Wilt Chamberlain: The Greatest Player Of All Time Nov.19, 2012

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.

4 thoughts on “Wilt Chamberlain: The Greatest Player Of All Time Nov.19, 2012

  1. Finally, do you think the rule changes in NBA today compared to the physicality of the past would hinder Wilts effectiveness to take over a game. Similar to what happened to Shaq late in his career the physical plays that big men are allowed to get away with made him almost a non-factor. Do you think Wilt would be in foul trouble a lot and what do you think would be his numbers if he were in the league this year?

    1. How would Wilt do today? He’d be tremendous, the best center in the league that’s what. Why would he be a dominant center? Just look at the centers in the NBA today. Who are the dominant centers. Dwight Howard is generally considered to be the best center, a sentiment I agree with. Why is Howard the best? For one thing, he’s got the best combination of athletic ability and skills. In Wilt you have someone who is longer than Howard and could match or exceed him in athletic ability. Skillwise, Howard might shoot better (Wilt’s shooting skills diminished as he got older and stronger and injuries robbed him of some of his mobility i.e. quickness). But even the older Wilt who was approaching 36 when he won his second title with the Lakers was still a formidable defensive player and rebounder who could score when needed. In today’s NBA Wilt would still be the best physical specimen. The only other player I’ve seen who approached or equaled Wilt in that area was Shaquille O’Neal. But even O’Neal could not run as fast or jump as high as Wilt. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal’s best rebounding year never equaled Wilt’s worst. Wilt’s last year in the league approaching 37 he averaged over 18 rbds. a game. That was his worst average. KAJ’s best year he averaged 16.9. If we’re talking about the younger Wilt who averaged 50 pts a game in today’s game, we’re talking about a very fast, strong, determined player who could beat most other players down court. Remember even though today the big men are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than when Wilt averaged 50, Wilt was playing Russell eight times a year and had a lot of big scoring nights against him. Russell would be a tremendous defensive center today. But he couldn’t stop Wilt. When Wilt got the ball, he had a very quick, long step into the lane. He’s 7-2 with tremendous reach, strength, and leaping ability. Howard (and maybe Bynum) is the only center who could compare with Wilt in the physical areas, but he still falls short of Wilt. Plus Wilt was a very smart player and NEVER!!! fouled out of an NBA game. And he played aggressively. He went for and blocked a lot of shots. But he knew his limits, and he knew he was no good to his team sitting on the bench. In short, his focus was great..he didn’t take himself out of the game with stupid fouls. He also led the league in assists one year. No center has ever done that before or since. Will Howard ever do that? Not likely. So we’re talking about an elite physical specimen who had great desire, intelligence, and the skills to implement those desires.

  2. Was Wilt ever measured in the physical tests that players today are measured on such as wingspan, standing reach, vertical jump, etc? I have no doubt that he would have the athleticism to come into the league today and be the best center but there are matchups that I would like to see how he would fare. My biggest would definitely be him against Shaq. Just because Shaq has the sheer size and athleticism unlike anything I have ever seen. Do you thing Wilt would dominate that matchup or do you think it would be more even?

    1. Hey Sam, when Wilt came out of college they didn’t have anything like what they have today as far as predraft physicals and whatnot. Basically, scouts had to go see the players for themselves and make determinations. Wilt was measured for a number of physical attributes like height and weight in college. There’s even a photo of him showing his wingspan. But nothing like what pro prospects go through today. There were no exhaustive workouts and other things that prospects go through now. There’s a story about one pro team in the old American Basketball Association in the sixties selecting college players from a basketball magazine. But Wilt was seen so often by pro scouts and scrimmaged against so many pro and college players before he turned pro that everybody knew who he was and what he could do. You only had to see Wilt play a few times in college to see what he could do. When he was just a high school player, he used to play against pros and kill most of them.
      How would he do against O’Neal? Of all the players that Wilt might face, O’Neal might give him the most problems. Again, that depends on the Wilt we’re talking about. As I mentioned in my column about Wilt, the older Wilt that is most often seen in clips was much heavier and stronger than the younger Wilt. But not nearly as quick. He also had undergone a severe knee injury in 1969 that robbed him of some mobility. That Wilt could keep up with O’Neal strength-wise, but I think O’Neal would be the more potent force, especially on offense. The Wilt who won his first championship in 1967 with the Seventysixers was probably the Wilt’s best mix of athletic ability and strength. That’s the Wilt that would stack up the best against O’Neal physical as far as attributes. It would be fairly even, but I like Wilt’s all-around game better than I do O’Neal’s.
      Let’s talk about Wilt and the KAJ who many bb experts think is the greatest player of all time. When Wilt played head-to-head against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it was obvious that AJ was a better scorer. In fact, he played his hardest against Wilt and had a number of great games against him. One time he had 39 pts and 20 rbds in the game where the Bucks broke the Lakers’s 33 game winning streak in 1972. But Wilt, who was more than ten years older, slowed by injuries, and near the end of his career, still played AJ about even in the 1971 playoffs. And he almost always outrebounded AJ. Even when Wilt’s last year, no one in the league could rebound like he could. But head to head against O’Neal, for sure O’Neal would get his points. But again the 1967 Wilt, though stronger, was not quite as fast or quick as the Wilt who scored 100 points in a game in 1962. But he was still very fast and very athletic. Wilt was also a superior passer to O’Neal and not as likely to foul out. He never fouled out against AJ (or anyone else) even though the games when AJ was scoring on him. Of course, AJ used quickness, length (he was an inch or two taller than Wilt), and skill. O’Neal was exceptionally agile for a guy that big and muscular, and he’d get his points. But then he’d have a tough time guarding the younger Wilt and keeping up with him. Remember Wilt’s stamina was tremendous. But like I said in another column, you can make great points for all three being the GOAT. I just think that Wilt’s all-around game and bb IQ made him the greatest. I still prefer the younger Wilt. That Wilt, though not as strong as O’Neal, was faster and would be a severe chore for O’Neal to guard. But Wilt would not be strong enough to stop O’Neal inside. So statwise, it might be a tradeoff. I’ll reiterate, as he got older, Wilt hit the weights and got a lot stronger. But he lost some skills and mobility. Nevertheless, until he retired he was always the best rebounder by far and still retained his incredible stamina. That last attribute of Wilt’s is the one that people forget about but the one that might give him the edge over for O’Neal and KAJ. He could play long, smart, and hard for over 40 minutes a game. O’Neal appeared to be declining in his later years. I know players were bigger and more athletic during O’Neal’s years, but it didn’t seem he put a lot of effort into staying in shape his last five years. Wilt was still the leagues’s best rebounder his last year as he approached 37. And he could have been the best into his forties he stayed in such good shape.

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