A tower of strength and athleticism, Wilton Norman Chamberlain, who stood 7 feet one and one-sixteenth inches tall, ranks as perhaps the most powerful presence ever to play in the National Basketball Association, seemingly able to score and rebound at will from the time he entered the league in 1959. Known as the “Big Dipper” and “Wilt the Stilt” (a nickname he detested), Chamberlain is the only NBA player ever to score 100 points in a single game, which the center accomplished playing for the Philadelphia Warriors in a game played in a half-filled arena in Hershey, Pa., on March 2, 1962.
“It was something you couldn’t believe,” said Warriors’ play-by-play broadcaster Bill Campbell, who was there when Chamberlain scored his last basket in the closing seconds of the Warriors’ 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks. “As he got closer and closer to 100, he just seemed to will it. “
A track and field star in high school (Overbrook in Philadelphia) and college (University of Kansas) who excelled in the high jump and shot put, Chamberlain’s massive size—he was listed at 275 pounds and eventually played at over 300 pounds, outweighing the average NBA center of his time by nearly 70 pounds—was complemented by other-worldly strength, agility and gracefulness.
Detroit Pistons center Bob Lanier, a formidable presence in his own right (6 foot 10 and 270 pounds), once was asked in a questionnaire to describe the most memorable moment of his athletic career. He wrote, “When Wilt Chamberlain lifted me up and moved me like a coffee cup so he could get a favorable position.’’
Chamberlain played for three NBA teams—the Philadelphia (San Francisco) Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers. By the time he retired after the 1972-73 season, he was the NBA’s all-time leader in points (31,419) and rebounds (23,924) and owned more than 90 records. His scoring record eventually was broken by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Dirk Nowitzki, all of whom played in more games than Wilt. He still holds the rebounding record, more than 2,000 rebounds ahead of runner-up Bill Russell.
Chamberlain’s impact on the game was so great, he forced the NBA to make multiple changes to its rulebook, instituting offensive goaltending, widening the lanes, changing how teams inbounded the ball and how they shot free throws.
A four-time league MVP, Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring for seven straight seasons, in rebounding for 11 seasons and in assists once. In 1,205 games, he never fouled out. And in the 1961-62 season, just two years after he had been named both the MVP and the rookie of the year, he averaged more than 50 points a game for the Warriors, becoming the only player in NBA history to score 4,000 points in a season. Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford once wrote, “to almost everyone he encountered, Wilt appeared simply larger than life, a human optical illusion. He loomed. It was as if he blocked out the sun.’’
But for all of his astonishing physical gifts and statistical achievements, Chamberlain’s career was defined by his coming up short in his head-to-head duels with Russell of the Boston Celtics, a rivalry that captivated the imaginations of sports fans and was the dominant theme of pro basketball in the ‘60s, much like the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry would define the NBA for later generations.
In 142 matchups, from 1959 to 1969, Chamberlain averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds. That’s 14 points and 5 rebounds better than Russell. But in the course of that decade, Chamberlain and Russell would go head-to-head eight times in the playoffs, and Chamberlain would come out a victor against Russell only once, in the 1966-67 Eastern Division finals, when the 76ers beat the Celtics in five games.
In his 15 NBA seasons, Chamberlain’s teams would win championships just twice, in 1967 with the 76ers and in 1972 with the Lakers, who won a record 33 consecutive games in the ’71-72 regular season. Russell’s Celtics teams won 11 championships, the most unexpected perhaps being the 1969 season, when an aging Celtics team finished fourth place in the Eastern Division in the regular season but defeated the Chamberlain-West-Baylor Lakers in the NBA finals in seven games. The deciding 108-106 Celtics win in Game 7 in the Los Angeles Forum controversially ended with Chamberlain on the bench with a sore knee.
“There was no comparison in their offensive abilities,” Bill Melchionni, Chamberlain’s teammate on the 76ers, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Wilt was also a better rebounder and could have been as good a defensive player. But the teams Wilt played on weren’t as good. And until Alex Hannum came along, he didn’t have a strong coaching presence like [Boston’s Red] Auerbach to say, ‘No, this is not the way were going to do it.’ “
Chamberlain, who in 1971 briefly contemplated fighting heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, after retirement spent one season as coach of the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors and also acted in a movie, “Conan the Barbarian.” He became an accomplished beach volleyball player, even sponsoring a traveling indoor volleyball men’s team called The Big Dippers and a women’s team called The Little Dippers, and also sponsored track clubs. In 1976, when he was 49, the New York Nets reportedly offered him a half-million dollars to play the last two weeks of the regular season.
In 1978, in his first year of eligibility, Chamberlain was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and on Oct. 29, 1996, he was named one of the 50 greatest players in league history. He died of heart failure at age 63 on Oct, 12, 1999, at his home in Los Angeles.