The Greatest Basketball Player Ever: Wilt Chamberlain

How Do You Pick the Best?

Most people are the products of their times. For the majority of us, the era in which we were in our prime will always have produced the best of every category: the best movies, the best music, the best athletes. For example, a boxing fan from the 1950s might consider Rocky Marciano as the greatest boxer in history, while someone in the 1970s would say it was Muhammad Ali, and a fan in the late 1980s could argue that it was Mike Tyson.

While similar arguments can take place with respect to other sports, there should only be one "greatest ever" when it comes to basketball: Wilt Chamberlain. Of course, many will try to elevate others to this staus - especially Michael Jordan (whom I loved as a player) - but a look at the numbers will reveal that Wilt stands head and shoulders above everybody else.


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Wilt Chamberlain, Red Auerbach and the "Game For Sissies"

Wilt Chamberlain was born in 1936 in Philadelphia, PA. He was one of nine children and was a sickly child - so frail in fact that he almost died of pneumonia. Despite his prodigious height (he was 6 feet tall at age 10, and stood at 6'11 by the time he entered high school), he initially didn't care for basketball, calling it a "game for sissies." He was far more interested in track and field, where he excelled.

Eventually, he bowed to the pressure to play basketball - and completely dominated the game. The combination of his size, speed, physical strength and natural talent for the game made him almost unstoppable. During his second year of playing basketball, he would lead his team to a perfect 19-0 record and the city title, scoring 32 points in the final game.

While working as a bellhop at the Kutsher's Hotel in Monticello, New York, Wilt came to the attention of legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach. (This was during the summer, while Wilt was still in high school.) Impressed by what he saw, Auerbach arranged a pick-up game between Wilt and B.H. Horn, a standout basketball player with the Kansas Jayhawks who was also selected as the 1953 NCAA Finals Most Outstanding Player after his team won the national championship. Wilt won the game handily, 25 to 10. Horn was allegedly so dejected that he gave up basketball, despite being drafted into the NBA by the Fort Wayne Pistons (later the Detroit Pistons). Horn purportedly stated that, "If there were high school kids that good, I figured I wasn't going to make it to the pros." Horn would later help recruit Wilt for the Jayhawks.

Leaving college to turn pro before his senior year, Wilt signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. (An NBA rule at the time prevented college students who had not finished their last year of studies from being drafted.) He toured with the Globetrotters from 1958-1959, at which time he was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, who would later move to the West Coast and become the Golden State Warriors. It was as a pro in the NBA that Wilt's greatness and dominance fully flowered, allowing him to claim his place as the greatest basketball player ever.


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Wilt's 100-Point Game


On March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain attained one of the most significant achievements in the annals of sports. In a game against the New York Knicks, he scored an astounding 100 points. It is undoubtedly the most singular scoring feat in the history of basketball, and one that marks his legacy as basketball's greatest player.

It is a feat that has never been duplicated (and probably never will be).

The closest anyone else has ever come was Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 points in a game in 2006.

However, 21 of Kobe's points came from 3-pointers - a shot that didn't exist when Wilt set his record. (In fact, the NBA did not adopt the three-point field goal until 1979.)


55 Rebounds in a Single Game: Another Achievement for the Greatest Basketball Player Ever


During his second year as an NBA pro, on November 24, 1960, Wilt snagged a mind-boggling 55 boards in a loss to the Boston Celtics. This raises him another ecehelon in terms of being the greatest basketball player ever.

Bill Russell, who had 51 rebounds in a game the prior season, is the only other NBA player with more than 50. (Russell also managed to pull down 49 rebounds in two other games during his career.) No one else has come close.

Moreover, while people gush about Wilt's 100-point game, I think it's the 55 rebounds that will truly stand the test of time.


Wilt Chamberlain's Other Scoring and Rebound Records

Just in case you're saying that maybe Wilt just got lucky in his 100-point or 55-rebound games - that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut - I feel the need to make the argument for consistency.


Scoring

Wilt was prolific when it came to scoring. More than 50 years later, he still holds the record for highest scoring average for a season at 50.4 points per game for the 1961-1962 season.

He also holds the next two spots on the list, with scoring averages of 44.8 points per game (1962-63) and 38.4 (1960-61), and 5 of the top 7 spots overall. By contrast, Michael Jordan's highest-scoring season average was 37.1 (1986-87). (In fact, no one other than Wilt has even averaged 40 points for a season.)

It also stands to reason that Wilt has scored the most points in a single season, with 4,029 (1961-62). To emphasize how impressive this is, the only other player to score even 3,000 points in a season was Michael Jordan, with 3,041 (1986-87).

