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 Friday, October 15
Chamberlain's feats the stuff of legend
By Mitch Lawrence
Special to

 NEW YORK -- Walt Frazier gets asked the question all the time. "Who's the greatest NBA player of all time?

"I always ask, what's the criteria?" said Frazier, the former Knicks star. "If you're talking about winning, it's Bill Russell. If you're talking about versatility, it's the Big O. If you're talking about Superman, it's Wilt Chamberlain. What he did was almost comical."

Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell
The epic battles between Chamberlain and Boston's Bill Russell produced the NBA's first, and greatest, rivalry.

What Chamberlain did is the stuff of legend. When he died Tuesday at 63, the legend of Chamberlain grew some more. And there is no doubt it will continue to grow, well into the next millennium.

The Big Dipper was bigger than life.

The 100 points against the Knicks in 1962 is fact, surreal as it seems to this day. His season average of 50.4 points in 1961-62 still boggles the mind. His 46 records -- well, Michael Jordan couldn't even come close.

If you're old enough, you well remember his epic battles with Bill Russell. If you're not old enough, think of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird -- to the 10th power.

"Wilt and Russell was the first great matchup in the league," Bill Sharman said Tuesday from his California residence, only a few miles from where Chamberlain lived. Sharman, of course, played with Russell in the late '50s and later coached Chamberlain to a title with the Lakers in 1971-72. "Those two and their head-to-head battles are the reason the league got to be so popular. Then the next great matchup to come along was Larry and Magic. And the NBA really grew with those two, and then Michael Jordan. But the popularity started with Wilt and Russell."

You're talking about two giants, literally and figuratively, who wowed the fans. But when it came to titles, Russell had it all over his archrival. Eleven championship rings to two, if you're scoring at home.

"But the thing Wilt doesn't get credit for is how he always adjusted his game," Sharman said. "First he was a scorer. Then he was a rebounder and assist man. Then with our great Laker team in 1972, he concentrated on the defensive end."

But his offensive prowess is what everyone was talking about Tuesday, when the startling news came across about Wilt's death.

"When we won in 1970, Wilt erupted against us in the sixth game," recalled Frazier of that classic New York-L.A. championship series. "But in the seventh game, we contained him. But that's because he wasn't as mobile as he once was, and Willis Reed did a great job getting under him and pounding him."

But in his heyday, Wilt did the hammering.

Name another player who forced a rules change. There was George Mikan. And then there was Wilt. One season, Chamberlain even averaged more than 48 minutes a game.

"People say, 'Wow, what an accomplishment!'" he said a few years back. "Man, I was stupid."

But he was smart enough to adjust his lifestyle and game when he had to. Starting his new coaching assignment with the Lakers in 1971-72, Sharman told Chamberlain, a noted night owl, that he was starting morning shootarounds.

"Everybody told me I was wasting my time trying to get Wilt to come to the shootarounds," Sharman said. "But nobody knew that I had a relationship with Wilt. When I was with the Celtics in the '50s, I had a summer camp up in Maine. And I had Wilt come up there all the time, before he played in the pros.

"I met with Wilt and told him that when I played, it helped me to shoot around the morning of the game. I always found that taking extra shots helped me get loose and gave me a little extra confidence. I had done that with my team in the ABL, too. It helped to run some plays beforehand.

  I didn't think his situation was life-threatening. I don't think anybody did. I always thought Wilt was indestructable.  ”
—  Walt Frazier
"Wilt said, 'Bill, I'm a late-night person. I have trouble sleeping. So I usually don't get up until noon. But I'll try it for awhile. I will adjust my lifestyle.' And he missed only two the whole season. Both times, he called the trainer to say he wasn't feeling well. I've heard that story about him saying he wouldn't do it, but it's not the way it happened."

What happened for the Lakers was extraordinary. That year they won 33 straight games -- a record that certainly will never be broken -- and a then-record 69 games overall. It ended with the second and final championship for Chamberlain. But waking before noon wasn't even the biggest sacrifice Sharman asked of his center that season.

Sharman figured that the Lakers had more than enough scoring with Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Jim McMillan. So he asked Chamberlain to forget his point totals and become a more dangerous defensive player. Venture out from beneath the glass and challenge shooters. Block more shots.

To make his point, Sharman finally asked Wilt to be more like Russell. He knew that comparison would get Wilt's attention immediately.

"Here I am, asking the only guy who has ever scored 100 points in a game -- the only guy who will ever score 100 points in a game -- and the only guy who averaged 50 points to adjust ... and Wilt did it," Sharman said. "His defense was a big reason we were as good as we were. But that's the way Wilt was for me. He was wonderful, very cooperative. It's just a shame what happened."

Like everyone else who knew Chamberlain, Sharman was shocked by the news. In the last few weeks, word was getting around NBA circles that Wilt needed a pacemaker before he was to undergo hip-replacement surgery.

"I didn't think his situation was life-threatening," Frazier said. "I don't think anybody did. I always thought Wilt was indestructable."

Didn't we all.

Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, writes a regular NBA column for

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