Born: August 21, 1936
Died: October 12, 1999
Los Angeles, California
African American basketball player
Wilt Chamberlain is considered one of the world's all-time greatest professional basketball players.
Wilt Chamberlain was born August 21, 1936, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of nine children raised by William and Olivia Chamberlain. His father worked in a local publishing company, while his mother performed outside housework. The Chamberlains lived in a racially-mixed middle-class neighborhood, and Wilt enjoyed a relatively pleasant childhood.
At Shoemaker Junior High School Wilt began to play on the basketball team. He also played on the playgrounds against older players who taught him a lot about the game. He later said, "I still think you could pick up a team from the street corners of Philly that would give most colleges a real hard time." Wilt attended Overbrook High School in Philadelphia beginning in 1952. At that time he was already 6'11" tall, and had developed what he termed a "deep love for basketball."
Chamberlain's high school basketball career was astounding. In three seasons he scored more than 2,200 points. As a result more than two hundred universities recruited Chamberlain, but he wanted to get away from big cities and preferred to play in the Midwest. He chose the University of Kansas because of the recruiting by Hall of Fame coach Phog Allen.
At Kansas Chamberlain continued his brilliant play on the basketball court, scoring fifty-two points in his first varsity game. During his first varsity season, he led the Jayhawks to the finals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, but they lost to North Carolina in double overtime. During his college career he averaged over thirty points per game and was twice selected to All-American teams. Following his junior year, he decided to quit college and become a professional.
Because Chamberlain did not play his final season at Kansas, he was not eligible to join a National Basketball Association (NBA) team for one more year. He instead joined the Harlem Globetrotters and spent the year traveling the world and entertaining adults and youngsters alike. He later claimed that his year with the Globetrotters was his most enjoyable season of basketball.
In 1959 Chamberlain joined the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors and made an immediate impact on the league. He could score almost at will. Opposing teams gave up trying to stop him and instead tried only to contain him. His scoring average during the 1959-60 season was 37.9 points per game—more than eight points per game higher than anyone else had ever scored in the history of the league. He was named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, the first person to receive both awards in the same season.
For the next six seasons Chamberlain led the league in scoring. In the 1961-62 season he averaged 50.4 points and scored 100 points in one game. In 1962-63 he averaged 44.8 points per game. Chamberlain was simply one the greatest scoring machines in the history of basketball.
Despite Chamberlain's scoring achievements, he and his teammates were not winning NBA championships. The Boston Celtics and their center Bill Russell (1934–) dominated the game in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Russell had revolutionized basketball with his defense as much as Chamberlain had with his offense, and Russell always had a great group of supporting players. Chamberlain always took a great deal of abuse from the media and fans because of his lack of success against Russell.
Finally, in 1967, Chamberlain reversed his fortunes. He had been traded to the new Philadelphia team, the 76ers, and in 1967 they finished the regular season with the best record in the history of the league. In the championship series, the 76ers polished off the San Francisco Warriors to win the first world title for Chamberlain.
Several years later Chamberlain was traded again, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had featured numerous great players through the years, including Elgin Baylor (1934–) and Jerry West (1938–), but had not won a championship since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1960. In 1972, however, the Lakers seemed poised to finally win a championship. They finished the year with the best regular season record in history, breaking the record set by Chamberlain and the 76ers in 1967. In the championship series, the Lakers played the powerful New York Knickerbockers, led by Willis Reed (1942–), Dave DeBusschere (1940–), Bill Bradley (1943–), and Walt Frazier (1945–). In the fourth game of the series Chamberlain suffered a fractured wrist. Although the Lakers led the series three games to one, the series still seemed in doubt because of Chamberlain's injury. Despite understandable pain, Chamberlain played the next game with football linemen's pads on both hands. He scored 24 points, grabbed 29 rebounds, and blocked 10 shots. The Lakers won the game and the series four games to one, bringing the first world championship to Los Angeles.
Following the 1973 season, Chamberlain left the NBA as the all-time leader in points scored (more than 30,000), rebounds (over 22,000), and with four Most Valuable Player awards and more than forty league records. After retiring from basketball, Chamberlain was involved in a wide variety of activities. He sponsored several amateur athletic groups, including volleyball teams and track clubs. He invested wisely through the years and spent his retirement years as a wealthy man. He also kept in outstanding physical condition. When he walked into a room or onto a basketball court, he was a legendary presence.
Chamberlain gained further notoriety in 1991 with the release of his second and most talked about autobiography, A View from Above. The book contains observations on athletes of the 1990s, gun control, and his fourteen years in the NBA, among other topics. But it was the claim that he had slept with twenty thousand women that landed him in the celebrity spotlight and in the public hot seat. Reflecting upon this claim, Chamberlain regretted the way he discussed sex in the book and became a champion of safe sex. In 1997 Chamberlain published Who's Running the Asylum?: The Insane World of Sports Today. His last book provides a critical discussion of the sports industry and the NBA, including his own ranking of basketball's greatest players.
Chamberlain died on October 12, 1999, in his Bel Air, California, home. Chamberlain had been treated for an irregular heartbeat in 1992 and was on medication to treat the condition. Chamberlain is remembered as one of the most dominant players to ever grace a basketball court. His record of 100 points in a game is a record that will be hard to break.
Chamberlain, Wilt. A View from Above. New York: Villard Books, 1991.
Frankl, Ron. Wilt Chamberlain. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
Greenberger, Robert. Wilt Chamberlain. New York: Rosen Central, 2002.
Libby, Bill. Goliath: The Wilt Chamberlain Story. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977.