Wilt was unprized treasure

Appreciation

October 13, 1999|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

No plans have been announced as to where Wilt Chamberlain, who died suddenly yesterday at the age of 63, will be put to rest. But if the basketball legend had his way, his epitaph would read: "Nobody loves Goliath."

In this era of superlatives, when every unusual sports feat is heralded as extraordinary and every clutch basket by Michael Jordan was etched in stone, it is easy to forget how Wilton Norman Chamberlain totally dominated pro basketball in the '60s with both his brute strength and athletic ability.

As the then-Baltimore Bullets beat reporter in 1965, we recall a unique January weekend in which the visiting San Francisco Warriors played the Bullets on consecutive nights at the Civic Center.

The Warriors were a nondescript team with the exception of their gifted 7-foot-1 center and were on their way to posting a 17-63 record. That weekend, the Warriors lost both games. Wilt scored 43 the first night and 53 the next, but hardly raised an eyebrow.

It was expected of a man who in the 1961-62 season averaged a mind-boggling 50.4 points a game, set single-game records of 100 points and 55 rebounds and once converted 35 straight field goals.

A record-breaking distance runner in high school, he boasted the speed to outrun most of the guards in the league.

His records were treated so matter of factly, Wilt soon realized that he was the victim of a double standard. Years later reflecting on his record-breaking 1961-62 season, he said, "When I look back on that year, I can't believe it myself. How many players have scored 50 points in a game? Not many.

"But to average 50 was much too much. If I had to do it over again, I would have settled for maybe 40, because after you average 50, they expect you to average 60."

In his prime, he was Superman, Captain Marvel and the Incredible Hulk packaged in one massive 7-foot-1, 275-pound body.

His strength was astonishing. In the same time frame, the Bullets boasted an economy-sized Atlas in 6-5 forward Gus Johnson, who was making flying stuff shots and breaking backboards long before Julius Erving took flight.

Handling `Honeycomb'

Once memorable night in Baltimore, Johnson tried his aerial act against Chamberlain. But Wilt caught Johnson in midair on his formidable forearm and tossed him to the floor with the insouciance of an elephant dismissing a gnat. All Johnson got for his effort was a dislocated shoulder.

It only took the NBA Fathers a few years to legislate against Chamberlain, widening the lane in much the same way they tried to minimize George Mikan, pro basketball's first dominant big man.

Chamberlain was forced to develop a fadeaway jump shot and perfect his finger roll. He still averaged more than 33 points his first seven seasons in the NBA.

And he was the centerpiece on a championship team in Philadelphia that posted a 68-13 record in 1966-67 and one in Los Angeles that finished 69-13 in 1971-72. But still the critics labeled him a loser, constantly reminding him how archrival Bill Russell had carried the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 years.

In his defense, Chamberlain told this reporter and anyone else who would listen, "It bothered me because it was a lie. Russell didn't win 11 championships. He played on teams that won 11 championships. Russell had so much help it was unreal. I can't tell you how many times I got Russell in foul trouble, and the Celtics [reserve] Gene Conley guarding me and they'd send Russell to the corner.

"And I can't tell you how many times the Celtics were bailed out by Sam Jones or John Havlicek coming off the bench."

But characteristically, people preferred cutting Wilt down to size. Twice during his stay in Los Angeles, his commitment to winning was questioned.

Sitting out the final

In 1969, the Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Celtics. Sam Jones tied it at 3-3 with a desperation 40-foot shot. But in the final five minutes of the deciding game, Chamberlain sat on the Lakers' bench watching Russell and company win yet another title.

Wilt, who preferred playing 48 minutes a game, had asked out after spraining his knee, but he insisted that after icing the knee, he was prepared to re-enter the game.

"My coach, Bill van Breda Kolff, wouldn't put me back. He wanted to prove to everyone he could win without me, and we lost by two points."

Perhaps even more galling was the seven-game loss to the New York Knicks the following year.

With his captain and center Willis Reed hobbled by a sore knee, Knicks coach Red Holzman employed forwards Dave DeBusschere and Dave Stallworth against an aging Chamberlain. The strategy proved effective, forcing Wilt to run the floor with his quicker rivals.

100-point hoax?

Someone was always tying to diminish his Herculean feats.

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