Overall, Wilt won 7 scoring titles in a row. The only other person to achieve that feat was His Airness, Michael Jordan.


Rebounding

Wilt has the record for most rebounds in a season with 2,149 during 1960-61, when he also set the record for average rebounds per game in a season with 27.2.

He also owns the next 5 spots for total rebounds in a season, as well as 5 out of the next 6 for average rebounds in a season.


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Summary of the Greatest Basketball Player Ever

Wilt Chamberlain was undoubtedly playing at a level well above everyone else in the game of basketball. While his scoring and rebounding were legendary (he led the league in the former 7 times and 11 times in the latter), he also led the NBA in assists one season, and 9 times in field-goal percentage. (In fact he still holds the record for single-season field goal percentage with 72.7%.) Overall, roughly 40 years after he retired, he still holds more than 70 NBA records.

In short, he was the consummate basketball player with a complete, all-around game. While I grew up in the Michael Jordan era and clearly consider MJ an icon of sports - he transcended the game and took the NBA to a new level - if I'm being honest, I have to say that no one dominated the sport or played the game of basketball better than Wilt Chamberlain. He is, without question, the greatest basketball player ever. And if you're honest, you'll say the same thing.

(On a side note, it's my understanding that Wilt Chamberlain did well after leaving basketball, so I'm happy to report that he didn't fall amongst the number of Pro Athletes Who Went Broke. In fact, Wilt seemed to be more the type of athlete to take advantage of the lucrative and uber-generous Pro Athletes' Pension Plans, and research How Pro Athletes Should Invest Their Money.)


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Comments 4 comments

Znigga beast 4 years ago

Chamberlian is sick but JORDAN is the GOAT


AJ Flanigan profile image

AJ Flanigan 4 years ago from Griffin, GA

I understand your basis for claiming Wilt as the number one player of all time, but among a number of arguments that could be made for Jordan being the best, the most important one is that Chamberlain wasn't the most dominant player in his era.

The argument, "Wilt vs. Russell" has been so drawn out, it would be a waste to go into detail. Personally, I'd take Russell every day, but that's not imortant. The thing is, there is no "Jordan vs. Shaq" or "Jordan vs. Barkley". There's just Jodan. In my list, I actually have Wilt ranked 6th, behind Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird, and Kareem, in that order. Even though I respect him as a player, and all of the accomplishments he achieved during his tenure, there's just other guys who've took what made him special, and multiplied it to fit their game. Russell was smarter. Jordan was more dominant. Dunan unerstood the game more. Oscar was more versatile. Kareem did it longer. Lebron is arguably more athletic. Shaq was a more physically empowering pressence.

You can't really compare eras, and if Wilt playd today, he'd still be a prennial MVP favorite. The thing is, he isn't around today, and if he was, I'd like to think he'd be happier as a player and a celebrity.

RIP Big Dipper


Hypersapien profile image

Hypersapien 4 years ago Author

I think the numbers tell the story better than anything else, and no one can match Wilt's. It seems to me that people tend to take team accomplishments and apply them to the individuals, and that makes for a poor comparison. Thus, you can list Russell, Jordan and a half-dozen others who were also great players ahead of Wilt because of what their teams did, but they also had better supporting casts than Wilt. Take Russell, for instance. He came into a winning organization that already had a Rookie of the Year winner, as well as a league MVP and all-stars. It would have been a shock if they hadn't won a string of championships. Wilt, on the other hand, came into a losing organization that had almost nobody and took them to greatness.

Moreover, anyone who proclaims Russell the best of his era should take a look at the head-to-head numbers when his teams played Wilt's. I believe they met 142 times over 10 years, with Russell's team winning 88 and Wilt's 74 - not a huge gap by any means. In those games, Russell averaged 14.5 ppg and 23.7 rpg; Wilt averaged 28.7 ppg and 28.7 rpg. Wilt's 55-rebound game was against Russell, and he had 6 other games with 40+ rebounds against Russell. On the flip side, Russell only had one 40+ rebound against Wilt.

Basically, it's laughable to put anyone else up against Wilt - even Jordan, as great as he is. Don't misunderstand; I was a huge Jordan fan even when he and the Bulls were getting their butts kicked regularly by Detroit, and Jordan was throwing chairs around the locker room in frustration. But when was the last time MJ got a rebounding title? When did he lead the league in assists?

The short answer is that if you covered up the names, showed the individual stats to people on the street and asked them to pick the better player, I guarantee you they'd pick Wilt every time.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 4 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

I also wrote a hub comparing Wilt to Jordan and have defended Wilt for years there. I believe that if Wilt was 25 years old and in the NBA now, no one would be talking about anyone else.

Great article and certain to elicit debate for months to come.

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