Chamberlain or Jordan? Why, Jordan, of course

There is no athlete more mythologized than Wilt Chamberlain is in his hometown. He could palm a 16-pound bowling ball. He could grab money off of the top of a backboard.

Here’s a fact: He was and still is the greatest statistical athlete in the history of any team sport in North American history.

Here’s another one: He is not better than Michael Jordan. Not in this era, that era or any other era yet to come.


Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins made this abundantly clear to me last week on the 50th anniversary of Chamberlain scoring 100 points.

 Asked if that would happen today, Collins, a huge Chamberlain fan, said, “Back then there was no sophistication in your defense. It was like, ‘you’ve got him and you’ve got him.’ There was no double-teaming and scheming. Defenses are too sophisticated. They are going to run at you, trap you and get the ball out of your hands. A coach is not going to let you just run wild like that anymore.”

Looking at the grainy footage from that era, I can’t argue with him.

And while defenders of the legend rebut this saying entire teams collapsed around Goliath to stop him, would this not leave open jump shots for his teammates all over the floor?

Whenever someone who witnessed him play in that era spins it, their story doesn’t jibe with Collins’. It usually suggests that entire teams eschewed whatever defensive strategy they might have had and collapsed around Chamberlain, who once led the league in assists.

But if this were the absolute truth then wouldn’t there have been open jumpers available for anyone who wanted one? It would appear to be a coach’s paradise and a formula for a championship (a few, in fact, but we’ll talk about this later).

Nostalgia’s seduction and yearning for the good ole’ days seems to skew people’s relationship with reality.

The lane was indeed widened for Wilt and hence the suggestion that they changed the rules because of him. But who among us is delusional l enough to suggest that with the evolution of the athlete – he and she are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before – the lane wouldn’t have inevitably widened with or without Wilt?

Wilt’s foil, the great Bill Russell, was a 6-9, 215-pound center. That’s an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than waifish 76er Craig Brackins, just back from the D-League. In today’s game, Russell is built along the lines of a small forward. His assignment had he played in today’s game might have been, say, Kevin Durant, but that’s a story for another day.

For me, thought, it’s not so much the blind ignorance of  Wilt’s supporters and their inability to acknowledge the evolutionary metamorphosis of the athlete over the year as it was Wilt’s inability to win the whole damn thing more than twice.

No one can diminish his two championship teams – the 1967 Sixers and the 1972 Lakers – for they are among the greatest in the league history.

But what about his 1964 Warriors team? That team included 6-11 Nate Thurmond, in 1996 named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, and Temple legend Guy Rodgers – ask Sonny Hill how great he was - yet the Celtics dispatched them 4-1.

And what of the 1968-69 Lakers? Chamberlain, at the peak of his powers, had as teammates Jerry West and Elgin Baylor – I’ve seen top 10 all-time lists with all three of their names listed – yet the Celtics defeated them on their home court in Game 7 to win the NBA title.

And when Lew Alcindor arrived on the scene as a rookie with the Milwaukee, Alcindor and the Bucks vaporized the Lakers and the then 34-year-old Chamberlain 4-1 in the Western Conference finals. The rookie from UCLA was far and away the best player on the court, and the Bucks won their four games by an average of 20 points.

Jordan doesn’t have the statistical cache Chamberlain does. Again, no one does. But if would have been interesting to see him posting up in that joke of a lane back then, would it not?

But what is more revelatory in this discussion is winning. Had Chamberlain been able to milk more than two titles – like the four that Shaquille O’Neal has – then calling him the greatest ever would be little easier for people to swallow.

The Jordan monarchy denied hall of fame players such as Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins and Charles Barkley from ever winning a championship.

Barkley will tell you right now  had Jordan not had his brief dalliance with baseball  that the Chicago Bulls would have won eight straight championships, which means Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler – like Barkley, Ewing, Stockton and Malone all on the NBA’s 1996 list – wouldn’t have had their two titles either,  unless they were traded to Chicago.

The debate will rage on in various precincts for years.

But not in this one. It’s over.