A look back at Wilt Chamberlain on the anniversary of his death

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Boston’s Bill Russell (6) outreaches Wilt Chamberlain to control a rebound in Boston in this Jan. 15, 1967 photo.

This article first appeared on Oct. 13, 1999, the day after Wilt Chamberlain’s death at 63.

Wilt Chamberlain, the gifted and graceful giant from West Philadelphia who established statistical records as breathtakingly imposing as his 7-foot-1 physique during a near-mythic basketball career, was found dead yesterday at the age of 63.

Mr. Chamberlain’s body was discovered at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles by fire-department personnel who were called there shortly after 3 p.m., Philadelphia time. Initial reports indicated that he had suffered a heart attack.

Sonny Hill, the Philadelphia basketball guru who was one of his closest friends, said last night that Mr. Chamberlain had had heart problems and was going to be getting a pacemaker.

“He always seemed indestructible,” said Al Domenico, who was the 76ers’ trainer when Mr. Chamberlain played for the them. “I just can’t believe he died in bed. I would have thought it would take a truck to kill him. “

Indisputably Philadelphia’s greatest athlete ever and one of the overpowering figures in American sports,  Mr. Chamberlain generated unprecedented numbers while playing in the National Basketball Association from 1959 through 1973 for the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Reeling them off, even 26 years after Mr. Chamberlain’s retirement, remains a mind-boggling exercise.

When he quit after the 1972-73 season, he was the league’s all-time leader in points (31,419) and rebounds (23,924) and owned more than 90 records. Surpassed in scoring eventually by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who idolized him as a youngster in New York, he still holds the rebound mark.

A four-time league MVP, he led the NBA in scoring for seven straight seasons, in rebounding for 11 seasons and, perhaps most remarkably, in assists once. In 1,205 games, he never once fouled out. And in the 1961-62 season, just two years after he had been named both the MVP and the rookie of the year, he averaged more than 50 points a game for the Warriors.

It was during that season – on the night of March 2, 1962 – that Mr. Chamberlain established the perfectly rounded milestone for which he will always be remembered. Playing against the New York Knicks at a half-full arena in Hershey, Pa., without a single sportswriter present, he poured in 100 points – a feat no player has approached since.

“It was something you couldn’t believe,” said broadcaster Bill Campbell, who was there when Mr. Chamberlain, handed an offensive rebound by teammate Ted Luckenbill, got his last basket in the closing seconds of the Warriors’ 169-147 victory. “As he got closer and closer to 100, he just seemed to will it. “

It was typical of Mr. Chamberlain’s swagger that he later claimed that on the day he scored 100, he also made love to a couple of women and set a record on an arcade pinball machine, all before boarding the train that took him from New York to Hershey.

“I feel confident to say that 100 points is a record that will not be broken,” said Jerry West, a Lakers executive, a onetime teammate of Chamberlain’s, and a fellow Basketball Hall of Famer. “Whole teams today don’t even score 100 points.”

“All I can tell you,” Billy Cunningham, a teammate of his on the champion 76ers of 1966-67, “is that Wilt would still be the best center in the NBA, still be the dominant player in the NBA. “

Despite the numerical mountains he climbed, Mr. Chamberlain’s critics liked to note that he won just two NBA titles while his greatest rival, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, became the centerpiece of a dynasty.

“People say I dominated Wilt,” Russell said in 1998, when both he and Mr. Chamberlain were named among the then-50-year-old NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time. “Hell, he got 55 rebounds against me one time, and it seemed like he averaged near that many points. “

The duels between Russell and Mr. Chamberlain, contested in the overheated, often half-empty arenas of the NBA’s struggling early years, helped define professional basketball in the minds of American sports fans. Russell, several inches shorter but with a superior supporting cast, never could match Mr. Chamberlain’s numbers. But the Celtics almost always won the games that mattered.

Five times, Russell’s Celtics defeated Mr. Chamberlain’s Philadelphia teams in conference finals, often winning maddening, frustrating games that ended with Boston coach Red Auerbach infuriating Philadelphia fans by lighting one of his trademark victory cigars.

It wasn’t until the 1966-67 season that the Sixers – with Mr. Chamberlain by then surrounded by such stars as Hal Greer, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker, Wali Jones, and a young Cunningham – defeated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and went on to win an NBA title. Chamberlain captured his second and last championship in 1971-72, with the Lakers.

