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 Wednesday, October 13
More than a big man, Wilt was a giant
By Hal Bock
Associated Press

 Wilt Chamberlain was scary, flat-out frightening. That's because before he came along, most basketball players were mortal-sized men. Chamberlain changed that.

He was more than a big man. He was a giant.

In the days before cable television, it was tough to get a handle on every player, every prospect in the country. Chamberlain changed that, too. That's how special a player he was.

There was a buzz in basketball circles in the early 1950s about this spindly 6-foot-11 kid at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, who seemed to score points almost at will. That's because he towered over the other players.

He grew to be 7-foot-1, so big that he could dominate games with very little effort. But that wasn't Wilt's way. He worked at basketball, used his great height and raw strength to take over games.

Chamberlain's impact began in warmups. He would trot out regally, wearing a headband and a glare, and lope around the court. Opposing players would shoot glances at him and their expressions spoke volumes.

How do you deal with Goliath, a guy who's a foot taller than most of the other players on the court?

North Carolina, coached by the brilliant Frank McGuire, came up with a unique solution. In the 1957 NCAA championship game against Chamberlain and Kansas, McGuire sent out his shortest player, Tommy Kearns, for the opening tap, trying to rattle the big man.

It was as if Carolina was thumbing its nose at Chamberlain, saying it was unconcerned with his presence. After that, though, the Tar Heels stopped playing coy, spending the rest of night triple-teaming him -- one defender in front, one behind and a third arriving as soon as he got the ball.

The game went three overtimes and Carolina won. For years afterward, Chamberlain considered it his most devastating loss.

After two years at Kansas, where he averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds, Chamberlain turned pro, first with the Harlem Globetrotters and then in the NBA. It was there that he found a fitting rival, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics.

Russell wasn't quite as tall as Chamberlain, but he was a defensive genius, the moving force behind the Celtics' dynasty. Their battles were monumental, a study in big man basketball. Often, Chamberlain wound up as frustrated by Russell as he had been by the triple overtime loss to North Carolina.

Chamberlain assembled some remarkable statistics.

He scored 31,419 points during his career, a record until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke it in 1984, and holds the record for career rebounding with 23,924.

He led the NBA in scoring seven straight seasons, 1960-66, and led the league in rebounding 11 of his 14 seasons. He averaged 30.1 points a game in his career, and pushed that to a record 50.4 in 1961-62. He even led the league in assists with 702 in 1967-68.

"Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of the NBA," said longtime Boston coach and GM Red Auerbach. "His dominance, power, demeanor and the rivalry with Bill Russell says it all."

Then there were the free throws.

Chamberlain was the dominant scorer and dominant rebounder of his time. His trouble came when he had to shoot foul shots. They mystified him. He tried different regimens -- underhanded, two-handed -- but nothing ever worked very well for him. It was the one chink in Goliath's armor.

But in his greatest game, Chamberlain solved the free-throw mystery, too. On March 2, 1962, in an NBA game hidden away in Hershey, Pa., he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. That night, he converted 28 of 32 foul shots.

"I get constant reminders from fans who equate that game and my career as one and the same," Chamberlain said years later. "People don't talk about the 50-point average, the 69-13 Lakers championship team I played for. They talk about the night I scored 100.

"That's my tag, whether I like it or not."

Chamberlain was a versatile athlete, a track standout, who also was fascinated by tennis and volleyball. He ran marathons and was an awesome physical specimen. A few years ago, there was even some talk -- some believed it was whimsical but others took it seriously -- of Wilt signing a 10-day contract to help a big man-depleted NBA team.

Wilt was always open to all offers. The message on his answering machine made that clear.

It said: "When and where and I'll take it from there."

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