Wilton Norman "Wilt" Chamberlain (August 21, 1936 – October 12, 1999) was an American National Basketball Association basketball player. Known as "Wilt the Stilt" (a nickname he hated) or "The Big Dipper," he is regarded as one of the greatest and most dominant basketball players of all time for the incredible statistical achievements he attained throughout his playing career. He holds the great majority of all individual single-game or regular-season NBA records.
Some fans argue that Chamberlain faired so well in basketball merely because of his size, strength, and athleticism. However, most give little credit to the fact that whenever "The Stilt" scored, he often had two or three players leaning, and some hanging, on him. Chamberlain had to fight for every shot he took. Amazingly, he never once fouled out of a game and he even led the league in assists one year. While compiling prodigious personal achievements, Chamberlain was often compared with his great nemesis, Boston Celtics star center Bill Russell. A supreme defensive specialist and team player, Russell and the Celtics established one of sports' most hallowed dynasties in the 1960s, frustrating, with the exception of the 1968 season, Chamberlain's quest for a championship throughout the decade.
Chamberlain's off-the-court lifestyle became notorious following his 1991 biography, A View From Above, in which Chamberlain devoted an entire chapter to sex and claimed encounters with almost 20,000 women. "At my age," he boasted, "that equals out to having sex with 1.2 women a day, every day since I was fifteen years old." As a public figure and purported role model for youth, Chamberlain became the butt of jokes and a lightning rod for criticism in an era of AIDS. Tennis great Arthur Ashe harshly criticized Chamberlain, writing in his 1993 memoir, "I felt more pity than sorrow for Wilt as his macho accounting backfired on him in the form of a wave of public criticism [and] a certain amount of racial embarrassment."
As a professional athlete, however, Chamberlain established a personal record of accomplishment on the hardwood that may never be equaled.
Chamberlain played the center position and was probably the most dominant basketball player of all time. In his 13 year career, he was elected to the NBA All-Star Team each year from 1960-1973 with the exception of 1970. He was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) four times. Chamberlain averaged 30.1 points (second best all time) and 22.9 rebounds (all-time leader) throughout his career. He was also very durable, standing on the hardwood an average 45.8 minutes per game. One reason for his success was great athletic talent, rivaling the best decathletes, a feat especially remarkable for a man his size. In particular, Chamberlain was noted for his physical strength and his leaping abilities. For example, he was known for his unmatched ability to dunk shots from the free throw line without a full running start.
Apart from his superior physical abilities, Chamberlain also featured an offensive repertoire that relied on finesse rather than mere power, including fade-away jump shots, bank shots and hook shots. This made him virtually unguardable, as witnessed by his high field goal percentage of .540. Apart from being basketball's all-time top rebounder, Chamberlain was also known to be a great shot blocker. As blocks only became official stats after his career ended, however, there are no figures on this aspect of his game.
However, Chamberlain also had his weaknesses. He stated in first autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door: "I’m just not naturally competitive and aggressive. I don’t have a killer instinct" (p. 187). This was painfully evident in one case, namely the Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, famous for Knicks center Willis Reed hobbling up court with a badly injured thigh. Given Reed's immobility, Chamberlain should have been able to score almost at will. Instead, he contributed only 21 points, and his Lakers lost the game and the championship to the Knicks. Apart from not being a great clutch player, like many other big men he was also a poor foul shooter, shooting an anemic .511 from the free throw line.
Nonetheless, Chamberlain's supporters offer several arguments for him as the game's greatest player. In his prime, Chamberlain was more dominant than any player in history. The NBA felt compelled to change several rules to thwart him. It created the offensive goal-tending rule; and it banned the inbound pass over the backboard, the dunk from the foul line in a free-throw attempt, and the "alley oop" (since made legal again). It also widened the three-second area. When Hall-of-Fame guard Oscar Robertson was asked whether Chamberlain was the NBA's greatest player of all-time, he simply responded "The books don't lie."
Chamberlain drew national attention playing at Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia (1951-1955), leading his school to City Championships in 1954 and 1955. He scored 90 points, including 60 points in one 10-minute span, against Roxborough High School. In his senior year, Chamberlain scored 800 points in his first 16 games, finished with a season average of 47.2 PPG, and was named a high-school All-American. For his high school career, Chamberlain finished with 2,252 points and an average of 38.2 PPG.
In July 1954, he was showcased in a Paramount Newsreel, entitled Giant Basketball Sensation, which was exhibited nationally in theaters. The narrator was Marty Glickman, who can be seen with the 17 year old Chamberlain. The newsreel ends with Glickman prophetically observing, "remember the name (Chamberlain), it will probably make big sports copy for years to come."
