Advertisement

Where Wilt ranks: Sorting out former Jayhawk Wilt Chamberlain's place among the game's all-time greats

Advertisement

Wilt Chamberlain — Wilt “The Stilt” joined KU’s basketball team in 1955 and went on to a two-year career in which he averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds per game. He also had a long, dominating career in the NBA.

Wilt Chamberlain — Wilt “The Stilt” joined KU’s basketball team in 1955 and went on to a two-year career in which he averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds per game. He also had a long, dominating career in the NBA. by File Photo

ESPN’s recent Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” revived arguments among fans about who the greatest basketball player of all time really was.

Jordan, of course, is at the top of most lists, but there are four or five other NBA greats who routinely show up in the conversation.

One of them went to Kansas. And while Wilt Chamberlain’s college career was full of eye-popping numbers and made a larger-than-life impact on the sport, the stats Chamberlain put up in the NBA with the Philadelphia Warriors franchise and Los Angeles Lakers exceeded even those.

Numbers alone might not be enough to land The Big Dipper in the same class as Jordan and current Lakers superstar LeBron James. But they have to at least be considered when talking about the greatest players of all time.

Chamberlain finished his career with averages of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. And during the 1967-68 season, he led the league in assists, averaging 8.6 per game to go along with 24.3 points and 23.8 rebounds.

It wasn’t until his eighth season in the NBA that Chamberlain averaged fewer than 30 points per game. That came during the 1966-67 season, when he averaged 24 points and 24 rebounds for Philadelphia.

Prior to that, Chamberlain’s season averages read more like field goal and 3-point percentages: 37.6, 38.4, 50.4, 44.8, 36.9, 34.7 and 33.5. In each of those first seven seasons, Chamberlain also averaged at least 22 rebounds per game.

In what many people consider to be his best season — his third year in the league in 1961-62 — Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 27.5 rebounds per game. But there's one statistic from that season that's even more impressive: The former Jayhawk played all 80 games without ever subbing out, averaging 48.5 minutes per game in a league that plays 48-minute games.

Blocked shots were not recorded as an official statistic until the 1973-74 season — Chamberlain’s first out of the NBA — but anyone who saw him play will tell you that the 7-foot-1, 275-pound center’s prowess as a defender extended far beyond cleaning up the defensive glass.

If Wilt wasn’t the best to ever play, he certainly has a strong case as the most dominant.

In this file photo from March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors holds a sign reading “100” in the dressing room in Hershey, Pa., after he scored 100 points as the Warriors defeated the New York Knickerbockers, 169-147.

In this file photo from March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors holds a sign reading “100” in the dressing room in Hershey, Pa., after he scored 100 points as the Warriors defeated the New York Knickerbockers, 169-147. by Associated Press

ESPN recently ranked the top 74 NBA players of all time, and Chamberlain got his due, coming in at No. 6. But for my money, the numbers alone make him a lock to be at least in the top five.

ESPN’s top five, in order, went: Jordan, James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson.

My top five, in order, would go: Jordan, James, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant.

Perhaps the biggest knock on the former Jayhawk’s professional career is that it was not filled with championships.

ESPN.com’s Tim Bontemps wrote exactly that when ranking him at No. 6 overall on the site’s list: “Chamberlain was truly ahead of his time. His numbers are mythical. The only reason he doesn’t rank higher on lists of the all-time greats is he won 'only' two NBA championships.”

Jordan won six titles and was the MVP of every NBA Finals series in which he played. Russell won a whopping 11 titles during his days with the Boston Celtics dynasty. Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, one with Milwaukee as Lew Alcindor and five more in Los Angeles. Johnson and Bryant each won five during separate runs in L.A. And James sits on three championships and is still in pursuit of adding one or two more before calling it a career.

Chamberlain, meanwhile, reached the sport’s pinnacle just twice, in 1967 and 1972, and lost in the finals four other times.

All of the players mentioned above were multi-time all stars, all-NBA picks and all-defensive team honorees. And they each own a handful of records. So it makes sense for people to search for something that separates them. It makes even more sense that championships are that something. After all, no matter what sport you play or what era you’re in, winning is the name of the game.

So much of identifying the best player of all time depends on how you define that title. Is it solely about championships and rings? Is it about numbers? Is it about influence, impact and culture? Is it some kind of combination of all of those things?

