Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain (born 1936) is considered one of the world's all-time greatest professional basketball players.

Wilt Chamberlain was born in Philadelphia and was one of nine children. His father lived in a racially-mixed middle class neighborhood, and Chamberlain had a relatively pleasant childhood. At Shoemaker Junior High School, Wilt began to play on the basketball team, and he also played on the playgrounds against older players who taught him a lot about the game. He later said, "I still think you could pick up a team from the street corners of Philly that would give most colleges a real hard time." Wilt attended Overbrook High School in Philadelphia beginning in 1952. At that time he was already 6'11" tall, and had developed what he termed a "deep love for basketball."


Recruited By More Than 200 Universities

Chamberlain's high school basketball career was astounding. In three seasons he scored more than 2200 points. More than two hundred universities recruited Chamberlain, but he wanted to get away from big cities and preferred to play in the midwest. After seriously considering Dayton, Michigan, Indiana, and Kansas Universities he chose Kansas because of the recruiting by Hall of Fame coach Phog Allen.

At the University of Kansas, Chamberlain continued his brilliant play on the basketball court, scoring fifty-two points in his first varsity game. During his first varsity season he led the Jayhawks to the finals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, but they lost to North Carolina in double overtime. During his college career he averaged over thirty points per game and was twice selected to All-American teams. Following his junior year, he decided to quit college and become a professional because, he said, "The game I was forced to play at [Kansas] wasn't basketball. It was hurting my chances of ever developing into a successful professional player."

Because he did not play his final season at Kansas, Chamberlain was not eligible to join an NBA team until one more year. So he joined the Harlem Globetrotters and spent the year traveling the world and entertaining adults and youngsters alike. He still claims that his year with the Globetrotters was his most enjoyable season of basketball.


Scoring Machine

In 1959, Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA. The great centers of the day were Clyde Lovellette, Johnny Kerr, Johnny Green, and, of course, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. But Chamberlain made an immediate impact on the league. He could score almost at will, and opposing teams gave up trying to stop him and instead tried only to contain him. His scoring average during the 1959-60 season of 37.9 points per game was more than eight points per game higher than anyone else had ever scored in the history of the league. He was named both rookie of the year and most valuable player, the first person to receive both awards in the same season.

For the next six seasons, Chamberlain led the league in scoring. In 1961-62 he averaged 50.4 points and scored 100 in one game. In 1962-63 he averaged 44.8 points per game. Chamberlain was simply the greatest scoring machine in the history of basketball.

Despite his scoring achievements, Chamberlain and his teammates were not winning NBA championships. The late 1950s and 1960s were dominated by the Boston Celtics and their center Bill Russell. Russell had revolutionized basketball as much with his defense as Chamberlain had with his offense, and Russell always had a great group of supporting players, including Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, John Havlicek, and Sam Jones. Chamberlain often had strong supporting players as well, but Russell always seemed to pull out the championship. Chamberlain always took a great deal of abuse from the media and fans because of his lack of success against Russell.


Wins Championship with the 76ers

Finally, in 1967, Chamberlain reversed his fortunes. The Warriors had moved to San Francisco, and Wilt had gone with them, but he was later traded to the new Philadelphia team, the 76ers. In 1967, the 76ers had a great supporting cast, including Chet Walker, Luke Johnson, Hal Greer, Wally Jones, and Billy Cunningham. They finished the regular season with the best record in the history of the league. In the championship series, the 76ers polished off the San Francisco Warriors to win the first world title for Chamberlain.

Several years later Chamberlain was traded again, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had featured numerous great players through the years, including Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, but had not won a championship since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960 (they lost in the championship series seven times between 1962 and 1970). For the last two losses, in 1969 and 1970, Chamberlain was on the team. The 1969 loss was particularly devastating, since it was to Russell and the Celtics again. In the final game, Chamberlain was injured and played very little. Russell later criticized Chamberlain for not playing, thus infuriating Chamberlain and removing the last remnants of friendship between the two men.

In 1972, however, the Lakers seemed poised to finally win a championship. They finished the year with the best regular season record in history, breaking the record set by Chamberlain and the 76ers in 1967. In addition to Chamberlain, the team now featured Happy Hairston, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillan, Jerry West, and a strong set of reserves In the playoffs, the Lakers first defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, with Chamberlain completely outplaying the Buck center, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In the championship series, the Lakers played the powerful New York Knickerbockers, led by Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier. In the fourth game of the series, Chamberlain suffered a fractured wrist. Although the Lakers led the series three games to one the series still seemed in doubt because of Chamberlain's injury. Despite understandable pain, Chamberlain played the next game with football linemen's pads on both hands. He scored twenty four points, grabbed twenty-nine rebounds, and blocked ten shots. The Lakers won the game and the series, four games to one and brought the first world championship to Los Angeles. After the final game Wilt said, "For a long time, fans of mine had to put up with people saying Wilt couldn't win the big ones. Now may be they'll have a chance to walk in peace, like I do."

Following the 1973 season, Chamberlain left the Lakers to become the coach of the San Diego Conquistadors of the old American Basketball Association (ABA). Chamberlain left the NBA as the all-time leader in points scored (more than 30,000) and rebounds (over 22,000), and with four Most Valuable Player awards and more than forty league records. The ABA was a different sort of challenge, however; the athletes were not generally as good as in the NBA, and Chamberlain had never been a coach before. The Conquistadors were a poor team, even by ABA standards, and Chamberlain left the coaching ranks shortly thereafter for a well-deserved retirement.


Controversial Book

In recent years, Chamberlain has been involved in a wide variety of activities. He has sponsored a lot of amateur athletic groups, including volleyball teams and track clubs. He has invested wisely through the years and remains a wealthy man. He has also kept in outstanding physical condition. When he walks into a room or onto a basketball court today, he is a legendary presence.

Chamberlain gained notoriety in 1991 with the release of his second and most talked about autobiography, A View from Above. The book contains observations on athletes of the 90's, gun control and his 14 years in the NBA, among other topics. But it's the claim that he has slept with 20,000 women that landed him in the celebrity spotlight and in the public hotseat. Reflecting upon this claim, Chamberlain regretted the way he discussed sex in the book and became an advocate of safe sex.


Further Reading on Wilt Chamberlain

Chamberlain, Wilt, and David Shaw, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, MacMillan, 1973.

Libby, Bill, Goliath: The Wilt Chamberlain Story, Dodd, 1977.

Sullivan, George, Wilt Chamberlain Grosset, 1971.

Ebony, April, 1972, pp. 114-121.

Esquire, May, 1988, pp. 53-56.

Life, March 13, 1970, pp. 46-50.

Look, June 10, 1958, pp. 91-94; March 1, 1960, pp. 51-57.

Sports Illustrated, October 29, 1973, p. 44-48; August 18, 1986, pp. 62-76; December 9, 1991, pp. 22-26.

Time, May 22, 1972, pp. 47-50.