Chamberlain played two years for the University of Kansas (freshmen were then ineligible to play NCAA varsity basketball), where he earned All-American honors twice and led the Jayhawks to the 1957 championship game (which they lost to North Carolina 54-53 in three overtimes). Wilt became the first and only player to win the NCAA Tournament MVP honors from a losing team. He led Kansas to back-to-back Big Seven Championships (1957,1958). In 48 Varsity games, Wilt scored 1,433 points (29.9 ppg) and grabbed 877 rebounds (18.3 rpg). He was a unanimous First Team All-America selection in 1957 and 1958. He had game highs of 52 points against Northwestern in 1957 and 36 rebounds against Iowa State in 1958.
After a frustrating junior year in which Kansas did not reach the NCAA Tournament (at the time, teams that had lost their league championship were not invited), Chamberlain decided to turn pro. He declared that he wanted to be paid for being double- and triple-teamed every night. As a practical matter, Chamberlain's rights were owned by the Philadelphia Warriors, who had announced in 1955, that they would designate Chamberlain as a territorial pick when he became eligible for the draft and to play in the NBA in 1959. In the interim, he played a season with the Harlem Globetrotters. When Chamberlain played with the Trotters, coach Abe Saperstein had the dilemma of having two great centers, Meadowlark Lemon, the undisputed "Clown Prince" of the 'Trotters, and Chamberlain. Saperstein settled upon an original approach—playing Chamberlain as point guard, which allowed him to show off his shooting, passing, and penetration skills.
In his first season with the Warriors (1959-60), Chamberlain set new NBA records in scoring, averaging 37.6 points per game, and rebounding with 27.0 per game. In the NBA All-Star Game, he was named Most Valuable Player after scoring 23 points and grabbing 25 rebounds during the East's victory over the West. He also became the first of two players (with Wes Unseld, 1969) to be named MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. With Chamberlain in the pivot, Warriors improved from a last place division finish in the 1958-59 season to the second best record in the NBA. The Warriors, however, would lose to the Boston Celtics in the Conference Finals that year, despite Chamberlain outscoring his opposing center Bill Russell by 81 points. This would become a repeated occurrence in Chamberlain's career.
The rookie Chamberlain then shocked the Warriors' fans by saying he was thinking of retiring. He was tired being subject of double- and triple teams, and teams hacking him down with hard fouls. Chamberlain feared losing his cool one day, which he did not want to happen. Celtics forward Tom Heinsohn said his team ruthlessly exploited his only weakness, free throw shooting, with an early version of the "Hack-a-Shaq" (a tactic in which a poor free throw shooter is intentionally fouled, in the hope that he misses free throws and the team gets an easy ball possession without giving up many points). "Half the fouls against him were hard fouls," Heinsohn continued, "he [Chamberlain] took the most brutal pounding of any player ever." Chamberlain refrained from retaliating, and preferred to play through the many fouls.
This tactic proved highly effective against Chamberlain. Since the Celtics were in the same Eastern Division as the Warriors, Chamberlain and his teammates could not even reach the NBA Finals without finding a way to beat them. The Boston Celtics were in the midst of their legendary run of winning 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons.
However, Chamberlain established himself as one of the greatest players of all time. In his first five years, his regular-season stats read 37.6 points/27.0 rebounds per game (1959-60), 38.4 ppg/27.2 rpg (1960-1961), 50.4 ppg/25.7 rpg (1961-1962), 44.8 ppg/24.3 rpg (1962-1963), 36.9 ppg/22.3 rpg (1963-1964) and 38.9 ppg/23.5 rpg (1964-1965). As of 2006, the closest player other than Chamberlain himself to average as many points per game is Elgin Baylor who averaged 38.3 in the 1961-62 season. The next best rebounding performance from a player other than Chamberlain is Bill Russell with 24.7 in 1963-64. In the 1961-62 season, Chamberlain also became the first and only player to score 100 points in a NBA game, a feat that hasn't come close to being broken. The next highest single game total is Kobe Bryant's 81 points.
In 1962-1963, the Warriors relocated to San Francisco, and in 1963-1964, NBA season Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, 1-4. After that season, Chamberlain was traded back to Philadelphia, where the Syracuse Nationals had recently moved to become the 76ers. In Philadelphia, he joined a promising 76ers team that included guard Hal Greer (a future Hall of Famer).
