“The only way to stop Wilt and his dunk shot is to lock him in the dressing room or use a shotgun” – Bill Russell
Wilt Chamberlain died alone – no wife by his side, no children to see him off. His gardener discovered his body.
In the last month of his life, he had grown gaunt. His sister, Barbara, estimated that he had lost 50 pounds following dental surgery to remove teeth, mangled from an elbow on the basketball court some 30 years previous.
Chamberlain complained, saying his teeth were causing him the worst pain of his entire life.
Complaints were uncharacteristic of Wilt, the 1960s pop culture symbol of masculinity: He claimed to have killed a mountain lion with his bare hands. He claimed to have driven his Lamborghini from New York City to L.A. in 36 hours and 10 minutes — what would have been a world record at the time. His signature look, even in middle age, was a black-tank top that flossed his 23-inch biceps.
What was you’re playing weight? About 275, 280, A reporter once asked.
No, no, no, Wilt cackled back, in the way he always did when he felt someone was diminishing or underestimating him. My playing weight was around 300, 310! He replied.
Seven-foot, 260 pound Patrick Ewing first met Chamberlain shortly after the goliath turned 50.
He looked big? New York Times reporter Ira Berkow asked.
Big? Ewing shot back, wide-eyed. He looked huge!
Wilt was a genetic miracle, one of Professor X’s mutant’s come to life: 7-foot-1, 300-plus pounds, with a wingspan somewhere between seven feet-eight inches and eight feet-four inches. He possessed a max reach of 13 feet. He ran a forty-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
“He would do a triceps extension – the strongest guys would do 120 pounds,“ Arnold Schwarzenegger told Bill Simmons in 2013. “He would come to the gym and do 150, 170 pounds. That’s how strong Wilt Chamberlain was.“
About the mountain lion, the story goes something like this:
Wilt, out for a drive, pulled over somewhere in the wilderness of Southern California, in need of bodily relief.
The Mountain Lion emerged from the darkness of the night, sinking a meaty claw into the Dipper’s shoulder.
Wilt, with the same strength used to wrestle Grace Jones off of his back in Conan the Destroyer, forced the 220-pound Cougar to the ground. Then, in an act of Greek Godliness, hurled the beast off of a cliff.
Cal Ramsey who played in 13 NBA games over two seasons partially collaborated the story, saying Wilt showed him claw scars on his shoulder.
Wilt was the Shaq of his day, but unlike Shaq, Wilt was always treated as a carnival freak by the fans and the press. His size, strength and power were used against him. His successes became attributions of his height. His failures became indictments on his character.
In a 1968 issue of Pro Basketball magazine, Leonard Koppet wrote:
Did he average 50 points in a game for a whole season? Ridiculous. He shot too much and loafed on defense. Did he (after a couple of years) pay more attention to defense? See he wasn’t scoring the way he should. Did he play every minute of every game? Silly and selfish, because he’d be more effective with a rest once and a while. Did he take (and make) fadeaway jump shots? Stupid because he should turn toward the basket. Did he go to the basket? Then his field goal percentage shouldn’t count, and besides he was charging all the time and they wouldn’t call it.
Wilt was acutely aware of the public’s perception of him – that he was selfish, a stat-complier, a loser. He famously said, “Everybody pulls for David. Nobody roots for Goliath.”
The mounting criticisms made Wilt boastful. He became prone to embellishments – he knocked out the 300-pound Clyde Lovette with one punch; in an alcohol-induced fog at a dinner party he twice bested Jim Brown in a foot race. Of course the biggest whopper of them all he published – his 20,000 sexual conquests.
His life became an exercise in disproving his critics. He was defiant in the face of what he was expected to be off the court – famously campaigning for Richard Nixon.
Wilt fucked his way through the campaign staff and volunteers, a campaign staffer said.
On the court that defiance was watered down. Instead of digging his heals in, Wilt tried to modify his game in an effort to win over his detractors. He was called selfish, so he led the league in assists – the only center to ever to do so. He was chastised for being a bull at the basket, so he developed a fadeaway jump shot. He was cast as the leagues biggest villain, so he went soft on an injured Willis Reed in the NBA Finals.
In spite of the criticisms and how he responded to them, Wilt put up gaudy numbers – the type of statistics that would break the Internet in 2016:
- 100 points in a game;
- 65 points or more in a game 15 times;
- He averaged 50 points per game over a whole season;
- 55 rebounds in a game;
- 48.5 minutes per game over a full season;
- In over 1,000 career games, he never fouled out;
- In the 1961-62 season he scored a field goal every two minutes and 26 seconds.
And yet, somehow we’ve become desensitized to these numbers.
In the decades since his retirement, Wilt has fallen victim to his own self-aggrandizement.
The numbers most associated with his legend: 20,000 (women), and two versus 11 (the number of championships he won to the number of championships Bill Russell won).
Wilt by the numbers, by Austin Murphy:
When you look at the raw numbers, a behemoth like Wilt Chamberlain starts to look slightly more mortal compared to fellow legends like Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Larry Bird. Over his fourteen seasons in the NBA, he amassed a grand total of 31,419 points – an astounding amount that for a time was the career record. In the years since his departure, however, we’ve seen the likes of Jordan, Kareem, and Kobe all surpass this mark (and it’s likely that LeBron will as well).
