Original Old School: Alone at the Top

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.