How did Wilt dominate the record books?
As much as any other athlete and far more than most, Wilt Chamberlain enjoyed individual records.
If Chamberlain were still with us, he'd be smiling today. His highest-profile record -- 100 points in a game -- just dodged a bullet from Kobe Bryant.
But Chamberlain did more magnificent things, things that cold night in Hershey, Pa., can't touch.
Here's a sampling:
Try this from winter 1962: 62, 67, 62 and 100 points, all in eight days. That season alone, Wilt scored 60 or more 15 times, 70 or more three times. Over his career, Chamberlain tallied 50 or more 118 times.
We all like streaks. Bryant's nine consecutive 40-point games got the attention of the basketball universe in 2003. Try this nine-game run by Chamberlain in the middle of the 1961-62 season: 78, 61, 55, 54, 52, 43, 50, 57 and 55. That's eight games above 50 and an average of 56.1.
He averaged 41 points over his first seven seasons. No one else has averaged 40 in one.
How did he do it?
Just how did Wilt come to dominate the record books?
The answer comes in four parts:
Wilt was a superior athlete. He had enormous strength, stamina and agility.
He would laugh at broadcasters nowadays who marvel at centers who "run the floor" as if this were something new. Wilt was doing that whenever he could in the 1950s at the University of Kansas. Then he played with the Harlem Globetrotters for the 1958-59 season. Trotters owner Abe Saperstein and Chamberlain agreed it would be best if Chamberlain played guard. Now, instead of "having three or four guys hanging on me," the way it was at Kansas, Chamberlain could develop his game. He moved more and frequently handled the ball. He delighted the crowd not by turning, muscling in and finger-rolling, but by driving to the basket and stuffing it.
In the pro game, he ran, and he employed a variety of scoops, finger rolls and even a fadeaway off the glass, which Bob Cousy contends Chamberlain developed because of the defensive presence of Bill Russell.
In addition, Chamberlain always had stamina. He averaged 46.3 minutes per game as a rookie. It is unusual for a center to lead the league in minutes, but Chamberlain did it eight times. In his 1992 book, "A View From Above," he said he was proudest of playing 3,882 minutes in the fabled '61-62 campaign. Including overtimes, that averages to 48.5 minutes per game. He missed only seven minutes over the entire 80-game season.
Even in his last three seasons -- 1971 through 1973, when he was 34-36 -- he averaged 44, 42 and 43 minutes a game. In 2005, the league leader was then 20-year-old LeBron James, with 42 minutes a game.
Chamberlain entered the NBA at 7-1 and 250 pounds, a redwood among pines. He used his size to dominate opponents.
It was true his first night. His highly touted NBA debut in October 1959 came before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York. Chamberlain faced off against the Knicks' 6-8 pivot man, Charlie Tyra. Chamberlain had his way with Tyra, scoring 43 points and grabbing 28 rebounds in the Philadelphia Warriors' 118-109 victory.
On the league's eight teams that year, Detroit's Walter Dukes (7-0, 220 pounds) was the only other 7-footer. Five of the centers were 6-9 or 6-8, and one was 6-10; Boston's Bill Russell was only 6-9 (according to "Total Basketball"). Wilt took advantage, averaging 37 points and 27 rebounds in his rookie campaign.
By Chamberlain's landmark 1961-62 season two years later, there was but one significant change in altitude. A new team, the Chicago Packers, boasted a hot new rookie from the University of Indiana, Walt Bellamy. That season, the 6-11, 225-pound "Bells" finished first in field goal percentage (.519), second in scoring (31.6), and third in rebounding (19) behind Chamberlain and Russell.
Not until the 1964-65 season did another 6-11 starting center, Nate Thurmond, make an appearance. Thurmond, like Russell forever known as an inspired defender, took over Wilt's vacated spot when Chamberlain was traded from the San Francisco Warriors to the Philadelphia 76ers.
A different defensive era
Another difference in today's game and the game played during Chamberlain's peak years from the early to mid-1960s is defense. Defenses are more scientific now. There's more double-teaming. Zone defense is allowed. Different types of presses and traps are commonplace.
By way of whopping contrast, some might get the impression the early 1960s were a kind of Pleistocene Era in basketball when defense hadn't been thought of.
But that's not the way Chamberlain saw it.
"They're not playing me man-on-man," Chamberlain groused in his second season. "They're playing me men-on-man." He complained that the sagging defense being used to gang up on him amounted to an illegal zone. He even pressed the matter.
"I asked one official why he didn't invoke the no-zone ruling," Wilt recalled. "He told me, 'I haven't called a no-zone in this league in two years. I'm not going to start now.'"
Add to this that Wilt had "retired" briefly after his rookie season, complaining of the rough treatment being dished out. "The National Basketball Association has two standards of officiating," Wilt surmised, "one for the league as a whole, another for me, Wilt Chamberlain."
So Chamberlain attracted serious attention. After Chamberlain had to miss consecutive games in February 1960 to have two teeth removed because of flying elbows, his coach Neil Johnston fumed. "They're getting away with murder against Wilt," he said. "It would help if he would belt a few."
But that wasn't Wilt's style.
"If I come back next year and score less than I have, I may have to punch eight or nine guys in the face," Chamberlain said. "I may lose my poise. I don't want to."
A faster game
In Chamberlain's day, the game was much speedier. The 1962 Warriors led the league with 125.4 points per game. The entire league averaged 118.8 points and 107.7 attempted field goals per game. By comparison, in 2005, the league averaged 97.2 points and tried 80 field goals per game. Shots were hoisted earlier in the 24-second clock in Wilt's day.
Chamberlain certainly benefited from this pace, and he led the league in field goal attempts in each of his first seven seasons. That said, he made the most of his attempts, hitting 54 percent of his shots for his career.
Without a doubt, the game was different during Chamberlain's salad days. That is not to say Chamberlain wouldn't be great today. He certainly would be. Superior athletes make adjustments. But the slower pace of the game, the size of today's players and more sophisticated defenses surely would cut into his totals.
If Chamberlain were with us now, he probably would fold his arms across his chest and smile, proud as ever of his records. He might reply to this kind of analysis with a sneering reply: "Stop all the analysis. These are the records. Get back to me when someone breaks them."
Kenneth Shouler is the editor of and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.
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