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Thursday, November 17th, 2011 at 3:40 pm  |  32 responses

Original Old School: Alone at the Top

Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game of basketball like nobody before or since his time.

With no new NBA basketball, we’re doing just as many others are: looking back. Here’s a piece Alan Paul wrote in SLAM 40, in which our senior writer eulogized Wilt Chamberlain shortly after his death. RIP, big fella.—Ed.

by Alan Paul

I wanted to interview Wilt Chamberlain in the worst way. I called his agent dozens of times over a period of several years. I sent him packages filled with SLAMs on more that one occasion. I read his fourth book, the somewhat whacky Who’s Running the Asylum? Inside the Insane World of Sports Today, and groveled with the publisher’s publicist to hook something up. He said he was working on it, and hope flared for several weeks. At one point, I was told an interview was imminent and began preparing questions, but nothing ever happened. I even dragged my 90-something grandparents into the Big Dipper’s Boca Raton, FL restaurant searching for the elusive proprietor, only to be told by the bartender that Wilt stops by “two or three times a year.”

Now, Wilt is gone well before his time, dead at 63, and SLAM never did get a proper sit-down with the biggest of all big men. It’s a crying shame. And the thing is, Wilt, all we wanted to do was give you love. You once said, “No one loves Goliath,” but it’s not true. We loved you. We wanted to shower you with praise, drop to our knew in awe, bow to you like the hoops God you were. And so we will. But it feels all wrong. It should have been a celebration. Instead, it’s a eulogy.

No one ever dominated hoops like Wilt, and no one ever will. You probably know that he once scored 100 points in a game, but dig this: In the 1961-62 season, he averaged 50.4 ppg. Let me write that sentence again in case it didn’t sink it. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 ppg over an 80-game season. And it’s not like all he was doing was scoring. No one ever heard of triple doubles in Wilt’s day, but they were a regular occurrence for him—and quadruple doubles weren’t all that rare either. Or wouldn’t have been if anyone bothered recording how many shots he blocked; it wasn’t even an official statistic until the year after he retired. When people said all Chamberlain did was shoot, never a fair criticism, he bragged before the ’68 season that he would be the first non-guard to lead the League in assists. Then he went out and did it, averaging 8.6 a game, edging out Hall of Fame guards Dave Bing, Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkens.

Wilt once called this his proudest achievement, but it’s just the tip of his statistical iceberg. Certainly, people overuse numbers when assessing players, but in Wilt’s case, the numbers are so astounding that they have to mean something, maybe even everything. As Oscar Robertson told a newspaper after Wilt’s death, “The book’s don’t lie.” 

The 7-1, 275-pound Wilt was MVP four times in an era when greats like Robertson, Jerry West, Willis Reed, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell were in their primes. Early in his career, he competed against pioneering NBA stars such as Bob Petit, Dolph Schayes and Bob Cousy. Despite the tough comp, Chamberlain once made 35 straight baskets; he played in 1,045 games as a defensive force and never fouled out; and in ’62, he averaged 48.5 minutes per game—for the season. For his career, Wilt averaged a remarkable 45.8 mpg. This despite being hacked so badly and frequently that he was considering retirement after his rookie year.

And there’s more: Wilt scored 60 or more points 32 times (by comparison, Michael Jordan did it five times) and owns five of the top six and 20 of the 30 scoring games in NBA history, and 25 of the top 45 rebounding totals. During his first 10 seasons, Wilt never averaged less than 21 rpg. For his entire career, he averaged 30.1 ppg and 22.9 rpg. For most players 30 and 20 is a career game—Wilt averaged it over 14 years. In his final season, ’72-’73, he shot a career-best 73 percent from the field. If he could have matched it from the free throw line—Chamberlain’s career 51 percent foul shooting was his only weak spot—his numbers would have been all that more remarkable. “He would have scored 65 a night if he could have made free throws,” notes former Knicks’ center Willis Reed.

