Chamberlain, Wilt(on) Norman

views updated

CHAMBERLAIN, Wilt(on) Norman

(b. 21 August 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 12 October 1999 in Los Angeles, California), professional basketball player who was the leading rebounder and one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Chamberlain was the sixth of nine surviving children of William Chamberlain, a welder, janitor, and handyman, and Olivia Ruth Johnson, a homemaker and domestic. He attended the Georgia Brooks Elementary School and Over-brook High School in Philadelphia. In high school he competed in the high jump and shot put and ran the 440-yard and 880-yard dash for the local Amateur Athletic Union team. In fact, Chamberlain preferred track and field to basketball, but because of his great height—he was six feet, eleven inches tall by the ninth grade—he was induced by friends to try basketball. Once he started playing, Chamberlain took the game seriously. He improved steadily, playing in the Police Athletic League and the Young Men's Christian Association league. In the summers he worked in New York State as a bellhop at Kutshers Country Club in the Catskills and found time to play on the hotel basketball team with college and professional stars. Chamberlain also played on his high school basketball team for three years and in that span scored 2,252 points (establishing the state scoring record) and led his team to a record of fifty-eight wins and three defeats.

Not surprisingly, the major college basketball programs recruited Chamberlain. After some consideration, he chose the University of Kansas, in part because of his admiration for its legendary coach, Forrest C. ("Phog") Allen. As he had at Overbrook, Chamberlain continued to run track and take part in field events (he was Big Eight high-jump champion). As expected, he excelled at basketball. During his three-year college career, he averaged thirty points and about sixteen rebounds a game. His single biggest disappointment came in his sophomore year, when Kansas lost a triple-overtime, one-point game to the University of North Carolina for the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. Chamberlain returned for his junior year but grew progressively discouraged at being double-and triple-teamed and physically abused, and he decided to forgo his senior year. Since at that time a college player could not join the NBA until his college class graduated, Chamberlain signed a one-year contract in 1958 with the Harlem Globetrotters for $65,000, the most generous basketball contract to that date. He enjoyed himself enormously, and when the season ended in 1959 he was ready to play in the NBA.

Chamberlain's professional career lasted fourteen seasons. He spent the first three with the Philadelphia Warriors (1959–1962) and then played for the San Francisco Warriors for three seasons (1962–1965). In 1965 he headed back east, playing for the Philadelphia 76ers (1965–1968), and then finished his career with the Los Angeles Lakers (1968–1972). Overall, he played in 1,045 regular season games plus 160 playoff games. During his career he accumulated 31,419 points (a record broken by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), led the league in scoring seven times, and averaged 30.1 points a game. In his first year Chamberlain averaged 37.6 points and twenty-seven rebounds and was named Rookie of the Year as well as Most Valuable Player (MVP; an honor accorded him again in 1966, 1967, and 1968). In the 1961–1962 season he averaged 50.4 points (still a record in 2001). His single most memorable performance as a scorer occurred on 2 March 1962 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, when he totaled 100 points against the last-place New York Knicks. By the end of the third quarter he had sixty-nine points, and Eddie Donovan, the Knick coach, ordered his players to foul Chamberlain whenever he had the ball. Chamberlain, a notoriously poor foul shooter, was, in his words, "hot that night," and made twenty-eight of thirty-two free throws. He scored the hundredth point with forty-six seconds remaining. Philadelphia won 169–147.

Although Chamberlain's career scoring was surpassed, the same feat seems unlikely in the case of his rebounding. Chamberlain accumulated 23,928 rebounds, averaging 22.9 per game. (Abdul-Jabbar is in second place with 17,440 rebounds amassed over twenty seasons.) He led the league in rebounding in eleven of his fourteen seasons and never had fewer than ten rebounds per game. In the 1960–1961 season he averaged a record 27.2 rebounds. In 1960 he also grabbed fifty-five rebounds in a game against Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. That performance no doubt pleased Chamberlain, since in sizing up the two centers, Russell is often judged the better overall player. According to critics, Russell was a "team" player, whereas Chamberlain was a "selfish gunner." Russell was on eleven championship teams and Chamberlain on only two, the 76ers in 1967 and the Lakers in 1972. Furthermore, in head-to-head encounters in the playoffs, Chamberlain prevailed only in 1967. Irritated by the comparison, Chamberlain responded that basketball is a team sport and that Russell was surrounded by superior players such as Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, K. C. Jones, and Sam Jones.