Those requirements carry different weights with different people, which is why so many players have a legitimate case at the title of best ever and also why the debate often becomes so heated.

I’ve always looked at talent as the defining trait. Numbers are nice and certainly speak to one’s greatness. But titles are often a team accomplishment. Even Jordan could not have won the six he won with the Chicago Bulls without the right supporting cast around him.

That’s why my top five includes the five players it does and why Chamberlain is firmly in it. No one was more dominant or made a bigger impact on the game. The powers that be changed the rules because of Chamberlain and his numbers — including that oh-so-famous 100-point game — certainly stand up next to his impact and dominance.

I won’t argue with those who claim James is the best we’ve ever seen, but, at the same time, I also can’t let you say he was better than Jordan. While different in their physical traits and style of play, the two were insanely skilled, crazy competitive and willing to do whatever needed to be done to win, no matter who liked it or who didn’t.

If there’s an argument for James over MJ, it’s that he can legitimately play and defend all five positions on the floor. Jordan certainly would have been willing to tackle that task, but I’m not sure he would have been as successful. Still, no one is definitively better than Jordan. He may have one or two equals, but he’ll always be at the top of the list.

As far as Abdul-Jabbar, not only are his numbers incredible — records, statistics, awards and titles — but he was dominant in his own right, with his famed “sky hook” being one of the most unstoppable shots in the history of the game.

And then there’s Bryant, a player so talented that he came to the NBA right out of high school and had the whole league talking about him for the next 20 years. Bryant’s resume, though rock solid, is not the strongest of the bunch. But I’m not sure there’s a better pure scorer in the group, and none of them reinvented themselves the way Bryant did from Phase I of his career to Phase II.

I’m OK with most people not having Bryant in their top five. But he has to be in everybody’s top 10. Just like Chamberlain should be somewhere in everybody’s top five.

The return of Wilt Chamberlain, center, in 1998 was judged the No.
3 most memorable moment in Allen Fieldhouse history by KUSports.com
viewers.

The return of Wilt Chamberlain, center, in 1998 was judged the No. 3 most memorable moment in Allen Fieldhouse history by KUSports.com viewers. by AP Photo

Comments

Tony Bandle 3 weeks, 3 days ago

All I know is that Wilt used to decide before the season started what stat category he would lead the league for that season, whether it be scoring or rebounding or blocked shots or even assists....then he would do it!!

And talking about athleticism, numerous experts in the sport of volleyball say Wilt was, and still to this day, remains the greatest volleyball player whoever walked the face of this planet!!!

Not to have Wilt in the top three is a joke!!

Edward Daub 3 weeks, 3 days ago

I recently watched the ESPN documentary "Wilt 100" narrated by Bill Russell. The Show focuses on his 100 point game in Hershey, but also reviews his entire career.

After watching this 1 hour - 1 episode Doc, I was convinced that Wilt should be ranked #1 all time of NBA Greats! Wilt revolutionized the NBA!

Wilt averaged over 50 points per game in 1962! (Nobody will ever to that again.)

Wilt scored 100 points in a single game in 1962! (Nobody will ever to that again.)

Wilt not only blocked shots, he grabbed the shots one handed at times!

Okay, so he "only" won 2 NBA Titles with the 76'ers (teamed with Hal Greer) and the Lakers (teamed with Jerry West.)

Rock Chalk!

Jeff Foster 3 weeks, 3 days ago

And he NEVER fouled out of any game in his entire career. I'd never heard of the '61/'62 season stat of him never subbing out and playing every single game. That's just incredible and really unheard of for a player today when players 'rest' themselves. He's def in my top 3, but those 6 players are all amazing.

Brad Avery 3 weeks, 3 days ago

I am a big Michael Jordan fan, but as an individual player, he was not even the same universe (nobody is) as Wilt was. Nobody was or is capable of dominating a game like Wilt.

Blake Brown 3 weeks, 3 days ago

It's tough to compare players from different generations. Many things change and are different, not only with the physical and mental aspects, but the equipment, facilities, training, travel means, scheduling, etc. Having said that, I saw Wilt play many times and have seen all of those mentioned above and there is not doubt in my mind, Wilt was the best all time.

