A Word for Wilt
May 14, 1970
I am convinced that if Wilt Chamberlain appeared on the floor of Madison Square Garden with a supporting team of four arthritic midgets against a team of NBA All-Stars, the All-Stars would be regarded as the sentimental underdogs, and when the game was over, the sportswriters would blame Chamberlain for clogging the middle so much that the arthritic midgets were unable to drive in for easy lay-ups on the give-and-go, a textbook maneuver that is sometimes good for as many as five showy baskets in a game.
But Wilt is not a textbook player. He is a monster with extraordinary size and strength and stamina, a veritable anathema to paunchy sportswriters and commentators who haven’t had anybody to identify with since fat Freddy Scolari stopped throwing up his soft floaters for the Fort Wayne Pistons. Even athletes who have slugged sportswriters have received more favorable press and media coverage than Wilt has. He is never given credit for exceptional performances or generous impulses. He is taken for granted as a brutal fact of nature, rebuked for his presumptions of humanity and sensitivity. “Both teams have played well under adversity,” Chamberlain quipped after the sixth game. “We Americans emphasize winning too much.” The resident humanist in the Post sports department pounced on Wilt for making such a peaceful statement after having voted for Nixon. And so it goes. No blow is too low against Wilt, no herring too red. Every other center who has ever played with any distinction in the pivot has been treated with more consideration. When Wilt has a good game, he’s a bully. When he has a bad game, he’s a bum. When he takes a great many shots, he’s a prima donna. When he prefers to pass off, he’s supposed to be sulking. If he plays the low post, he keeps his own players from moving freely. If he plays the high post, he’s depriving the team of his strength on the backboard. Lew Alcindor played the low post for three years at UCLA with no one complaining, but Chamberlain has always been criticized by Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and other disinterested observers for not playing the high post as Russell always did with his team of spectacular outside shots. The problem is that the only help Russell’s gifted team-mates needed from Russell were picks whereas Chamberlain’s always needed shovels as well. All in all, Wilt has been such a handicap to all the teams he’s played on that it seems incredible that he has gotten to the seventh game of the finals on so many different occasions, especially when the indisputably great Oscar Robertson considered himself lucky whenever he managed to lead Zinzinnati even as far as the first round of the playoffs.
Actually, Wilt shouldn’t have been playing at all this year after the kind of knee operation that once incapacitated Elgin Baylor for a full season, and ended permanently his one-on-one capabilities as a superstar. Wilt played only 12 games in the regular season, and never fully regained his mobility and timing in the play-offs. But he wanted to give Los Angeles one last shot at an NBA title, and so he came back in the limited role of stiff-legged back-up for West and Baylor. Even so, no one figured that the Lakers would get by Atlanta, a hard-driving, hard-nosed team that had been manhandling the Knicks all season. I figured the Hawks as the kind of Pier Six brawlers that would bloody the noses of the nice Ethical Culture now-you-shoot-I-shot-10-minutes-ago types on the Knicks. To everyone’s surprise, the Lakers had to battle from a three-to-one deficit against Phoenix to get into the semi-finals against Atlanta, and then bam! Atlanta went down in four straight, and the Los Angeles Lakers, the perennial paper tigers of the NBA play-offs, were poised for their final humiliation.
Meanwhile back in New York, the Knicks scrambled for their lives against the individually talented and collectively disorganized Baltimore Bullets. Earl Monroe, the most obsessively offense-oriented ballplayer since George Yardley, was giving Frazier fits, but the Knicks received some compensation from the extraordinary reluctance of Wes Unseld to take a shot at the basket if there was anyone, friend or foe, within 40 feet to pass off to. In the final game, Unseld embodied the ultimate perversion of unselfishness in basketball into a kind of Floyd Patterson guilt complex about missed shots.
Along came Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, and they went down in five games even though (and no one said because) Alcindor came up with Chamberlain type stats on points scored and rebounds. No one said Alcindor was a bum because his team lost, or that Reed had more heart and soul and talent and character than Alcindor. After all, Alcindor played Reed one-on-one whereas Reed always had help coping with Alcindor. No one seemed to recall that Chamberlain always played Russell one-on-one whereas Russell always had two or three Celtics sagging on Chamberlain. Actually, at several points in the play-offs, Alcindor sulked and panicked in a way I have never seen Chamberlain sulk and panic, but no one seemed to notice, or care. Alcindor was being pampered in the press in a way Chamberlain never was even when he won all the marbles in 1967.
