Born August 21, 1936, local hero Wilt Chamberlain is not only the greatest player in Philly history, he is arguably the greatest athlete of all-time
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Philly is the best sports town in the country, hands down.
And FASTPHILLYSPORTS.COM thinks the greatest performer in the long and glorious history of Philly sports is Wilt Chamberlain, hands down.
Better than the Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik, better than the Phils’ Mike Schmidt and better than the Flyers’ Bernie Parent, as surpassing as all three were.
Bednarik, Schmidt and Parent each helped their teams to championships, Bednarik in 1960, Schmidt in 1980 and Parent in 1974 and 1975. And Wilt won one of his NBA titles in Philly — the 1967 Sixers team that won 68 games in the regular season and ran roughshod over the Royals, Celtics and Warriors in the playoffs — the other in L. A. in 1972.
There is an ongoing debate about who is the greatest player of all-time, Wilt or Michael Jordan.
Most people who saw only Jordan play side with him.
I saw Wilt in his prime and Jordan in his prime, and I come down on the side of Wilton Norman Chamberlain.
And you could easily make the argument that Wilt is the greatest athlete of all-time, ahead of Jim Thorp, Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens.
Wilt was born on Cobbs Creek Parkway, starred at Overbrook High – he scored 90 points in a 32-minute game against Bok – won two city titles, then headed to college at Kansas, where his Rock Chalk (has there ever been a dumber expression?) Jayhawks lost a triple overtime NCAA title game to North Carolina in 1957. And after his NBA career ended in 1973, Wilt became a world-class volleyball player on the beaches around Los Angeles.
At Overbrook he high jumped 6-6, put the shot 53 feet and broad jumped 22 feet. At Kansas, where he reached his full height of nearly 7-2, he ran a sub-11-second 100-yard dash, put the shot 56 feet, triple jumped more than 50 feet and won the Big 8 high jump title three straight years.
After Kansas lost the 1957 basketball title game, Wilt left school and played a year for the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. He played his first game against the “Dreaded C’s,” the Boston Celtics, on November 7, 1959, and Sports Illustrated devoted eight full pages in the magazine to John Taylor’s report:
“On the night of November 7, 1959, people lined up on the sidewalks outside Boston’s North Station, a dingy yellow-brick building, and crowded along the bar at the Iron Horse, the old drinking-parlor inside …
“Every one of the 13,909 seats in the Garden had long been sold out, even the hundreds of seats whose views became partially obstructed when the hockey arena was converted to a basketball court by raising the backboards, running guy wires out to the sides, and bolting the wooden parquet squares to the subflooring. Outside, along Causeway Street, scalpers were demanding upwards of $20 for tickets that usually went for $2.50. One New York sportswriter, arriving at North Station earlier that afternoon, was offered a ticket for $10 by a scalper who told him, “Just trying to do you a favor, Mac. I can get more for it at the Garden just before game time.”
“The reason for the excitement was that 23-year-old Wilt Chamberlain had joined the Philadelphia Warriors as a rookie, and on this night Chamberlain would for the first time face the Celtics center, Bill Russell. … Chamberlain had attracted national attention even while a student at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, where his team won 58 games and lost three in his three years there and where he set a statewide scoring record, averaging just under 40 points per game. At the University of Kansas, he had proved to be such an overwhelming presence on the court that Jimmy Breslin, then a young sportswriter, wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post entitled, “Can Basketball Survive Wilt Chamberlain?”
Basketball not only survived but his rivalry with Russell elevated the NBA into a national sport on a par with baseball and football. Chamberlain would play against Russell 142 times in 10 years – with Russell’s teams winning 85 and Wilt’s 57 – and those games against the great Celtic center would define Wilt for his entire 13-year career, and they still do more than a decade after his death.
Chamberlain played his first three NBA seasons for the Philadelphia Warriors, who were sold by owner Eddie Gottlieb and moved to San Francisco in 1963, where Wilt played for a year and a half before he was traded back to Philly to play for the Sixers from 1965-1968.
Then, in the summer of 1968, Wilt claimed that he had been promised 5 percent ownership in the Sixers by Ike Richman, who had died in 1965. Surviving owner Irv Kosloff claimed to know nothing about the agreement, and general manager Jack Ramsay traded Wilt to the Lakers.
In the first place, the NBA never would have permitted an active player to own an equity stake, and in the second place trading the greatest player of all-time has to rank as the worst management decision in Philly sports history, which is replete with screw-ups.
There aren’t enough trees to make the requisite paper to completely enumerate Chamberlain’s excellence, but here are some greatest hits:
• Averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds per game.
• Scored 100 points in one game in 1962, a season in which he scored more than 4,000 points, averaging 50.4 points and 26 rebounds per game.
• Once grabbed 55 rebounds in a game, in which his opponent was William Felton Russell.
