The term “larger than life” was, and continues to be, inspired by the career and life of Wilt Chamberlain. If we went over the complete span of Chamberlain’s life with a fine-toothed comb, we would see that his unprecedented contributions to culture and society are as lengthy as the NBA records he holds, nearly 40 years after his retirement.
As the NBA has evolved in the decades that followed Wilt Chamberlain’s retirement, it seemed as if his shortcomings outweighed his complete dominance of a sport that instituted rules and altered its dimensions because of him. These changes seemed to have rendered his accomplishments as mere gimmicks, rather than sheer greatness.
While the feats of baseball’s Babe Ruth continue to be celebrated, even as his numbers slowly fade from the record books, the same cannot be same for Wilt — raising the question if the NBA has done enough to sustain the Big Dipper’s legacy.
Even in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of his 100-point performance, the greatest individual performance in the history of sports, many will choose to remember the number 20,000 — the number of women that Chamberlain claimed to have had encountered over the course of his life.
This isn’t fair.
After leaving the University of Kansas after his junior season, Chamberlain joined the Harlem Globertrotters because the NBA would not allow players to enter the league without finishing their final season of studies.
His contract with the Globetrotters was for a then-unheard of $50,000, doubling the salary of Bob Cousy, who was the NBA’s highest paid player at $25,000. The team made history by playing sold out games in Moscow, in front of Russian General Secretary Nikita Krushchev.
Chamberlain fell the lap of his hometown Philadelphia Warriors after Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb argued that there was no team in the Kansas area at the time and that Chamberlain should be allowed to play his hometown team.
The argument was accepted, making Chamberlain the first “territorial pick” selected on his pre-collegiate roots.
Chamberlain’s rookie season would be unlike any that the NBA had seen before, or since, averaging 37 points and 27 rebounds. In that season, an epic rivalry formed between Chamberlain and the Boston Celtics Bill Russell that would become a painful footnote in Wilt’s career.
Although they were fierce competitors on the court, once the clock struck zero, the two men became life-long friends.
Bill Russell’s dealings with the racial tension in Boston while a member of the Celtics is well documented, and although Chamberlain is criticized in some circles for not being as outspoken as other athletes of the day during the Civil Rights Movement, he did privately offer his support of Russell and others that encountered similar situations.
Chamberlain, through no fault of his own, was unable to enjoy the on-court success that Russell did. The reason is simple; Russell had a better supporting cast full of future hall-of-famers. If Chamberlain had played in Boston, the Celtics would still have won titles — but Chamberlain, not Jerry West, would be the logo of the NBA.
The love affair with Russell and the Celtic mystique was none more evident than in the 1961-62 season, when Russell was named NBA MVP, despite Chamberlain leading the league in scoring (50.4) and rebounding (25.7), and was second in field goal percentage (.506), including his 100-point performance, which capped off, without question, the single greatest season in NBA history.
Evan as Chamberlain entered retirement, and other big men came along, they were all compared to Wilt – not in terms of numbers, but in terms of dominance. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Artis Gilmore, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwan, Patrick Ewing and finally Shaquille O’Neal have all at some point been measured to Chamberlain, only to come up short. Chamberlain enjoyed just as profitable a life after basketball, investing in volleyball and track and field teams. Twice, he even flirted with the idea of rejoining the NBA in the 1980s.
Maybe it’s the ESPN highlight age that we live in, or the fact that many of Wilt’s games had to be seen live to be appreciated, that the younger generation doesn’t know who Wilt Chamberlain really is.
The name Wilt Chamberlain is just as important to the game of basketball as Babe Ruth is to baseball, and Jim Brown to football.
Somewhere along the way that was forgotten.