Wilt Chamberlain

Click to follow
The Independent Online

SOME SPORTS records last. Others don't. Almost never though does the prowess of a single player force a sport to change its rules. And that perhaps, more even than the dozens of times his name crops up in the statistical annals of the National Basketball Association, is the measure of the greatness of Wilt Chamberlain.

SOME SPORTS records last. Others don't. Almost never though does the prowess of a single player force a sport to change its rules. And that perhaps, more even than the dozens of times his name crops up in the statistical annals of the National Basketball Association, is the measure of the greatness of Wilt Chamberlain.

One of 11 children of a Philadelphia odd-job man, he stormed upon the NBA like a black Goliath in 1960 and in a few years rewrote its record books. So irresistible was he that the NBA widened the free throw lane to force Chamberlain further from the basket, and make those legendary scoring achievements a mite more difficult.

None was more legendary than the 100 points he piled up on 2 March 1962 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, for the Philadelphia Warriors in their 169-147 victory against the New York Knicks. Nothing like it had been seen before, and no one has come near it since. The impact was equivalent to an England striker scoring every goal in a 6-0 win over Brazil, or if Jim Laker had taken not 19 but all 20 Australian wickets in the Old Trafford test of 1956. Even for Chamberlain it was a one-off. For all his scoring repertoire of sinewy finger-rolls, rippling fadeway jumpers and savage dunks, he was usually a dismal performer with the free throw. Not that night in Hershey however, when he made 28 shots out of 32.

Later Chamberlain would become irritated at the mythic status conferred on the 100-point game, insisting that the only records which really mattered were those amassed over a long spell. But he set plenty of those too - some of which would outlive him, 26 years after his last NBA game, and not withstanding every feat of Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the like in the meantime.

No one for instance, not even Jordan, has even approached the season's average of 50.4 points a game Chamberlain racked up in 1962. Jordan managed to score 50 points in a game 30 times, placing him second on the all-time list. Chamberlain did so on no fewer than 118 occasions. Between 1960 and 1967, he led the league in scoring for seven straight seasons. True, Jordan edged him in career points per game (31.5 to 30.1) - but only because in his last five seasons with the LA Lakers, Chamberlain was in a line-up whose more potent offence meant that he had more chance to display his often overlooked defensive skills.

Not only could Chamberlain clock up points faster than a pinball machine. He was also as accomplished a shot-blocker as anyone in the NBA. But, despite the change to his game, his record career points total of 31,419 survived more than a decade until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar topped it in 1984. Chamberlain was also justifiably proud too of his durability, leading the league in minutes played for eight of his 13 pro seasons. And not once did he foul out in 1,045 games, most of them in the highly physical position of centre.

The word which summed him up on court was "dominant". There might have been one or two technically finer players, but none as overpowering. At 7ft 1in and 275lb, almost 20 stone, he was one of the first physical titans of basketball. Although the tabloids dubbed him "Wilt the Stilt" (a nickname he detested) Chamberlain's height belied an extraordinary agility, and an ability to play as if suspended in the heavens. Hence perhaps his other sobriquet of "the Big Dipper" - the name Americans give to the Plough, the seven brightest stars in the constellation Ursa Major. Chamberlain was the model for superstar centres of later generations, among them Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers today.

Only in terms of trophies did he disappoint. Chamberlain's particular misfortune was to find himself up against the great Boston Celtics teams of his prime years, led by the centre Bill Russell. Their duels provided one of the most compelling rivalries in any sport. But, while Chamberlain was 13 times in play-off teams, only twice did he win NBA championships. The nemesis, unfailingly, would be the Celtics.

As with many a sporting celebrity, modesty was not Chamberlain's strongest suit. Probably rightly, he bragged he could have become a household name as an athlete, a football player or boxer, and more than once issued tongue-in-cheek challenges for a bout with Muhammad Ali. But surely the least appealing (and certainly least verifiable) of the statistics associated with Wilt Chamberlain is the claim advanced in his 1991 autobiography A View From Above that, though he never married, he had had sex with 20,000 women - "equal to 1.2 women a day, every day since I was 15".

The calculation made him a laughing-stock on the late-night shows, and drew harsh criticism from black leaders of lending credence to the notion that a black man's only means of expression was his sexuality. The episode also partly obscured the legend of Chamberlain the player. But as he himself once noted, "Nobody ever roots for Goliath."

Comments