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.

“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.

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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.


  • Fritz

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