“I really believe that that team was, for one year, the greatest ever,” Chamberlain said in 1991 of the ’66-67 Sixers.

That team won more games than any other team in franchise history and, in the Eastern finals, before roaring crowds in the games at Convention Hall, overwhelmed the despised Celtics.

“The 76ers family is deeply saddened by the loss of not only one our greatest players of all time, but by an incredible human being,” Sixers president Pat Croce said. “We pass along our condolences to his family and join millions of basketball fans around the world mourning this loss. “

Mr. Chamberlain, those who knew him best said, was a complex man. Everyone seemed to like the gentle giant, yet few got close to him.

“He really didn’t have many close friends,” Domenico said. “I know, before almost every home game, Vince Miller [a lifelong friend and former Frankford High coach] and myself would eat dinner at Wilt’s apartment. Just the three of us all the time. “

During his playing days in his hometown, Mr. Chamberlain maintained a residence in Manhattan. There, Mr. Chamberlain, who never married, frequented New York City’s restaurants and jazz clubs and, in those pre-paparazzi days, lived the life of a swinging ’60s single, a sort of Austin Powerful.

“There were lots of women in my life,” Mr. Chamberlain said in 1993, “but maybe only five that I ever thought about in terms of marriage. It was just a commitment I wasn’t prepared to make. “

In a controversial autobiography released early in this decade, Mr. Chamberlain re-entered the public consciousness when he wrote that he had bedded more than 20,000 women.

“I believe in abstinence,” he joked in 1993. “I just don’t know how long I can survive it. “

Mr. Chamberlain had a curiosity about life that exceeded even his immense ego. He was an actor in Hollywood films, played musical instruments, wrote music and read extensively.

“That same determination he had in basketball, he had in everything he got interested in,” said Cy Goldberg, a friend and business associate. “He was like a modern Renaissance man. “

And even while he was a basketball superstar, his interests moved from sport to sport.

A high-jumper in college at the University of Kansas, where he won the Big Eight high-jump title one year, he claimed to have outrun football star Jim Brown barefoot over 100 yards, and he trained for the decathlon.

Frequently at odds with the frugal owners in the then-financially strapped NBA, Mr. Chamberlain received some of the largest salaries of his era. He liked to spend the money, but he invested a portion of it wisely, too, and was able to live off it comfortably after his retirement. During his negotiations with team managements, he often threatened to switch sports.

“I’m telling you that Wilt could have been a superstar at any sport he wanted to play,” Cunningham said.

With his enormous wingspan, Mr. Chamberlain was a formidable volleyball player. He toyed with the idea of a boxing career, and promoters once envisioned a match between him and Muhammad Ali. He always insisted that he could have been an NFL wide receiver, too, and several teams, including the Eagles, explored that possibility.

While it was acknowledged that Mr. Chamberlain could do just about anything in athletics, some were turned off by what they saw as his incessant bragging. But as he liked to say: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it. “

“I really think that part of Wilt felt underappreciated,” Guy Rodgers, a fellow Philadelphian who had been a teammate of his with the Warriors, said in 1991. “Everyone always made those negative comparisons to Russell, and Wilt felt like he had to stand up and say: ‘Hey, look what I did! ‘ “

Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born on Aug. 21, 1936, in Philadelphia. Always taller than his peers, he was self-conscious about his height as a boy. He began playing basketball in the seventh grade, and by the time he entered Overbrook, in 1951, he had grown to 6-foot-11.

At that time, anyone over 6-foot-6 was considered a freak. Basketball was a graceless, plodding, physical game. Its early 7-footers, such as Bob Kurland, an all-American at Oklahoma A&M, were slow and awkward.

Mr. Chamberlain developed his game on the Philadelphia playgrounds with friends like Miller. His legend soared when he became a virtually unstoppable star for Overbrook. He so dominated local high school basketball that Public League officials were forced to enact numerous rules changes, including one that required foul-shooters to remain behind the free-throw lane. Chamberlain had been taking a running leap and dunking free throws.

In his final high school game, the 1955 city-championship game at the Palestra, Mr. Chamberlain scored 35 points despite being guarded by four and five West Catholic players.

