Wilt Chamberlain: Did He Really Play In a Weak Era?

Richard JTContributor IIIAugust 19, 2010

Wilt Chamberlain had more competition back in his day than there is today. The biggest misconception on Wilt is that he dominated because the game had no competition, which is just wrong and senseless.

Let's debunk all of these myths.

"There was no 24-second rule or three-second rule back in the 60's"

First off, the 24- second shot clock was already in place in 1954. The three-second rule was introduced in 1936. Illegal defense had already been in place since 1947. Defensive goaltending was instituted way back during Mikan's college days (pre-1950's). Offensive goaltending was instituted during Russell's senior year in college (1956).

Wilt played with all of these rules in effect. He began his pro career in 1959.

"Wilt dominated because everybody else were weak 6'6'' white centers"

It wasn't because everybody else was weak; Wilt was so strong that he could dominate them with ease.

Let's compare the so called strongest player ever "Shaq" to Wilt.

Wilt never broke a rim in an NBA game as far as I know. That doesn't mean that he couldn't have done it if he wanted to.

Shaq set out to do what he did; he deliberately put all of his weight into the dunk for the express purpose of getting himself on SportsCenter.

Wilt used to work out with the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) during the time when Arnold first came to the U.S. as a bodybuilder. Wilt got his bench press up to 500 pounds. Shaq could only bench about 450, probably less now.

When Wilt was 59 years old, he was STILL able to bench 465, which is more that Shaq has ever been able to do. Wilt was 63 when he died.

Did you ever see Charles Barkley play? If not, I'm sure you've seen video of him—Barkley was listed at 6'6" and about 252 lbs—very, very strong, very fast, and very explosive.

In the '60s and early '70s, there was a player in the NBA by the name of Gus Johnson— he was kind of like the Charles Barkley of the 60s—very strong, quick, and a great leaper. Johnson was listed at about 6'6" and about 230 lbs, but he didn't have as much fat on him as Barkley did.

Anyway, one day, late in the 1967 season (the year Wilt's 76ers won the NBA title and went 68-13 in the regular season), Gus Johnson (who was playing for the Bullets), drove to the basket and was able to dunk over Wilt, which not a lot of guys could do. Wilt wasn't exactly pleased.

Later in that same game, Gus got the ball on a fast break, and the only guy back was Wilt. Gus was going to try to dunk it again. He had a perfect 45 degree angle toward the basket to try for the slam.

This time, when Gus reached the peak of his leap, Wilt went up and, with one hand, caught the ball cleanly.

All Wilt did was get his hand on the ball. Gus's forward motion immediately stopped, and he felt something pop in his shoulder. He hit the floor, and when they examined him, he became the first and only player ever to suffer a dislocated shoulder on a blocked shot.

Wilt didn't even foul him on the play, all he did was block the dunk. He never even touched him, he got all ball.

Wilt didn't just stand there waiting to get dunked on the way guys do today. Wilt understood the geometry of the game, and he always attacked the ball, not the defender. The basket doesn't move, you know where the guy is going. We might see an occasional dunk over Wilt today, but it wouldn't be anything like the way guys just go in and dunk over today's pathetic centers.

Gus Johnson always attacked the basket with a wreckless abandon, pretty much like LeBron does now. If you can imagine anyone dislocating Lebron's shoulder while blocking his shot, that's what it was like when Wilt did that to Gus.

Another time, Wilt broke an opponent's toe with a dunk. Wilt dunked one time and the ball hit the foot of Hall of Famer Johnny "Red" Kerr with such force that he broke it.

Kerr immediately knew what happened as soon as the ball hit his foot. But he didn't want anyone to know that Wilt's dunk broke it, so he pretended to trip on his way up the court, so that fans would think he accidentally broke his foot. It wasn't until after he got to the locker room that he confessed that it was Wilt's dunk that broke the bone.

Wilt was definitely stronger than Shaq (although Shaq is a LOT heavier because he has a lot more fat than Wilt did). Shaq's excess fat has a negative affect on his stamina.

