Wilt was unprized treasure; Appreciation


No plans have been announced as to where Wilt Chamberlain, who died suddenly yesterday at the age of 63, will be put to rest. But if the basketball legend had his way, his epitaph would read: "Nobody loves Goliath."

In this era of superlatives, when every unusual sports feat is heralded as extraordinary and every clutch basket by Michael Jordan was etched in stone, it is easy to forget how Wilton Norman Chamberlain totally dominated pro basketball in the '60s with both his brute strength and athletic ability.

As the then-Baltimore Bullets beat reporter in 1965, we recall a unique January weekend in which the visiting San Francisco Warriors played the Bullets on consecutive nights at the Civic Center.

The Warriors were a nondescript team with the exception of their gifted 7-foot-1 center and were on their way to posting a 17-63 record. That weekend, the Warriors lost both games. Wilt scored 43 the first night and 53 the next, but hardly raised an eyebrow.

It was expected of a man who in the 1961-62 season averaged a mind-boggling 50.4 points a game, set single-game records of 100 points and 55 rebounds and once converted 35 straight field goals.

A record-breaking distance runner in high school, he boasted the speed to outrun most of the guards in the league.

His records were treated so matter of factly, Wilt soon realized that he was the victim of a double standard. Years later reflecting on his record-breaking 1961-62 season, he said, "When I look back on that year, I can't believe it myself. How many players have scored 50 points in a game? Not many.

"But to average 50 was much too much. If I had to do it over again, I would have settled for maybe 40, because after you average 50, they expect you to average 60."

In his prime, he was Superman, Captain Marvel and the Incredible Hulk packaged in one massive 7-foot-1, 275-pound body.

His strength was astonishing. In the same time frame, the Bullets boasted an economy-sized Atlas in 6-5 forward Gus Johnson, who was making flying stuff shots and breaking backboards long before Julius Erving took flight.

Handling 'Honeycomb'

Once memorable night in Baltimore, Johnson tried his aerial act against Chamberlain. But Wilt caught Johnson in midair on his formidable forearm and tossed him to the floor with the insouciance of an elephant dismissing a gnat. All Johnson got for his effort was a dislocated shoulder.

It only took the NBA Fathers a few years to legislate against Chamberlain, widening the lane in much the same way they tried to minimize George Mikan, pro basketball's first dominant big man.

Chamberlain was forced to develop a fadeaway jump shot and perfect his finger roll. He still averaged more than 33 points his first seven seasons in the NBA.

And he was the centerpiece on a championship team in Philadelphia that posted a 68-13 record in 1966-67 and one in Los Angeles that finished 69-13 in 1971-72. But still the critics labeled him a loser, constantly reminding him how archrival Bill Russell had carried the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 years.

In his defense, Chamberlain told this reporter and anyone else who would listen, "It bothered me because it was a lie. Russell didn't win 11 championships. He played on teams that won 11 championships. Russell had so much help it was unreal. I can't tell you how many times I got Russell in foul trouble, and the Celtics [reserve] Gene Conley guarding me and they'd send Russell to the corner.

"And I can't tell you how many times the Celtics were bailed out by Sam Jones or John Havlicek coming off the bench."

But characteristically, people preferred cutting Wilt down to size. Twice during his stay in Los Angeles, his commitment to winning was questioned.

Sitting out the final

In 1969, the Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Celtics. Sam Jones tied it at 3-3 with a desperation 40-foot shot. But in the final five minutes of the deciding game, Chamberlain sat on the Lakers' bench watching Russell and company win yet another title.

Wilt, who preferred playing 48 minutes a game, had asked out after spraining his knee, but he insisted that after icing the knee, he was prepared to re-enter the game.

"My coach, Bill van Breda Kolff, wouldn't put me back. He wanted to prove to everyone he could win without me, and we lost by two points."

Perhaps even more galling was the seven-game loss to the New York Knicks the following year.

With his captain and center Willis Reed hobbled by a sore knee, Knicks coach Red Holzman employed forwards Dave DeBusschere and Dave Stallworth against an aging Chamberlain. The strategy proved effective, forcing Wilt to run the floor with his quicker rivals.

100-point hoax?

Someone was always tying to diminish his Herculean feats.

In 1980, David Israel, then a Chicago sports columnist, wrote a tongue-in-cheek article suggesting that Chamberlain's 100-point game was really a colossal hoax. He questioned why the game was played in Hershey, Pa., better known for chocolate than basketball, and why no wire photos had been taken off the historic event.

So folks back in Philadelphia took the charge seriously. Basketball writer Jack Kiser vehemently insisted he was an eyewitness and recalled Wilt carrying several starry-eyed kids off the court on his shoulders after the final buzzer.

