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8 Upper

The Big Game

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/20/1999

This is what they said about Wilt Chamberlain when he died last week: He was ahead of his time. He was the most dominant basketball player ever. It sounded like praise, but it was praise that had been carefully hollowed out. Even after his death, people were still trying to change the rules to cut down the big man.

The underlying message is that the game was too easy for Chamberlain. The NBA was still young when he came along; the talent pool had not blossomed. He was huge and strong and fast, sure, but he made his debut in 1959, in a league that was tiny and plodding. It wasn't the real NBA, not like it is now.

Chamberlain is not around to rebut these claims anymore. But before he fades into historical indistinctness, like Jim Thorpe or Walter Johnson, we should set the record straight: Wilt Chamberlain was not simply the "most dominant" basketball player ever, or the "most unstoppable," or any of the other hedging praises heaped on his extra-long coffin. He was the best player ever.

"The books don't lie," Oscar Robertson reportedly said, when asked if Chamberlain was the greatest. And what the NBA record book says about Wilt is clear and simple. I went over this when Michael Jordan retired, but it bears repeating. There is that 100-point game, and the 78-point game, and those two 73-point games—all exceeding the highest total anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain ever posted. He notched 49 of the 73 58-plus-point games. Most rebounds in a game: Chamberlain, 55. Highest shooting percentage, season: Chamberlain, .727. Second-highest: Chamberlain, .684.

It goes on. Most field goals in a game, none missed: Chamberlain, 18. Second-most: Chamberlain, 16. Third-most: Chamberlain, 15. This is what the Baseball Encyclopedia would look like if Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Henry Aaron had all been the same person. If anyone had kept track of blocked shots and offensive rebounding in the '60s, Wilt would own that swath of the book too.

If he was ahead of his time, then when did that time come? Is today's NBA overstocked with 7-footers who can run the floor and shoot from all angles? Here are some of the folks slated to show up for the center jump when the season opens Nov. 2: Horace Grant, Tony Battie, Greg Ostertag, Don Reid, Sean Rooks, and Raef LaFrentz.

Nor was the league that Chamberlain ruled quite so hapless. When he led the league in scoring his rookie year, he beat out (among others) Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, and Bob Cousy. When he led it in rebounding in his final season, he beat out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and Bob Lanier. In between, amid all his scoring and rebounding titles, he even beat out Lenny Wilkens and Oscar Robertson for the 1967-68 assists title.

And then, of course, there was William Felton Russell. Chamberlain's nemesis, the papers remind us. The man who thwarted Chamberlain's playoff hopes. Bill Russell himself is more circumspect; those 55 rebounds in the record book, after all, were collected against Russell and his Celtics. Still, Russell owns 11 championship rings, to Chamberlain's two.

When you look at it that way, Russell might have been a greater basketball player than Chamberlain. Then again, when you look at it that way, Yogi Berra might have been a greater baseball player than Ted Williams. To win multiple, dynastic championships, you need a gifted set of teammates, smart coaching, and sound team management. Russell was a tremendous player, possibly second only to Chamberlain. But he caught all the right breaks.

The subject of championships, of course, brings us to Jordan. Another great player, Jordan. But he was a guard, and Chamberlain was a center. If they ever could have played one-on-one, Chamberlain would have swatted away every shot Jordan took. If you gave each one an identical set of teammates—say, the 97-98 Pacers—Wilt's team would lock down the rebounds, roll up points in the paint, and take control.

Wilt's eulogists, with all their talk of "unstoppable force," seemed to be discounting this advantage, as if to say, of course he was good at basketball, he was more than 7 feet tall. That's right, he was. You can't discount his accomplishments on those grounds any more than you can discount Larry Bird for having freaky hand-eye coordination, or Jordan for having ridiculously springy legs.

Besides, physical gifts clearly aren't enough. Shaquille O'Neal gets called an unstoppable force too, because he's 7-foot-1 and 315 pounds. But O'Neal is the anti-Wilt. He can't string two halves of good basketball together, let alone two games. His single-game highs are 53 points and 28 rebounds. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game one year, and 27.2 rebounds another.

This may be the key to understanding Wilt's greatness. When people talk about champions such as Jordan and Russell, they speak of their willpower, their drive, their determination. But Chamberlain put the ball in the hole 1,597 times in a single year. He hauled down 23,924 rebounds in his career. He could do things that no one else could, and he did them night after night after night.

You want desire? Take March 2, 1962, the night Chamberlain hit 36 of 63 shots from the floor and 28 of 32 free throws, for that incredible 100. He did it in Hershey, Pa., for the benefit of 4,124 spectators and zero TV cameras. He used skills that night he learned from Phog Allen at Kansas, who learned them from James Naismith, who nailed up the first peach baskets; he used skills he learned with the Harlem Globetrotters. He put it all together, the moves and the size and the power. And no one has done anything like it since.

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