Back in the Eastern Division, Chamberlain and the 76ers' drive to the finals was thwarted by the Celtics' on-going dynasty. The Eastern Conference Finals that year came down to the final seconds of Game 7, when the Celtics won by one point with a legendary play: when the 76ers' Hal Greer attempted to pass the ball inbounds, John Havlicek stole it to preserve the Celtics' lead. Chamberlain was the centerpiece of the formidable 1966-1967 76ers team that included future Hall of Famers Greer and Billy Cunningham, as well as noted players Chet Walker and Luscious Jackson. The team roared through its first 50 games at 46-4, en route to setting a (then) record 68 regular-season wins. In the playoffs, they finally knocked off the Celtics (to end their title streak at eight) before going on to capture the NBA title (Chamberlain's first) by defeating the San Francisco Warriors in six games. In that series, Chamberlain scored a relatively modest 17.7 points per game, but snared an incredible 28.7 rebounds per game. In fact, his worst rebounding game in that series was Game 6, with 23. His board-cleaning feat was made even more astonishing by the fact that the opposing center was top rebounder Nate Thurmond, who himself averaged 26.7 RPG over that series. Chamberlain and Thurmond became the 5th and 6th (and until today, last) players to grab 20+ rebounds in every game of the NBA Finals. In 1980, that 1967 Philadelphia team was voted the NBA's best team of the first 35 years of the league. Chamberlain himself described the team as the best in NBA history. Chamberlain received his third MVP award that season.
In 1967-1968 NBA season, Chamberlain got into a nasty dispute with the 76ers' owners, Ike Richman and Irv Kosloff. Chamberlain was promised by Richman a part of the club, but Richman died before the deal was completed. When Kosloff became sole owner, he refused to honor Richman's agreement with Chamberlain, infuriating the superstar. He threatened with retirement, and reached a truce with Kosloff to play out the season and then contemplate the future.
Chamberlain was selected league MVP for his fourth and last time, while becoming the only center to lead the league in total assists with 702 (8.6 assists per game). The 76ers owned the NBA's best record for the third straight season, but lost to the Celtics in seven games in the Eastern Division finals.
Chamberlain asked to be traded, and was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers for Archie Clark, Darrall Imhoff, and Jerry Chambers. (As a side note, Imhoff was also one of the two centers against whom Chamberlain had scored his 100-point game.) This qualifies as one of the most lopsided NBA trades ever, as the Sixers traded the most dominant player of his generation for three role players, and helped send the Sixers from a 62-20 record to a 9-73 record in the span of five seasons.
After the trade, Chamberlain was teamed with future Hall-of-Famers Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, creating one of the most prolific basketball scoring machines of all time. However, Chamberlain soon clashed with coach Bill van Breda Kolff, who was upset with the trade. The coach feared that the dominant low post presence Chamberlain would disrupt his Princeton-style tactics, which relied on fast player movement, all five sharing the ball. In return, Chamberlain loathed van Breda Kolff because he felt "straight-jacketed" in a scheme which took away his stats. However, the press was quick to side against Chamberlain, whose stats "diminished" while earning a (then) astronomical $250,000 a year. He was regarded as an ungrateful, aging has-been.
Baylor and Chamberlain, however, played only a handful of games as teammates because of knee injuries. Baylor's injury was season-ending. In Chamberlain's case, a hole was drilled through his kneecap, through which a tendon was passed, and the ensuing recovery was long and arduous. This injury sharply limited the number of games he played against young Milwaukee Bucks center Lew Alcindor.
The Lakers were heavily favored to win the 1968-1969 NBA Finals against the old, battered Celtics, but then Chamberlain became the victim of one of the most controversial coaching decisions in NBA history. In Game 7, Chamberlain hurt his leg with six minutes left to play, with the Lakers trailing by nine points. Lakers coach van Breda Kolff took him out, and when Chamberlain wanted to return with three minutes left, Van Breda Kolff decided to bench him until the end. The Celtics won, 108-106. When Chamberlain had asked out of the game, the Lakers had been trailing by nine points, but then mounted a comeback to pull within one by the time he asked back in; this caused some to assume that Chamberlain had not really been injured, but instead had given up when it looked as though the Lakers would lose. Because of this, some branded him as a quitter. Even Bill Russell ridiculed him, which almost caused Chamberlain to end their friendship. However, when Chamberlain's teammate Jerry West heard of Van Breda Kolff's decision, he was utterly disgusted, and passionately defended Chamberlain. Furthermore, even Van Breda Kolff, who never got along with Chamberlain (a factor that some speculate may have played a part in his decision to not put Chamberlain back in—a desire by Van Breda Kolff to prove he could win without Chamberlain), has always himself defended Chamberlain's injury as being fully legitimate.