The fact that Chamberlain, the Jordan of his age, was traded twice during his prime was almost as incomprehensible to sports fans as seeing Leo Durocher switch allegiance from the Dodgers to the Giants.

We remember sharing a cab with Chamberlain to a post-All-Star Game celebration at Stan Musial's restaurant in 1965.

"I am keeping my bags packed," he told us. "I smell a trade, and I am the key guy."

Wilt was on the money. After midnight, rumors began circulating through the restaurant that, indeed, Chamberlain, then a member of the San Francisco Warriors, had been traded back to Philadelphia for three unheralded players -- Paul Neumann, Connie Dierking and Lee Shaffer.

The league announced the deal as almost an afterthought as Eastern-based reporters fought each other to find a pay phone and make the final edition back home.

When Chamberlain was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978, he accepted the honor almost reluctantly, as if still harboring a grudge against his old critics.

"I knew I was going to be voted in," he said. "But to be honest, the only Hall of Fame I ever thought meant anything to me was in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"When you make the Baseball Hall of Fame, the whole world knows about it. But, hell, I hadn't heard of half the guys in Springfield, Mass."

A comeback at 40?

Even in his 40s, Chamberlain contemplated a comeback, relishing the thought of testing his still athletic body against a number of less-than-imposing centers.

"Some of these guys playing today," he said, "couldn't have made my Overbrook High team."

On the day of his Hall of Fame induction, someone asked if he had any regrets. He said he would have liked to have returned to college after leaving Kansas following his junior year and touring with the Harlem Globetrotters.

"You know, I have a year of eligibility left," he joked. "I am going to apply for my amateur status like some old hockey players do. But I am only going to a school that also has volleyball and track teams. I want to letter in three sports."

Wilt's attentive audience looked at one another and said, "He's just kidding, isn't he?"

No one was quite sure.

Speaking of Wilt

Quotes about Wilt Chamberlain:

"Wilt was one of the greatest ever, and we will never see another one like him."

-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

"He wanted to show people he wasn't just a tall goon. He wanted to let people know a tall person could do anything."

-- Al Correll, a boyhood friend.

"Obviously, he was both literally and figuratively a larger-than-life sports figure of the 20th century. He dominated his sport like almost no one else."

-- Stan Kasten, Atlanta Hawks president

"He was a fun guy to be around. He was a gentle giant."

-- Tom Heinsohn, former Boston Celtic

"People say I dominated Wilt. [But] he got 55 rebounds against me one time, and it seemed like he averaged near that many points."

-- Bill Russell

"I spent 12 years in his armpits, and I always carried that 100-point game on my shoulders. After I got my third foul, I said to one of the officials, Willy Smith, 'Why don't you just give him 100 points and we'll all go home?' Well, we did."

-- Darrall Imhoff, who guarded Chamberlain during his 100-point game

High school and college

Attended Philadelphia's Overbrook High School and led teams to three public school championships and two all-city titles. Scored 52 points in his first college game for Kansas in 1956. Averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds in two college seasons (freshmen were ineligible) and was twice named an All-America center. Left Kansas after his junior season in 1957-58 and played one season for the Harlem Globetrotters. Big Eight Conference high jump champion three years in a row, put the shot 56 feet, ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds and triple-jumped more than 50 feet.


Joined the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. Named Rookie of the Year and MVP, setting league records for points (2,707), rebounds (1,941) and scoring average (37.6). Broke his own records each of the next two seasons, peaking at 4,029 points, an average of 50.4 points, in 1961-62. Moved with the Warriors when the team shifted to San Francisco for the 1962-63 season, and then was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1964. Won NBA championship in 1967. Changed his game for the 1967-68 season, concentrating on passing, and led the league in assists, becoming the only center to do so. Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1968. Knee injury limited him to 12 games in 1969-70, but returned full time the next season. Won NBA championship in 1972.

Coached the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors in 1973. Named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.

Chamberlain by the numbers

Some of the key numbers from Wilt Chamberlain's 14-season NBA career:

2 - League titles

3 - One-or two-point losses in playoff Game 7s to Bill Russell-led Celtics teams

4 - MVP awards

7 - Consecutive scoring titles

11 - Rebounding titles

13 - Seasons in playoffs

22.9 - Career rebounding average

30.1 - Career scoring average

50.4* - 1961-62 scoring average

100* - Points scored against Knicks on March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pa.

118* - Career games of 50 points or more

702 - Assists in 1967-68, leading the league

1,205 - Regular-season and playoff games played without fouling out

11,862* - Career free throws attempted

23,924* - Career rebounds

31,419 - Career points

*--NBA records

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad