Chamberlain, Wilton Norman ("Wilt")

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CHAMBERLAIN, Wilton Norman ("Wilt")

(b. 21 August 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 12 October 1999 in Los Angeles, California), legendary seven-foot, one-inch center whose on-court style influenced the evolution of basketball to a sport dominated by tall, powerful, but highly mobile players.

The eighth of eleven children born to William Chamberlain, a handyman and janitor, and Olivia, a domestic worker, Chamberlain was by far the tallest member of his family. He was sufficiently outstanding in his basketball career at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia that Eddie Gottlieb, owner of the local Philadelphia Warriors, was able to acquire draft rights to Chamberlain after high school under a new rule, awarding "territorial rights" to local teams. After a three-year apprenticeship at the University of Kansas (1956–1958), where he endured racist taunts from fans and opposing players, and a year with the Harlem Globetrotters (1958–1959), Chamberlain was able to join the Warriors.

Armed with an annual salary estimated at around $65,000, Chamberlain was ready to establish himself as the best in the game, to win championships, and to make bushels of money. In fact, he continued touring with the Globe-trotters during the summers until 1968. He succeeded in his personal and financial goals, but with the omnipotent Boston Celtics (led by center Bill Russell) in the way, championships eluded the Warriors, and Chamberlain had difficulty shaking a noxious "loser" label. That aspersion was not evident in his first season. After stunning the New York Knicks with 43 points in his first professional game on 24 October 1959, Chamberlain roared through the season. He was named rookie of the year and Most Valuable Player (MVP), after a year in which he broke league records for minutes played (3,388), scoring average (37.6 points per game), rebounding (26.9 rebounds per game), and five other categories. In a pattern repeated over the next five years, however, the Celtics ousted Philadelphia in the playoffs in six games. Russell had lower statistics than Chamberlain, but his team invariably won, as critics castigated Chamberlain's failure to produce a miracle. Chamberlain threatened to retire after this first year, but was enticed to return by a three-year $350,000 contract.

Chamberlain established himself as the dominant player in the game by his second season. On 24 November 1960 he grabbed an NBA record fifty-five rebounds in one game against Russell's Celtics, an achievement that has never been successfully challenged. However, Syracuse ousted Philadelphia in the first round of the play-offs.

Frank McGuire, Chamberlain's new coach for the 1961–1962 season, convinced him to score even more, arguing that the team won when the center scored fifty or more points per game. McGuire devised an offense that focused almost entirely on Chamberlain, who played an extraordinary season in which he scored an average of 50.4 points per game, played 79 complete games, and had 63 games in which he scored 40 points or more. He capped this incredible season with a 100-point outburst against the New York Knicks on 4 March 1962. Almost as amazingly, Chamberlain was not chosen as the first team all-star center or season MVP; both honors went to Russell. Philadelphia lost in the divisional play-offs to Boston in a controversial seventh game in Boston in which the official Mendy Rudolph was accused of throwing the game to the Celtics.

After the season Gottlieb sold the team to San Francisco financiers, who moved the Warriors west. McGuire declined to go, and Chamberlain, induced by a contract at $100,000 a year, went only briefly.

Chamberlain piled up individual honors over the next two years, but there were no play-off successes. In January 1965 the San Francisco Warriors traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers. Again, Chamberlain was frustrated by the Celtics, whose John Havlicek won yet another championship for the team with a clutch steal as time ran out in the seventh game. Not until 1967 would Chamberlain's team end the Boston dynasty. After beating the Celtics in the divisional play-offs, Philadelphia finally won a championship—ironically, by conquering Chamberlain's former team, the San Francisco Warriors, in six games in 1967. Chamberlain, always defensive and aloof, was reluctant to enjoy the victory, although he later wistfully noted that he had finally made "it all the way."

His triumph was short-lived. In the next season, though he was named league MVP for the second year in a row (he won again the following year), the Celtics once more ousted Philadelphia in another memorable play-off. Over the summer of 1968 the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Chamberlain for three players plus cash. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was determined to produce a winner in Los Angeles and paid Chamberlain $200,000 a season plus lucrative benefits. (Chamberlain is an unsung contributor to the rise in player salaries in this era.) Chamberlain liked Cooke and was willing to overlook cliques on the team, which was headed by the star forward Elgin Baylor. The Lakers steamrolled through the regular season, but the Celtics denied Chamberlain a second championship.

Among the most durable players in the league, Chamberlain tore a tendon inside his kneecap and missed most of the 1969–1970 season. He returned late in the season and led the Lakers into the play-offs, but the New York Knicks beat them in seven games for the championship. The next year Chamberlain became the first NBA player to accumulate 30,000 points for his career, a mark only surpassed much later by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. More importantly, Chamberlain and the Lakers surpassed the Knicks in the championship finals.

Chamberlain played one more season with the Lakers, briefly retired, then emerged with the San Diego Clippers in the upstart American Basketball Association. Later, he sponsored a woman's volleyball team and lived in quiet luxury in Los Angeles. He never married. An extraordinary athlete, Chamberlain nearly boxed Muhammad Ali in an exhibition and was considered one of the strongest men in sports. Sensitive about the "loser" label, he was proud of his innumerable records and his wealth. Physically fit, his death from a heart attack in 1999 shocked and saddened the sports world.

Chamberlain wrote two autobiographical works: Wilt: Just Like Any Other Seven-Foot Millionaire Who Lives Next Door (1974) and A View from Above (1991). See also Bill Libby, Goliath: The Wilt Chamberlain Story (1977). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Oct. 1999).

Graham Russell Hodges

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