Much as been written about Wilt Chamberlain and his records.. a lot of it negative. A common trope used about Wilt was that he “was larger than life.” I’ve read four or five books about Wilt, including two written by him, saw him numerous times on tv when he was still playing, and watched many of his clips on the internet numerous times as well.
Chamberlain set scoring and rebounding records that likely will never be broken. 50 points a game in one season. 27.2 rebounds average for one season. 100 points in one game, 55 rebounds in one game. He made headlines in a time when the NBA was looking for its space in the consciousness of the sports world. If few Americans could name a pro basketball player, they knew who Wilt was. Wilt the Stilt ( a nickname he hated) was known nationally and internationally.
What is amazing to me and a fact not often mentioned by sportswriters is that there were actually two Wilt Chamberlains: the youthful, less muscular Wilt of the high school, college, and early NBA days, and the Wilt who put on a lot of extra muscle in his late twenties and early thirties. Both versions of Wilt were dominant. But most people who’ve seen Wilt only saw the older Wilt, the Wilt who was a lot stronger but not as quick or dangerous offensively as the younger Wilt. People thought his teams should win every game and every championship. When his he had tremendous scoring feats but his teams still didn’t win championships, he was heavily criticized.
I never saw Wilt play in college on tv. They rarely broadcast college games in the fifties. I did watch Big Ten games in the early sixties, but not even the NCAA Final Four was broadcast nationally. In fact, I didn’t see a broadcast of a Final Four game until 1969 when the then Lew Alcindor aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to a title over Purdue. And only the championship game. There were college games broadcast in the sixties, and I saw many Big Ten games on the tube. But college basketball still had not arrived as one of the country’s major sports spectacles.
But everyone knew who Wilt Chamberlain was. He became famous in high school in Philadelphia, and went on to Kansas where he almost led his team to the national championship his sophomore year 1957. Kansas lost to North Carolina in triple overtime. (Even today some ex-N.C. ballplayers admit Kansas was the superior team and that if they played ten games, Kansas would win nine.) In those days freshmen could not play varsity ball. Wilt would have easily dominated college ball as a freshmen. In fact he could have been a star in the pros right out of high school.
Why was Wilt so dominant? He was 7’2 with a huge wingspan, great vertical leap, tremendous speed and coordination, and he had a killer desire to dominate. In the early seventies I finally managed to see clips of Wilt at Kansas. What I saw stunned me. The Wilt I saw on tv in the late sixties and early seventies was a very muscular, physically imposing specimen who scored most of his points on dunks and his famous finger roll. Abdul-Jabbar had overtaken Wilt as a dominant scorer and had a number of big scoring games against Wilt. Wilt could still get his points, but he rarely looked to score as he neared retirement, and while still a very dominant defensive player and rebounder, he looked somewhat clunky trying to shoot. He didn’t look like a player who at one time averaged 50 points a game in one season and set numerous scoring records.
But the Wilt from the clips I saw from his college days showed a completely different player. The younger, skinnier Wilt had a good-looking jump shot, a hook shot, and could race down the floor handling the ball like a guard. The only shots outside the lane I saw Wilt take later in his career was his famous fadeaway which he rarely made. So what happened? Why did the Wilt near the end of his career look so much different than the younger Wilt?
The only conclusion I can come to is that as Wilt hit the weights and became progressively stronger, he lost a lot of the finesse that enabled him to score all those points. When Wilt entered the league for the 1959-60 season he weighed about 250 pounds. When he retired he weighed around 300 pounds, all of it muscle. So while the older, more muscular Wilt still remained a great rebounder and a formidable defensive player, he lost some quickness, finesse, and his scoring touch. Wilt could still have averaged 20 ppg if he wanted to, but the added muscle had taken away a great deal of his offensive game.
