Wilt Chamberlain: An American Original

by March 01, 2012

by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad

Wilt Chamberlain will be forever connected to two numbers: 100 and 20,000. One hundred for his performance in Hershey, PA, on the night of March 2, 1962 and the second for his famous sexual conquests. In a sense, these two numbers fit Wilt perfectly—he was a larger than life figure who did everything in mammoth proportions. But, 100 and 20,000 also serve as a disservice to the legacy of the Dipper and diminish his overall accomplishment and contributions to the game of basketball.

Standing at a chiseled 7-1 and weighing 260 pounds, Wilt Chamberlain was the prototypical NBA center. It was as if a mad scientist built a superhuman in his lab to wreak havoc on the hardwood. His stature and athletic ability cannot go unnoticed; Wilt, in his prime, was undoubtedly one of the greatest pure athletes to ever grace the Earth.  “The young Dipper at 7-1, 260 pounds,” begins Gary Pomerantz, author of the highly recommended book Wilt, 1962, “a decathlete, a basketball scorer of unprecedented skill may have been the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century. If not, he deserves to be in the conversation along the likes of Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown amongst others. He was a remarkable physical specimen…He ran the floor like a train, he covered eight feet of hardwood with each elongated stride…Wilt’s body was a miracle.”

Wilt single handedly changed the game of basketball. Physically and stylistically, he was a revolutionary figure. Never before had the League seen a player who was so imposing physically and so gifted athletically. He transformed the game at a time when the NBA needed it most.

Prior to Wilt’s entrance into the Association, basketball had become stale, fans had lost interest and they needed a spark to reignite curiosity: Enter the Dipper. “When he entered the game in ’59, it was still pretty much a feet on the floor, horizontal game,” says Pomerantz. “Wilt took the game above the rim and made it uniquely his…Wilt became the must see main act. Oscar Robertson has said, and I would agree, that ‘Wilt single handedly saved the League.’ People wanted to see the man who scored 100 points in a game. Physically, aesthetically, he was worth seeing…When Wilt got there (to the League), they were still playing in high school gyms. He was the guy who would transform it.”

Wilt was a larger than life figure; a man who was talked about as if he was mythological figure—something straight out of The Odyssey. “I interviewed a number of players who played against the young Wilt Chamberlain,” begins Pomerantz, “and they spoke of him with a hushed reverence. It was almost as if, I would imagine, what it would be like interviewing the Plains Indians about their first sighting of the locomotive. He was that unprecedented physically for his time.”

Despite being 7-1, he felt the need to prove he was even bigger than that. He was the first basketball player to achieve celebrity status; Wilt was recognized everywhere he went and lived a lavish lifestyle. “Wilt was unabashedly and unapologetically the ‘Dipper,’” says Pomerantz. “He was a celebrity of the highest order. At 25, he owned a racehorse, which never won. He co-owned a Harlem nightclub named, ‘Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise’…He lived in an oriental motif apartment off of Central Park in New York and commuted to Philadelphia for games—Philly wasn’t big enough for Wilt.”

Both on and off the court Wilt was in a league of his own, he did things his own way and paid no attention to the societal norms of the day. “He had goliath like skills on the court and goliath like appetites off the basketball court,” Pomerantz continues. “He drove fancy cars, he dated White women, if discreetly—this at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 states. Night after night, he dropped 50 or 60 or 78, even a 100 once on the best White players in the League. He made $75,000 a year, more than any other NBA player…This was a different time and it was Wilt’s time.”

Due to the tumultuous state of race relations during Wilt’s first years in the League, he was completely removed from his teammates—most of whom were White. “The truth of the matter was Wilt’s teammates barely knew him,” says Pomerantz. “They were disquieted by his presence, some of them in terms of racial prejudice and others because, I think, of ego. It was as if when Wilt was in the locker room, they weren’t. When Wilt was on the floor, they weren’t It was a hard pill for them to swallow.”

Despite his stature and influence, he surprisingly did not embrace a leadership role in the Civil Rights movement. “He said in 1960, ‘I’m no Jackie Robinson. Some people are meant to be that way and others aren’t,’” reports Pomerantz. Wilt’s decision to stay far removed from the Civil Rights Movement was heavily scrutinized by both players and leading activists. But, Chamberlain remained true to himself and instead let his play on the court do the talking.

Wilt may have taken a backseat when it came to Civil Rights issues off the court, but on the hardwood, he was breaking barriers and evolving the game into its current landscape. “When Wilt entered the League in ’59, it was still largely a White man’s enclave,” explains Pomerantz. “There was a quota amongst the owners that limited the amount of Black players. By ’62, it was three or four per team…In ’62, Wilt’s third season, when averaged 50 points per game against the League’s best White players and threw down that 100-point thunderbolt against the Knicks, he was symbolically blowing the quota to bits.” Though it may have not been realized at the time, Wilt’s sheer domination of his white counterparts during the ’62 season was, in fact, a groundbreaking performance and a key part in the transformation of the NBA which Wilt was pioneering.