Wilt averaged 46 minutes per game over the course of his career, and in 1962, Wilt only sat out EIGHT MINUTES of the ENTIRE SEASON. He was ejected with two technicals with eight minutes to go in one game, but played every minute (including overtimes) of each of the other 79 games that season. As a result of playing more minutes of overtime than he sat out during regulation, Wilt averaged 48.5 minutes per game that year, even though a regulation game is only 48 minutes.

Shaq has only had one season in which he averaged 40 min/game. He's never been a conditioning fanatic.

Shaq is good, but he ain't Wilt Chamberlain

Secondly, the 60's era in which Wilt played, was a more physical era. There were no sissy flagrant or hand-check fouls during that time. Refs allowed those physical tactics go unpunished because the owners and NBA management believe that blood and violence was what brought people to basketball games back then.

Superstar players like Wilt received no favorable treatment from refs and, in fact, refs often sided with the opposing team against Wilt because they feel that he is simply too dominating. The NBA enacted rules to stop Wilt somehow. 

And what made it even more amazing is that he had 3-4 guys collapsing and getting rough on him whenever he touched the ball.  Unless you're Bill Russell and feeling lucky, Wilt was NEVER played one on one.

Clyde Lovellette of the Celtics knocked a couple of Wilt's front teeth into the roof of his mouth on one play. Wilt suffered a serious infection, and the teeth were never set properly in the operation, and this caused Wilt to live with a good deal of pain for the rest of his life.

At the time of his death in 1999, he had been scheduled to undergo surgery to (hopefully) fix those teeth (which had never been properly repaired, and never properly healed), but Wilt passed away before the surgery could take place.

The injury was aggravated later that year by Willie Naulls of the Knicks. Tom Heinson of the Celtics also was involved in some very rough shots. Unfortunately for Wilt, he was not in a position to retaliate. Any double ejection would be an unequal trade, and Wilt was not a mean guy to begin with.

The physical play was so rough against him that Wilt actually retired after his rookie year. He wrote a piece for Look Magazine about the NBA being a bush league, but the Warriors' owner talked him into coming back, even though Wilt was ready to hang it up.

Over the years, many referees have admitted that they let guys get away with clobbering Wilt on the offensive end. The league really didn't know how to handle Wilt, and subconsciously, the refs let the little guys get away with murder.

In earlier years, they did this to make up for the fact that Wilt was so big and talented. In later years, they did this because they felt sorry for Wilt because he couldn't shoot free throws very well. One ref told him, "Wilt, I know you get hacked every time, but the game would be pretty boring watching you go one for two from the line every time down the court."

Third, the average height of NBA centers back in Wilt's day was 6'10". Wilt towered a mere three inches over the opposition. Darral Imhoff, the center against whom he dropped the 100 points is 6'10. Bill Russell, the second best rebounder in league history and the center on which he grabbed a record setting 55 rebounds (but the Celtics won the game by three points) is also 6'10".

You don't see Yao Ming endangering these records, even though he has a four inch advantage over your average centers today. Besides, Walter Dukes is 7'1", Swede Halbrook is 7'3", and Mel Counts 7'0". How come none of these 60's players put up the same numbers as Wilt did? Height is not the reason for Wilt's domination which leads us to number four.

Fourth, the main reason as to why Wilt dominated the competition, black and white, short and tall, is because he is a superb physical specimen even with the substandard 60's training methods and nutrition of his time. In fact, Sports Illustrated in 1986 described him as the finest athletic construction made of flesh and blood.

Wilt was a shot put thrower, a champion high jumper, a track star, and a triple jumper. He could bench press 550lbs back in college. The man is also in the volleyball hall of fame and he only began seriously playing this game when he was past 36.

The New Jersey Nets, back in the 80's, were still actively wooing him back out of retirement when Wilt was already going 50 (in an 80's Lakers exhibition scrimmages, Wilt at center held a Magic Johnson-lead team scoreless).

Wilt's listed 275lbs weight is his un-updated college weight. During his prime and his later years in the NBA, he admitted that this weight was closer to 290-300lbs.

The only one who could give him any problem was this former track star and Olympic caliber high jumper named Bill Russell (In the late 70's when he was in his mid to late forties and with the Seattle Supersonics, Bill had one on one skirmishes with the Sonics players. He transformed each one into a virtual volleyball game, smacking down any would be attacks to the basket).

