I don’t know about you, but for me, the name ‘Wilt Chamberlain’ has a mythical, god-like aura attached to it. With superhuman size, superhuman strength, and superhuman personality, Wilt’s lived a life that we will probably never be able to understand. He was Goliath, the freak of nature who absolutely dominated anyone who dared to challenge him in the post. And while there are a lot of things Wilt can no longer claim as his own in the modern age of athleticism in the NBA, I’m pretty sure he is still the only man in the history of the game who can say he scored thirty thousand career points on the court while sleeping with twenty thousand women off the court. The man has claimed to have slept with more women than there are students at Georgetown University. Not really the point of this column, but come on. Besides his sexual prowess, Wilt still holds the title of “most freakishly dominant physical specimen for his time.” Watching Wilt go up against any center in the league not named Bill Russell must have been comical at best. The only player in NBA history to average 50 points through a whole season and one of the few players to ever average over twenty rebounds over multiple seasons, Wilt Chamberlain was the basketball player of the 60s. But he will forever be remembered for one night, the fateful evening of March 2 1962, when everything NBA fans thought about scoring and domination came crumbling down when the Big Dipper scored a mind-numbing 100 points in a game. The legacy of the gentle giant was thus forged in a game that will likely never be duplicated by any player in any era.
Once upon a time, Wilt Chamberlain was a seven foot bellhop at a hotel in New York. Loved by every customer that came his way, Wilt’s true time to shine came as the weekend rolled around, and his hotel played pickup basketball against the rival hotels in the area. Predictably, it was child’s play for the gentle giant that was Wilt Chamberlain. It didn’t take long for anyone who saw him play to realize that Wilt was meant to be much more than the jovial, loved bellhop that his guests had come to know him as. Before he knew it, Wilt was the freshman star at Kansas University, where he was as loved and cherished as ever. Different court, but same Wilt. No one in the country had an answer for this freakish physical specimen. Tearing his way through the NCAA, Wilt landed his team a trip to the national championship against the North Carolina Tar Heels. What happened in that game, however, on the largest stage Wilt had ever played on, would set a dark tone for the rest of his basketball life. As Wilt struggled to fight off triple teams and intentional fouls all night, he eventually watched his Jayhawks fall to the Tar Heels. The rest of the world watched on and the criticism that would haunt his career was born: Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t win championships.
While Wilt’s failure to capture the national championship would haunt him for the rest of his life, he moved on to bigger and better stages, where he never failed to shine. After a brief stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, where Wilt’s game took on new style and showmanship, the Big Dipper took his talents to the NBA, where he made his debut for the Philadelphia Warriors. Over the next 15 years, Wilt Chamberlain would redefine what it meant to be a good basketball player. He was all about numbers, averaging over 30 points in each of his first nine seasons in the league and over 20 rebounds in twelve different seasons. In only his third year in the NBA, Wilt became the first player in professional basketball’s short history to average fifty points over a season. His crowning achievement, however, would be that March game against the New York Knicks, when Wilt shattered everything everyone knew about scoring. Making 28 of 32 free throws, Wilt ended the game with 100 total points, a record that will never be broken. As ridiculously unreal as his numbers were, his physical superiority went far beyond scoring or rebounding. The NBA actually had to re-write their rules to accommodate the incredible physical anomaly that was Wilt Chamberlain: requiring players to release the ball from behind the free throw line to prevent Wilt from making one leap and nearly reaching the basket. Coaches had to reinvent their defensive plays to find ways to double or triple team Wilt without sacrificing perimeter defense. He was, and will always be, a colossus of the court.
Despite his incredible play, Wilt will never be remembered as a champion, or a face on basketball’s Mount Rushmore. For one thing, no matter what Wilt did, he could never match the achievements of the greatest champion of all time and his greatest rival, Bill Russell. He couldn’t escape the omen that his loss at Kansas had set for the rest of his career, the omen of a dominant athlete who could never quite rise to number one. Chuck Klosterman summed up Wilt’s career best when he said, “Nobody ever rooted for Goliath when he was alive, but I feel for him now that he’s dead.” Wilt was never given the appreciation he deserved because he played against the greatest center in the history of the game. His statistical achievements will never be matched, yet he has always been viewed as number two. Russell not only won championships but did so while fighting the racism that plagued him for his entire career. Wilt fought the same racism but was never as outspoken as his Celtic counterpart, and as a result, the spotlight fell much more heavily on Russell.
Wilt was Goliath to everyone else but Russell. While he dominated the league for his entire career, he was never given the appreciation he deserved. Wilt eventually transformed himself from a selfish player playing for the numbers to a team player who played to win, but the transformation came too late. Bill Russell had already won the greatest center rivalry of all time, and Wilt was left to pick up the pieces. Today, we remember him not because of the MVP trophy, or by celebrating his birthday at the all star game, but by the sheer personal dominance he displayed his entire career.
Photo: Fred Palumbo/World Telegram