There have been many greats to play the game basketball, but we have never, and maybe never again, see the likes of Wilt Chamberlain. His entire life Wilt Chamberlain made the improbable look routine. No professional athlete in any team sport combined the size, strength, and fluidity of movement that Wilt Chamberlain brought into the sleepy, dimly lit NBA arenas of 1959. I?ll go one step further: No one who has played pro team sports has ever dominated every minute of every game in the early ?60s. His size and strength were sources of wonder not only to paying spectators, but also to his fellow players.
Wilt played in the NBA for 14 seasons, from ?59-60 through ?72-73, and he helped the NBA from league of moderate local interest to a major TV attraction. Unfortunately, especially for younger fans, most of the TV tributes following his death showed the Wilt of the early ?70s. Sure, his Lakers teams were great-the ?71-72 team won pro sports record 33 games in a row. But Wilt by then was a much different player than he had been in his younger days. I myself have not seen the real Chamberlain play a number of times, but when I did, it was amazing.
Through most of the ?60s, Chamberlain played with strength, speed, and dexterity. His footwork was quick enough to fake out defenders, and he had enough touch to make his finger rolls and fadeaways virtually unstoppable. Of course, no one could repel his moves to the hoop, and even when he was technically boxed out under the boards, he would get his share of reach-in rebounds over the heads of shorter opponents. But in November 1969, he had surgery after tearing a knee ligament. Through diligent rehabilitation, he was able to return to the Lakers at the end of the regular season, and play a full playoff schedule. But Wilt?s style was different after the injury: more mechanical, flat-footed, clearly not as fluid, less certain of his ball-handling skills (Sports Illustrated). It is this Chamberlain whom we see on most of surviving film or videotape. A great player, still, but a much different one-certainly less dominating than the man who terrorized the league in the ?60s.
Michael Jordan scored 50 or more points in 30 regular-season games in his career. Wilt Chamberlain scored 50 or more points in 45 games during the ?61-62 season. Twenty-six years after he played his last NBA game, Wilt still holds the league?s all-time single-season records for average points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. Wilt?s second-best season in each of those categories is better than any other player?s best through all of NBA history. Some day, perhaps, everyone will be talking about a player who is the Next Jordan, or the Next Magic, and maybe even the Next Russell. But I do not expect we will ever see anyone that we will call the Next Wilt.