"Wilt wouldn't be able to dominate this current era"

What would it be like if a prime 7'1'' 300-pounder with a 55" vertical and a 500 bench press came into the league now? I think he'd expose the NBA for the sham it is today.

First, he'd definitely lead the NBA in rebounds. He'd average 18.

Second, he'd lead the league in blocks. He'd average six or seven.

Third, he'd lead the league in shooting percentage for guys over 15 points per game.

He'd average over 60 percent.

Fourth, he'd lead the league in free throws tried. 15-20 per game.

He would also lead in minutes played at 45 per game. No center could run with him.

He'd average well over 20 points and a fraction over seven assists, also. And his team, no matter which one he's put on, would contend immediately.

Since there's so few good centers now, and a bloated 30-team league where he only plays half of them twice, the regular season would be a cakewalk.

Then, they'd have to figure out how to pay him, easily the greatest player ever... 
The NBA today is lucky he came along earlier.

Wilt was benching 465 when he was 59 years old! That was a mere four years before he passed away. He used to work out with Arnold the Terminator, and his bench press was over 500 when he was younger.


Anyway, Wilt could bench press 550lbs back in college. On the set of Conan the Destroyer and when he was around mid-forties, Wilt was rumored to have a bench pressed 450lbs and beaten Arnold in weight lifting.

There's a famous pic of him while he was a track star in college, showing him jumping straight up next to a high-jump bar. He was about 54 inches off the ground when the photo was taken (it won the photographer an award). Wilt wasn't sure if he was on the way up or on the way down. Even when he was playing volleyball, he'd often be photographed spiking the ball, and his waist would be over the net.

Wilt did weigh over 300 at the end of his career, but it was all muscle. During the final (1972-73) season of his career, his coach came up with the idea of taking him out of the game with about two minutes to go in the first quarter, then re-inserting him after about two minutes had been played in the second quarter.

Wilt played the entire second half of every game that year. He was always in shape, he worked out a lot during the offseason. The guy averaged 46 min/game over his entire career. Today's centers wouldn't give him any problems. Dwight Howard is the "best" center in the NBA today, and he has NO POST GAME. Are you kidding me? 

Wilt would definitely lead the NBA in rebounding. No one in the NBA has anything like the stamina that he had on OR off the court.

Wilt's passing was the most underrated part of his game, but to this day, he's STILL the ONLY non-guard ever to lead the NBA in assists. He also has the only 20-20-20 (pts reb assists) game in NBA history. And his ball handling skills were good enough for him to make the Harlem Globetrotters. He could put the ball on the floor and lead the break, especially in his younger days.

No doubt he'd get to the line more than anyone. No center in the NBA could guard him. They'd hack him and send him to the line, and hope he makes one out of two. 

Wilt shot an all time record 72.7 percent from the field in his last season, and averaged 13 ppg, in addition to leading the league with 19 reb/game.

If Kwame Brown can carve out a 10 year career for himself in today's NBA, then you tell me just how tough it is under the hoop. It would be a total cakewalk for Wilt.

Having said that, it's entirely possible that he might throw it all away for a rap career! He had a lot of interests besides basketball.

Truth is, it would be easier today for Wilt, not harder. Today's game runs less now than it did in the 60s, and Wilt was a better athlete than anyone now. 

Some quotes regarding of Wilt's superior strength:

"We'd go into a dressing room and see a box score from the night before where Wilt had 55 or 60 points.  No one would think twice about it. Getting 50-some points, or even 60-some, wasn't news when Wilt did it."

"The first time I guarded Wilt, I stood behind him and he was so wide that I couldn't  see the rest of the game.  Then I saw him dunk a ball so hard that it hit the court and bounced straight up back through the rim again."

"I still remember the time when one of our strongest men, Gene Conley, decided to fight Chamberlain for the ball.  He grabbed it and hung on and Chamberlain just lifted him and ball right up towards the rim."

"People lose sight of the fact that Wilt was a 440 champion, a guy with great coordination.  He also was so strong that the double-teaming defenses used today wouldn't bother him."

For more further comparison between Shaq and Wilt, check out my other article, click here.