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Wilt Chamberlain Biography - Excelled in High School and College, Individual Triumphs in NBA

basketball player game philadelphia

1936-1999

Basketball player

Few individual athletes have ever excelled at a sport as spectacularly as Wilt Chamberlain, the 7' 1" center who dominated professional basketball for more than 14 seasons beginning in 1959. Chamberlain, or "Wilt the Stilt" as he was often known, is enshrined in record books and memories for a legendary 1962 performance in which he scored 100 points in a single game, a record no other player has come close to matching.

Chamberlain set records and led the National Basketball Association (NBA) in many statistical categories during all phases of his long career. Toward the end of his playing days, responding to criticism that his individual scoring exploits came at the expense of his team's performance, he demonstrated his all-around skills by beginning to win awards for defensive play and to notch impressive numbers of assists—passes that enabled another player to score. "When I think of pro basketball, I think of Wilt Chamberlain," basketball Hall of Famer Jerry West was quoted as saying in African-American Sports Greats. "He just stood out."

Excelled in High School and College

Born Wilton Norman Chamberlain on August 21, 1936, in Philadelphia, he was one of eight siblings. His father was a custodian and handyman, and his mother a housecleaner and laundress; both were of normal height. Chamberlain grew rapidly during his teenage years and began to play basketball seriously during junior high school. His three years on the basketball team at Philadelphia's Overbrook High School were a portent of his career to come: he scored 2,252 points (90 of them in one game), and led the team to two city championships. Some considered him the nation's top high-school player. The NBA's Philadelphia Warriors, anticipating the heavy recruitment of phenomenal young players that would become commonplace in later decades, claimed the rights to his future professional services, and many dozens of colleges dangled lures Chamberlain's way in hopes of persuading him to enroll. Chamberlain settled on the University of Kansas, making his varsity debut as a sophomore in 1956.

His college career was likewise spectacular. Named an All-American in both his sophomore and junior years, Chamberlain led Kansas to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) finals in the spring of 1957. Several of the rules of college basketball had to be changed as a result of Chamberlain's talents, which simply dwarfed those of previous players. Opposing players double-and triple-teamed him and played a slowed-down game rather than attempt to confront Chamberlain's offensive skills head-on. These techniques helped the University of North Carolina defeat Kansas 54-53 in triple overtime in the 1957 championship game.

Such tactics also frustrated the rapidly developing Chamberlain, who startled the basketball world by turning professional rather than returning to Kansas for his senior year. NBA rules forbade him from joining the league until the year in which he would have graduated from college, so Chamberlain played for the razzle-dazzle touring professional team the Harlem Globetrotters during the 1958-59 season. He joined the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959, having already collected a large bonus for signing.

Individual Triumphs in NBA

Chamberlain was an NBA star from the beginning, leading the league in scoring and rebounding, and taking home honors not only for Rookie of the Year but also for Most Valuable Player. Frustrated by defensive tactics similar to those he had faced in college, and by what he considered biased officiating, he threatened to leave the league and return to the Globetrotters in 1960. But he did not follow through on his threat, and soon learned to outmaneuver his tormentors through sheer size, speed, and skill. In the 1960-61 season he led the league in scoring once again; he would not relinquish his position atop the league's scoring lists for another five seasons.

The 1961-62 season took Chamberlain beyond stardom into the realm of legend. For an ordinary basketball player, scoring 35 or 40 points in a game is considered an exceptional performance. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game that year. The apex of his scoring binge came on March 2, 1962, when Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game against the New York Knicks—one of those sports records that seem to defy the inevitable advance of human physical capabilities, promising to remain unattainable by any other player.

Moving with the Warriors to San Francisco, and then returning to his hometown as a result of a 1965 trade in which he was sent to the Philadelphia 76ers, Chamberlain continued to dominate the pro basketball scene. The one accomplishment that remained out of his grasp was that of playing on a team that won the league championship. When Chamberlain faced off against Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, it was Chamberlain who came out on top statistically, outscoring and outrebounding his Boston nemesis. But the Celtics' balance and superb teamwork often made them the winners at game's end.

