THE WORLD’S GREATEST POST-WAR ERA ATHLETE HAILED FROM PHILLY – WILT CHAMBERLAIN!

In the history of sport, the moniker of the world’s “greatest athlete” has been bestowed only to a few select men.  In the first half of the 20th Century, it is without question that world’s greatest athlete was Jim Thorpe.  A Native American from the Sac and Fox tribe in what is now the state of Oklahoma, Thorpe’s athletic accomplishments have never been equaled.  In track and field, Thorpe won the five-event pentathlon and the ten-event pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.  At the conclusion of the 5th Modern Olympiad, King Gustav V congratulated Thorpe at the award ceremony by stating “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”  In football, Thorpe became a three-time consensus All-American for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a running back, defensive back, kicker, and punter.  Professionally, Thorpe played for six teams over 12 seasons, became the first president of the American Professional Football Association (which later became today’s NFL), and was selected by the NFLs Hall of Fame (HOF) as a member of its 1920s All-Decade Team.  In recognition of his achievements in both track and field and football, Thorpe became enshrined in the College Track and Field HOF, the U.S. Olympic HOF, and the NCAA Football and the NFL HOF, respectively.  In addition to track and football, Thorpe played six seasons (1913-1919) of Major League Baseball as an outfielder with the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Boston Braves, two years of professional basketball (1927-1929), and considered playing pro hockey in 1913 for the Tecumseh Hockey Club in Toronto, Canada.  Finally, and one little known fact about Thorpe:  He won the 1912 Intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing Competition just before winning Olympic Gold at Stockholm.  In 1950, an Associated Press poll of nearly 400 sportswriters and broadcasters named Thorpe the “Greatest Athlete” of the first half of the 20th Century.

Since Thorpe’s reign, many barroom debates have been held over the past 70-plus years as to who was America’s greatest athlete in the post-World War II era.  Names such as Muhammed Ali, Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and two-sport stars Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders come immediately to mind.  However, this author believes unequivocally that no athlete in the modern era possessed the sheer strength, speed, leaping ability, skill, dominance, and physical talents of a kid who came from the great city of Philadelphia.  His name:  Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

The Early Years

Born on August 21, 1936, Wilt resided in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia.  One of nine children, Wilt nearly died from pneumonia when was a young boy which caused him to miss one year in grade school.  Although his parents were no taller than 5’9”, Wilt reached the height of 6’0” by the age of 10, and at the beginning of ninth grade he stood 6’11”.  His neighborhood friends gave him the nickname “The Big Dipper,” because when entering a room, he had to “dip” his head under the doorway. 

OVERBROOK HIGH SCHOOL

Wilt attended Overbrook High School from 1952 through 1955, and his team won three consecutive Public League titles (1953-1955).  In the 1953 City Championship Game against West Catholic, Overbrook lost by a score of 54 – 42 before more than 8,400 fans at the Palestra (more than 4,000 fans were turned away for lack of seating capacity!).  Throughout the entire game, West always surrounded Wilt with four defenders, yet he scored 29 points (9 for 24 from the floor, 11 for 19 from the line) in his only City Championship defeat.  In 1954, Overbrook went undefeated (20-0) and with Wilt’s 32 points, defeated South Catholic 74-50 to win the first of his two City Championships.  The following season, the ‘Brook had an 18 – 1 win-loss record, and Wilt played in three consecutive games where he scored 74, 78, and 90 points, respectively.  In the 1955 City Championship game, Wilt established a then-scoring record of 35 points in defeating its arch-Catholic League rival West Catholic 83 – 42.  From 1953 – 1955, Wilt earned three First-Team All-Public League and two First-Team All-State honors. 

PLAYING PROFESSIONALLY AT AGES 16 – 17

To further attest to his athletic greatness, Wilt, while a student at the ‘Brook, found time to play professional basketball!   As a high school student and an amateur athlete in the eyes of the Amateur Athletic Union, Wilt was prohibited from earning money playing professional basketball.  However, to avoid losing his amateur status, Wilt played under the name “George Marcus.”  Playing against professionals at the age of 16, Marcus averaged more than 40 points per game (PPG) for the Pittsburgh Raiders of the then-National Basketball League (NBL).  When he turned 17, Marcus rendered his basketball services for the NBLs Quakertown Fays.  While playing for Q-Town, Marcus dominated the NBL yet again by averaging a league-leading 53.9 PPG during the season and 74 PPG in the playoffs.  At season’s end, the NBL named Marcus (i.e., Wilt) its Most Valuable Player (MVP). 