Brian Wilson 3 weeks, 2 days ago

It is tough to compare differenent generations. I will say this. I stood beside Greg Dreiling once, and I stood beside Wilt when he came back came through the tunnel. Comparing their presence, Dreiling felt small & Wilt was huge, IMO, Wilt felt like a giant. When he was over 50 he was playing competitive volleyball and was considering playing in the Olympics in both sports...He complained he wasn't given the opportunity to tryout for the Olympic basketball dream team and felt he could still play 15-20 minutes per game as well as anyone. I'm not so sure he couldn't of!

I could be wrong but If Wilt would have had the opportunity to train like today athletes he would have even been better than he was. From Wilt's interviews he didn't spend much time practicing on his own time. Most of his time was spent nailing the 20,000 plus women he bragged about. What is clear many people during his career claimed Wilt was the most gifted athlete they ever saw and what Wilt did was just pure natural athletic talent and anytime he wanted he could dominate anyone he set his mind to.

Looking back, meeting Wilt was very similar to meeting John Riggins. When Riggins came back to KU after winning the Super Bowl he had the presence of a 6'6" Greek God. I can't imagine playing MLB looking over the ball at him. I will never forget it.

Bret Eckert 3 weeks, 3 days ago

I was in the Fieldhouse when Wilt jad his Jersey retired. What an increadible moment.

Mike Auer 3 weeks, 3 days ago

The 1966/67 season was Wilt’s 8th season not his 10th.

Matt Tait 3 weeks, 3 days ago

You're correct. Thanks. It's fixed now. I forgot to account for the season he played for multiple teams and how that is shown on his career season logs. Here are Wilt's NBA stats from basketball-reference.com

Wilt Chamberlain career stats.

Wilt Chamberlain career stats. by Matt Tait

Jesse Johnson 3 weeks, 3 days ago

Kobe Bryant is a bit overrated. His shooting percentages are really not that great (sub 45% FG and sub 33% 3FG for his career). He just looked good while doing it and had athletic dunks. https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/b/bryanko01.html

Bj Cassady 3 weeks, 3 days ago

First you cannot really compare centers vs guards/forwards with that being said Chamberlain in my opinion was the most dominant player in the NBA. Oscar Robertson was the most complete player to play. Jordan had the dominant 'will' and was the best player with James as second. My pick would be 1. Jordan 2. James 3. Robertson 4. Jabbar 5. Chamberlain 6. Elgin Baylor and I don't care about the rest of the list..

Stuart Corder 3 weeks, 3 days ago

Wilt Chamberlain is the “Secretariat” of basketball. There will never be another 100 pt performance w/o a three pointer.

There will never be an NBA player average 50+ pts and 30+ rebounds over the course of an entire season.

Wilt was, unquestionably, the most dominating player to ever step foot on a basketball court. He statistically dominated his contemporaries.

He caused more rules changes than Jordan has championship rings.

On the basketball court, Wilt Chamberlain could slam a revolving door.

Wilt Chamberlain is #1.

Michael Jordan is #2.

Chamberlain had no help until his later years, and Jordan’s crew developed alongside him. Anybody else who wants to be on any such list had established “All Stars” or “Hall of Famers” play with them during their most productive years.

LeBron James: - DWade - Bosh - Irving - Anthony Davis

Kareem Abdul Jabar: - Oscar Robinson - Magic Johnson - James Worthy - Jamaal Wilkes

Kobe Bryant: - Shaq - Pau Gasol (all Star) - Odom (All Star) & Karl Malone (HOF) - Ron Artest (aka - Meta World Peace; aka - Dennis Rodman wannabe).

Bill Russell: His list of Hall Of Fame teammates is enough to make an entire team.

Bill French 3 weeks, 3 days ago

If one looks at the NBA record book, WILT should be in anyone's top 3.

Bill French

Brett McCabe 3 weeks, 2 days ago

Certain champions are indisputably the greatest of all time. Ali. Chamberlain. Bolt. Williams.

It’s not really even close.

Titus Canby 3 weeks, 2 days ago

The older players tend to get fewer votes because so many of those voting haven't seen them play. So it's impressive that Wilt is even included in these lists.

I never saw Wilt play live, but he was so dominant in footage that I've seen that he has to be #1 on any list of greatest basketball players ever. The fact that rules were changed because of him says a lot.

My list: 1. Wilt 2. Michael Jordan 3. Oscar Robertson 4. Kareem 5. Bill Russell 6. LeBron

No one else comes close to these six. Kobe was good, but nowhere near these guys.

Sign in to comment