While some called him Wilt the Stilt (a tag he deplored), or The Big Dipper, his birth certificate read: Wilton Norman Chamberlain. Born on August 21, 1936, Wilt would go on to become the most colorful, legendary, and dominant force in the history of the National Basketball Association.
A Big Beginning
During the mid-1950s, young Wilt's high school basketball career was not by any means typical, even for an excellent athlete. It was outstanding! While playing at West Philadelphia's Overbrook High, Wilt received national attention by leading his team to City Championships in 1954 and again in 1955. In one game, he scored 60 points in 10-minutes and went on to finish the game with 30 more. By the time he was a senior, pro scouts were regulars at Overbrook games. In the first 16 games of his senior year, Wilt scored 800 points, a feat that saw him named an All-American. Wilt would go on finish his high school career with an unbelievable 2,252 points.
Wilt's athletic prowess also extended from Overbrook's hardwood. He was a standout athlete in track and field, turning in high jumps of 6-feet 6-inches and a long jump that measured 22-feet. He ran the 440 in 49.0 seconds, the 880 in 1:58.3, and threw a shotput 53-feet 4-inches.
While the pro scouts were keeping a watchful eye on this Philadelphia phenom, Wilt's fate as a future NBA star was sealed when he was showcased in a 1954 Paramount newsreel – Giant Basketball Sensation.
After his graduation from Overbrook, Wilt matriculated at the University of Kansas, where he led his team to the 1957 Championship Game and twice received All-American honors. Along with basketball, Wilt also continued to turn in stellar performances in track and field. He ran a 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds and bettered his high school record by throwing a shotput 56-feet. He also won the high jump in the Big Eight Track and Field Championships for three years in a row and triple jumped more than 50-feet. At the conclusion of his junior year, a season that despite Wilt's presence on the hardwood saw Kansas fall short of play in the NCAA Tournament, Chamberlain made the decision to go pro.
Selected by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1955, Wilt was ineligible to play in the NBA until his college class graduated. As he waited out his time, he signed on with the Harlem Globetrotters where he teamed up with the court's clown prince, Meadowlark Lemon. Being as that Lemon was the front man, Wilt was moved from the center position to playing point guard, a move that made him one, if not THE, tallest man to ever play the position.
The Professional Chamberlain
In 1960, Chamberlain took to the professional hardwood with the Warriors. His inaugural performance in the NBA saw him lead the League in scoring. He averaged 37.6 points per game, and rebounded on an average of 27.0 per game. He was named to the NBA All-Star game that year and was tapped as the contest's Most Valuable Player.
That year also saw Wilt named Rookie of the Year and take the Warriors to a place they never thought they would be. With Wilt, they reached new heights. In the 1958-59 season, the team had turned in a last place division finish. In 1960, they chalked up the second best record in the NBA. And while Wilt and the Warriors lost the Conference Finals to the Boston Celtics, they were forgiven by Philly fans who didn't think any team could ever beat Boston. The Celtics were a seemingly unbeatable force at the time. Completely dominating the NBA for well over a decade, the Celtics proved to be a season-after-season stumbling block for the Warriors who were saddled in the same division as the Boston powerhouse.
In December of the following season, in a triple-overtime Warriors-Lakers game, Chamberlain scored 78 points to break Elgin Baylor's single game scoring record.
That performance proved to be a precursor to what Wilt had in store for March 2, 1962.
On a cold winter night in early March, the Warriors took on the New York Knicks at Hersheypark Arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania. When the final buzzer went off at the end of that game, the Warriors had bettered the Knicks by 22-points in a 169-147 victory. That, however, was not the story. The openmouthed, head-shaking fans who left the arena that night were stunned by what they had just witnessed. A feat that just about everyone believed to be impossible – Chamberlain had scored 100-points in a standard regulation game. Racking up 59 points in the second half, he went on to hit number 100 with just 46 seconds remaining in the game. He had made 36-of-63 field goals that night and also hit 28-of-32 free throws. While Wilt's 100 point game record still stands today, his 78 point triple-overtime game held as the second-highest single game point total until January 22, 2006, when Lakers guard Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a single game. Wilt fans were, however, quick to point out that Kobe hit those 81 points with the help of 3-point shots, something that did not exist when Wilt hit his 78 and 100 point games.
While the Warriors were not collecting any Championship trophies during this time, Wilt was proving to be a standout champ averaging a career high of 50.4 points per game in 1962. The following season saw the Warriors make the move West to San Francisco. Out from the Eastern Division, they made it to the NBA Finals, where the boys from Boston again denied the Warriors an NBA Championship title.
In the City by the Bay, Wilt continued to be a major force for the Warriors until the conclusion of the 1964 season. Chamberlain was then traded to Philadelphia's new franchise from Syracuse who had changed their name to the 76ers. Back in Philly, Chamberlain once again saw his team denied access to the Finals by the Celtics who, by that time, were a full-fledged dynasty team. During the 1966 offseason, Wilt was offered a pro football contract by the Kansas City Chiefs – a move that was perhaps a publicity stunt on the part of both the team and Wilt himself, more so than a genuine offer.
By 1967, the Sixers were a force to be reckoned with in the NBA. Accompanying Chamberlain were Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker. The Brotherly Love boys turned in a record-breaking season by chalking up 68 contests in the win column. It was also the year that saw Wilt and company finally get past the Celtics to grab the NBA crown by ironically defeating the San Francisco Warriors. For Chamberlain, the cherry on top of that Championship season came when he was named MVP for the third time.
With 20/20 hindsight, that 1967-68 Sixers team has been acknowledged as the NBA's best team during the League's first three and a half decades. Wilt, who was selected as the League's MVP for the fourth time that year, many times stated that he believed that team was the best ever in NBA history.
