Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest American athlete in the second half of the twentieth century.
At the University of Kansas, he was a great track & field athlete.
The 7’2″ goliath ran a sub 11 second 100 yard dash and also threw the shot put 56 feet. Despite competing and excelling in both sprinting and throwing his best events were not surprisingly the jumping events as Chamberlain triple jumped in excess of 50 feet and successfully won the Big 8 Conference high jumping competition three years in a row. In the world of track and field it is an extraordinarily rare athlete that can compete at the highest level in the shortest sprints, all the jumping events, and the throwing events. This dynamic collection of talents is so rare in fact that Wilt might be the only man ever to possess this unique skill set.
He ran the 880 in under two minutes.
If he had trained in the decathlon, his only weakness would have been the pole vault. Maybe. (They used fixed metal poles until 1960. The world record was 15 feet, 9.25 inches.)
Could he have played wide receiver in football? I think so.
Think of boxing. Think of his reach. Ali did. They almost staged an exhibition match.
But he chose basketball. He holds 72 NBA records.
He never got tired. For his career, he averaged 45.8 minutes per game.
Then there was his 1962 season. He averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game. He averaged 48.5 minutes per night. This was impressive, since there are only 48 minutes in a regular NBA game. How? He played every second of every overtime period. He scored 100 points in one game. No two NBA players on one team have ever scored 100 in a game. [Kiki Vandeweghe (51), Alex English (47) totaled 98.]
In that year, Oscar Roberson averaged a triple double: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. When asked decades later if Chamberlain was the greatest basketball player, he replied: “The record book does not lie.”
He never fouled out of a game in the NBA — not in 1205 games. While this statistic is not recorded in high school and college, there is no record that I can find that he ever fouled out. This is one of the great sports records in history. It indicates complete control over your body.
I guess my favorite Wilt story was provided by Paul Silas, one of the great offensive rebounders in NBA history.
“One time, when I was with Boston and he was with the Lakers, Happy Hairston and I were about to get in a scrape. All of a sudden, I felt an enormous vise around me. I was 6’7″, 235 lbs., and Wilt had picked me up and turned me around. He said, ‘We’re not going to have that stuff.’ I said, ‘Yes sir.'”
After retiring from basketball, he took up volleyball at age 34. His spike was fearful.
There are collections of Chamberlain videos. They are amazing. Seeing him block Kareem’s shot is something to behold.
I suppose that is the lesson I take from his career. He was truly the greatest, but it did him little good at the end. The score he is most remembered for is his claim of having seduced 20,000 women. There is, of course, no independent confirmation. I remain skeptical. It was a silly claim appropriate to schoolboys. He had so many records, yet they did not satisfy him. He chose to invent one that did not elevate his career in retrospect.
You can be the best there ever was, but that’s not good enough. You also need good judgment and the ability to say no.