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In the late 1940s – early 1950s, the best basketball players in the NBA and the NCAA played in summer leagues in the Catskill Mountain resorts located in the “Borscht Belt” of southeastern New York state.  One of the Catskill’s leading vacation resorts, Kutsher’s, hired future NBA Hall of Fame (HOF) Boston Celtics Head Coach Red Auerbach to develop a summer league for all Catskill resorts comprised of college and professional players for their guests’ viewing pleasure.  During the summer of 1954, Wilt worked as a bellboy at Kutsher’s, earning $13 per week plus tips.  While playing for Kutsher’s that summer, Auerbach arranged for Wilt to play a one-on-one game up to 25 against B.H. Born a 6’ 9” center who played for the 1952 NCAA National Champion Kansas Jayhawks and was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the 1953 NCAA Men’s Basketball Finals.  Wilt crushed Born by a score of 25-10.  Urban legend holds that Born was so devastated by Wilt’s trouncing that Born never played in the NBA (which he did not).  However, Born became instrumental in helping the Jayhawks’ legendary head coach, Dr. Forrest C. (“Phog”) Allen, recruit Wilt to play for his alma mater.

THE UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS & THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS

More than 200 universities throughout the country recruited Wilt for their basketball program, and he turned down some rather inviting offers.  For example, the University of Pennsylvania offered to buy him diamonds, while UCLA extended Wilt the unique opportunity to get into motion pictures.  Ultimately, Wilt decided that he would play college basketball for the University of Kansas Jayhawks.

Wilt attained great personal success during his tenure at Kansas.  In his sophomore year, he was a Consensus First-Team All-American, and he led the Jayhawks to the 1957 NCAA National Championship Game against North Carolina.  Kansas lost to North Carolina by a score of 54-53, and the Jayhawks ranked second in the country at the season’s end.  In his junior year, Wilt again earned First-Team All-American Honors, and he led the Jayhawks to a Number 7 national ranking.  In his two-year college career, Wilt averaged 29.9 PPG and 18.3 rebounds per game (RPG).

However, after being subject to two years of racial abuse, constant fouling, and being physically defended by three-to-four players simultaneously every game, Wilt left school to play professionally.  However, since the NBA did not accept college players until their academic class officially graduated, Wilt decided to play one year with the Harlem Globetrotters.  In 1958, Wilt signed a contract with the world-famous exhibition club for the astonishing sum of $50,000 (worth $450,000 in 2019 dollars).  

THE PHILADELPHIA WARRIORS

In 1959, Wilt officially signed with the Philadelphia Warriors for an annual salary of $30,000, making him the highest-paid player in the NBA.  In his rookie season, Wilt averaged 30 PPG and 27 RPG, earning Rookie of the Year, League MVP, and NBA All-Star Game MVP honors.  The Warriors lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals 4 games to 2.  With Wilt’s official entry into the NBA, one of professional sports greatest team (Warriors/Sixers – Celtics) and personal rivalries the (Chamberlain – Bill Russell) of all time had officially begun.   (I will feature the unparalleled Wilt-Russell battles in a future Edge of Philly Sports article.)

In the 1960-1961 season, Wilt averaged 38.4 PPG and 27.2 RPG.  He scored more than 3,000 points that year, grabbed 55 rebounds in one game, establishing a league record, and became the only player in NBA history to capture more than 2,000 rebounds (2,149) in a season.   In the playoffs, the Syracuse Nationals, with All-Stars Dolph Schayes and Larry Costello, defeated the Warriors in the Eastern Division Semifinals 3-0. In the 1961-1962 season, Wilt again dominated the league.  He averaged 50 PPG and 25.7 RPG, became the only player to score more than 4,000 points in a season (4,029), averaged 48.53 minutes played per game (MPG), and scored 100 points in a March 1962 game against the New York Knicks in Hershey, PA.  In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics defeated the Warriors 4 – 3, with the Celtics shooting guard Sam Jones hitting a jumper with only two seconds remaining in regulation.

