Chamberlain, Wilt (1936—)
Chamberlain, Wilt (1936—)
On the basketball court, Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most dominating players of his day. His intimidating stature (7' 1" and 265 pounds) and his ability to score at will made him one of professional basketball's most popular players. In his third season he led the league with a remarkable 50.4 scoring average, a record that still stands after nearly forty years. By dominating both ends of the court Chamberlain single-handedly revolutionized professional basketball.
Born on August 21, 1936, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chamberlain attended Overbrook high school, where he led his team to a 58-3 record and three All-Public school titles. His dominating athleticism at Overbrook drew the attention of nearly every college basketball program in the country, and after a hectic recruiting period Chamberlain decided to attend Kansas University. Upon hearing the news, legendary KU basketball coach Phog Allen remarked: "Wilt Chamberlain's the greatest basketball player I ever saw. With him, we'll never lose a game; we could win the national championship with Wilt, two sorority girls and two Phi Beta Kappas." In spite of Allen's predictions, Kansas failed to win a NCAA championship during Chamberlain's two-year stint. But nonetheless, as a college player he was as a man among boys. During his short stay at Kansas the Saturday Evening Post ran a story titled, "Can Basketball Survive Chamberlain," leading the NCAA to make several rule changes to curtail his dominance, and later Look magazine published an article titled, "Why I Am Quitting College," which was an exclusive piece on his decision to leave Kansas. This media coverage was virtually unprecedented for an African-American college athlete.
After leaving Kansas, Chamberlain had a brief one-year tour with the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. In his first game with the Warriors, Chamberlain had 43 points and 28 rebounds. This was just a glimpse of what was to come. Throughout his rookie year he scored fifty points or more five times, en route to earning league Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, marking the first time that anyone had ever won both awards the same year. Throughout the next couple of years Chamberlain continued to pick up individual honors. In his third year with the Warriors Chamberlain continued his dominance and did the unthinkable, scoring 100 points in a single game, after which the minuscule 4,124 fans in attendance "came pouring out of the stands and mobbed me." As a result of his prowess on the court the NBA followed the NCAA's lead and made several rule changes of their own, simply because of Chamberlain's dominance.
Although Chamberlain continued to be a leader in scoring and rebounding throughout his career (which included stints in San Francisco and then later in Los Angeles), he was often maligned in the national media. He was frequently labeled a "loser" because of his team's inability to beat Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics (although he did win championships in 1967 and 1972), and he was often viewed as a troublemaker because of his candid personality. In the mid-1960s he was roundly criticized in the media for a story Sports Illustrated published concerning his attitude with the NBA. Under the headline: "My life in a Bush League," Chamberlain criticized the administrators, coaches, and players of the NBA. "For a sports superstar who was supposed to be bubbling over with gratitude for every second he got to play, those were some pretty harsh words. I could understand why some people got upset," Chamberlain remarked in his biography. But Chamberlain was never one to champion black causes. In the late 1960s he drew the ire of the black community when he denounced the Black Power movement while supporting Richard Nixon's presidential campaign, and he likewise drew criticism from both blacks and whites alike when he expressed a preference for white women. He was truly a colorful figure.
In 1978 Chamberlain was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and in 1996-1997 he was selected to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Star Team.
As the NBA's first $100,000 man, Chamberlain had an enormous impact on the rise of the NBA. His dominating play sparked the interest of the country into a league that was forced to compete with the more popular pastimes of baseball and football. He was personally responsible for filling up arenas throughout the country as Americans paid top dollar to see "Wilt the Stilt." He was without question a oneman show.
—Leonard N. Moore
Chamberlain, Wilt. View From Above: Sports, Sex, and Controversy. New York, Dutton Books, 1992.
——. Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door. New York, Macmillan, 1973.
Frankl, Ron. Wilt Chamberlain. New York, Chelsea House, 1995.
Libby, Bill. Goliath: The Wilt Chamberlain Story. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1977.