Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Incomparable Wilt

Were he still with us on this earth, Wilt Chamberlain would be celebrating his 78th birthday today.  To generations of basketball fans who know only what ESPN tells them, Wilt Chamberlain is an ancient relic in the dusty old history books of basketball, when the game  was played with peach baskets.

Too bad, because simply stated, Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest most dominant single basketball player ever.  Ever.  Sorry to all you fans of Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe, and LeBron, but if you could have them all magically reappear in their primes for a round robin of one-on-one games, my money would be on Wilt every time.

Most people know that Wilt once scored 100 points in a game.  Fewer my know that in one season, 1961-62, Wilt averaged 50.4 points per game.  Think about that for a minute.  He averaged 50 PPG over the course of a season.  In fact, Wilt owns the top three highest scoring average seasons in the history of the NBA, and five of the top ten.  Oh, and just to prove he wasn't a one trick pony, late in his career, Wilt led the league in assists.

And here is another fact about Wilt to try on for size.  You may recall that in a game this past season, LeBron James scored over 60 points in a game.  While this is a rare accomplishment, it has been done somewhat frequently over the course of NBA history.  In fact, it has been done 62 times.  Wilt Chamberlain did it 36 of those 62 times.

He was a phenomenal athlete.  Excelling in track and field at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia and at the University of Kansas, and after his basketball career ended, he played volleyball and may well have been the best volleyball player in the country.

The one thing that critics always come up with is "if he was so great, why did his teams always lose to Bill Russell's Celtics in the playoffs?"  Fair point, but the simple answer is that Russell's Celtics were always a much better TEAM than the teams on which Wilt played.  In 1966-67, the Philadelphia 79'ers were, finally, a great team, some still say (although probably no one at ESPN will say it) they were the best single season team in NBA history.  Led by Wilt, they stormed through the regular season and defeated Russell and the Celtics in five games in the semi-finals and the Warriors in six in the finals..

Late in life, Wilt wrote a book that talked about, among other things, how many women he had slept with in his life.  Too bad, because that became the entire focus of the book when it was discussed, and it turned Wilt into a national punchline.  I'll bet he wished that he had never written that part of the book.

Back in the 1960's, the 76'ers sometimes played games at the Civic Arena here in Pittsburgh.  Because of that, I can honestly and happily say that I saw Wilt Chamberlain play, live and in person.

Wilt died in 1999. He was only 63 years old.  Happy birthday, Dipper.

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