You can still watch a number virtually complete games of Wilt’s college days on the internet. And you can see games from Wilt’s later years in the NBA. But there’s virtually no complete games from Wilt’s early pro career which would be fascinating to watch. I saw Wilt on tv in the early sixties but I didn’t understand much of the game and had no capacity to tell what was a good play and what was a bad play. I did see Wilt’s Sixers when they defeated the Celtics in the semis in 1967. That Sixers team is said by many experts to be one of the greatest in league history. Some, including Wilt when he was alive, said it was the greatest.
The Wilt who was chiefly responsible for stopping the Celtics reign of terror might have been the best version of Wilt. He still moved extremely well on offense despite not having a jump shot anymore, and his defense was dominating. No records of blocked shots were kept when Wilt or Bill Russell played, but undoubtedly both must have had numerous seasons where they averaged 10 blocks per game. But by that time, Wilt never took a regular jump shot or hook shot. He’d make an occasional fadewaway, but most of his points came on dunks, putbacks, or his fingeroll. He was never a good foul shooter …in fact mostly very bad. But he did shoot around 60% a few years.
And here’s another interesting thing about Wilt that because certain records like blocked shots or steals were not kept makes Wilt probably the undisputed, unofficial record holder for quadruple doubles. In 1968 Wilt led the league in assists with 8.6 per. That means he must have had numerous games with 10 or more a game.. He averaged double figures in points and rebounds every year he was in the league. He not only has most of the scoring records, he has most of the rebounding records including most in one game (55) and best career rebound season average. And he certainly had numerous games where he blocked 10 or more shots in a game. One person unofficially charted Wilt’s blocked shots in one game and arrived at a figure close to 30.
So given the fact that he led the league and assists and unofficial blocked shots, Wilt must be the NBA’s greatest quadruple champion. (The only player I can think of who might have rivaled Wilt in quadruple doubles was Jerry West. West was such a prolific ball thief and excellent rebounder for a guard, he probably had more than a few games where he had double figures in points, assists, rebounds, and steals. But I’ll discuss West in another column along with other NBA greats from the sixties.)
In the early sixties other than Russell, there was simply no center able to stop Wilt from doing what he wanted. Even head to head against Russell Wilt usually dominated in the stats battle. However Russell’s team, the Celtics, usually won the game. Because Russell’s Celtics were almost always a better team than Wilt’s teams, something even Wilt admitted. And sometimes Russel outplayed Chamberlain even though he didn’t beat Wilt scoring-wise. But I’ll repeat something I wrote about in a previous column.
In Wilt’s rookie year his team, the Philadelphia Warriors, took the Celtics to a six game playoff in the semis losing the sixth and final game by two points. In that series Wilt had games of 50 and 42 points and averaged over 30 a game for the series going toe to toe with Russell. Wilt almost always outscored and outrebounded Russell. But he simply did not have the players Russell had until Wilt’s Sixers teams of the mid to late sixties. And unfortunately that team, which won the title in ’67, was beset by injuries to key players the next year during the playoffs and lost to the Celtics in the semis after leading three games to one.
It was around that time that Wilt started getting tagged with pejorative of being a loser. Someone who had great stats but who couldn’t win the big game. And to be sure, there were games where Russell outplayed Wilt despite being outscored. But the knock on Wilt as a loser is an unfair one. Coming out of college he was expected to dominate the pros and win the championship for his team every year. Wilt’s teams did end up winning two titles. Wilt’s various teams did play in a total of six finals winning twice. But Wilt and his teams were just not lucky some of those years,.
In the ’65 semis the Sixers were behind the Celtics by one point with just a few seconds left to play. The Celtics had the ball under the Sixers basket, Russell was inbounding the ball. He threw the ball and it hit a guywire giving the ball back to the Sixers with no time lost off the clock. A lot of people expected the ball to be lobbed in to Chamberlain or Chet Walker where the Sixers had a great chance of scoring or at least being fouled. Things looked bad for the Celts. Instead the Sixers tried to pass the ball to Hal Greer. The ball was intercepted by John Havlicek who knocked the ball away to Sam Jones of the Celts, and Boston survived to win the finals.
