LeBron James has been magnificent in the NBA playoffs this year, and two broadcasters were on the air recently in a heated debate over where James stands among the greatest of all time. Their main argument was whether James or Michael Jordan are/were the best that ever played the game of basketball, and both made compelling arguments.
But all I could think of was, “Hey, how about Wilt?”
Sure, Wilt Chamberlain played in a different era and everybody knows today’s athletes are bigger and faster and stronger and better conditioned than our sports heroes of the past. But some of those heroes of the past are still better than their modern counterparts, and that includes the man who is the greatest that ever played basketball and will always be the greatest that ever played.
That’s not to knock Jordan or James, or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or any of the other great basketball players of the last 30 years. But no player in any sport has ever dominated like Wilt Chamberlain did.
Nowadays, a player makes headlines if he scores 50 points or grabs 25 rebounds. Well, Chamberlain once averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds. That came in 1961-62, when Chamberlain put together a season for the ages. That was the year he scored 100 points in a game, which even casual basketball fans know about. But not many people realize that Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes a game that season and NBA games last 48 minutes – Chamberlain played in every second of every game that year, which included overtimes.
And please don’t bother telling me about how the game has changed and the only reason Chamberlain dominated was because he was a man among boys. For one thing, the game changed because Chamberlain changed it. And look at any center in today’s NBA – Wilt would have dominated and intimidated them, just like he did everyone he played against in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
And don’t forget that in Wilt’s magical season of 1961-62 there were only nine teams in the NBA, so all of the best basketball talent in the world was packed into just a handful of teams — today, there are 30 teams and you don’t have to be a math major to see that the talent today is diluted because of all the expansion in the NBA.
Wilt had something else that marks his greatness – his role in the best one-on-one rivalry in the history of sports, his classic matchups against Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. Russell’s teams were usually better than Chamberlain’s, but Wilt consistently outplayed Russell, just like he outplayed everyone else he faced. In 142 career games against Russell – generally considered to be the best defensive center of all time – Chamberlain averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds. Those numbers came down in the latter stages of Chamberlain’s career as he focused more on his total game, but Chamberlain scored 50 or more points against Russell an amazing seven times.
Oh yeah, about Wilt being focused on his total game – he’s the only player in NBA history to ever lead the league at some time or another in scoring, rebounding, shooting percentage, minutes played and assists. That’s right – assists. No other center has ever led the league in that category. And the reason Chamberlain was able to do it? He wanted to.
Wilt Chamberlain is like Babe Ruth in that both defined and dominated an era like nobody else in their respective sports. And that’s why they both should always be regarded as the best there ever was.
So, just for fun, here’s my list of the greatest NBA players of all time, in descending order from 10 to 1. Feel free to disagree with this list or, if you want, ignore it.
- Tim Duncan
- Jerry West
- Larry Bird
- LeBron James
- Kobe Bryant
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Magic Johnson
- Oscar Robertson
- Michael Jordan
- Wilt Chamberlain