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A revolutionary force

Wilt battled 'loser' label
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"My theory is that there are four really important numbers in Wilt Chamberlain's life. In ascending order: 0 for the number of times he fouled out, 50 for the number of points he averaged for one full season, 100 for the number of points he scored in one single game, and 20,000 for the number that will never be forgotten," says journalist Dick Schaap on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Wilt Chamberlain was always bigger than life, a mythic-like giant. At 7-foot-1 1/16, he was the most dominating offensive big man in basketball history. Although his accomplishments were often credited to his size, he was a marvelous athlete who possessed strength, stamina and speed. He could score on slam dunks, finger rolls and fallaway jumpers.

You think it's a feat to score 50 points in an NBA game? Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points one season. He scored 100 points in one game. He scored at least 65 points 15 times; everybody else in NBA history combined has managed this feat just five times.

He won scoring titles his first seven seasons and averaged 30.1 points for his career. He led the league in rebounding 11 times and averaged 22.9 for his career, both records. He is the only center to lead the league in assists. He averaged more than 48 minutes a game one season. He never fouled out in 1,045 games. He won four MVPs. (And don't forget his most prodigious feat: Wilt claimed in one of his books, "A View From Above," to have slept with more than 20,000 women.)

And yet it never seemed to be enough (the basketball part, not the women). No matter his accomplishments on the court, fans always expected more from him because he made it look so easy. He was hooted because he couldn't shoot foul shots (his lifetime percentage was .511). He was called "selfish" because he scored too many points. He was accused of being more concerned with statistics than winning. Worst of all, he was called a "loser."

In Chamberlain's first seven years, his teams went 0-for-5 in the playoffs against his nemesis, Bill Russell, and the Boston Celtics. "That's when people really started calling me 'loser,' " Chamberlain said.

Perhaps no game better exemplifies Chamberlain's career than the one when Chamberlain set the rebound record with 55, breaking Russell's mark of 51.Yet Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors lost.

Whenever his team lost, it was his fault. Chamberlain's teams won NBA titles just twice in his 14 seasons. He was a road attraction, a player to boo. "Nobody roots for Goliath," Chamberlain said more than once.

One of nine children, Chamberlain was born on Aug. 21, 1936, in Philadelphia. Though his first sports love was track, he was more talented in basketball. His Overbrook High School teams went 56-3 in his three varsity seasons, going undefeated the final two years to win city championships. Averaging 37.4 points, he broke Tom Gola's Philadelphia high school scoring record with 2,206 points.

In November 1955, early in Chamberlain's freshman year at Kansas,
Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain averaged 29.9 points and 18.9 rebounds during his two seasons with Kansas.
the NBA decided his professional future. In an unprecedented move, the league allowed the Warriors to claim him as a territorial pick. The logic was he was a resident of Philadelphia. (Until then, territorial picks were devoted solely to college players.) Chamberlain would be eligible to play for the Warriors when his college class graduated in 1959.

Chamberlain's debut for the Kansas varsity in 1956 was spectacular; he set a school record by scoring 52 points. A first-team All-American, he led the Jayhawks into the NCAA final. But Kansas came up short, losing 54-53 to undefeated North Carolina in three overtimes. Chamberlain was voted the most outstanding player of the Final Four.

The next season, he was again an All-American. Though he averaged 29.9 points and 18.9 rebounds in his two years, he was weary of being double- and triple-teamed. He also wanted to be paid. So he joined the Harlem Globetrotters for a season.

Chamberlain became a Warrior in 1959 and made his presence felt from the opening game with 43 points and 28 rebounds. He led the league in scoring (37.6 points per game) and rebounding (27) and became the first player to win MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in the same season.

Chamberlain repeated as scoring and rebounding champion in his second and third seasons. In 1960-61, he became the first player to score 3,000 points in a season, netting 3,033 to average 38.4.

But it's what Chamberlain accomplished in 1961-62 that likely will never be surpassed. That's when he averaged his 48.5 minutes (the Warriors played 10 overtime periods and he played all but eight of 3,890 minutes that season) and 50.4 points, becoming the only player to crack the 4,000-point barrier (he had 4,029).

Chamberlain scored 78 points (in three overtimes) in one game and 73 points a month later. Though these were the two highest scoring games in NBA history, they were merely warm-up acts. On March 2, 1962, Wilt scored 100 in a 169-147 victory over the Knicks at Hershey, Pa. After scoring 41in the first half, Chamberlain got 28 in the third period and 31 in the fourth quarter. He made 36-of-63 field goals and, incredibly, converted 28-of-32 foul shots.

Before the next season the Warriors, who had the league's top gate attraction in Chamberlain, moved to San Francisco. Wilt won another scoring title (44.8 points) and rebounding crown (24.3).

At the 1965 All-Star break, Chamberlain was traded by the financially strapped Warriors back to Philadelphia (the Syracuse Nats had moved there and taken the name 76ers) for Paul Neumann, Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer and cash.

The 1966-67 season belonged to the 76ers, who started 46-4 on the way to 68-13. Coach Alex Hannum convinced Chamberlain that with all the other talented scorers on the team, he should focus his talents more on other aspects of the game. Wilt's scoring average dipped to 24.3, but he led the league in rebounding (24.2), finished third in assists (7.8) and played terrific defense. The 76ers manhandled the Celtics in the East finals and then defeated San Francisco in six games in the Finals.

Wilt Chamberlain
Chamberlain was the 1972 Finals MVP for the Lakers.
In 1967-68, Chamberlain earned his third straight MVP, leading the league in assists (8.6), rebounding (23.8), field-goal percentage (.595) and finishing third in scoring (24.3). But after the 76ers blew a 3-1 lead in the East finals to Boston, Chamberlain was traded that summer to the Lakers for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff.

In his second year with LA, he injured his knee nine games into the season and didn't return until three games remained.

Chamberlain averaged 20.7 in 1970-71 and his scoring went down even more the next season, to 14.8. But that year proved to be one of the most rewarding in Chamberlain's career. The Lakers went on a record 33-game winning streak on the way to a then-record 69-13. Chamberlain was voted the 1972 Finals MVP as the Lakers defeated the Knicks in five games.

In 1972-73, Chamberlain again led the league in rebounding (18.6), while his scoring dropped to a career-low 13.2. The Lakers again played New York in the Finals, but this time it was the Knicks who took the championship with a victory in Game 5.

Chamberlain didn't know it at the time, but that was his last game. He would leave the NBA with records of 31,419 points and 23,924 rebounds. Nobody has passed the Big Dipper on the boards, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has scored more points and Michael Jordan has a higher average.

In 1973, the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association signed Chamberlain as a player-coach. But a Lakers' lawsuit blocked Chamberlain from playing (he owed the team the option year on his contract) though the judge allowed him to become basketball's biggest coach. Chamberlain went 37-47 in his one season as coach.

Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, Chamberlain talked about returning to the NBA when he was in his late 40s. However, that wound up just a tall tale.

Chamberlain, who ran marathon races and seemed to be the epitome of fitness, died at 63 on Oct. 12, 1999 because of heart failure.

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