In 1969-1970 season, the acquisition of the sharpshooting guard Gail Goodrich helped with the Lakers' offensive firepower with the loss of Baylor. In the NBA Finals, the Lakers were matched up against the New York Knicks, one of the best defensive teams of the post-Russell-Celtics era. Both teams fought a hard, grueling series, but in Game 5, Chamberlain's opposing center Willis Reed suffered a serious thigh injury. The Knicks won that game, but they were demolished in Game 6 with Chamberlain's strong offense, and they looked doomed in Game 7 without their starting center. However, Reed limped onto the court, won the opening tip-off against Chamberlain, and scored the first four points, inspiring his team to one of the most famous playoff upsets of all time. Although Reed was able to play only a fraction of the game, and could hardly move when he did play, Chamberlain still scored only 21 points (his season average had been 27.3) on only 16 shots, quite a few in Game 7. Further, he shot an abysmal 1-of-11 from the foul line, making the game perhaps his greatest on-court failure.
In 1970-1971 season, the Lakers made a notable move by signing former Celtics star guard Bill Sharman as the head coach. Sharman reinvented the veteran Chamberlain as a defensive stopper. This proved very successful, as Chamberlain was elected to the All-NBA First Defensive Team for the first time in his career, and the Lakers set a new record for most victories in a season, 69, including an astounding 33-game winning streak, the longest in any American professional sport. Chamberlain jokingly claimed to be unimpressed: "I played with the Harlem Globetrotters and we won 445 in a row," he said at the time, "and they were all on the road."
Chamberlain and West would win their first and only Lakers title in 1971-1972, remarkably in the first season without Baylor. This team included the forwards, scorer Jim McMillan and rebounding and defensive specialist Happy Hairston. In the series against the Knicks, Chamberlain averaged 19.2 PPG and was elected Finals MVP, mainly for his incredible rebounding. In the final game, he scored 23 and had 29 rebounds, despite a badly sprained right wrist. Over the series, he averaged 23.2 rebounds per game, taking in almost a quarter of the series' entire rebound total—at age 36.
The next year, in what would be his final season as a player at age 37, Chamberlain still led the league in rebounding with 18.6 per game, while shooting an NBA-record 72.7 percent from the field.
I look back and know that my last seven years in the league versus my first seven years were a joke in terms of scoring. I stopped shooting—coaches asked me to do that, and I did. I wonder sometimes if that was a mistake (Wilt Chamberlain, speaking to the Philadelphia Daily News).
In 1973, the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association, a league that had been founded to compete with the NBA, offered Chamberlain a $600,000 contract as player-coach, and Chamberlain accepted. The Conquistadors quickly circulated publicity photos of Chamberlain in a Conquistadors uniform holding an ABA ball. However, Chamberlain still owed the Lakers the option year on his contract, and they sued, arguing that this barred Chamberlain from playing for another team, even though it was in a different league. The case was arbitrated in the Lakers' favor, and Chamberlain was kept off the court. He never played another game in either league.
Chamberlain did coach the Conquistadors in that season, however, and he played on the court in practices and scrimmages with the team.
With an offensive repertoire that consisted of dunks, finger rolls, and a fade-away jump shot, the 7-foot 1 inch (2.16 m), 275-pound Chamberlain holds nearly 100 NBA records, including the record for most points in a game: 100. He is still the only player to score 4,000 or more points in one season (only one other time in the history of the NBA has another player scored 3,000 points—Michael Jordan was just barely able to do it in his finest scoring season). He also recorded a phenomenal 55 rebounds in one game, and averaged 27 rebounds per game that season, setting the all-time record for rebounds in a season, one that still stands and has never been threatened.
From 1959 to 1963 (5 seasons), Chamberlain had a spectacular run, recording 5 of the top 7 (including the top 3) scoring averages of all-time. In 1962, he averaged 50.4 points per game, following that with 44.8 in 1963. His closest rival in this category is Elgin Baylor, who recorded the 4th best scoring average (38.3 in 1962).
Prior to the 1961-1962 season, the NBA record for most points in a single game was held by Elgin Baylor of the Lakers, with 71 points. On December 8, 1961, the Warriors played the Lakers; Chamberlain scored 78, breaking Baylor's record, with the game going into triple overtime.
