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.

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.”

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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