In 1968, Wilt once again headed West when he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Joining a team that included the likes of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. La La Land believed they were about to wrangle away Boston's legendary dominance until serious knee injuries downed both Baylor and Chamberlain. Baylor's injury would prove to be so severe that it would end his career, while in Wilt's case, recovery kept everyone wondering if he could make a comeback.
Wilt did come back and played a major role in seeing the Lakers earn an invite to the 1969 Finals. Pitted against the Celtics, the fight for the championship went the distance, and in Game 7, Chamberlain suffered a leg injury in the fourth quarter. The Lakers were down by nine points with less than six minutes to play when he got hurt. Although Chamberlain pleaded with Coach Bill "Butch" van Breda Kolff to allow him to play despite the injury, the request was denied. Boston went on to win the game by two points and Los Angeles fans were furious with the outcome. Many blamed Wilt for faking his injury so he could skirt the blame for the Lakers loss. It was a rough offseason for Wilt as sportswriters and fans labeled him a quitter. To further rub salt into the wound, even Wilt's buddy Bill Russell jumped on the bandwagon placing blame for the loss on Wilt's doorstep. While many slung arrows at Wilt, he was adamantly defended by Jerry West and even Coach van Breda Kolff who was never a big fan of Chamberlain.
As the turbulent 1960s drifted into history, the Lakers began the new decade by again making their way to the NBA Finals. The1970 Championship Series saw the Lakers take on the Knicks, who at the time were considered to be the best defensive team in the League. In a series that went down to the wire, Wilt's counterpart, the Knicks center Willis Reed, suffered a leg injury in Game 5. Despite Reed's departure from the game, the Knicks pulled out a win. In Game 6, it looked like the Knicks luck had run out. Chamberlain turned in a stunning offensive performance and set the stage for what looked like a Laker Championship. In the seventh and deciding game of that series, Reed, obviously in far-less-than-100-percent mode suited up and met Wilt at center court for the opening tip off. He snagged that tip away from Wilt and scored the game's first four points. In clear pain, Reed saw little action during that game but, what action he did provide spurred his teammates on to win in what would be a blistering blow to the Lakers and their fans who thought they had the championship wrapped up. Chamberlain missed on 10 of the 11 chances he had from the foul line, giving more fodder to those who felt Wilt lacked a burning desire to be a winner.
The next season saw the Lakers name former Celtics star guard Bill Sharman as their head coach. That season also saw Chamberlain elected to the All-NBA First Defensive Team for the first time in his career as the Lakers won 69 games to set a record for most victories in a single season.
In 1972, the Lakers finally hit paydirt as Chamberlain and crew won the Championship. In the final game of the series, he scored 23-points and snagged 29 rebounds. Those stats gave him a series average of 23.2 rebounds per game and saw him named MVP.
The following season, in what would be Wilt's final year of play, the then-37 year old Goliath again led the NBA in rebounding with 18.6 per game, while shooting a League record of 72.7 percent from the field. At the conclusion of the '72 season, the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association came courting Wilt with what at the time was a sizable offer – $600,000 to come on board as a player-coach. Chamberlain bit and the Conquistadors made rapid hay over landing him. There was only one problem – a big problem. Chamberlain still owed Los Angeles an option year on his contract. When Wilt and the Conquistadors chose to ignore that obstacle, the Lakers sued. The suit went to arbitration and was finally settled in the Lakers' favor – a move that kept Chamberlain from playing for the Conquistadors or anyone else. In fact, Wilt would never suit up and play another professional game again. He did, however, coach the Conquistadors for one season and would, at times, play in team practices and scrimmages.
The Post-play Era
Throughout his career in the NBA, Chamberlain lived a flashy and extravagant lifestyle. It was a lifestyle that he could have never afforded by means of his basketball salary alone, which was not even in the ballpark of what today's multi-millionaire players rake in. Wilt's big income came through savvy real estate investments. In Wilt's post-basketball career, he dabbled in volleyball and actually established and played in a professional league. He also flirted with auto racing, boxing, and even acted in a supporting role behind Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1984 film Conan the Destroyer.
Chamberlain never married nor had any known children – a feat as amazing as his 100-point game when you consider his stats in the bedroom. In his 1991 book, A View From Above, Chamberlain claimed to have been intimate with over 20,000 women. That claim rocked the headlines and sent statisticians scrambling for their calculators. After doing a little figuring they then reported that in order for his boast to be true, Wilt would have had to have warmed up to more than one new woman every day of his life from the time he was 15 years old. Wilt stood by the claim.
The Fall Of Goliath
On October 12, 1999, at the age of 63, the life of Wilt Chamberlain ended peacefully in that infamous bedroom of his Los Angeles home. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack, which didn't come as a total shock as he had a history of heart trouble and had been under a cardiologist's care for years. Throughout his legendary 13-year career, Chamberlain had averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game. From the time he was a high school jumper, he had always been lauded for his leaping skills and was able to dunk a ball as high as 12-feet. His size and strength were coupled with style and finesse and it was a thing of beauty to watch him make a dunk, hook, bank or fadeaway jumpshot. His great weakness was in foul shooting – a weakness perhaps only overshadowed by the one he had for those of the opposite sex.
The Big Man's Big Card
Card experts agree that Chamberlain's 1961 Fleer # 8 Wilt Chamberlain card is one of the most important cards in the hobby. This is the only card that is universally recognized as Wilt's rookie offering.
The card is highly desirable amongst collectors and that demand was filled for many when a find of high quality 1961 Fleer # 8 cards surfaced several years back. While this find brought some excellent examples into the hobby, this is still considered a difficult card to find in high grades. Centering issues plague a tremendous amount of these cards, as do print marks in the background of the photo.
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