Less than three months later, on March 2, 1962, in a 169-147 Warriors victory over the New York Knicks at Hershey Park Arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Chamberlain scored 100 points in a standard regulation game, 59 in the second half alone. In fact, it was reported that Chamberlain scored the pivotal basket with 46 seconds remaining in the game, but there was nothing that could be done to stop the relatively small crowd from completely mobbing the floor. The game was then ended. No video footage exists of this phenomenal achievement because the game was not televised, although there is an audio recording of the game's radio broadcast.
In an era before the three-point line, Chamberlain made 36-of-63 field goals and 28-of-32 free throws; the latter is remarkable because Chamberlain made barely half his free throws during his career. Chamberlain initially said that he was "embarrassed" by these stats, proclaiming his shame at taking 63 field goal attempts and making "only" 36.
The game was somewhat controversial because, by all accounts, by the fourth quarter, both teams had ceased playing a normal game in which each team actually tries to win the game; rather, the efforts of both teams focused entirely on whether Chamberlain would score 100 points. Instead of trying to score quickly, as a trailing team would normally do in hopes of mounting a comeback, the Knicks began holding the ball to run out the shot clock. Some say the Knicks began fouling Chamberlain intentionally so that he would have to shoot free throws rather than get closer shots at the basket, and that they would also intentionally foul other Warrior players who had the ball, so that they would have no chance to pass it to Chamberlain. For their part, the Warriors also began fouling Knicks players intentionally, when the Knicks had the ball, in order to stop the clock (the exact opposite of the usual strategy for a team that is leading) to get the ball back for Chamberlain.
The Knicks in this game were led by three players with 30 points each, but still, their cumulative total was topped by Chamberlain.
Chamberlain's 78-point triple-overtime game against the Lakers remained as the second-highest single game point total for over 40 years, until January 22, 2006, when L.A. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.
Despite his achievements in basketball, Wilt was one of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history, with a career percentage of only .511, meaning he missed almost half his attempts.
He tried several different methods at the suggestion of others (underhanded, with one hand, and so on) but to little avail.
Once in 1967, the Chicago Bulls decided to take full advantage of his bad free-throwing by constantly fouling him late in a game against the Sixers. At the time, any personal foul was a simple two-shot foul whether the player fouled had the ball or not. Therefore, virtually the entire team was fouling Wilt so he would have to take the free throws. It started to pay off when the Bulls took the lead late, but then the Sixer's coach benched him and put in some of their best all-around shooters and they stormed back to win 132-126. Afterwards, Bulls coach Dick Motta was severely reprimanded by the NBA for the tactic, and a new rule was instituted (making all fouls away from the ball technicals) to prevent other teams from trying it.
Chamberlain also earned accolades in other sports. In track and field, he high jumped 6 feet 6 inches, ran the 440 in 49.0 seconds, ran the 880 in 1:58.3, threw the shot put 53 feet 4 inches, and long jumped 22 feet while still a high school student. At the University of Kansas, he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds, threw the shot put 56 feet, triple jumped more than 50 feet, and won the high jump in the Big Eight track and field championships three straight years. He also played professional volleyball in the late 1970s (when he founded and starred in a pro league, the International Volleyball Association), and auto racing. He flirted with boxing, and he was offered a pro football contract by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1966. He also was an actor, celebrity, and businessman after his playing career concluded. In 1984, he played a supporting role alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film Conan the Destroyer.
Chamberlain always wore a rubber band around his wrist, due to a superstition, and was fond of saying that "Nobody roots for Goliath."
While Chamberlain made a good living in basketball, he made a pittance compared to modern players. He was, however, a multi-millionaire because of several lucrative investments in Los Angeles real estate.
On October 12, 1999, Wilt Chamberlain died of a heart attack in his sleep in his Los Angeles, California, home. He had been under the care of cardiologists and other physicians for heart problems for the final few years of his life. He was 63 years old.
In his second autobiography, A View from Above (1991), Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with almost 20,000 women. This would have meant, on average, having had sex with more than one new woman every day of his life since the age of 15. Because of that, many people doubt his specific number, though few question the fact of his promiscuity. He drew heavy criticism from many public figures, who accused him of fulfilling stereotypes about African Americans, and of behaving irresponsibly, especially given the AIDS crisis, which was well underway by the 1980s (when many of the encounters occurred). Chamberlain defended himself, saying "I was just doing what was natural—chasing good-looking ladies, whoever they were and wherever they were available." He also noted that he never tried to sleep with a woman who was married.
In spite of his extensive womanizing and the plethora of women with whom he claimed to have been involved, Chamberlain was a lifelong bachelor and fathered no known children, and there is no known record of his ever being the target of a paternity lawsuit.
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