The Dipper also set a record for rebounds in a game—55—and he did it against Russell, his great rival and the greatest defensive center in NBA history. Not that playing Russell was unusual—they met 142 times. The NBA only had nine teams then, and they played each other at least 12 times a season. In other words, Chamberlain matched up against Russell almost weekly and seemingly every year in the Playoffs. Wilt played much of his career in the Eastern Conference at a time when the Russell-led Celtics were in the midst of the greatest winning streak in moderns sports history Boston knocked Wit’s squad out in the Eastern Conference Finals five times. He lost twice more to Russell and the Celtics in the Finals.

In a statement released after Wilt’s death, Russell said, “We didn’t have a rivalry; we had a genuinely fierce competition that was based on friendship and respect. The fierceness of the competition bonded us as friends for eternity. We just loved playing against each other. Because his talents and skills were superhuman, his play forced me to play at my highest level. If I didn’t, I’d risk embarrassment, and our team would likely lose.”

Some have suggested that Wilt was not the greatest player even because he only won two titles, as opposed to Jordan’s six. This is simply unfair. If it weren’t for the Celtics’ dynasty, Wilt likely would have ended up with nine rings. Jordan had no true rival. If you think this is an unfair comparison, consider this: How many titles would Larry Bird (three) and Magic Johnson (five) had won if they hadn’t had to deal with each other? And Wilt’s two championship teams, the ’66-67 Sixers and ’71-72 Lakers, both rank in the top-10 of all-time great squads.

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  • http://www.slamonline.com blackvictory23

    great article on the greatest center of all time

  • http://gmail.com z

    Ohhhh!! I remember reading this article shortly after wilt died and especially liking that alan said “we loved you, wilt.” I wish wilt coulda heard that more while he was alive. I loved this whole issue (had cwebb and whit eboy on the cover at the height of jwill’s popularity) and then wilt. Man…the mag itself was waaay better back then (understandable why that is, as the mag adjusts to a changing business, becomes more main$tream, etc), but that whole season- 2000- had nothing but great writing in slam

  • http://slamonline.com LakeShow

    Geez, No matter ho many times I read those stats… gaudy …

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    The GOAT of basketball, period.

  • Zabbah

    “And Wilt’s two championship teams, the ’66-67 Sixers and ’71-72 Lakers, both rank in the top-10 of all-time great squads.” a matter of opinion.

  • Hobbes

    After reading this, Wilt > Jordan.

  • Björn Atli

    Bill Russell led Celtics teams owned Wilt more often than not in the finals though.

  • Jody

    Jordan will always be GOAT nuff said

  • Nella

    @ Hobbes

    Are you crazy? “After reading this…” Then I guess your knowledge isn’t that great. I’m not saying Wilt wasn’t a great basketball player, but he wasn’t a winner. He was physically superior to everyone around him. It’s a well known fact that he was a stats whore. Case in point: he NEVER fouled out. Centers SHOULD foul out once in a while. He thought if he fouled out he couldn’t get more stats, thats why opposing teams knew they could go after him in crunch time, because he wouldn’t fight back. Read the chapter in the Book of Basketball on Russell vs. Wilt. It’s eye-opening. Simmons is a Celtics homer, but that chapter speaks volumes on what it takes to be a winner vs. someone who is just dominant.

  • http://sportsnickel.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/silvastpierre.jpg Jukai

    Nella: In fairness, Wilt is a lot like Shaq. Wilt should have been insane, incredible, legendary, undeniable. He had superb physical tools for TODAY’S league, and he played in the 60s. He had great talent in all departments but free throw shooting.
    But he didn’t care as much about winning. And he half the time didn’t care about being a good teammate.
    It’s hard to consider Wilt GOAT when you knew by drafting him, he wanted to look good with his insane talent more than winning.
    That being said, the Russell on Wilt chapter is kind of BS.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    The Bill-Russell-led Celtics are the greatest dynasty in basketball history.
    People act like Wilt wasn’t a winner. 2 chips is nothing to sneeze at. Larry *only* won three. Big O *only* won one.
    Wilt won 2, while being the most dominating individual player the league has ever seen by a long shot.
    Wilt is the GOAT of basketball. If not the GOAT, then the “best” for sure.

