If Wilt Chamberlain had played in the Twitter age, he would have been a constant trending topic. If ESPN existed during his career, Pedro Gomez would have camped out at his locker every day, as was the case when the four-letter network’s ace reporter was tracking Barry Bonds. (Only difference is, Wilt would have talked to him.)
But because he came along well before 24-hour news cycles, 140-character wisdom, first-time callers/long-time listeners and (lucky for him) Skip Bayless, Chamberlain’s legend has diminished somewhat. There’s not even any video of his 100-point game in March 1962, for goodness sake, just some grainy audio of the play-by-play call by the late Bill Campbell.
Other video survives, of course, but much of what we know about Wilt’s greatness has been passed along by word of mouth.
OMG, as the kids like to say.
So listen up, you whippersnappers (and get off my lawn): This guy might not only be the Ultimate Philly Athlete, he might be the greatest basketball player of all time.
Blasphemy, you say. Everyone knows Michael Jordan retired that trophy long ago, just as everyone knows Shaquille O’Neal (and not Wilt) is the finest big man ever.
I’m not saying either of those things isn’t true, so take your hands off the keyboard, and slowly back away. I’m just saying neither is an open-and-shut case. That we need to hear the facts, and we need to hear from some of Wilt’s contemporaries.
You know what Jordan’s career scoring average was? 30.12.
You know what Wilt’s was? 30.07.
You know how many records Wilt holds or shares now, 42 years after his career ended, and 16 after his death? Seventy-one, according to NBA.com.
You know how many Jordan holds? Fifty-eight.
It is at this point, of course, that we get into ring-counting. Jordan won six championships, Shaq four, Wilt just two. But if that’s a measure of individual greatness, isn’t Bill Russell – Wilt’s long-time nemesis — the fairest of them all? After all, he won 11 titles with the Celtics.
Wilt, who began his pro career in 1959 with the old Philadelphia Warriors and later spent three and a half seasons with the Sixers, generated over 31,000 points and over 23,000 rebounds in 14 seasons. He still has five of the top six scoring seasons ever, topped by his ridiculous 50.4 average in 1961-62. He still has six of the top seven rebounding seasons ever. One year he averaged 48.5 minutes a game. (Footnote for non-hoopheads: An NBA game is 48 minutes long.) Another year he led the league in assists. He also grabbed 55 boards in one game, against no less an opponent than Mr. Russell himself.
He was, Fred Carter once told me, “the Colossus of Rhodes.”
“There’s only one Big Fellah,” Carter said when I interviewed him for a book I co-authored, 100 Things 76ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (released by Triumph in November). “Everybody else was just tall. … I hear guys say that Shaq’s the most dominant player to ever play, and I say, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they say.'”
Carter is hardly an objective source on this topic, as he is a Philly guy, and a guy whose eight-year career (1970-77) overlapped in part with Chamberlain’s. Carter played for the Sixers for five-plus seasons (he was notably the MVP of the infamous 9-73 team in 1972-73) and later served as the team’s head coach for a little over a season (1992-94).
Just goes to show that those still banging the drum for Wilt are as impassioned as those who would deride him for the fact that he didn’t win enough, didn’t make enough free throws (just 51 percent in his career) or didn’t take his craft as seriously as he might have. (Witness his claim about the 20,000 women he supposedly, uh, slept with.)
Wali Jones also remains in Chamberlain’s corner. He too is a Philadelphia native, and was the point guard on the Sixers’ Wilt-led 1966-67 championship team.
“The greatest basketball player ever is Wilt Chamberlain,” Jones told me in an interview for the aforementioned book. “The greatest winner of all time is Bill Russell. One of the greatest players to play the game: Michael Jordan.”
Wilt showed his chops early (he starred not only in hoops but track and field at Overbrook High) and late (he played beach volleyball after retiring from the NBA, and Harold Katz, the Sixers’ owner from 1982-96, asked Wilt about coming back to play for the team when he was in his 40s).
But all those memories have faded over time, too.
“Nobody loves Goliath,” he once famously said.
That seems especially true now.
Gordie Jones covers the Sixers for SportsXchange. Photo by the Philadelphia Bulletin via the Temple University Archives.