THE SAN FRANCISCO WARRIORS

Before the beginning of the 1962-1963 season, the Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb sold the team to a group of San Francisco (SF) investors for $850,000.  However, the original Warriors broke up as two of its local stars (Paul Arizin and Tom Gola) did not want to move their families to the West Coast.  The Warriors lost 49 of 80 games and failed to make the playoffs that season despite Wilt averaging 44.8 PPG and 24.3 RPG.

The following season witnessed the Warriors winning the NBA Western Division with a 48-32 record.  Accompanied by fellow Philly high school players, point guard Guy Rodgers (Northeast) and power forward Wayne Hightower (Overbrook), Wilt met Russell for the first time in the 1964 NBA Finals.  However, the Warriors lost the series to the Celtics 4-1.

THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

During the 1964-1965 NBA season, Warriors ownership experienced financial difficulties and at the All-Star break in early January, they traded Wilt to the Philadelphia 76ers (the now-relocated Syracuse Nationals) for three players and $150,000 in cash.  In his first abbreviated season with the Sixers, Wilt averaged 30 PPG and 22.3 RPG.  He led the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston where they lost a heartbreaking Game 7 at the Garden by a score of 110-109.  One of the most iconic games in NBA history is best remembered for its ending:  John Havlicek stealing Hal Greer’s inbound pass with five seconds left on the clock and Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most, with his cigarette-raspy voice, shouting into the microphone “Havlicek stole the ballHavlicek stole the ballIt’s all overIt’s all over!” 

During the 1965-1966 NBA season, the Sixers finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 55-25 record.  Although Wilt had another great season, winning his second league MVP award, the Sixers came up short in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston 4-1.  However, Wilt’s fortunes against Russell were about to change dramatically.

According to most NBA historians, the 1966-1967 Sixers rank as one of the game’s all-time greatest teams.  Led by Wilt (who earned his third league MVP) and accompanied by fellow NBA HOFs Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham, the Sixers set a then-league all-time best win-loss percentage of .840, with 63 wins and only 13 losses.  The Sixers handily defeated Russell’s Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Rick Barry-led SF Warriors 4-2 to give the Sixers its first NBA Championship.

The 1967-1968 NBA season proved to be Wilt’s last one in Philly.  Although he won his fourth league MVP award, the Sixers lost the 1968 Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics 4-3 (after having a 3-1 lead).  At this point in his life Wilt wanted to live on the West Coast, so he forced a trade to the Lakers for Daryll Imhoff, Archie Clark, and Jerry Chambers.  The Sixers would not return to the NBA Finals until 1977, then led by the legendary “Doctor”, Julius Irving. 

THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS

During the 1968-1969 NBA season, the Lakers paid Wilt an unprecedented sum of $250,000 after taxes.  In his first year playing with fellow HOFs Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the Lakers won the NBA Western Conference but lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals 4-3.  Russell retired at season’s end having won an unprecedented NBA-record 11 championships in 13 seasons.

The following year, Wilt suffered a serious injury to his right knee causing him to play only 12 of 81-regular season games.  When he returned for the playoffs, Wilt guided the Lakers to the 1970 NBA Finals for the second consecutive season.  However, the Lakers lost the NBA title that year to the Willis Reed-led New York Knicks 4-3.  Four of the five starters on that Knicks team (Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier) eventually entered the NBA HOF.

Although the 1970-1971 Lakers won a third straight Western Conference title, Wilt alone (as Baylor and West were injured) could not defeat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Oscar Robertson-led Milwaukee Bucks in that year’s NBA Finals.  Losing the series 4-1, Wilt (then 34) played more MPG (44.4 versus 42.6), had more RPG (18.8 versus 17.2), but less PPG average (22 versus 25) than the 23-year-old, second-year phenom from UCLA.

Wilt led the LA Lakers to its first NBA Title in his fourth season playing in the City of Angels.  The 1971-1972 team won unprecedented 33-straight games and finished the season with a 69-13 record.  Wilt manhandled Kareem in the NBA Western Conference Finals, winning the series 4-2.  And in its revenge match with the Knicks in the NBA Finals, Wilt dominated the Eastern Conference Champions winning the series 4-1, averaging 47.2 MPG, 19.4 PPG, and 23.2 RPG.  Wilt accomplished this astonishing feat with a broken right hand!