The stage was set for the ultimate psychodrama of the finals…
The first Knick championship team is obviously the best Knick team of all time, but lest we forget, I should like to remind my fellow veterans of those dreary winter evenings in the 69th Regiment Armory that the Joe Lapchick teams of the early ’50s may have been somewhat ahead of their time, and that if they had played under today’s rules, they might have knocked over the Lakers and the Royals in the play-offs. As I recall those hectic days, there was no 24-second rule, and the only way to get the ball from the team that was ahead was to foul, and after each foul in the last two minutes there was a jump ball, and George Mikan or Vern Mikkelsen would always be out-jumping Harry Gallatin or Sweetwater Clifton or Connie Simmons, and there would be another foul, and another jump ball, and the last two minutes would stretch into the most painful infinities. Those were the days of deliberate ball-handling, and double and (on the old Washington Capitols) even triple pivots, and clobber fouling and rabid fans (especially in Syracuse) going so far as to rattle the wire supports when an opponent was shooting a foul. It was a paradise for the big men, which explains the disastrous Dukes-Felix ear when we had 14 feet of nothing out there. Still, Lapchick’s teams were the best-coached teams of their time, and when he left, and the Vince Boryla regime came in, the Knicks became a pitiful joke in New York. Most people would go to the Garden to see the out-of-town stars, to see if Baylor would out-score Yardley, or Arizen would out-score Pettit, or Robertson would out-score West. We would watch Frank Selvy drive and Neil Johnson hook and Cliff Hagan curl in twisting lay-ups, but we always expected the Knicks to lose, and the Boston Celtics to win, but strangely no one ever cried out to break up the Celtics. Once Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, he became the big villain, and the Celtics heroic underdogs. It didn’t matter that Chamberlain out-scored and out-rebounded Russell in their head-to-head confrontations. All that mattered was that Russell was cast as the maestro, and Chamberlain as the monster. And then last year, the NBA championship came down to the seventh game between Los Angeles and Boston with both Russell and Chamberlain having picked up five personal fouls. Russell drove on Chamberlain and threw a jump shot. Chamberlain batted that back too. Did the announcer give Wilt any credit for his defensive plays? No, he said that Russell should drive on Chamberlain a third time to get Chamberlain out of the game. But Russell didn’t have to. Butch Van Breda Kolff, the crybaby champion of coaches, kept Chamberlain on the bench for the last five minutes while the Lakers watched another championship go down the drain by two points…
Strange treatment indeed for a player who holds the record for most points scored in a game (100), most points scored in one season (4029), most field goals made in one game (36), most free throws made in one game (28), most rebounds in one game (55), most rebounds in one season (2149), highest scoring average in one season (50.4), highest lifetime scoring, highest lifetime goal percentage (.526) as opposed to West’s .468 and Bill Russell’s .440. He led Bill Russell eight out of 10 years in rebounds, and even led everybody in assists one year. He could have scored many more points if he had not decided to sacrifice his own statistics to help his team. This is a sacrifice Russell with his limited scoring capability never had to consider with the high-scoring Celtics. Why then this persistent hostility to Chamberlain? I think partly because there is something profoundly anti-aesthetic in Chamberlain’s classical economy of movement. Chamberlain was handicapped by coming into basketball after the imposition of anti-big-man rules, widening the three-second zone, the 24-second rule, the elimination of many tip-off situations, etc. If Chamberlain had played in the Mikan era, he would have stuffed Mikan and Mikkelsen in the basket with each hand. He would have been too much. In the Boston Celtic era, he was handicapped by not having enough players on his team he could profitably pass off to. The percentages of his own shooting as opposed to everyone else’s made it mandatory that he be surrounded at all times. Still and all, Chamberlain could manage to wear down all but the most exceptional opponents, and he came so close so often to winning it all that it is idiotic to label him a loser. It was perhaps his destiny to bring out the ultimate in all his opponents, and for that I think it is more fitting that he be thanked rather than condemned…
By “winning” more championships, Russell is as much superior to Wilt Chamberlain as Red Ruffing was to Bob Feller. Russell was the key, the strategist, the orchestrator of the Boston team, but he hardly played all the instruments. My all-time All-Star team is Chamberlain at center, Pettit and Baylor at the forwards, West and Robertson at the guards, but I’m not sure that even this team would necessarily beat a team composed of Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Bailey Howell, the Jones boys, Spec Sanders, with Frank Ramsey and Hondo Havlicek sitting on the bench and ready to come roaring into the action.
Don’t get me wrong. The Knicks deserved their championship as the Celtics deserved theirs. But I did feel it was time someone said a word for Wilt.