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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Larger Than Life

In Philadelphia, everywhere you go, people still talk about him. When he was alive, everyone had a story about him. Or a sighting. When he died, the papers talked about him for days; it was as though the President had died. They talked about how he had changed his profession and the way others who came after him had to go about it. They talked about how he, and not some rival up in Boston or someone from a younger generation who did his work in Chicago, was the best that ever was. They all were talking about Wilt Chamberlain.

Well, on Monday they dedicated a statue in his honor outside the Wachovia Center, and more stories were told. About his generosity, about his inspiration, about his community involvement and, of course, his athletic ability. It was good to read. SportsProf has missed you, Wilt.

For too long SportsProf had to put up with the negative comparisons to Bill Russell, the knocks on Wilt's ability as a team player, the knocks on his defense. Yes, Russell was a great player and yes, Russell was the greatest defensive player ever. You'll get no quarrel here. But Wilt, perhaps, was the second-greatest defensive player. Ever. And, perhaps, the greatest offensive player. Ever. (Especially if you're from Philadelphia, you won't let anyone from Boston, Chicago or anywhere else win this argument). He set over 100 records, and, sure, he was not a good foul shooter, but at least once he led the league in assists! How many centers do that? He averaged 30.1 points, 22 rebounds and 4.4 assists a game! 22 rebounds a game? Who does that? How many basketball players are referred to by their first name alone? Still? Yes, the Celtics were a great team, perhaps the best ever. The '66-'67 Philadelphia team that unseated them is heralded as one of the best teams ever too, and it was the case that for most of the time Wilt was in Philadelphia the Celtics had more talent than the 76ers. No one will argue; the Celtics usually were the better team. Looking back, there shouldn't have been a whole lot of shame in being second best.

It's also probably the case that had Wilt Chamberlain played on those teams instead of Bill Russell the Celtics would have won all those titles just the same. I believe John Wooden said that, and I also believe that Red Auerbach would agree (after all, given the way the NBA had territorial drafts back then, he tried to convince Wilt to go to Harvard so that the Celtics could have first dibs on him. Smart man, that Coach Auerbach!). While some Boston fans will argue until they're red in the face that Russell made the Celtics and that he brought so much to the team that Chamberlain never could, they are forgetting that Chamberlain brought a ton to his team too. Again, SportsProf isn't knocking Bill Russell; he's just giving Wilt Chamberlain his due.

But this post is not meant to compare legends. There's room in the NBA's pantheon for all of them, for the Russell-led Celtics, for Michael Jordan, for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and, of course, for Wilt Chamberlain. The warm comments that poured out when he passed away several years ago were quite touching, and they came from people from all walks of life and from, among others, his former teammates and his former competitors (Bill Russell's comments were quite good). At 63, he died way too young (SportsProf had wanted to watch him playing beach volleyball at 80 -- and holding his own!).

No, the purpose of this post is to just give a nod once again to a Paul Bunyan-like figure, not only in West Philadelphia, where he grew up, or in Kansas, where he played (and where, decades later, they honored him in a ceremony at the Jayhawks' arena and Wilt came out in a Kansas letterman's jacket and brought down the crowd by leading them in the "Rock Chalk" cheer), or in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, where he played most of his professional career.

Sure, there are plenty of Wilt stories, and many of them are great ones.

But the greatest part of Wilt now is not a statue, which is nice, but all of the warm feelings that his legacy engendered. It was a shame, Dipper, that you felt the need to defend yourself and your career during most of your post-basketball life, and, that, as a result, some people didn't get to see the sides to you that people so fondly remembered on Monday.

Your legacy is not only of your revolutionary hoops exploits, but of your kindness and your heart. There may never be another player or person quite like you, but we were happy to have watched you while you were with us. Thanks for the great memories. Again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a great post.

- Dave (

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