  • http://slamonline.com LakeShow

    ^Not to me. He is the greatest of the early era. Shaq has him by a margin imo at the center spot overall. MJ is GOAT. If Money wanted to he could have averaged over 40 easy. That’s coming from a guard which would be much more impressive than a dominating center averaging 50 in the 60′s. What Wilt did was incredible and he should be placed in the top 10 of everyones list. It’s arguable that KAJ, and Bill Russell were both better than him though. Thats just the Center spot that there are 3 other guys that could lay claim to being “better” than Wilt. He is by far the greatest statistical player ever, but that doesn’t equate to GOAT.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Slick Ric

    Always been a huge Wilt the stilt fan. I would say he is the greatest of all time but my love for the Bulls wont let me do that.

  • http://gmail.com z

    Yea I’ve always been a huge fan of wilt, always felt bad for him getting killed by the press and fans for losing to russ so often, and always have felt he was MDE, but in terms of skill, I think jordan’s the best ever. Maybe kob, but the goat debate is about more than just skill, so kobe falls short. But wilt, I’ve always felt was the MDE, and indisputably a better player than russ. Better teammate? Not even close, but waaaay better player, and I get sick of celtic homers (like simmons) trying to skew the argument so as to minimize the fact that russ was really a mediocre individual player offensively (apart from his outlet passing). The most russ ever averaged was 18 a night. Wilt didn’t go below that average until about his 13th season.

  • Fritz

    Check out YouTube clip called wilt can’t jump…. Where he goes to the top of the backblard to block a shot… VERTICAL LEAP
    The media crowned Jordan and people believed it. But the facts are Chamberlain was greater at scoring, rebounding, and defense.
    Flat statement from a gray haired old man who saw them all. Nobody ever came close to Wilt Chamberlain.

  • Jimmy Ray

    That’s all well and good when you play in a league where your 2nd biggest player is 6’9″ and a little over 200 pounds. I am not sure Wilt would have fared even half as well trying to battle for rebounds against the likes of Shaq, the Admiral, Ewing, the Mailman, and other big men who rival his size and strength. Wilt was a giant back then, and his competition was very small when compared to the basketball players of today. How would Wilt play every night against another player who was close to his size and strength. How would he perform against Dwight Howard or Ben Wallace, or even Alonzo Mourning. I’m sure he would have struggled, or at least he wouldn’t have appeared so superhuman.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    @ Jimmy Ray: http://wiltfan.tripod.com/faq.html#bigger
    Visit this website to see all your myths answered and refuted.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    @ Zabbah: Ummm, no, actually it’s not a matter of opinion. Wilt’s championship Sixers team went 68-13 that year, and started the season 46-4. So… yeah. If your opinion is that they WEREN’T one of the greatest teams ever, then your opinion is just false.

  • http://itsahardwoodlife.blogspot.com omphalos

    I get a little frustrated that people harp on about “50ppg a season” when at the end of the day Jordan and Wilt had the same career ppg average, and Jordan’s would have been higher if he hadn’t come back with the Wizards. This was a great article, but it illustrates how overmatched the competition were physically more than anything else. He simply wouldn’t be able to dunk every time down against today’s sized Cs like he could back then. With Wilt it was never a question that he could dominate the competition, he’s probably the most physically gifted 7 footer of all time, and the fact that he couldn’t hit his free throws speaks to his ability to play a complete game. I know he wouldn’t have needed to shoot a lot of jumpers because it would have been ineffective, but he should have learned to consistently knock down FTs with the amount of times he got hacked. Shaq, Wilt and Dwight all have this weakness which held/holds them back. I will restate that this was a great article though.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    ^ Wilt COULD shoot jumpers. Just because a big man can’t shoot free throws doesn’t mean he isn’t skilled–comparing Wilt to Dwight Howard offensively is almost an insult. Wilt had more skill than both Dwight AND Shaq.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    Also, Wilt played against Hall of Fame-caliber centers. Today’s league has Dwight Howard. That’s it. I’m not sure why people even talk about today’s game like the centers are so highly evolved. Not one center last season averaged over 20 ppg other than Dwight Howard, so we can stop the myths already.
    If shot-blocking had been a recorded stat back then, Wilt Chamberlain would probably be the greatest shotblocker of all time too. What’s more, he once led the league in total assists (and 8.6 per game). How exactly did he not play a complete game? Because he couldn’t hit free throws?
    Tim Duncan has had atrocious free throw shooting too. Is he not a complete player?