His graduation from Overbrook set off a massive recruiting war among some of the leading programs in college basketball. More than 200 coaches, including legends such as Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Kansas’ Phog Allen, came to Philadelphia to woo him.

He eventually chose Kansas, he said, because he felt as if he could live a relatively normal life in the small Midwestern town of Lawrence.

His most memorable game at Kansas was a 1957 loss. His Jayhawks team, virtually conceded the NCAA title, lost in triple overtime to North Carolina. North Carolina was coached by Frank McGuire, who soon became one of Mr. Chamberlain’s favorite coaches when they were with the Warriors together.

Always the iconoclast, Mr. Chamberlain left Kansas early after two varsity seasons and played in 1958 for Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters. Russell, uncomfortable with the clowning nature of the famed all-black team, had refused a similar offer two years earlier.

NBA teams held territorial rights to players from their areas in those days, and Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb drafted Mr. Chamberlain, who joined the team in 1958. Though the Celtics won another championship that season, he dominated the league.

“They had never seen anything like me,” he said in 1991. “I just exploded into that league, putting up numbers they had never dreamed of. “

Skinny in high school and college, Mr. Chamberlain was a muscular force by the time he reached the NBA and, in typical fashion, selected the number 13. His strength and agility made him an unstoppable force close to the basket. He could dunk, shoot the fadeaway jumper or finger-roll the ball into the hoop. It was a combination few opponents could handle.

By his own admission, Mr. Chamberlain often had strained relations with his coaches, many of whom were unable to adapt his groundbreaking abilities to their aging philosophies.

“He changed the way the game is played,” said Sixers coach Larry Brown, who got to know him while coaching at UCLA in the 1980s.

Mr. Chamberlain could be the most compliant of players, but he also could be stubbornly resistant to coaching. The one weakness in his game was foul-shooting, yet he always believed he could remedy that himself. He tried one-handed shots, two-handers, underhand tosses, shots from the corner of the foul circle. Nothing worked.

“The guy could do everything,” Rodgers said, “but that one thing – foul shots – just got in his head and stayed there. “

One of the first to popularize the dunk – though his dunks were more powerful than theatrical – Chamberlain acquired the nickname of “The Dipper,” one he liked. (He disliked being called “The Stilt. “) His dunks with the Warriors and the Sixers at Convention Hall and later at the Spectrum were called memorably by public address announcer Dave Zinkoff, who punctuated each with a piercing cry of “DIPPER DUNK – CHAAAAAAAAMBERLAIN! “

Despite his dominance of the NBA, Mr. Chamberlain couldn’t help Gottlieb fill Convention Hall, and in 1962, the owner took the team to San Francisco. Two years later, the Syracuse Nationals relocated to Philadelphia, changing their name to 76ers. Soon afterward, they brought Mr. Chamberlain back to Philadelphia.

Back in his hometown, Mr. Chamberlain thrived. The MVP from 1966 through 1968, he led the 68-13 Sixers to the 1966-67 title, becoming more of a low-post passer and screen-setter than he had been.

“Wilt sacrificed himself for the benefit of that team,” said Alex Hannum, its coach. “He could have doubled his numbers in virtually every category had he wanted to. But that year Wilt was just determined that he was going to win the championship that had long eluded him. “

After the Celtics foiled the Sixers again in 1968, Chamberlain grew discontented in Philadelphia. Eventually, he forced owner Irv Kosloff to trade him to Los Angeles, where he had grown to love the beach life.

Much like the Sixers, the Lakers, with superstars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, had been perennial runners-up to the Celtics. The one thing they lacked was a dominant center. With Mr. Chamberlain, they won an NBA-record 33 consecutive games and their first title in Los Angeles.

Following a loss to the New York Knicks in the 1972-73 NBA Finals, Mr. Chamberlain retired. He surfaced briefly with the San Diego Conquistadors of the old ABA, but soon retreated to his private world.

A bitter dispute with the 76ers organization prevented the team from retiring his number until 1991. By then, Mr. Chamberlain had mellowed, and the night of March 18, 1991, at the Spectrum was a gigantic love feast.

“I had tears in my eyes the whole day,” he said later. “I really felt the sincerity behind it and all the people saying, ‘Thank you. ‘ And I should have been the one saying, ‘Thank you.’ “