When it comes to rebounds, Wilt still holds the record among these six legends with a total of 23,924. Even in assists, he posts a respectable 4,643 – a number that puts him behind just Kareem in terms of centers to play in the NBA. Of course, Chamberlain comes up short in the championships department, winning just two titles compared to these other five greats who all won at least three. This lack of consistent team success is what people focus on when comparing “The Big Dipper” with his biggest rival, Russell.
The advanced statistics categories also paint a specific picture of how Wilt’s numbers were once the gold standard, only fading a bit now that players have come along to break his records. His career PER of 26.1 is 3rd among these legends, but his Win Shares of 247.3 and WS/48 minutes of .248 all put him in 2nd. Surprisingly, his career True Shooting percentage of .547 comes in 6th – shocking because Wilt spent so much of his time playing close to the basket instead of taking jumpers.
The most important testament to Wilt’s greatness, of course, comes in the form of his fabled 100-point game. Although we’ve seen players like Kobe Bryant, Klay Thompson, and Michael Jordan all put on individual displays in single game scoring, it would take a monumental feat to truly challenge this record or to overcome his other legendary feat of averaging 50 points per game over an entire season.
Where history has been particularly unkind to Wilt has been Russell.
The accepted narrative is Wilt, an evolutionary step ahead of the league, pasted 6’5” post-players who would barely make it in mid-major ball today. Russell, the only other modern player in a sea of slow-footed, white, sport-goggle-laden dinosaurs was the league’s antidote to the dipper. Besting him time and time again in heroic, David-like fashion.
Before looking at Russell, consider that when Wilt entered the league in 1959, there were only eight NBA teams. There was no expansion or oversaturation, night in, night out, Wilt was going up against the seven best big-men alive.
Also consider, without a three-point line, spacing the floor was more of a challenge, forcing Wilt into more defensive congestion near the basket.
Now, let’s look at a sampling of the center’s Wilt was defended by between 1959 and 1973:
Bill Russell (6’10”)
Dave Cowens (6’10”)
Willis Reed (6’9”)
Wes Unseld (6’7”)
Elvin Hayes (6’9″)
Zelmo Beaty (6’9″)
Bob Pettit (6’9″)
Elmore Smith (7’0″)
Neal Walk (6’10”)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7’2″)
Nate Bowman (6’10”)
Mel Counts (7’0″)
Nate Thurmond (6’11”)
Walt Bellamy (6’11”)
Bob Lanier (6’11”)
Swede Halbrook (7’3”)
Walter Dukes (7’0″)
Not exactly Wilt and the Curious Case of Pygmy men.
I’d take the cream of that crop over the 10 best NBA centers playing today.
As for how Wilt stacked up against Russell, it is true, that in 142 career head to head match-ups, Russell won 85 times to Wilt’s 57, but the numbers overwhelmingly support the assertion that Wilt dominated Russell in those games.
Against Russell, during regular season play, Wilt averaged 29.9 points per game.
For all the bluster that Russell was the ultimate competitor and greatest defender in NBA history, he only managed to keep Wilt .2 points below his career scoring average of 30.1 points per game.
Conversely, Russell scored 14.2 points per game against Wilt, nearly a full point below his career average of 15.1. Wilt defended Russell better than Russell defended Wilt. Again, Wilt defended Russell better than Russell defended Wilt.
Even more damning: When they went head to head, Wilt annihilated Russell on the glass: 28.7 rebounds per game to 14.7.
Wilt averaged six rebounds more than his career average while Russell’s dipped by eight.
Seven times Wilt scored more than 50 on Russell, once going for 65. Russell never scored more than 37 on Wilt – only scoring more than 30 three times.
Wilt set the NBA record of 55 rebounds in a game against Russell and seven times grabbed more than 40.
Yes, Russell won more. He also had the benefit of better teammates – SEVEN HALL OF FAMERS TO BE EXACT — and one of the greatest coaches – Red Auerbach – in NBA history. Wilt suffered through Butch Van Breda Kolff (among others) whom he referred to as “the dumbest coach I ever played for.” Van Breda Kolff refused to play Wilt in the final minutes of game 7 of the 69 finals – costing the Lakers a championship.
His dominance over Russell is inarguable.
In those 142 games, the average margin of victory was a mere nine points. That says Wilt put his teams on his massive shoulders and carried them. In a team game, wins never are reflections of one individual – nor are losses.
The press didn’t like Wilt.
Hatchet job after hatchet job took a toll.
As he aged, he grew more insular, more jaded – sometimes calling other black Americans “they.” He was susceptible to bouts of nastiness. He became resentful of his fans.
When his basketball statistics lost their cache, and the lone number that stood out was 20,000, a lifelong female consort of his speculated that he would rather stay in on a weekend evening, than risk being seen alone “to propagate the legend.” 1
Wilt was mythological: a man of excess, who designed custom cars and custom homes. But a lifetime of being the dipper left him guarded. The same consort guessed that given the choice he would have rather died alone, as he lived.
*Stats per Pro Basketball Reference
* Reference material Wilt, 1962 by Gary M. Pomerantz