The ’68 season was another example of bad luck for the Sixers.. The Sixers were definitely the best team in the league that year, but were hit with injuries to key players during the latter course of the season and during the playoffs. Star sixth man and future HOFer Billy Cunningham broke his wrist and didn’t play against the Celts. Other key players like starters Luke Jackson and Chet Walker also suffered injuries. It’s trite to say it’s best to have your best players on the floor if you want to win, but the Sixers just didn’t have that luck.
After the ’68 season, and despite being labeled the greatest NBA team ever, the Sixers were broken up and Wilt went to L.A. There again Wilt had bad luck. Despite what many people felt was the better team, the Lakers lost to Boston in a seven game final series by two points in the last game. In the fourth quarter Chamberlain appeared to hurt his leg and had to leave the game limping off the court. Later on during the quarter he asked to be put back in the game. The coach, Butch Van Breda Kolff (who had a running feud with Wilt), refused to put him back in the game. The Lakers lost and afterwards West was upset that the coach refused to put the greatest player in NBA history back in the game.
In the early part of the ’69-70 season Wilt did come down with a serious knee injury forcing him to miss almost the entire season. Wilt worked hard rehabilitating the knee and made it back for the playoffs leading the Lakers to a seven game final with the Knicks. Knicks center Willis Reed himself came down with a leg injury and couldn’t play in the sixth game. In that sixth game Wilt had 45 points and 27 rebounds. Again things looked bad for the Knicks, but Reed limped onto the court and played in the seventh. Even though his impact was minimal, the inspired Knicks blew out the Lakers in the first half leading 69-42 and basically winning the game. What is not generally known is that Jerry West played the game with both thumbs severely bruised. He was clearly outplayed by Walt Frazier who had one of the greatest final games in NBA history with 36 points and 19 assists.
Would a healthy West made a difference? I don’t know, I think it was just the Knicks game that day. Everything they threw up in the first half went in while the Lakers appeared to be disorganized. And remember their HOF center Reed’s contributions were mostly of the inspirational sort as he only scored a few points. It was the Knicks day that day. They could have beaten anybody they were shooting so well.
The next year the Lakers had an excellent team but were missing Jerry West for the playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were the favorites and ended winning the title, but they faced a Lakers team with no Jerry West. The Bucks won in five games despite Wilt playing KAJ almost on even terms.
The next year was finally the Lakers year as they set a consecutive game winning streak with 33 and cruised to the title defeating the Knicks in five games. They had defeated the still powerful Bucks in the semis and crushed the Knicks in the finals. And Wilt played the final game with a broken wrist.
The next year the Lakers lost to the Knicks in the finals but again most of the games were close, and West was beset by injuries. The team with the best record during the regular season was the Celtics. But their main star, John Havlicek, suffered a serious injury in the playoffs against the Knicks, and the Knicks made it to the finals and won.
One thing I’ve discovered after doing a little research is that it seems many times the results of the playoffs have been determined by which team managed to stay healthier than the other teams.
But my point is that there’s no way a player who was the main man on two championship teams, as Wilt did, is a loser. Although Russell’s Celtics are deservedly called the greatest team in league history, they had the good fortune to have their key players available to play when the chips counted. Certainly Russell himself played hurt a number of times and overcame his injuries to lead the Celts to the title.
But if they played the sixties over, I have to believe the Celts wouldn’t have won quite as many titles. I strongly believe on the same teams with the same players Wilt would have won about four or five titles. Certainly if he had joined the Lakers in the early sixties rather than near the end of the decade, the Lakers with Chamberlain, Baylor, and West would have won four or five titles minimum. Russell had two of the best sixties players and future HOFers Havlicek and Sam Jones able to play in all the key sixties playoff games. Not to take anything away from the Celts, but they were very fortunate in the area of avoiding crippling injuries at the wrong time.
Back to Wilt. How do I think Wilt would do today against the bigger by one or two inches and more athletic NBA? He’d dominate that’s what. There’s very few centers in the NBA that could even begin to match Wilt physically. Only Shaquille O’Neal comes close to Wilt in that respect. But Wilt could run faster and jump higher than O’Neal. Strengthwise could be a wash. But Wilt was a smarter player than O’Neal and more skilled. Wilt led the league in assists one year. He also blocked more shots. Wilts worst rebounding year is better than O’Neal’s.