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    Good point about career ppg, though. Mike also played 1 more season than Chamberlain.

  • http://gmail.com z

    Teddy the bear droppin knowledge baby! I’m always astonished when I can view some footage of wilt as a young player. That kinda athleticism is timeless, I truly think he could avg around 25-30 ppg, 12-15 rpg and 3 blocks if he could play in todays league as a 25 year old. The ultimate example of an athlete ahead of his time.

  • Anon

    I like how nobody ever mentions Wilt along with MJ having the highest career scoring average. Everybody just give it to MJ though.

  • IrishPaul

    Old school articles irk me sometimes. Does anybody, In there right mind that is, actually think that Wilt would average those numbers In today’s NBA?

  • http://itsahardwoodlife.blogspot.com omphalos

    Hold up, Wilt played against ONE Hall of Fame-caliber C, and he had a four inch height advantage on him too. I agree that Dwight is nothing on Wilt, but Shaq at least played against quality Cs in Olajuwan, Ewing etc and was similarly dominant offensively when you factor in the quality of competition. When I say complete game, I mean from a skills standpoint, yes he could pass and get assists, but when you’re getting triple-teamed by almost every team and can see so easily over the D it really wouldn’t be that hard. As far as the greatest shot-blocker of all time, he was one of the first shot-blockers, IF it had been recorded it would have been inflated because today’s generation of little guys and even bigs have adapted to the notion of shot-blocking and changed the ways they scored, whereas for Wilt’s opponents it would have been new and seeming unbeatable. It’s just too hard for me to favour Wilt over Jordan when he had only one player who could come close to matching his physical attributes, and that player gave him trouble when they played. Bear in mind, I’m not just trying to tear down Wilt, but people need to recognise the advantages he had that Jordan didn’t and why that makes his success and ability that much greater.

  • Fritz

    Dave Cowens, Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Dolph Schayes, Bill Russell, Walt Bellamy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier, Nate Thurmond are all Hall of Fame centers that Chamberlain faced.

    And he didn’t play them once or twice a year, either. In a ten team league he faced a HoF center at least 40 games out of 82. Shaq for example played against a HoF center about 12-15 games a year often including the playoffs too.

    People confuse the differences in the game with “they didn’t know how to play back then.” The pace of the league increased 5ppg from Chamberlain’s rookie year – everyone was suddenly forced to keep up with a 7′ pentathlete, one of the 3 or 4 greatest athletes in the history of sport.

  • http://itsahardwoodlife.blogspot.com omphalos

    @Fritz: Of those players you mentioned the majority were at least 8 years younger than him so would only have been a problem later on in his career, Dolph was 8 years older than him. The only player you mentioned who matched him more or less in age was Bill Russell, who was only two years older than him.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    @ omphalos: Who were the “quality centers” Shaq played against in his Laker days when he finally started winning? Vlade Divac and a near-retired David Robinson? Aaron Williams of the New Jersey Nets? Ben Wallace? Oh wait, the Pistons won.
    Maybe Mount Mutombo–but that’s it.

  • Fritz

    Thurmond 62, Reed 64, Russell 57, Unseld 68, Bellamy ’62…. Cowens and Jabbar 3 and 4 years, wilt was a Laker on a wrecked knee but still led the league in rebounding every year… Better try harder

  • Fritz

    Oh and by the way guys that say Chamberlain couldn’t dominate today’s centers you better watch this clip from YouTube. Wilt Chamberlain vertical leap to the top of the backboard in a game.

    http://m.youtube.com/#/home?bmb=1

  • Fritz

    Can’t figure out phone …. Lol YouTube search v=3BKEgX5E_E4

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