In his final NBA season, Wilt led the defending NBA Champions to a 60-win season, setting an all-time NBA record with a .727 field goal percentage.  However, handicapped by injuries to fellow Laker stars West and power forward Happy Hairston, the Lakers lost the NBA Finals to the Knicks 4-1.  The 1972-1973 Knicks featured six NBA HOF players on its roster:  Centers Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas, Forwards Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, and Guards Walt Frazier and Philly’s own Earl Monroe. 

THE SAN DIEGO CONQUISTADORES

In September of 1973, Wilt made the leap to the rival American Basketball Association’s (ABA) San Diego Conquistadors, signing a three-year contract as a player-coach worth $1.8 million.  However, the Lakers immediately filed suit preventing Wilt from playing in the ABA because the team owned the option year of his final NBA contract.  Wilt did not like coaching, and ultimately, he delegated all duties to former ABA (and later NBA) coach Stan Albeck. Wilt’s only season in the coaching ranks generated a 37-47 record.

NBA CAREER ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Wilt’s career accomplishments earned during his 14-year playing career proved second to none, and no player ever dominated a sport like the kid from West Philly.  Here is a brief listing of his extraordinary on-court accomplishments:

  • Member of the NBA HOF
  • 13-time NBA All Star
  • 10-time All-NBA First Team
  • Four-Time League MVP
  • 11-time rebounding champion
  • Seven-time scoring champion
  • Two-time All-NBA Defensive Team
  • Two-time NBA Champion
  • One-time assist champion
  • 1959-1960 NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 1959-1960 NBA All-Star Game MVP
  • Lifetime averages:
  • 30.1 PPG
  • 22.9 RPG
  • 45.8 MPG
  • 31,419 total career points
  • 23,924 total career rebounds
  • And he NEVER fouled out of a game!

NBA RULE CHANGES MADE TO STOP WILT’S DOMINANCE

Because of Wilt’s absolute dominance playing professional basketball, the NBA intervened and made four rule changes to level the playing field for his opponents.  These rule changes were:

  • Widening the lane from 12’ to 16’.
  • No inbound passes over the backboard (Wilt’s teammates would inbound the ball over the backboard, he would catch the pass, and then perform his famous “dipper dunk”).
  • No player cannot cross the plane of the free throw line until the ball hits the rim or passes the basket (Wilt used to take the free throw shot, then jump from behind the line and slam dunk the ball while never setting foot in the lane).
  • Institute offensive goaltending by not allowing a player to interfere with the ball above the cylinder.

In a conversation with Michael Jordan (MJ) concerning the NBA’s Greatest of All Time player, Wilt told MJ: “Just remember Michael.  When you played, they (NBA) changed the rules to make it easier for you to dominate.  When I played, they changed the rules to make it harder for me.”

WILT’S EXTRAORDINARY ATHLETIC ABILITIES

Wilt’s freakish athletic abilities are unparalleled, and his potential to excel in several sports was unsurpassed.  Consider the following:

Professional Volleyball

When Wilt retired from basketball at the age of 36, he began a second athletic career as a professional volleyball player.  In 1975, Wilt helped form the International Volleyball Association (IVA).  During the IVAs six-year tenure, Wilt became the player / owner of the Southern California Bangers and later the Orange County Stars.  After the league folded in 1980, the IVA honored Wilt by enshrining him in the IVA HOF.  

Track & Field

Wilt was an outstanding track and field athlete in both high school and college.

As a sprinter, he ran a 10.9 second 100-yard and a 20.9 second 220-yard dash, respectively.  In the middle distances, Wilt ran a 49.0 second 440-yard and a 1:58.3 880-yard dash.  In field events, Wilt threw the shotput 56’, triple jumped more than 50’, and was the Big Eight Conference high jump champion during his three-year tenure at Kansas.  If Wilt dedicated himself solely to track and field (his favorite sport) instead of basketball, there is a strong probability that he could have represented the 1960 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team in several events at the XVII Olympiad in Rome, Italy.