• Led the NBA in assists in 1968, the only time on league history that a center did so.
• Never fouled out of a game.
The other side of my argument about Chamberlain’s singular supremacy includes many issues, among them:
Wilt was a loser, having only won two NBA titles in 13 years while Russell won 11 in 13 seasons.
Russell was one of the greatest players in the NBA, and he was certainly the great winner. What he and his teammates did was remarkable, losing the NBA title only in 1958, when Russell had a severely sprained ankle, and in 1967, when Wilt and the Sixers were voted the greatest single team of all-time.
But it is often overlooked that Russell played on teams with 10 other members of the NBA Hall of Fame. While in the five and a half seasons Wilt played in Philly only four players: Paul Arizin and Tom Gola — undersized and at the end of their careers — and Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer, joined him in Springfield.
When he was playing with other great players like Cunningham, Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Wally Jones in Philly in 1967, and Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston in L. A. in 1972 he won titles.
There was no 3 seconds rule during Wilt’s era, he could clog the line and just dunk it.
The 24-second shot clock was already in place in 1954. The 3 second rule was introduced in 1936. Illegal defense was already in place since 1947. Defensive goaltending was instituted way back in the 1950s. Offensive goaltending was instituted during Russell’s senior year in college (1956). Wilt debuted in the NBA in 1959. He played with all the rules.
Wilt had it easy, he was the only 7 footer while every other centers were midgets.
Walter Dukes (7’0″, 220 lbs.), Swede Halbrook (7’3, 235 lbs.), Tom Boerwinkle (7’0″, 265 lbs.), Bob Lanier (6’11”, 265 lbs.). Darrall Imhoff (6’11”, 220 lbs.), Otto Moore (6’11”, 210 lbs.), Sam Lacey (6’10”, 235 lbs.), George Johnson (6’11”, 245 lbs.), Paul Ruffner (6’10”, 230 lbs.), Dick Cunningham (6’10”, 245 lbs.), Walt Bellamy (6’11”, 225 lbs.), Leroy Ellis (6’10”, 210 lbs.), Nate Thurmond (6’11”, 235 lbs.), Mel Counts (7’0″, 235 lbs.), Nate Bowman (6’10”, 230 lbs.), Clyde Lee (6’10”, 210 lbs.), Walt Wesley (6’11”, 230 lbs.), Henry Akin (6’10”, 225 lbs.), Hank Finkel (7’0″, 240 lbs.), Lew Alcindor aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7’2″, 225 lbs.), Neal Walk (6’10”, 220 lbs.), Elmore Smith (7’0″, 250 lbs.), Jim McDaniels (6’11”, 230 lbs.), LaRue Martin (6’11”, 215 lbs.), Tom Riker (6’10”, 225 lbs.), Connie Dierking (6’9″, 225 lbs.), Johnny “Red” Kerr (6’9″, 230 lbs.), Bob Pettit (6’9″, 220 lbs.), Spencer Haywood (6’9″, 230 lbs.), Rick Roberson (6’9″, 230 lbs.). Luke Jackson (6’9″, 240 lbs.), Duke Hogue (6’9,” 240 lbs.), Zelmo Beaty (6’9″, 230 lbs.), Len Chappell (6’9″, 240 lbs.), Elvin Hayes (6’9″, 235 lbs.), Willis Reed (6’9″, 220 lbs.)
How come none of those 1960s players put up the same numbers as Wilt did? Height is not the reason for Wilt’s dominance.
Wilt wouldn’t be able to score 100 if he were playing today.
Wilt would have one field day after another playing against guys like Eddy Curry and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a bunch of others who wouldn’t have made the NBA in the 1970s or 80s.
Wilt averaged 46 min/game over his career… if a center plays 35 min in ONE game today, it’s considered to be an iron man performance. Wilt would wear out any center today who tried to keep up with him.
He’d be a 30-35-point, 18-20-rebound a night player today. He was the strongest player in NBA history…he was a better leaper and also much more fundamentally sound than any center today. Chamberlain is the only non-guard ever to lead the NBA in assists. He was also the greatest rebounder of all time.
When Wilt scored his 100-point game, the Knicks’ center was 6’11″… he was two inches shorter than Wilt. So if Shaq’s a 7’1”, what was his high game against a 6’11 guy?
Whatever anyone wants to say about the 6’11” Darrall Imhoff, the fact is, he was only 2 inches shorter than Wilt’s 7’1… Who was guarding Kobe Bryant in his 81-point game? It’s not like Toronto is overloaded with Hall of Famers…. So who was the great defensive stopper that Kobe schooled that night? The fact that no one has come close to Wilt’s record even WITH the availability of the 3-point shot just shows how impressive the 100-point game was.
Which performance was better? Wilt’s 100 or Kobe Bryant’s 81?
