Wilt Chamberlain: A Man Among Boys

Synopsis:  As surprising as it might sound, Wilt Chamberlain is one of the most underrated players in NBA history. While his height was certainly an advantage, his athleticism is often overlooked.  Whether fair or not, superstar basketball players are remembered mostly for winning championships.  and Wilt only won two titles while his biggest rival, Bill Russell, won eleven. The following post highlights some of Chamberlain’s individual records, but focuses more on the rule changes which were inspired by him.  Jordan may be the greatest basketball player ever, but Chamberlain changed the game more than anyone else. 


Whereas Oscar Robertson may have gained the most from our desire to reevaluate historical statistics, Wilt Chamberlain seems to suffer because his achievements continue to be overlooked.  Today, a player scoring 2,000 points in a season is an impressive accomplishment. For instance, the only players to exceed this total during the last five seasons are Kevin Durant (4 times), LeBron James (4x), Kobe Bryant (2x), Carmelo Anthony (1x), Dwyane Wade (1x), Dirk Nowitzki (1x), Derrick Rose (1x), and Kevin Love (1x). More impressively, Michael Jordan is the only player in the last 50 years to have reached the 3,000-point plateau, which he did after scoring 3,041 points in the 1986-1987 season. Even more impressively, Wilt Chamberlain scored more than 3,000 points on three separate occasions and even surpassed 4,000 points once (3,033 points in 1960-61, 4,029 points in 1961-62, and 3,586 points in 1962-63). In essence, he did something in three consecutive seasons that has only been done one other time in NBA history.

Despite his impressive point totals, Chamberlain may have been a more dominant shot-blocker than scorer.


WILT chamberlain block

Unfortunately, we’ll never know because blocked shots weren’t recorded as an official statistic until the 1973-74 season, which was the year after Chamberlain retired. Hmm, that’s just a coincidence, right? Remember this fact after you finish this post and ask yourself the question again. Since many games from that era weren’t videotaped, no one knows exactly how many blocked shots Chamberlain would have had, but I’ve read enough to believe that he often had more than ten blocks in individual games and would have averaged over six blocks per game for his career

Most basketball fans seem to know about Chamberlain’s scoring and rebounding numbers, but many probably don’t realize that he also led the league in total assists for the 1967-68 season. That’s right, he led the league in ASSISTS! To date, he’s the only non-guard to ever do so. With 31 triple doubles that season, Chamberlain arguably could have had have had five or more quadruple doubles if blocked shots had been recorded (and perhaps ten or more for his career given his total of 78 triple doubles). As a point of reference, only four players (Nate Thurmond, Alvin Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson) in NBA history have ever recorded a quadruple double with each player accomplishing the feat only once. If Chamberlain ever thought that triple (or quadruple) doubles would have become a recognized stat, he would have both records with room to spare.

Prior to becoming a dominant NBA player, Chamberlain dominated college basketball. In fact, he had an impact even before stepping onto the court for his first college game. When Chamberlain arrived at the University of Kansas in 1955, freshmen were restricted from playing varsity sports. Regardless, his legend apparently grew in practices to the point that other college coaches convinced the National Basketball Committee to implement the following rules prior to the 1956-57 season (i.e. just before Chamberlain’s first varsity game).

Prohibiting an inbound pass from going over the backboard. The committee heard that Kansas had developed a play which would end in a Chamberlain dunk off an inbound pass over the backboard.

1) Restricting a shooter from crossing the plane of the free throw line before the ball hits the rim or backboard. Apparently, Kansas State coach Tex Winter had seen Chamberlain take two steps from beyond the line before dunking a free throw. Without video evidence, no one seems to know whether Chamberlain dunked the initial shot or threw himself a pass off the backboard, but it would have been amazing to see either way. As the legend goes, the committee initially laughed off the suggestion but eventually Winter’s passionate plea convinced them to make the change. In the words of the committee, the rule passed as a way to “prevent freak activity.”

Sorry Big Time Timmy Jim, but the nickname “The Freak” was earned long before you were even born.
Chamberlain seemingly could jump into the rafters

2) Changing the alignment of players waiting for a free throw attempt. Can you believe that the shooting team also got one of the first rebounding spots in the lane before 1956? I’m sure the committee was worried that Kansas players might miss free throws on purpose so that Chamberlain could dunk after getting a rebound and get two points instead of one.

3) Widening the lane from 6′ to 12′. The NBA had already widened its lane from 6′ to 12′ before the 1951-52 season in response to George Mikan’s dominance, so this rule change was the NCAA’s chance to do the same because of Chamberlain’s presumed dominance. Of note, the NCAA banned defensive goaltending in 1944 because Mikan, who played for DePaul at the time, was too effective blocking shots heading into the basket. If the rule hadn’t been changed because of Mikan, it certainly would have been because of Chamberlain.

4) Implementing offensive goaltending. With respect to this final rule, Bill Russell deserves some credit too because he had frustrated coaches given his ability to guide errant shots into the basket; however, he had just graduated so the reason for the change was to prevent Chamberlain from doing the same.

All of these rules, which were implemented to try to contain Chamberlain in college, eventually found their way into the NBA. As previously mentioned, the lane in the NBA was already 12′ well before Chamberlain; however, the league expanded it to 16′ in 1964 specifically because of him. Despite the rule changes designed to limit his dominance, Chamberlain still is recognized as the holder of over 70 individual NBA records. His most memorable record (i.e. scoring 100 points in a game) doesn’t seem as untouchable as it once did since players have gotten closer and closer over the years. For instance, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game in 2006 despite missing 40% of his shots. In other words, the 100-point plateau is extremely improbable, but not impossible. On the other hand, Chamberlain’s rebound records (e.g. 55 in a game, 27.2 RPG in a season, and 22.9 RPG for his career) do seem untouchable. Despite the efforts of different rules committees, they couldn’t prevent Chamberlain’s dominance of the record books.

I can understand that Chamberlain’s legacy has been hurt because he only won two champions during an era when his biggest rival won eleven. Whereas Chamberlain is viewed as being selfish for piling up individual statistics, Russell is viewed as the preeminent team player who only cared about winning. As an oft-repeated example, Russell used to block shots towards a teammate while Chamberlain blocked shots as far into the stands as possible. I would agree that Russell’s play was smarter, but blocked shots were not an official stat at the time so Chamberlain couldn’t have been doing it to fill up the box score. Perhaps he did it to intimidate his opponents to stay away from him and the basket. At least he can’t be accused of grandstanding for the cameras because he played long before ESPN’s Top 10 (or Not 10) would have been loaded with those impressive (or humiliating) blocks.

Throughout the history of the NBA, bigger and taller players have had an advantage that seems to bother most people as if the advantage is unfair. They face a different level of scrutiny in an attempt to diminish their achievements. Russell seems to be exempt because his teams were so successful (having great teammates didn’t hurt), but other big men (e.g. Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal, and Howard) were and continue to be underappreciated. In the end, Wilt Chamberlain may not deserve a spot on the Mount Rushmore of NBA all-time greats, but his exclusion from the conversation is absurd.