|Wednesday, October 13
|Wilt Chamberlain was scary, flat-out frightening. That's because
before he came along, most basketball players were mortal-sized
men. Chamberlain changed that.
He was more than a big man. He was a giant.
In the days before cable television, it was tough to get a
handle on every player, every prospect in the country. Chamberlain
changed that, too. That's how special a player he was.
There was a buzz in basketball circles in the early 1950s about
this spindly 6-foot-11 kid at Overbrook High School in
Philadelphia, who seemed to score points almost at will. That's
because he towered over the other players.
He grew to be 7-foot-1, so big that he could dominate games with
very little effort. But that wasn't Wilt's way. He worked at
basketball, used his great height and raw strength to take over
Chamberlain's impact began in warmups. He would trot out
regally, wearing a headband and a glare, and lope around the court.
Opposing players would shoot glances at him and their expressions
How do you deal with Goliath, a guy who's a foot taller than
most of the other players on the court?
North Carolina, coached by the brilliant Frank McGuire, came up
with a unique solution. In the 1957 NCAA championship game against
Chamberlain and Kansas, McGuire sent out his shortest player, Tommy
Kearns, for the opening tap, trying to rattle the big man.
It was as if Carolina was thumbing its nose at Chamberlain,
saying it was unconcerned with his presence. After that, though,
the Tar Heels stopped playing coy, spending the rest of night
triple-teaming him -- one defender in front, one behind and a third
arriving as soon as he got the ball.
The game went three overtimes and Carolina won. For years
afterward, Chamberlain considered it his most devastating loss.
After two years at Kansas, where he averaged 29.9 points and
18.3 rebounds, Chamberlain turned pro, first with the Harlem
Globetrotters and then in the NBA. It was there that he found a
fitting rival, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics.
Russell wasn't quite as tall as Chamberlain, but he was a
defensive genius, the moving force behind the Celtics' dynasty.
Their battles were monumental, a study in big man basketball.
Often, Chamberlain wound up as frustrated by Russell as he had been
by the triple overtime loss to North Carolina.
Chamberlain assembled some remarkable statistics.
He scored 31,419 points during his career, a record until Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar broke it in 1984, and holds the record for career
rebounding with 23,924.
He led the NBA in scoring seven straight seasons, 1960-66, and
led the league in rebounding 11 of his 14 seasons. He averaged 30.1
points a game in his career, and pushed that to a record 50.4 in
1961-62. He even led the league in assists with 702 in 1967-68.
"Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of
the NBA," said longtime Boston coach and GM Red Auerbach. "His
dominance, power, demeanor and the rivalry with Bill Russell says
Then there were the free throws.
Chamberlain was the dominant scorer and dominant rebounder of
his time. His trouble came when he had to shoot foul shots. They
mystified him. He tried different regimens -- underhanded,
two-handed -- but nothing ever worked very well for him. It was the
one chink in Goliath's armor.
But in his greatest game, Chamberlain solved the free-throw
mystery, too. On March 2, 1962, in an NBA game hidden away in
Hershey, Pa., he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks.
That night, he converted 28 of 32 foul shots.
"I get constant reminders from fans who equate that game and my career as one and the same," Chamberlain said years later.
"People don't talk about the 50-point average, the 69-13 Lakers
championship team I played for. They talk about the night I scored
"That's my tag, whether I like it or not."
Chamberlain was a versatile athlete, a track standout, who also
was fascinated by tennis and volleyball. He ran marathons and was
an awesome physical specimen. A few years ago, there was even some
talk -- some believed it was whimsical but others took it seriously
-- of Wilt signing a 10-day contract to help a big man-depleted NBA
Wilt was always open to all offers. The message on his answering
machine made that clear.
It said: "When and where and I'll take it from there."
NBA legend Chamberlain dead at 63