Short answer, Wilt’s 100 is more impressive. Why? The Knicks guarding Wilt during the night he scored 100 points was Darrall Imhoff (6’11”) and Cleveland Buckner (6’9″) and they were not alone. Unless your team is the Boston Celtics, Wilt was never guarded one on one. There is always a double or triple team waiting for him the moment he gets the ball and getting rough on him immediately. The teams trying to contain Wilt employ an early, more violent version of hack a Shaq. Guards are hanging on his arms, forwards jump up with their knees and elbows flared at him, centers out and out pushing him out of position etc.. There was certainly a serious defensive effort to stop him, far more difficult to crack than what Kobe faced in today’s pussified hand-check-free era (which makes it easier for offensive perimeter players and slashers like Kobe to score).
The physical play was so rough against him that Wilt actually retired after his rookie year. He wrote a piece for Look magazine about the NBA being a bush league, but Warriors’ owner Eddie Gottlieb talked him into coming back.
Over the years, many referees have admitted that they let guys get away with clobbering Wilt on the offensive end. The league really didn’t know how to handle Wilt, and subconsciously, the refs let the little guys get away with murder.
In earlier years, they did this to make up for the fact that Wilt was so big and talented. In later years, they did this because they felt sorry for Wilt because he couldn’t shoot free throws very well. One ref told him, “Wilt, I know you get hacked every time, but the game would be pretty boring watching you go one for two from the line every time down the court.”
Wilt was a horrible foul shooter.
Very true, but he was a very good clutch foul shooter and he shot 28 for 32 from the free-throw line in his 100-point game. Very impressive for a career .500 FT shooter.
All too often Wilt would score 60-70 points, impressive numbers to be sure, but those could still be higher if it was not for his horrendous foul shooting. Had Wilt been a decent foul shooter, he would have had multiple games between 80 and 90 points.
The fact that the Knicks were not even trying to win the game anymore in the 4th quarter and instead focused their energies in preventing Wilt from scoring 100 and FAILED is testament to Wilt’s ability. Sure the Warriors helped Wilt a lot by passing the ball to him all the time, but then why wouldn’t you pass the ball to a player who is on fire? And besides, “give Wilt the ball” was coach Frank Maguire’s standard offensive play during his tenure with the Philly Warriors.
In that game in Hershey, Pa., the stars aligned for Wilt to reach 100. He had plenty of field goal attempts (63), he was shooting above 50% from the floor (36/63), he was playing plenty of minutes and of course, he was hitting virtually every shot from free throw line.
Wilt could jump from the free-throw line without a running start. How many centers today could do that? How many 7’1″, 280- lb. centers in basketball history could do that (His listed 275 lbs. in his NBA profile is his unupdated college weight)? Wilt was a beast back then and he would still be a beast if he was playing today. How many centers today have a fadeaway from 12-15 feet out?
Today’s game is way more competitive than it was during Wilt’s era.
How does anyone know today’s game is way more competitive? Kwame Brown has carved out a 10-year career in the NBA. How tough could it be? The fact that nowhere in the world outside of the NBA, is there a basketball player who is better than Kwame Brown (if there were a better player, he’d be in the NBA instead of Brown) tells you all you need to know about how tough the NBA is.
Dwight Howard is an annual pick for first team all-NBA, and he has no post game at all. NBA centers have been going downhill during the last 20 years. Which means that truly great players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq and David Robinson played very few games against Hall of Fame quality centers. Wilt, in fact, played against more HOF centers than any player in history except Kareem.
Here are what some of Wilt’s competitors thought of Wilt’s strength:
“The first time I guarded Wilt, I stood behind him and he was so wide that I couldn’t see the rest of the game. Then I saw him dunk a ball so hard that it hit the court and bounced straight up back through the rim again.”
— Bob Ferry
“I still remember the time when one of our strongest men, Gene Conley, decided to fight Chamberlain for the ball. He grabbed it and hung on and Chamberlain just lifted him and ball right up towards the rim.”
— Bill Russell
“He stopped me dead in my tracks with his arm, hugged me and lifted me off the floor with my feet dangling. It scared the hell out of me. When I went to the free-throw line, my legs were still shaking. Wilt was the strongest guy and best athlete ever to play the game.” — K. C. Jones
“One time, when I was with Boston and he was with the Lakers, Happy Hairston and I were about to get in a scrape. All of a sudden, I felt an enormous vise around me. I was 6’7”, 235 lbs., and Wilt had picked me up and turned me around. He said, ‘We’re not going to have that stuff.’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’” — Paul Silas
“Wilt was so aware of his strength and was so strong that he would sometimes go up weak on a dunk or do a lay-up because Wilt was actually worried that he would injure the defender or break the defenders arm or wrist had he used his full strength.” — Jerry West
“The best thing that happened to the NBA is that God made Wilt a nice person… he could all have killed us with his left hand.”
— Former player, coach and scout Jack McMahon