Knicks-Lakers 1970: A Word For Wilt Chamberlain

"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."


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, and there was more suspense than usual. The Lakers were patented losers in the finals, West and Baylor even more so than Chamberlain. As usual with all Chamberlain teams, the Lakers were grossly over-rated. Sure Chamberlain had scored over 25,000 points, Baylor over 20,000, and West over 17,000, but that hardly made them three superstars at the tops or their games, but rather three glorious veterans dragging out their weary flesh for the last big boo. The rest of the Lakers — Erickson, Garrett, Hairston, Counts, Egan down to the virtually unusable dregs — seemed hardly in the same class as the Knick ensemble. It seemed if not a cinch for the Knicks, at least a distinct probability that the old dinosaurs on the Lakers would not be as difficult for the Knicks as were the raw, rugged individualists on the Baltimore Bullets. But who could be sure? The Knicks had never won a championship in the 24 years or their existence, and they had choked up the year before against a veteran band of Celtics out for their last hurrah. The Knick fans and players raved about the greatness or Jerry West, but their real concern was Wilt Chamberlain. (The Celtics always raved about Chamberlain’s team-mates as a means of needling Chamberlain and driving a wedge between him and his team-mates.) West was reportedly bitter that Chamberlain was earning twice as much money even though West was doing the most scoring, and Happy Hairston gave an interview to the ubiquitous Post sports department with the complaint that he wasn’t driving as much now that Chamberlain was clogging up the middle.

The first game went according to schedule. Reed poured in 37 points inside and out, shooting over Chamberlain and driving around him. Chamberlain played a quiet, static game, putting in his regular quota of rebounds without any notice or fuss, hitting a few baskets in between oohs and ahs over Jerry West’s long jump shots. The Lakers looked like a plodding, methodical team without much imagination or even intelligence. West seemed to lack stamina, and getting the ball upcourt seemed too often to be a traumatic experience for the Lakers against the most perfunctory press. Debuscherre covered Baylor like a glove, West was guarded by relays of guards, and Garrett and Erickson were allowed to pop away with impunity but insufficient accuracy. In a word, Los Angeles, Chamberlain included, looked pathetic. Knicks 124-112.

The second game was closer, and the Knicks were sloppier, and the outside shooting was less accurate. Still, the Lakers only squeaked through by two points, thanks to some defensive heroics by Chamberlain in the last minutes of the game. Shots blocked never appear in the statistics. What did appear was disquieting to both sides. After two games, New York had shot 94 field goals out of 208 attempts, an average of 45 per cent. The Lakers had shot 86 out of 182 attempts, for 47 per cent. The Knicks made 39 out of 63 of their foul shots for 73 per cent, the Lakers 47 out of 71 for 66 per cent. The Knicks led the Lakers in rebounds 107 to 103, assists 53 to 37, personal fouls 60 to 42, and total points 227 to 217. Of course, the first two games had been played in New York, but a pattern was becoming evident. The Knicks were averaging 18 more shots a game than the Lakers because of Lakers turn-overs, and the Knicks were decisively ahead in assists. Chamberlain’s weakness at the foul-line seemed to be a fatal luxury for the Lakers.

The third and fourth games at the Forum were cardiac cases in overtime, and everyone will remember for years to come Jerry West’s 60-foot last-second shot that took the third game to overtime, but the Lakers lost just the same, largely because they got only 86 shots off, opposed to the Knicks’ 109. West took 28 shots, and made only 11. Chamberlain took 10 shots and made seven. Reed made 17 shots out of 30, and Debuscherre 10 out of 20. Bradley was way off at three for 13, Barnett seven for 18, Frazier somewhat better at eight for 17. Baylor had been shooting over 50 per cent, but sloughed off in the third game to four for 13. Erickson and Garrett and Egan and Hairston took up some of the slack, and the Lakers kept it close. In the fourth game, Reed cooled off considerably, Barnett and Debuscherre came on strong, Frazier and Bradley went very cold. For the first and last time in the series, the big three of West, Baylor, and Chamberlain meshed together at top form to pull out an overtime thriller from the Knicks. At this point, it seemed like a close series that would go down to the wire. The momentum seemed to be with the Lakers simply because they hadn’t been blown off the court by the speed, depth, youth, and versatility of the Knicks. Above all, Chamberlain seemed to be getting stronger vis-a-vis- Reed rather than weaker.

