Basketball's giant legend, Wilt Chamberlain, dies 63; Hall of Famer's talent matched his stature

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wilt Chamberlain, whose outsized presence and overwhelming talent helped reshape the National Basketball Association and rewrite its record books over a 14-year career, died yesterday at 63 of an apparent heart attack.

Mr. Chamberlain was found dead in bed at his Bel-Air home in Los Angeles at about 12: 30 p.m., police said. Mr. Chamberlain was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat in 1992, and Sonny Hill, the Philadelphia basketball guru who was one of his closest friends, said Mr. Chamberlain was going to be getting a pacemaker.

"We've lost a giant of a man in every sense of the word," NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement released by the league. "The shadow of accomplishments he cast over our game is unlikely ever to be matched."

Mr. Chamberlain's single-game record of 100 points, scored against the New York Knicks during a game in Hershey, Pa., in 1962, will likely remain untouched.

But it was not merely the points This line is longer than measure/can't be broken he scored (31,419, a record later broken by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) or the record number of rebounds he snatched (23,924, including an NBA-best 55 in one game) or the shots he swatted away that identified Mr. Chamberlain as the most dominant player of his era.

It was his massive size: At 7 feet 1 and between 275 and 300 pounds, he played Gulliver to a league filled mostly with Lilliputians. And like Gulliver, he was well-traveled.

Leaving the University of Kansas after his junior year, Mr. Chamberlain played with the Harlem Globetrotters before being the territorial draft choice of the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. Mr. Chamberlain had been a basketball and track star at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia.

Mr. Chamberlain wound up moving with the team to San Francisco after the 1961-1962 season -- a season in which he averaged an astounding 50.4 points a game -- and returned to the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade three years later. He was traded again in 1968 to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was teamed with two of the game's other superstars, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

"I'm personally shocked and saddened," said Mr. West, the Lakers' executive vice president of basketball operations. "I've known Wilt for 40 years, and he was a great friend of mine as well as a great teammate. When we acquired Wilt, he rejuvenated my enthusiasm for playing the game and was one of the people who helped all of us achieve our dream of winning an NBA championship."

What also marked Mr. Chamberlain's career was that the teams he played on lost the big games more than they won, often to smaller opponents.

In college, the Jayhawks lost by a point in triple overtime to North Carolina in the 1957 national championship game, in which Tar Heels coach Frank McGuire used one of his guards to jump center against Mr. Chamberlain for the opening tap.

"I think it psyched him out," Len Rosenbluth, then North Carolina's star player, recalled in an interview with The Sun earlier this year.

Though Mr. Chamberlain led the 76ers to the 1966-1967 NBA championship and helped the Lakers win a league-record 33 straight games en route to the title in 1971-1972, he lost a number of stirring battles to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. In 1970 and again in 1973, Mr. Chamberlain's Lakers also came up short against the New York Knicks.

"As a basketball player, no one has come close to doing the things that he has done," Mr. Russell said.

"Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of the NBA," said Red Auerbach, former coach of the Celtics.

Fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson probably put it best when asked once if Mr. Chamberlain was the greatest player in NBA history. "The books don't lie," Mr. Robertson said.

They don't. Aside from single-game records for points and rebounds, Mr. Chamberlain's 30.1 scoring average over his 14 seasons is the highest in league history. He was the only player to lead the league in scoring, rebounding and assists, the last and least likely of them accomplished during the 1967-1968 season.

In his 100-point game, Mr. Chamberlain, a notoriously poor free-throw shooter, even made 28 of 32 from the foul line.

Mr. Chamberlain was also an iron man, dating back to his days as a track and field star in Philadelphia, where he was a champion quarter-miler and shot-putter. A four-time league Most Valuable Player, Mr. Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes a game -- regulation games are 48 minutes -- during one season and 45.8 minutes over his career. He never fouled out in 1,205 career games.

Mr. Chamberlain was such a force that the NBA changed some of its rules, including widening the lane to try to keep him farther from the basket.

And he wasn't always a fan favorite. As one of Mr. Chamberlain's coaches, Alex Hannum, once said: "Nobody loves Goliath."

Since retiring after that second NBA Finals series against the Knicks and after a short, unsuccessful stint coaching the San Diego Conquistadors of the old American Basketball Association, Mr. Chamberlain was more a sports personality than hero, attracting attention wherever he went.

Once, while Mr. Chamberlain was attending the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York, a match stopped as everyone gawked at his arrival. Mr. Chamberlain didn't shy away from the spotlight, speculating when he turned 50 that he was still in good enough shape to play in the NBA.

The most headlines Mr. Chamberlain received after his career was over -- even more than for his selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978 or being chosen among the league's top 50 players two years ago -- was for the claim in his autobiography that he'd had sex with 20,000 women.

Mount St. Mary's basketball coach Jim Phelan found himself reminiscing about Mr. Chamberlain last night, recalling the one time he played against the man called "The Big Dipper" and "Wilt the Stilt." It came during a summer league game.

It was shortly after Phelan, who also grew up in Philadelphia, was released from the Army and was playing in the old Eastern League. Mr. Phelan put together a team of former La Salle players to face Mr. Chamberlain, then a 16-year-old high school sophomore.

"I loaded up a team with guys like Tom Gola, and we beat them," Mr. Phelan said. "But you could hear the footsteps coming. We said after that game, 'The look of basketball is going to be changed by this kid,' and, boy, was it ever."

"In my opinion," former UCLA coach John Wooden said, "he was the most dominant physical player who ever played the game."

Mr. Chamberlain is survived by his sisters Barbara Lewis, Margaret Lane, Selina Gross and Yvonne Chamberlain, and his brothers, Wilbert and Oliver Chamberlain.

His family had not yet made funeral plans last night.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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