Professional Football

In 1964, while attending a summer camp in New York state, the legendary NFL HOF Head Coach Hank Stram gave Wilt an official tryout to be a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs.  In his workout, Wilt repeatedly caught passes thrown over the goal post by Stram onehanded.  When timed in a 40-yard sprint, Wilt ran a 4.6 40-yard dash barefooted and in dress trousers.  (To put Wilt’s 40-yard dash time in perspective, please note that the NFLs all-time greatest wide receiver, Jerry Rice, ran a 4.6 40-yard dash!).  When Stram asked Wilt if he would play wide receiver for the Chiefs, Wilt politely denied Stram’s offer.  Wilt wanted to play quarterback!  (Just imagine the records Wilt would have established playing wide receiver with the Chiefs’ legendary HOF quarterback Lenny Dawson!).

COULD WILT DOMINATE THE NBA TODAY?

How many times have you heard this question posed on sports radio over the years?  In my view, to think that Wilt in his prime could NOT dominate today’s game is a preposterous assumption.  Consider the following:

Size: 

Wilt stood at 7’1” tall, weighed anywhere from 275 to 300 pounds, and possessed a 7’8” wingspan.  After his first few years in the NBA, Wilt filled out his Goliath-like frame and carried the physique of a competitive bodybuilder.  No player in NBA history (even today) could dominate Wilt in the low post.

Speed:

In his prime, Wilt was arguably one of the fastest players in the NBA.  He ran a 4.6 40-yard dash, and when he played in Philly with the Warriors and the Sixers, he routinely beat HOF guard Hal Greer in half court races at team practices.  At the time, Greer was widely regarded as the fastest player in the NBA.

Leaping Ability: 

Wilt possessed a vertical leap of 48”, the highest distance ever recorded.  It has been reported that Wilt’s jumping ability was so freakish that he could grasp coins from the top of the backboard!  Wilt was also one of a select few players in NBA history who blocked (more than once) Kareem’s skyhook.

Strength:

Wilt was probably the strongest person to ever play in the NBA.  He could dead lift more than 700 pounds, clean and jerk 325 pounds, and bench press more than 500 pounds.  At the age of 59, Wilt could bench press 465 pounds.  (Shaq’s personal best was 450 pounds.)   In 1984 (when he was 48 years old), Wilt co-starred in the movie Conan the Destroyer with former Mr. Universe and seven-time Mr. Olympia champion, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Arnold and Wilt had a longstanding friendship, which dated back to the days when they both worked out together at Gold’s Gym in LA.  In attesting to Wilt’s strength, the Terminator stated where most bodybuilders would do triceps extension workouts lifting 120 pounds. Wilt would routinely do this exercise using 180 pounds.  With his size, speed, leaping ability, and incomparable strength, Wilt would totally dominate the best big men in today’s game whether it be the Sixers’ Joel Embiid, two-time league MVP Nikola Jokic (“the Joker”), or three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Durability:

In his 13-year NBA career, Wilt led the league in games played five times and in minutes played an astonishing nine times.  In the 1961-1962 season, Wilt averaged more than 48 MPG (due to overtime games).  He averaged 45.8 MPG for his career and sustained only one major injury.  (In the 1969-1979 season, he played only 12 regular season games due to a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee.  However, he came back for the playoffs and led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the New York Knicks in an iconic seven-game series.)   Unlike the players of today, Wilt never practiced a minute of “load management” during his astonishing career.

CONCLUSION

Since the passing of Jim Thorpe in March of 1953, countless debates have occurred on who was the greatest athlete in the modern era.  Many great sportsmen have been nominated over the past seven decades:  from Jim Brown to Bo Jackson, and from Willie Mays to Michael Jordan.  However, this historian firmly believes that the world’s greatest athlete since the end of World War II was a kid who hailed from our great city.  He was one of our own.  And he was proud of his Philly heritage.  His name was Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

Mark Sullivan
Mark Sullivan

Mark A. Sullivan is a retired international trade attorney and an adjunct professor of international business, law, macroeconomics, and business management. Mark is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA). He writes articles on pro football history and recently served as an associate editor of the PFRA’s soon-to-be-published book on The 1964 Buffalo Bills. He is a proud member of the Edge of Philly Sports family and is a panelist on the network’s The Old School Sports Show. Mark has been a diehard Philly sports fan since the early 1960s and is genuinely passionate about history in general and sports history in particular. Finally, Mark shares the distinct honor and privilege with thousands of Philly sports fans to have been an Eagles season ticket holder in the infamous 700 level of Veterans Stadium from 1974 to 1986. Mark is Edge of Philly Sports Resident Historian and an author on sports history.

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