Then came the fateful fifth game and the psychodrama that has plagued Wilt Chamberlain all through his career. Eight minutes into the fifth game with Chamberlain decisively out-playing Reed for the first time in the series, Reed suddenly collapsed in a helpless heap as he drove on Chamberlain. The ball rolled out of Reed’s hands, and Chamberlain picked it up, tossed it up court, and then stopped to look at his fallen antagonist. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make merciful. Now Goliath was deprived even of his David. Henceforth, he would be swarmed over by an army of inspired Lilliputians. Suddenly, the Knicks were back in college in the last game of their senior year, and all the form charts went out the window. The adrenaline was flowing freely as it always had in the direction of the puzzled giant Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks swept away a 16 point lead as they managed enough turn-overs to stock a pastry shop. The Lakers seemed befuddled, confused, as if they couldn’t adjust to the absence of a bona fide center against them. From the moment of Reed’s injury, the Lakers were transformed from weary old samurai warriors into toweringly arrogant overlords. Chamberlain dominated the sixth game with 45 points on 20 of 27 shots from the field, and 27 rebounds. West chipped in with 33 points, but most significant of all were the 18 points of Garrett on nine of 11 shots, seven out of seven in the first half alone. Even in this game, the Knicks took 105 shots to the 94 shots of the Laken, and the Knicks shot almost 50 per cent from the field, mostly from the outside. Cazzie Russell finally delivered the sixth player marksmanship he was noted for, and Dave Debuscherre and Nate Bowman did some extraordinary firing of their own. The Knicks were not nearly in such bad shape as they seemed, and they had the invaluable psychological advantage of being treated as one of the 100 neediest cases.

The seventh game was less a game than an emotional coup d’etat with Willis Reed hobbling on the floor, hitting his first two outside shots, jamming his stiff-legged bulk against Chamberlain to keep him outside, Chamberlain missing his foul shots and fade-aways, the Lakers panicking, turn-overs, Frazier humiliating West with steals and drives, and the crowd going wild. Toward the end of the game, Chamberlain began setting up Baylor for some outside shots to fatten up his points for that old boxscore up in the sky. The Knicks rolled on and on for their first championship in 24 years. The seventh game belonged to Reed emotionally and to Frazier tactically. Frazier virtually destroyed the Lakers single-handed with three-point plays that were supposed to be be exclusive property of Jerry West. The Lakers had not been good enough, but they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did without Chamberlain. To the end, Chamberlain didn’t get the call from the man he voted for. Reed got the call from Nixon, a politician who would rather be on the side of the winner than on the side of a fallen follower even though Chamberlain technically represents Nixon’s beloved Los Angeles and Reed technically represents Nixon’s hated New York.

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. (This year Butch cried some more as he demolished and demoralized the Detroit Pistons, but last year he was treated by sportswriters as the hero with Chamberlain as the villain of the L. A. fiasco.)

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. As for Jimmy Brown claiming that Russell always cut Chamberlain down to size, such a comment comes with ill grace from Brown, it being common knowledge that Chamberlain once challenged Brown to a barefoot race and beat the erstwhile Cleveland fullback, who himself was notoriously deficient in “team” spirit particularly when Cleveland quarterbacks were being crunched by opposing linemen and linebackers. With Jimmy Brown as their friend and protector, the Cleveland quarterbacks didn’t need any enemies. Brown prevailed on Russell to abandon basketball for a career in pictures, a fitting outlet for Russell’s raging ego which demands not only that Chamberlain play a secondary role in the scenario of the NBA, but that all the other Boston Celtics be regarded as Russell ‘s untalented spear carriers. (Vide Russell’s incredibly spiteful book on the subject.) Fortunately for us and unfortunately for Russell, the economy of the ghetto could support only one hopelessly expressionless black movie star.

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.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 14, 2020