Even today, Wilt Chamberlain’s statistical accomplishments incite debate amongst basketball fans and historians around the world. Some feel that his accomplishments were overrated. Others feel that they were underrated. And yet a third contingent merely wants to understand how he was able to shamelessly galavant with 2 phallically-charged nicknames such as the “The Stilt” and “The Big Dipper”, without arousing any suspicion whatsoever.
Regardless, nearly 40 years after Wilt played his final game, the basketball universe remains collectively at odds over 2 questions:
1.) Did Wilt really bang 20,000 women?
2.) The Goliath Conundrum: Were Wilt’s statistical accomplishments truly the measure of greatness and dominance, or was he merely the beneficiary of playing in an era against inferior competition?
The good news is that I can definitely answer #1: Wilt did NOT sleep with 20,000 woman over a 40-year period, because if he did, his rod would have fallen off somewhere around 1967 – and there is no way that any man can sustain himself for a 96-game season, average 24 points, 24 rebounds, and 8 assists, win the regular season MVP, and lead his team to 68 wins and a NBA championship without his most important appendage. No folks, Wilt was merely a farcical liar who inflated his numbers to compensate for his own insecurities, and the fact is that every one of us knows at least one of those guys - so no need to suddenly disregard our bullshit meter.
#2 on the other hand is far more complex. Were Wilt’s statistical accomplishments truly the measure of greatness?
For many, Wilt Chamberlain remains the most dominant player in NBA History. No player has ever scored more points in a single game, or averaged more points and rebounds for an entire season. To this day, his statistical accomplishments remain transcendent and beyond reproach. No one else has even come close:
- 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game average for his career
- NBA record 50.4 points per game for a single season
- NBA record 27.2 rebounds per game for a single season
- Scored an NBA record 100 points in a single game
- Scored an NBA record 59 points in a single half
- Won 4 Regular Season MVPs
- Finished second in assists per game as a Center (8.6 in 1968)
- NBA record for most career 60-point games (32)
- NBA record for most career 50-point games (118)
- NBA record for most career 40-point games (271)
For years, I sided with the critics. I argued that Wilt Chamberlain was the beneficiary of being born into an era as a 7’2, 285 pound player who abused opposing centers that were smaller, weaker, less athletic, and averaged a mere 6’7 and 230 pounds in size. In my mind, this was not real competition, and I argued that Wilt would have never averaged an NBA-record 50 points (1962) or 27 rebounds (1961) per game in the modern era given today’s larger, more athletic centers, and sophisticated defenses. I argued that other centers such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal could have also put up the same astronomical numbers had they been fortunate enough to play during Wilt’s era, and that Wilt’s accumulation of stats was merely the act of a selfish player who was cursed with a big ego, and paired with deferential teammates such as Paul Arizin, Chet Walker, and Hal Greer.
While all of the aforementioned may be true, after extensively researching Wilt’s career and watching tons of game film, I have completely changed my stance and believe that Wilt deserves full recognition for his statistical accomplishments for 2 reasons:
Reason #1: Wilt Chamberlain should not be penalized for being ahead of his time
By all accounts, Wilt Chamberlain was a first-of-a-kind physical freak who was nearly 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than his counterparts at the same position. He was build like an ox, phenomenally athletic, possessed a 48 inch vertical, and wielded speed that had never been seen for a man of his size. So would the 1960’s Wilt Chamberlain, who was 7’2 and 285 lbs, and once averaged 50-25 for an entire season, statistically dominate against bigger, stronger, more athletic centers of the modern era? Probably not. However, here is what the critics overlook: Given the 50-year improvement in genetics, height, advanced training, and modern medicine, 2012 Wilt Chamberlain would not merely be 7’2 and 285 pounds. Instead 2012 Wilt Chamberlain would be closer to 7’5 and 340lbs: an incredibly athletic version of Yao Ming, but with the power of Shaquille O’Neal. 2012 Wilt would have also likely developed some of the same sophisticated skills that today’s centers are taught, but that were absent during the 1960s, such as a refined low post game, advanced footwork, 20 foot jumper, etc… Therefore, would it be that far fetched to believe that a 7’5, 340 pound athletic freak would fill up the stat sheet and dominate just like he did during the 1960s? Perhaps not to same degree, but a player of that stature would undoubtedly have a tremendous impact.