Lakers Won Titles with rs (76e)

Chamberlain reacted with true sportsmanship to this situation, reining in his high-scoring style and concentrating on defensive skills and on the fortunes of his team as a whole. His efforts bore fruit: the 76ers won a then-unprecedented 68 regular-season games and cruised past strong Boston and San Francisco to win the NBA championship. Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1968, Chamberlain continued to hone his defensive skills. He led the league in assists in the 1967-68 season, and played a crucial role in propelling the Lakers to the 1971-72 NBA title. The Lakers erased the 76ers' record of 68 regular-season wins, winning 69 times, including a string of 33 consecutive wins.

When he finally retired from the NBA in 1973, Chamberlain was the holder or co-holder of no fewer than 43 NBA records. The first player to score over 30,000 points in a career (he finished with 31,419), he set career records for average game scoring (30.1 points per game), average rebounds per game, total career rebounds, most complete games played, and in many other categories. He scored 50 points or more on 118 separate occasions. Despite the physicality of his opponents' attempts to cope with him, Chamberlain never "fouled out" of a game—he was never ejected from a game for committing more than a certain number of prohibited personal fouls. Flamboyant and flashy as he could sometimes be, Chamberlain was also one of the most reliable players in basketball history.

At a Glance …

Born Wilton Norman Chamberlain on August 21, 1936, in Philadelphia; son of William (a handyman) and Olivia (a housecleaner); died October 12, 1999, in Los Angeles, CA Education: University of Kansas, 1954-58.

Career: Harlem Globetrotters, professional basketball player, 1958-59; Philadelphia Warriors (team became Golden State Warriors in 1965), professional basketball player, 1959-65; Philadelphia 76ers, professional basketball player, 1965-68; Los Angeles Lakers, professional basketball player, 1968-73). San Diego Conquistadors, American Basketball Association, coach, 1973-74; appeared in television commercials and films, 1970s-1980s; Wilt Chamberlain Restaurants, Inc., owner, 1992-99.

Selected Awards: NCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP), 1957; NBA Rookie of the Year, 1960; NBA MVP, 1960, 1966, 1967, 1968; inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame, 1979; Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Living Legend Award, 1991; number retired by Philadelphia 76ers, 1991.

Chamberlain faded from the limelight somewhat after the end of his professional career. A one-year stint as coach of the San Diego Conquistadors in the failed American Basketball Association was followed by various non-basketball ventures: Chamberlain invested in and even played on teams in such sports as volleyball, racquetball, and track and field. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978, Chamberlain in the 1980s made some film and television appearances and built a mansion in the foothills above Los Angeles. He also started a chain of restaurants in the early 1990s.

Another venture gained more attention. Chamberlain's 1991 autobiography A View from Above, written without the aid of a co-author, caused a stir and sold well, largely as a result of Chamberlain's claim that he had slept with 20,000 women over the course of his life. Coming as it did nearly simultaneously with basketball star Magic Johnson's announcement that he was suffering from the AIDS virus, the resulting controversy hurt Chamberlain's image for a time. But Chamberlain was no stranger to criticism, and outlasted the storm. Known to brush off negative publicity, he countered with the pithy comment that "nobody roots for Goliath."

Chamberlain passed away on October 12, 1999, a victim of congestive heart failure. He was widely remembered not only as one of the greatest basketball players of the century, but as a kind, warmhearted man. Former rival Bill Russell remarked to Sports Illustrated that "if Wilt had possessed a mean streak, there would have been no stopping him." Chamberlain's legacy lives on, in endowed scholarships at his alma mater, the University of Kansas; in an 18-foot tall bronze sculpture outside Philadelphia's Wachovia Center basketball arena; and in the memories of all those who saw his epic battles with Russell to determine who was the best big man in basketball.

Selected writings

A View from Above, Villard Books, 1991.

Sources

Books

Chamberlain, Wilt, A View from Above, Villard Books, 1991.

Estell, Kenneth, ed., The African-American Almanac, Gale, 1994.

Libby, Bill, Goliath: The Wilt Chamberlain Story, Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Porter, David L. ed., African-American Sports Greats, Greenwood, 1995.

Periodicals

Boston Globe, February 9, 1997, p. C7.

Jet, January 30, 1995, p. 50.

Maclean's, November 18, 1991, p. 84.

Sporting News, February 17, 1997, p. 31; October 25, 1999, p. 12.

Sports Illustrated, December 9, 1991, p. 22; October 25, 1999, p. 80.

—James M. Manheim and

Tom Pendergast

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