“He was basketball’s unstoppable force, the most awesome offensive force the game has ever seen.”- NBA Encyclopedia on Wilt Chamberlain
“Wilt was one of the greatest ever, and we will never see another one like him” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
“Once Wilt got upset with me and dunked the ball so hard it went through the rim with such force that it broke my toe as it hit the floor.”-Johnny Kerr
“Obviously, he was both literally and figuratively a larger-than-life sports figure of the 20th century. He dominated his sport like almost no one else.”-Stan Kasten
“As I grew up, Wilt the Stilt was the player. Just the things he was able to do. I guess one year they told him he couldn’t make as much money as he wanted because he couldn’t pass the ball, so he went out and led the league in assists. Watching Wilt, you always kind of got the idea he was just playing with people. That he was on cruise control and still 10 times better than anybody else that was playing at that time.”-Dan Issel
How do you define greatness? Everybody defines greatness a little differently, and that’s ok. For the sake of clarity I’ll provide my definition of greatness. You can either accept it or reject it, that’s your choice, but I think you’ll find my arguments compelling either way. Basketball has been around for 123 years. It has been played professionally for almost seventy of those years. In that time the game has seen many greats, from Wilt, Bill Russell, and Kareem to Oscar, Magic, and Jordan. Larry Legend shot the long ball and Chocolate Thunder rattled the rim. The game today is dominated by the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and of course LeBron James. Of these players who is the greatest?
It’s important to understand what I mean when I say ‘the greatest’. To me greatest means the player that dominated the game the longest. It’s like looking back at the history of world civilization and picking who dominated the longest. Great empires like that of the ancient Chinese stand alongside the Egyptian empire, Alexander’s empire, the empire of Rome, and they tower above the rest of history. Surely we would not say the current United States empire extends beyond the reach of these mighty civilizations, though nobody would argue we could crush them with our military might and social influence. This is why I say greatness pertains to who dominates the longest and leaves the biggest impact. Nobody considers the U.S. in that discussion (yet) because we’ve only been around for a few hundred years and we weren’t exactly dominating that whole time.
So I make my case. Greatness is about who dominates the longest and with the biggest impact. It’s about how narrow or wide the margin between you and second best. This is why I believe that Wilt Chamberlain is and was the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. The only competition he really has is Michael Jordan. People of our generation are fond of saying Mike is the greatest ever because we all wanted to be ‘like Mike’. Michael was the superstar of our generation and he impacted the game in a global way. The only player since Michael to challenge his reign is LeBron James, and nobody can decisively say he’s taken the crown (yet).
Each great player in basketball history, indeed throughout all of time holds sway over an era. It is the length of that era that they control that determines their greatness. At the time nobody disputes it, it is only after their era has passed that their dominance comes into question. I contend this. I maintain that over the nearly 70 years that basketball has existed as a professional game, nobody dominated that game for longer than Wilt. Many of his records still stand today. I’m going to list a few of these records and statistics so you can see how Wilton Norman Chamberlain was literally and figuratively larger than life.
On March 2, 1962 Wilt scored 100 points on the New York Knicks. The only player to ever come close to that single game total was Kobe Bryant who scored 81. After the game, when asked how he now felt about Wilt’s performance Bryant described it as “unthinkable”.
Wilt still holds the single season scoring record, tacking up 4,029 points the same year as his 100 point game. No player has ever come close to surpassing 4,000 points.
His career average of 22.9 rebounds per game is still the most by any player in NBA history
He still holds the NBA record for career rebounds (23,924)
He scored 50 points 45 times in one season. No other player has done so more than ten times in one season.
He scored 60 points or more 32 times in one season.
He still holds the record for highest field goal percentage in one season (72%).
He shares the record for most consecutive seasons leading the league in scoring with M.J. at 7 apiece.
His 2,707 points in his first year is still the most points ever scored by a player in their Rookie Season.
He holds the 1st 2nd 3rd and 4th place records (in different seasons) for most field goals ever made, totaling 1,597 in the 61-62 season.
He averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds for an entire season far and away the best scoring and rebounding averages for any player.
He is one of only two players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season
His jersey has been retired six different times on six different teams
There are literally dozens of other selected statistics that I’ve chosen to leave off the list, simply because it is too long already and stats don’t tell the entire story. One of my favorite things about Wilt are the stories themselves, the legends that surround him. One such story concerns a player, Gus Johnson, who dunked on him early in a game. Dunking on a 7’1” Wilt was no easy task, and he set out to prove it wouldn’t happen again. The next time he went up to dunk Wilt stretched out his arm and snatched the ball out of thin air. Gus went down with a dislocated shoulder. This is the only known instance of a player having his shoulder dislocated from a blocked shot.
Wilt was known for his defensive prowess. He’s known for having dominated Bill Russell in their matchups, Bill being one of the greatest champions ever and the next best player to Wilt at the time. Wilt dominated Kareem his first few years too. He rarely taunted players but on one occasion told Walt Bellamy, second best scorer in the league at the time, that he wouldn’t get a shot off in the first half. He didn’t. What was so amazing about Wilt’s defense was his ability to avoid fouls. He never fouled out of a regular season game. Not once. That’s incredible to me.
Discussions of his greatness often surround his athleticism and whether he could hang with freak athletes of younger generations like Jordan and LeBron. That rebuttal won’t stand either. Wilt’s vertical jump was higher than Jordan’s. He was known to bench press over 500 pounds at the peak of his career. At that time he stood 7’1” tall and weighed 275 pounds. That’s more than enough size to body even the most physical of centers today. He was so strong he could literally pick players up when they grabbed the other end of the basketball. Wilt claimed he could actually grab a quarter off the top of the backboard. A track star in his youth, Wilt was confirmed to be the fastest player on his Sixers team, and projected to be among the fastest players in the NBA at the time.
Wilt’s Lakers still hold the record for most consecutive wins in a season at 33 straight games. Lebron’s Heat are the nearest challengers recently winning 27 straight games. Wilt’s Lakers and Sixers hold the #2 and #4 spots respectively on the list for best single season win percentage in NBA history. Wilt himself is a two time NBA champion and carried both teams to the title nearly single-handedly. He’s a 4x Finals MVP. He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s the greatest the game has ever seen.
Wilt was larger than life. He was the game’s first greatest player and it’s most enduring champion. He was an incredible physical specimen and a player with a wide range of moves at his disposal. Nobody came close to stopping him or matching his achievements during his 13 year career, and he has dozens of records which nobody in the 50 years since has come close to beating. He could run faster, jump higher, dunk harder, shoot better, and play with more focus than any other. His teams were among the best ever and he was always the best on the team. The fact remains that Wilt left the biggest impression on the game of basketball, bigger even than the celebrity of Michael Jordan. Isaac Newton once said, “if I have seen further than others, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Wilt Chamberlain was that giant, big enough in his life and accomplishments to bear the weight of all future champions on his shoulders. He was and is the greatest basketball player in history.
“Quotes about Wilt Chamberlain.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 12 Oct. 1999. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.
Smith, Steve. “Greatness Revisited: Why Wilt Chamberlain Was the Greatest NBA Player Ever.” Bleacher Report. Turner, 26 Feb. 2009. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.
“List of Career Achievements by Wilt Chamberlain.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.