Yes, I hear you saying that O’Neal played in a much bigger more athletic NBA. Actually the height of the average player when O’Neal played is only one inch taller , 6’7, than the average height Wilt’s last year which was 6’6. Wilt’s last season was ’72-73, and he retired close to the age of 37. He still averaged more than 18 rebounds a game. That was about 20 years before the arrival of O’Neal. The league didn’t become that much more larger and athletic over a twenty year span to allow Chamberlain’s records to become lesser in regard to O’Neal’s. Even in his latter years, the youthful KAJ never averaged as many rebounds as Wilt did in his worst years. When Wilt was in his mid-thirties nearing the end of his career and declining physically, he had tremendous battles against the player who many consider the most dominating player ever. Even they played each against each other for four years, Wilt always rebounded KAJ. And Wilt probably still blocked about five shots a game although those records didn’t begin until the year after Wilt retired.
Was O’Neal a great player? Indeed he was…. in the all-time top five. As is KAJ. But neither could match Wilt overall in rebounding and defense. Wilt never averaged less than 18 rebounds a game throughout his career. His last year he averaged 18.6. Neither KAJ or O’Neal averaged as much. KAJ’s best year was 16.9 and O’Neal’s was 13.9 I doubt either blocked as many shots.
What versions of Wilt what I choose: the young Wilt of 50 ppg or the older stronger Wilt who lost a lot of his offense but was tremendously strong and still a great defensive player.? I ‘d probably choose the Wilt who scored 50 ppg. That Wilt would be virtually impossible to guard even today. And he’d still be a great defensive player who would easily lead the league in blocked shots and rebounds as well. While not as muscular as the older Wilt, the young Wilt was still very strong and more athletic. In his younger years Wilt had a very quick step into the lane. But the young Wilt also had a decent jump shot and a good hook shot. With his desire, intelligence, speed, length, quickness, agility, and jumping ability there’s just no way today’s centers would stand a chance trying to stop Wilt. And desire. I can’t omit any reference about Wilt’s abilities without mentioning his incredible stamina. Wilt usually played the full 48 minutes of every game in his early NBA career, and never averaged less than 40 per game even in his last year. And when he joined the Sixers in ’67 changed his game to focus on being the team facilitator on offense rather than just scoring. He still scored in the mid twenties, but his all around game catapulted the Sixers to the championship.
I recently had a conservation with one skeptic on a basketball forum who doubted Wilt could average 20 rebounds today because there are simply not as many shots taken today as there were in Wilt’s time. I told him if Kevin Love, who is an excellent rebounder, can average 15 rebounds, Wilt can certainly equal or better that. And Love doesn’t even approach Wilt’s defensive presence which would make opposing teams take more bad shots as they feared having them blocked by Wilt. More bad shots means more rebounds for Wilt.
Let me state in my fifty years of watching basketball and the NBA, I’ve yet to see a physical specimen like Wilt who combined the intelligence, skills and desire that Wilt had. Are O’Neal and Lebron James in that category of combining strength and tremendous athleticism like Wilt? Yes they are. But if I had to pick one player to start my team today, I’d choose the young Wilt. Anthony Davis is maybe the best prospect to enter the NBA since James. But although he will be an all-time great in my estimation, he’s still might not make his team New Orleans a winner his rookie year. But if you put the rookie Wilt on any of the poor teams in today’s NBA, he’d make them at worst 50-50 or into the playoffs.
Wilt was a sports giant, literally and statswise. Many of his records will likely never be broken. And we will probably never see his physical like again. Too bad Wilt never had any children. It would have been very interesting to see how his children would have been compared to their father. It was not to be. Despite being very fond of women, Wilt never had any children. So we’ll have to remember Wilt from the memories of the people like me who saw him in his prime and still enjoy the old clips of the internet.