Original Old School: Alone at the Top
Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game of basketball like nobody before or since his time.
Twenty-five years later, he shrugged off the achievement, claiming that he could have scored 140 if the Knicks had played him “straight-up.” “As outstanding as it may seem, it’s really a normal thing that I did it,” he said. “You have to remember that I averaged 50 points a game that years. Players that average 16 to 17 usually have at least one game during a season when they score 35. That’s just what I did; I doubled my average.”
Chamberlain also bristled at the concept that a player who scores a lot is automatically selfish. “Lots of people look at scoring as selfish,” he said. “When you go out there and so the things you’re supposed to do, people view you as selfish. They don’t look at you that way if you’re Erick Dickerson or Walter Payton and you’re trying to get as many yards as you can every time you touch the football. But when you’re a scorer in basketball, you get labeled a gunner or a selfish player.”
Wilt laid any such thoughts to rest in ’67, when he and the Sixers finally won a title, beating the Celtics in the Eastern Finals and ending that team’s eight-year title streak. That season, the Dipper played a reduced offensive role. Coach Alex Hannum asked him to score less; his average fell from 33.5 to 24.1 and he didn’t lead the League in scoring for the first time in his career. But he still grabbed the most rebounds, 24.2, and finished third in assists with 7.8.
“Wilt understood and was a very cooperative guy,” Hannum said in ’98. “He realized that he had to spread the wealth around with the talent that we had.”
For his second championship, with the ’72 Lakers, Wilt downplayed his scoring even more, averaging just 14.8 ppg, but at age 35 he still pulled down 19.2 rpg and selflessly played team ball. “He was a great teammate,” Jerry West recalls. “He’s someone I greatly admire and appreciate because he helped me achieve one of my goals—winning a title. We had an incredible working relationship.”
After Chamberlain retired in ’73, he remained physically active, running marathons and playing professional volleyball. Every five years or so, some team talked about bringing him back as a backup center, figuring he could give them 10 better minutes than whoever they had. It never happened, but he continued to play pickup games. Sixers coach Larry Brown once witnessed him take over a Magic Johnson-run game at UCLA featuring in-their-prime pros.
“Magic called a couple of chintzy fouls and a goaltending on Wilt,” then-Bruin coach Brown recalls. “So Wilt said, ‘There will be no more layups in the gym,’ and he blocked every shot after that. That’s the truth, I saw it. He didn’t let one (of Johnson’s) shots get to the rim.”
A then-teenaged Connie Hawkins was part of a similar scene 25 years earlier, in an outdoor game at Harlem’s famed Rucker Pro Tournament.
“My team from Brooklyn had a guy by the name of Jackie Jackson who could really jump,” Hawkins says. “Well, Wilt, used to always have this favorite shot where he would go in. So, we figured out a play. We said we were going to overplay him and let him shoot that fade-away jump shot, then Jackie would come from the other side of the court and trap it on the backboard. We decided we were going to do that.
“It came down, they passed it to Wilt, I overplayed him, he turned around to shoot it, Jackie came from the other side and blocked it. It was like two or three feet above the top of the basket and everybody just went crazy. Everybody as yelling and screaming and we were running around and slapping hands. And this was in the schoolyards, where the projects were, and people were just hollering and screaming and the place was packed. Wilt was just staring at us. He called time-out and everybody was still hollering and screaming, but I was focused on Wilt. He just kept staring.
“After the time-out was over with, Wilt came up with the next 30 shots and they were nothing but dunks. He dunked it every way you could go. One time, he dunked the ball so hard, the ball went through the basket, hit the ground and it went over the 15-foot fence. Somebody went to go get the ball and when the brought the ball back, the basket was still shaking. That’s how strong this guy was. He was just a dominating guy.”
You could interview everybody who ever played against or with Wilt and they’d each have a story this compelling, but perhaps nothing illustrates Wilt’s dominance better than all the rule changes he inspired. In fact, he once explained why he was greater than Jordan by simply saying, “They changed the rules to stop me, and they changed them to help him.” Among the changes: While was at Kansas, the NCAA banned a free throw shooter from the crossing the foul line until the ball hit the rim, to prevent him from leaping forward and dunking his misses; the NBA instituted offensive goaltending to stop Wilt from catching his teammates’ shots and dropping them in; the foul lane was widened to prevent Wilt from posting up close enough to the basket to merely catch, turn and dunk the ball; and lobbing the ball over the backboard on inbounds plays was banned because Wilt could catch such passes and dunk them with impunity.
Who knows what Wilt’s numbers might have been without all those changes? Even with them, his dominance was unsurpassed, a fact which he was only too happy to share. As such, it’s only appropriate to give the last word of Wilt’s tribute to the Dipper himself.
“I say that Wilt Chamberlain was the goliath of his time,” he said several years ago. “He was too big for the game at the time. He had too much arrogance and too many tools.”