Simply put, Wilt Chamberlain was ahead of his time the same way that other physical freaks have been ahead of their time. Ironically, you need not look any further than Oscar Robertson, who actually played in the same era as Wilt Chamberlain, and was another physical freak who dominated in much the same way. Have we really forgotten?
Today, Oscar Robertson continues to be lauded for his statistical accomplishments despite only winning 4 playoff series over a 10-year period as an Alpha Dog (yes, he won a ring in Milwaukee, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was clearly the Alpha Dog of that Bucks team in 1971). During his first 5 years in the league, Oscar literally averaged a triple double with 30.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.6 assists, and during his 10-year Alpha Dog reign with Cincinnati (1961-1970), an astounding 29.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 10.3 assists – statistics that are arguably as impressive as Wilt’s.
Moreover, like Wilt, Oscar had a secret sauce that enabled him to be ahead of his time, repeatedly utilizing 2 physical gifts throughout his playing career:
1.) His Height – At 6’5, Oscar was a full 3 inches taller than the average guard of his time. In reality, he was built like a 1960s power forward, but possessed the skills of a guard, making him the Lebron James of his generation (and coincidentally having an eerily similar career during his prime).
2.) His Rump – Oscar had a gynormous ass, which allowed him to create space against defenders, big and small. This, combined with his height allowed Oscar to repeatedly back players down and shoot over them with incredible efficiency. As an example, in 1964, Oscar had a TS percentage of 57.6%, over 9 percentage points higher than the league average.
Yep, Oscar benefitted from his size in the much the same way that Wilt Chamberlain did, and generated mind-boggling statistics in the process. Yet, why do we not demonize Oscar’s stats the same way that we do Wilt’s?
Reason #2: Even if we were to normalize Wilt’s stats for 2011, they would still remain impressive.
I would be remiss to overlook the fact that players from the 1960s benefitted from statistical inflation due to style of play in which games were played at a faster pace, leading to more possessions. More possessions meant more shots, and more shots translated to more total points and rebounds. For example, in 1962, at the height of the faster offense/no defense era, teams averaged a NBA record 118.8 points per game and a near-record 71.4 rebounds. No coincidence that this is the same year that Wilt Chamberlain averaged his famous 50-25 is it?
However, even if we were to statistically normalize Wilt’s 1962 numbers according to 2011 pace, points, shooting percentage, possessions, and rebounds, his statistical accomplishments still remain nonetheless impressive. To normalize, I took the league averages from both 1962 and 2011 to help gauge how Wilt may have performed in today’s game:
- In 1962, teams averaged 118.8 ppg. In 2011, teams averaged 99.6 ppg.
- In 1962, teams averaged 71.4 rpg. In 2011, teams averaged 41.4 rpg.
- In 1962, teams averaged 23.9 apg. In 2011, teams averaged 21.5 apg.
- In 1962, players averaged 42.6% FG. In 2011, players averaged 45.9% FG.
- In 1962, players averaged 47.9% TS. In 2011, players averaged 54.3% TS.
|1962 Wilt||2011 Wilt|
Take a look at the results. While Wilt may not have averaged 50.4 points in 2011, could his 7’5, 340 pound version still have averaged 42.3? Granted, he would have faced more sophisticated defenses, but basketball players have proven to evolve their skills along with the game itself, so wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that a more skilled Wilt could have kept with the times and offered counters to today’s defenses?
Moreover, it is important to note that with the modern day emphasis on ball movement and shot discretion, Wilt’s shooting percentages would have jumped significantly (Wilt typically shot 5-6 percentage points above the league average anyway, and was usually top three every year). Most interestingly though is his decline in rebounding – no way Wilt would have averaged 25.7 per game.
Ultimately, Wilt’s statistical accomplishments will be overshadowed by the one thing that supersedes individual numbers: winning. He will be remembered as a player who cared more about his stats, failed to maximize his potential, and was on the opposite end of some of the more historic upsets in NBA history. However, to devalue his statistical accomplishments is far sighted and disregards changes in human evolution. Don’t compare the 1960s Wilt to today’s modern day players. Instead, normalize for his physical and athletic growth and development, and use the 2011 version as a baseline. If you want to declare Wilt to be a poor playoff performer, selfish teammate, or underachiever, it is another argument for another day. However, his statistical accomplishments, particularly those during the regular season, remain remarkable.
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