It feels like Wilt Chamberlain is the most larger-than-life figure in NBA history, and not just because of his height. He dominated the sport physically in a way few ever have. His numbers are gaudy and massive, and that isn’t a joke on the infamous claims he made about the number of women he bedded. Let’s focus less on that and more on the career of the legendary center who may or may not have had the greatest individual game in NBA history.
Despite being incredibly tall growing up, it took a while for Chamberlain to embrace basketball. Early in his life, he focused on track and field. When he was already 6’11’’ when entering high school, though, he realized that basketball could be right up his alley. Chamberlain played for Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, leading the team to a 56-3 record and two city titles while averaging 37.4 points per game and setting a new high school scoring record.
Needless to say, many college programs wanted Chamberlain to come play for them. UCLA came calling. Purportedly, the University of Pennsylvania offered him diamonds and offered his high school coach a gig at the school as well. Chamberlain wanted to get away from his home of Philadelphia, though, and ended up playing for Phog Allen and the Jayhawks.
As was required at the time, Chamberlain had to play on the freshman team his first year in college. Then, Phog Allen retired. In his first varsity game, Wilt scored 52 points and picked up 31 rebounds, both Kansas records. Chamberlain was dominant in his sophomore and junior years, even being named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in 1957, even though Kansas lost to North Carolina in the finals. However, Chamberlain, who didn’t seem to love basketball necessarily, hated being double and triple teamed and wanted a chance to earn some money. As such, Chamberlain left Kansas before his senior season.
Back in the day, you couldn’t play in the NBA until after your graduating class had, well, graduated. That meant the league would have to wait for Wilt. Instead, Chamberlain signed up to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for 1958, for $50,000, which equates to about $443,000 today. Needless to say, Wilt was quite the draw.
Chamberlain didn’t stick around with the Globetrotters, though. As soon as he was eligible for the NBA, he signed a deal with the Philadelphia Warriors. For the second he joined the league, Wilt was the highest-paid player in the NBA. In fact, he contract ($30,000) was more than the owner of the Warriors had paid for the team ($25,000) just seven years earlier.
As with Kansas, Chamberlain made a splash right out of the gate. In his NBA debut he dropped 43 points and 28 rebounds on the Knicks. When his rookie season ended, Wilt was averaging 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game. He broke eight NBA records, and won not only Rookie of the Year but the MVP as well. Only Wes Unseld has done that since.
Despite the success, Chamberlain was still frustrated by basketball. He hated being double and triple teamed, and he took hard fouls constantly, in part because he was a poor free-throw shooter. This is when Wilt first said, “Nobody loves Goliath.” However, Chamberlain got a raise and stuck around. Early in his second NBA season he grabbed a staggering 55 rebounds, which is still a NBA record.
You were surely waiting for this one. It’s the iconic moment in Chamberlain’s career, and one of the NBA’s iconic moments full stop. On March 2, 1962, the Warriors played the Knicks in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Sure, he took 63 shots and attempted 32 free throws. Nevertheless, Chamberlain scored 100 points, an NBA record that will assuredly never be bested. Wilt is the one and only player to ever score 100 points in an NBA game.
Let’s dig into that 1961-62 season a little further. Chamberlain averaged a staggering, unfathomable 50.4 points per game that year, which is an NBA record that will never be beaten. He also pulled down 25.7 rebounds per contest. Wilt played in all 80 games, and since he played effectively every minute of the season, including overtime games, he averaged over 48 minutes per contest. And yet, he somehow didn’t win the MVP.
Wilt's time with the Warriors were often tumultuous. There were several coaching changes, and the franchise was also sold and moved to San Francisco. Eventually, both sides wanted to go their separate ways. Chamberlain was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, who until recently had been known as the Syracuse Nationals, at which point the owner of the Warriors called Wilt “not an easy man to love.”
There was success for Chamberlain and Philly his first two seasons with the team, but there was no ring. There was the “Havlicek stole the ball!” game, though. Finally, in the 1966-67 season, Wilt was able to break through. Fittingly enough, the Sixers and Wilt’s old team the Warriors met up in the NBA Finals. Chamberlain pulled down almost 30 rebounds per game as he won his first ring.
Chamberlain was regularly one of the leading scorers in the NBA, and he led the league in rebounds per game 11 times in his career. This led to a reputation that he was a ball hog who never passed. This got Wilt’s goat, and he set to change minds during the 1967-68 season. Chamberlain decided he wanted to lead the league in assists, and he did just that. Well, total assists, not assists per game. Still, he’s the only center to ever do that, and that season he won his fourth and final MVP.
That season would be Wilt’s final with the 76ers. Chamberlain would leave his hometown to move across the country (again) to play for the Lakers. The storied franchise traded for the center in hopes of getting over the hump and winning a title, for the franchise and the center.
Chamberlain’s first season with the Lakers was tumultuous, which shouldn’t be a surprise at this point, and the second season was even tougher. Wilt hurt his knee and was limited to 12 games during the regular season. It’s the one season he wasn’t an All-Star. Chamberlain was able to return for the playoffs, and the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals to face the Knicks. The series went to seven games, and the Knicks were possibly going to be without Willis Reed. Then, Reed famously gutted it out to play at the beginning of the game, by reputation inspiring the Knicks to the win and the title.
Here’s another weird Chamberlain moment. After the 1971 season he wanted to box Muhammad Ali. Seriously, he was going to go 15 rounds at the Astrodome in Houston that July. Jim Brown was going to be the corner man for Chamberlain. However, reasonable heads prevailed, and the fight never happened.
Wilt didn’t box Ali, and he was able to be healthy for the 1971-72 season. There, the Lakers were able to beat a few tough teams, including a Bucks team led by a young man named Lew Alcindor (later to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). In the Finals, the Lakers met up with the Knicks again. This time, Los Angeles won, and Chamberlain was named the Finals MVP.
The 1972-73 season would be the final season for Chamberlain in the NBA. While he only scored 13.2 points per game, he stayed a potent rebounder, leading the league with 18.6 board a night. Once more, the Lakers went to the NBA Finals, and once more they faced the New York Knicks. The Lakers were banged up, though, and the Knicks won the series in five games.
Technically, Chamberlain didn’t retire after that final season with the Lakers. He signed on with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA to be a player-coach. However, the Lakers still had an option year on his contract, so they sued him to keep him from playing. Thus, Wilt simply served as the coach, although he quickly tired of that and left coaching duties to his assistant. After one year doing this, Chamberlain happily stepped aside.
His contract over with the Lakers, and the Conquistadors wackiness over, Chamberlain retired for good. He got into movies a bit, forming a film production company that produced films such as “Go For It.” He also acted in the film “Conan the Destroyer” with Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, there was no film career for Chamberlain beyond dribs and drabs.
Obviously, Chamberlain was an easy pick for the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was elected way back in 1979, cementing his legacy in Springfield for future generations.
Being tall can have its disadvantages from a health perspective. In 1999, his health started to deteriorate, and he lost quite a bit of rate. Chamberlain would die October 12, 1999 from congestive heart failure. He was 63.
Chamberlain has one of the strangest reputations of any basketball player. He averaged over 30 points and almost 23 rebounds per game in his career. He was a scoring champ seven times and made 10 All-NBA teams. The man was dominant on the court. And yet, his teams only won two titles. He was compared unfavorable to fellow center Bill Russell, whose Celtics teams won titles left and right. Some accused Chamberlain of not having his heart in it. Or maybe, like he said, nobody likes Goliath.