franchise to San Francisco, and he led the league in scoring in both 1962-63 and 1963-64.  During his first seven years Chamberlain scored an average of 39.4 points per game and led the league in scoring all seven seasons, a string matched only by Michael Jordan two decades later.  In the 1963-64 season, Chamberlain guided the San Francisco Warrior to the NBA finals against the powerful Boston Celtics.  The Warriors were no match for Boston’s talent-laden team, as they lost in five games. 

The following season saw Wilt traded back to Philadelphia, now called the 76ers, in an attention-grabbing blockbuster trade.  In Philadelphia, he joined a promising 76ers team that included future Hall-of-Famer, Hal Greer.  The following season (1965-66), with Wilt now comfortable in the Sixer’s system, Philadelphia transformed from a mediocre team to having the best record in the league.  But for the second year in a row the 76ers fell to Boston in the Eastern Division Finals.  For his efforts, Chamberlain was named the NBA’s MVP.  He would be given the award for the additional next two seasons. 

The next year would be one of the greatest seasons by an NBA team.  Philadelphia added talented forward Billy Cunningham, a future Hall-of-Famer, and started the year by winning 45 of its first 49 games en route to an 68-13 record, at the time the best in league history.  The division finals saw the much anticipated 76ers-Celtics match-up.  After years of frustration, Chamberlain finally defeated his archrival, Bill Russell, as Philadelphia soundly defeated Boston in five games, ending the Celtics’ eight-year stranglehold on the NBA title.  Playing his former San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Sixers came away with the championship, winning the series in six games, and Wilt’s first championship. 

After his monstrous scoring year in 1961-62, Chamberlain’s average dropped slowly each year until the 1967-68 season, when it rose slightly to 24.3 points per game from 24.1 the season before.  In Chamberlain’s second seven years, he averaged 20.7 points.  Despite the waning offensive production, Chamberlain was still effective, becoming a better team player.  Chamberlain said, that he could continually duplicate his high scoring, but his coaches asked him to stop shooting, and get his team more involved by passing more. 

Chamberlain appeared to relish in his new passing role.  In the 76ers 1967 championship year, Wilt average 7.8 assists per game, 3rd in the league.  This was unheard of for a non-point guard, much less a 7-1 center.  The following year, he led the league with 8.3 assists.  Proving his versatility, this record, which has never been duplicated, and may never will, is on par with his scoring accomplishments. 

In the 1968-69 season, the Los Angeles Lakers made news by trading for Chamberlain.  By adding Wilt to a lineup that included future Hall-of-Famers, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, the Lakers felt confident about capturing their first NBA title, after many years of being runner-up.  The heavily favored Lakers cruised through the season and playoffs to setup a showdown with the Celtics in what would be one of the most memorable NBA finals.  The Celtics stunned the basketball world by pulling out the upset victory by a mere two points in the decisive 7th game, which also marked the last game of Bill Russell. 

The following year, the Lakers returned to the NBA finals against the New York Knicks, in another memorable final.  Forever etched into NBA lore, was the return of injured Knicks Center, Willis Reed, hobbling down through the tunnel of Madison Square Gardens to join his team.  Reed provided an emotional lift for his team, and the inspired Knicks went on to a 113-99 victory in another Game 7.  It would not be until the 1971-71 season, that the Lakers would accomplish their goal, after Bill Russell retired.       

The 1971-72 Lakers set an NBA record by winning 33 games in a row en route to a then NBA-record 69-13 regular-season mark, one victory better than Chamberlain’s 1966-67 Sixers team.  Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls would post a 72-10 record in 1995-96.  Although he scored only 14.8 points per game, Wilt’s contributions came in other forms.  At age 35, he managed to grab 19.2 rebounds per contest and was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.

The Lakers then stormed to the championship with a five-game triumph against New York in the 1972 NBA Finals.  Chamberlain was named the NBA Finals MVP.

In what would be Chamberlain’s last season, the Lakers made their way back to the NBA Finals.  Chamberlain was still effective, at age 36, averaging 13.2 points and 18.6 rebounds a game.  The finals pitted the Lakers against the Knicks, for the third time in the last four seasons.  The Lakers were no match for the motivated Knicks, led by a healthy Willis Reed, as they lost in five games.   

Dominating the game as few players in any sport ever have, Chamberlain seemed capable of scoring and rebounding at will, despite the double- and triple-teams and constant fouling tactics that opposing teams used to try to shut him down.  Chamberlain had literally filled up the NBA record books when he retired.  His name appears so often in the scoring record books that his name could be the default response any time a question arises concerning a scoring record in the NBA.  Some of his accomplishments in the NBA career include:

  • A career average of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists per game over 1045 career games (14 seasons).
  • Scored 31,419 points (30.1 ppg) and had 23,924 rebound (22.9) in 1,045 pro games, best in the league when he retired; both categories currently second all-time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
  • 4-time NBA MVP (1960, 1966-68).
  • 2 NBA Championships (1967, 1972) NBA Finals MVP (1972).
  • All-NBA First Team (1960-62, 1964-68), All-NBA Second Team (1963, 1965, 1972).
  • NBA All-Defensive First Team (1972, 1973).
  • 13-time NBA All-Star (1960-69, 1971-73), MVP in the 1960 game.     
  • 7-time NBA scoring leader seven straight years (1960-66), including a career-high 50.4 ppg in 1962.
  • 11-time NBA rebounding leader (1960-63, 1966-69, 1971-73).
  • 7-time NBA minutes leader (1961-64, 1966-68).
  • 1-time NBA assists leader (1968).
  • Single game record for points in one game (100, March 2, 1962).       
  • Scored 50 or more points 118 times – including 45 times, seven consecutively in the 1961-62

Season.         

  • Holds single-game record for most points by a rookie (58).
  • Holds record for most free throws attempted (11,862).
  • Hall of Fame Inductee in 1978.

Far from settling down after retirement, Chamberlain went on to lead an extremely eclectic interesting life.  Always a versatile athlete – he won an NCAA high jump title; and was offered a pro-football contract with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1966 – Chamberlain focused his efforts on promoting volleyball.  He coached for the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors for a year, tried to arrange a heavyweight fight against Muhammad Ali, and acted with Arnold Schwarzenegger (now Governor of California) in the movie, Conan the Barbarian.

He authored four books, including an autobiography, A View from Above, in which he controversially claimed to have had sex with almost 20,000 women — this would have averaged 1.2 women per day from age 15 until his death.  On Oct. 12, 1999, Chamberlain passed away at the age of 63 due to heart failure at his home.

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