|Thursday, October 14
|LOS ANGELES -- Wilt Chamberlain dominated basketball for decades, setting records that will probably stand forever and even forcing the sport to change its rules to make it harder for him to score.
Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 center who once scored 100 points in a game and whose grace and power made him one of the elite athletes in any sport, died at his Bel Air home Tuesday. He was 63.
Chamberlain was found dead in his bed at his Bel-Air home at about 12:30 p.m. PT, police said.
Wilt Chamberlain's agent Sy Goldberg said Wednesday that the Hall of Famer died of congestive heart failure, and for about a month, doctors had been draining his legs of fluid that had accumulated because of the heart problem.
When he retired in 1973, Chamberlain had more points and more rebounds than any NBA player, and he will always be remembered for epic battles against his friend Russell and the Celtics. Chamberlain, 4 inches taller than Russell, often seemed to be viewed as the villain in his classic matchups against the Celtics' center.
Former Lakers teammate Jerry West said he once told Chamberlain, "Nobody roots for Goliath."
Red Auerbach, coach of those great Boston teams, admired Chamberlain.
"Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of the NBA," Auerbach said. "His dominance, power, demeanor and the rivalry with Bill Russell says it all."
Chamberlain starred in the NBA from 1959 through 1973, when he played for the Philadelphia (later the San Francisco) Warriors, 76ers and Lakers.
He scored 31,419 points during his career, a record until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke it in 1984. Chamberlain never fouled out in 1,205 regular-season and playoff games and he holds the record for career rebounding with 23,924.
"Wilt was one of the greatest ever, and we will never see another one like him," Abdul-Jabbar said.
Michael Jordan, an NBA rookie 11 years after Chamberlain retired, said: "His legacy as one of the NBA's greatest players and his achievements will stand for all time."
Chamberlain, who began his professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1958, was one of only two men to win the MVP and rookie of the year awards in the same season (1959-60). He was also MVP in 1966 through 1968. He led the NBA in scoring seven straight seasons, 1960-66, and led the league in rebounding 11 of his 14 seasons.
"We truly lost one of the icons of professional basketball and, more importantly for myself, someone who I've known for almost 40 years," said a teary-eyed West, now the Lakers' vice president.
After Chamberlain retired, he made news of a different sort, stirring controversy -- and a litany of jokes -- by claiming in his 1991 biography that he had had sex with 20,000 women, averaging 1.2 a day from the time he was 15.
His most famous record is the 100 points he scored in the Philadelphia Warriors' 169-147 defeat of the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pa.
"I spent 12 years in his armpits, and I always carried that 100-point game on my shoulders," Darrall Imhoff, the former Knicks center, said Tuesday.
"After I got my third foul, I said to one of the officials, Willy Smith, 'Why don't you just give him 100 points and we'll all go home?' Well, we did."
Chamberlain also holds the single-game record for rebounds, 55, against the Russell-led Celtics in 1960. He averaged 30.1 points in his career, including a record 50.4 in the 1961-62 season with Philadelphia. He also was one of the most versatile big men ever, with an NBA-high 702 assists in 1967-68.
Chamberlain led his team into the NBA playoffs 13 times, but won just two championships. The first came in 1966-67 with the Philadelphia 76ers, the second in 1971-72 with the Lakers, who won a record 33 straight games.
His teams lost in the NBA Finals four other times and were beaten in the conference final six times.
Russell and the Celtics almost always seemed to be the stoppers for Chamberlain-led teams, beating them twice in the championship series and five times in the conference finals. Three times, a series was decided by a seventh game that Boston won by either one or two points.
"Many have called our competition the greatest rivalry in the history of sports," Russell said. "We didn't have a rivalry; we had a genuinely fierce competition that was based on friendship and respect. We just loved playing against each other.
"The fierceness of the competition bonded us as friends for eternity. We loved competition. Wilt loved competition."
Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born Aug. 21, 1936, in Philadelphia and didn't play basketball until he was in seventh grade. He grew 4 inches in three months when he was 15 and was 6-11 when he entered Philadelphia's Overbrook High School.
After leading Overbrook to three public school championships and two all-city titles, Chamberlain became one of the most recruited players ever as more than 200 colleges expressed interest.
He chose the University of Kansas and Hall of Fame coach Phog Allen. In Chamberlain's first game against the Kansas varsity -- freshmen weren't allowed to compete against other teams then -- he scored 50 points before a packed Allen Fieldhouse crowd of more than 15,000.
The next year, Chamberlain scored 52 points against Northwestern in his first game, a total he never surpassed in college, partly because of zone defenses designed to keep him from getting the ball.
As a sophomore, he led the 1957 Jayhawks to the NCAA Tournament finals, where Kansas lost to unbeaten North Carolina in triple overtime.
Frustrated by the smothering zone defenses, Chamberlain left Kansas after his junior year and went barnstorming with the Globetrotters.
Chamberlain, extremely agile for his size, ran cross-country in high school and was an outstanding high jumper and shot-putter at Kansas.
He remained active after his NBA career and was considered an outstanding volleyball player. He also ran in the Honolulu marathon in recent years.
In January 1998, Chamberlain made his first official visit to Kansas since his college career ended 40 years earlier. His jersey was raised to the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse.
"I've learned in life that you have to take the bitter with the sweet, and how sweet this is," Chamberlain said at the ceremony, obviously touched.
West knew that side of him.
"He was a smart guy, he was well-read. He was an authority on everything. He had this bluster about him," West said. "And on the inside, he was a soft guy."
Chamberlain is survived by sisters Barbara Lewis, Margaret Lane, Selina Gross and Yvonne Chamberlain, and brothers Wilbert and Oliver Chamberlain.
Chamberlain's funeral will be held Saturday, Goldberg said.
The 10 a.m. PT service at City of Angels Church of Religious Service will have limited seating for the public, said Goldberg.
Messages for the Chamberlain family may be sent in care of
Seymour Goldberg, Attorney, 13470 Washington Blvd., Suite 201,
Marina del Rey, Calif. 90292.
Agent: Chamberlain died of congestive heart failure
Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Billy Cunningham talk about Chamberlain on Up Close.