Chamberlain had a point. When Philadelphia won the championship in 1967 and set a record of sixty-eight wins and thirteen losses, his teammates were Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker. And when Los Angeles claimed the title in 1972 (and established a new record of sixty-nine wins and thirteen losses), Chamberlain played with Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston, and Jim McMillan. Chamberlain also has pointed out that he focused on scoring when he was instructed to do so by his coach. When urged to change his approach, he became a passer and led the league in assists in 1968 with 702. Later in his career, when he played for Los Angeles, he was a defensive specialist.

In comparing the two players, one must take into account Chamberlain's physical attributes. Not only was he big (at seven feet, one inch tall and 275 pounds), but he also possessed agility, speed, endurance, leaping ability, and physical strength. Trying to cope with him was a daunting task for any opposing player. Little wonder that the basketball historian Leonard Koppett has concluded that Chamberlain was "clearly the most dominating player who ever played basketball." After fourteen seasons Chamberlain decided to retire, noting: "There was always so much more pain to my losing than ever there was to gain by winning." Not quite ready to quit basketball, he spent the 1973–1974 season coaching the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association. He grew progressively weary of the traveling and the long playing season and elected to retire from professional basketball in 1974.

Chamberlain did not retire from the sporting world, however. His earliest athletic interests were in track and field. In retirement he stayed connected to track by sponsoring a women's track team, Wilt's Wonder Women. He took his sponsoring seriously, attending meets and remaining until the last event. He also continued playing basketball. Late in his professional basketball career, he talked about challenging Muhammad Ali to a boxing match After consulting with his lawyer, Chamberlain, fearing the damage to his image if Ali humiliated him in the ring, backed out of the match.

In retirement Chamberlain found another sport that attracted him: he began playing professional volleyball. He went up against some of the best players on the globe and participated in an All-Star game in which he was selected the MVP. He also assisted in launching the International Volleyball Association (of which he was president). He became a team owner and toured the world with his team, helping bring recognition to the sport. As an athlete, Chamberlain was forced to conduct his life in public view. In his autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other Seven-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door (1973), he opened the door to the public on his preferences (he loved fast cars and travel) and opinions. For instance, because of his concern for overpopulation, he had decided it would be hypocritical to get married and have children. He also laid bare his sexual exploits, at times in detail, including sexual encounters that took place on airplanes while in flight. Satisfying his "lustful desires" was an inseparable part of Chamber-lain's life, as he made patently clear. He claimed to have had sexual liaisons with some 20,000 women, a number that he estimated to be "equal to having sex with 1.2 women a day, every day, since I was fifteen years old."

Chamberlain also discussed criticisms of his "deficiencies" on the basketball court. In effect, if his team won, he received little praise, since victory was expected. When his team lost, though, Chamberlain often was blamed for the outcome. The problem, he concluded in his autobiography, was that he was such a dominating presence on the court that it was virtually impossible for fans, sportswriters, and at times even his teammates to identify with him. Although he came to understand the reason behind the lack of empathy, Chamberlain, who cared deeply what others thought of him, found it difficult to accept.

Chamberlain lived to see his achievements acknowledged officially. In 1978 he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1996 Chamberlain, who led the league in scoring, rebounding, or assists in every one of his fourteen seasons, was listed among the fifty greatest NBA players of all time. In late October of that year, when the fifty greatest basketball players were announced, Chamberlain attended the ceremony. Three years later he died of congestive heart failure at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. His body was cremated, and the ashes were given to family members. Chamberlain left 90 percent of his estate to children's charities, many of which he had supported during his lifetime.

The family retains some of Chamberlain's personal effects and papers. The University of Kansas archives also maintains a large bibliographical records file. The fullest account of Chamberlain's life up to 1973 is his autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other Seven-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door (1973), written with David Shaw. He describes his other book, A View from Above (1991), as "a collection of thoughts, my feelings about life and my living of life." Useful articles are in the New York Post (15 Oct. 1999), New York Daily News (17 Oct. 1999), and Sports Illustrated (25 Oct. 1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Oct. 1999).

Richard P. Harmond

About this article

Chamberlain, Wilt(on) Norman

Updated About content Print Article