Original Old School: Alone at the Top
Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game of basketball like nobody before or since his time.
“Man, I think it’s crazy that anyone could doubt Wilt being the best player ever,” says Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Clyde played against Chamberlain as a guard for the Knicks and has watched another generation of players as his former team’s televisions commentator. “Wilt has all the records for one thing and that means something.”
But neither, Frazier adds, do they tell the full story. As great as the numbers are, it wasn’t just numbers. Wilt was just so incredibly dominant. You could not guard him straight-up. Only one player in the League could that—Russell. Everyone else had to rely on double or even triple teams.
Recalls Reed, himself a member of the Hall of Fame, “You couldn’t stop him. He had a 12-foot lean and he’d just fade away and still be at the basket. And he had the finger roll. My first game against Wilt went into overtime. I looked at the scoresheet afterwards and saw that I had 31 and I thought, ‘This is unreal. I scored 31 on Wilt Chamberlain.’ Then I saw that he had 56 on me. He was big, strong and very physical.”
Don Chaney, a rookie on the ’69 Celtics team that beat Chamberlain’s Lakers for the title and now a Knicks assistant, agrees with Frazier and Reed that Wilt was unstoppable one on one. “And he was just so incredibly strong,” recalls Chaney. “I’ll always remember him going up to dunk with two guys draped around his back. They were trying to wrap him up, to prevent him from scoring (but) he just slammed with them draped across him.”
Hornets’ coach Paul Silas, a rugged frontcourt rival of Chamberlain’s during his playing days, also recalls Wilt’s strength with awe. “One game I was about to get into a scrape with (Lakers forward) Happy Hairston,” Silas remembers. “All of a sudden, I felt an enormous vice grip around me. I was 6-7, 235, and Wilt just picked me up and turned me around. He said, ‘Were not going to have any of that stuff.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Wilt actually attributed much of his success to his strength, which he said he developed in high school competing in track and field. “I was a shot putter in high school and college, “ Chamberlain told the NBA in a ’96 interview. “I was becoming strong. I was always a skinny, skinny kid and I could jump to the moon, I could run as fast as the wind, but I wanted to be strong.”
But as strong as he became, Wilt’s great agility and quickness are often forgotten; as he noted, he even competed in track events at Kansas, tying for first in the high jump at the ’58 Big Eight Championships. Most of the film we see of him is from the Lakers days, after he had knee problems. That Wilt is still a marvel to behold, but according to all who played with and against him, in his earlier days, he could run the floor with the best of them.
“I never saw anyone his size who could run and do the things the way he did,” Elgin Baylor told the Associated Press. “He was able to make plays a small man could make, even while dominating the game.”
“Wilt wasn’t some immobile center,” adds Frazier. “And remember, he played for the Globetrotters for a year and he had some of that flash and panache.”
Chamberlain played for the Harlem Globetrotters after deciding to leave the University of Kansas following his junior year; the NBA at the time forbade anyone from playing before their class had graduated. “ I left college a year early because they used stall tactics, “ Wilt said. “They knew the only way to stop me from scoring and getting rebounds was to just not shoot the ball. I wanted to play in the pro game, which seemed more suited to me, and where they didn’t play zone defense. Since I couldn’t play in the NBA right away, I joined the Globetrotters—and had so much fun. I didn’t want to leave.”
Wilt scored 52 in his college debut, but his most famous college moment was a heartbreaker; losing the NCAA title game to North Carolina 54-53 in three overtimes his sophomore season. He had 23 points and 14 rebounds, but the loss haunted him for years and he turned down countless overtures to be honored by the school. Forty years later, he finally returned to Kansas to have his number retired. He feared being booed, but instead received a standing ovation. Wiping away tears, he called it the finest night of his life, a far cry from the bitterness that enshrouded him upon departing early.
After a year with the Globetrotters, Wilt’s pre-determined professional future began. The NBA had allowed the Philadelphia Warriors to claim him as a territorial pick, since he was a Philly native (such picks had always applied strictly to college location before), so Chamberlain went to his hometown team and immediately became an overpowering presence. He averaged 37.6 ppg and 27 rpg in his first season and was named Rookie of the Year, MVP and All-Star Game MVP. He was unstoppable, and he reveled in the fact.
“That is something that I really loved,” he once said. “I loved the fact that no one could really block my shot. When you have no fear, it’s just going to make you much better at what you’re doing.”
It all came together in stupendous fashion on March 2, ’62, in Hershey, PA, when Wilt dropped 100 points on a stunned Knicks’ team. He had 69 after three periods and became the sole focus of the game; the Warriors intent on feeding him until he hit the century mark, the Knicks equally intent on stopping him. They stalled as much as the shot clock would allow and even fouled other Philly players, but with 42 seconds left, Chamberlain power-dunked his 99th and 100th points of the night. He shot 28 for 32 from the line, and 36 of 63 from the field.