Friday, March 2, 2012

Top 10 NBA Players Ever (Wilt 100 at 50)

March 2, 1962, 50 years ago today: A National Basketball Association game is played at the Hershey Sports Arena, nearly 100 miles west of Center City Philadelphia, and just to the east of Harrisburg.

The Philadelphia Warriors, one of the NBA's best teams, hosted the New York Knickerbockers. Marv Albert, then studying broadcasting at Syracuse University and soon to become the radio voice of the Knicks, likes to say that, in those days, the NBA had 9 teams, and the sole purpose of the regular season was to eliminate the Knicks from the Playoffs.

The arena, built in 1936, still stands, near the Hersheypark theme park, and is now known as the Hersheypark Arena. It's best known for this game, and is also known as the home of the minor-league hockey team the Hershey Bears (who have since moved to a new arena nearby), and the longtime home of the Pennsylvania high school wrestling championships (since it's close to the State capital of Harrisburg). The arena seats 7,286, but only 4,124 attended, 56 percent of capacity.

The Warriors, who would move to San Francisco the next season (and in 1971 across the Bay to Oakland, taking the name "Golden State Warriors"), defeated the Knicks, 162-147. For over 20 years, this was the highest-scoring game in NBA history.

Of those 162 points, 100 were scored by Wilt Chamberlain, the 25-year-old 7-foot-1 superhuman from West Philly.

The old record was 78, done by Wilt himself. Aside from this game, that figure has been topped only once, recently by Kobe Bryant with 81. But in 1962, there was no 3-point shot, and, as far as I know, no study has been done of this game to see how many points Wilt would have had if the 3-pointer had been in effect.

This would have been easier if there was a surviving TV broadcast or film of this game, but there isn't one. The Warriors didn't have a local TV contract. The Knicks did, but most of the New York stations' sports guys were in Florida to cover the spring training camps of the defending World Champion Yankees and the newborn Mets.

All we have is a scratchy recording of the radio broadcast done by legendary Philly announcer Bill Campbell, which reveals that the fans were chanting, "Give it to Wilt!" The Warriors were obliging, giving up easy shots for themselves so Wilt could get the 3-digit milestone. He did so with a rather unemphatic dunk with 46 seconds left on the clock. The fans stormed the court, but, contrary to legend, the surviving broadcast proves that, after a 9-minute delay, the game was completed.

Wilt scored 23 points in the 1st quarter, 18 in the 2nd to make it 41, 28 in the 3rd to make it j69, and 31 in the 4th to make it an even 100 -- which, being a round number, does stand out more than if he'd gotten 101 or 102. He attempted 69 shots from the field, made 36, took 32 free throws and made 28 -- belieing his legendary difficulty with free throws. All except most free throws attempted were records that still stand (and Wilt already had that record, which still stands). Richie Guerin scored 39 for the Knicks, but nobody noticed.

When asked about the unbelievable total, Wilt noted that he averaged 50 points per game that season. "So it was like doubling my average," he said, as casually as if he'd been averaging 25 and had scored 50. He considered his record (which still stands) of 55 rebounds in a game better, because it was against the World Champion Boston Celtics and their great center, Bill Russell. (However, the Celtics rendered that record dubious by winning the game.)

The attendance of 4,124 belies the fact that thousands of people told Wilt that they were there at the game. Some said they were at the Spectrum -- which wasn't built until 1967. Some said that they were at "the Convention Hall" -- the main building of the Philadelphia Civic Center complex, which served as the main home of the Warriors from 1946 to 1962 and then for the 76ers from 1963 to 1967. Some said that they were at "the Arena," meaning the Philadelphia Arena, which stood in West Philly across from the ABC studio where American Bandstand was once taped, and was last used, sports-wise, by the short-lived Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association in 1972-73. 

And some said they were at the old Madison Square Garden that night, thinking the game wasn't in Philadelphia (they were right), but in New York (they were wrong). If they said that, Wilt would ask, "You were at the Garden that night? How did the Rangers do?" (I looked it up: They were not scheduled to play that night.)

Before his death in 1999, Wilt said in a number of interviews that Hershey Arena must have held 100,000 people, to accommodate all the people who said they were there that night. Bobby Thomson said pretty much the same thing about the Polo Grounds, which was filled only to a similar capacity when he hit his "Shot Heard 'Round the World in 1951: 34,320 out of 55,987, or 61 percent.

What Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune said about that home run could apply equally well to Wilt's 100-point game: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."


That 1961-62 season, Wilt averaged over 48 minutes per game -- because he'd played all but 8 minutes of every game, including overtime. And he never fouled out of a game -- not that season, not ever, which is shocking for a big man. He averaged 50.4 points per game.

That same season, Oscar Robertson, then playing for the Cincinnati Royals, averaged what we would now call a triple-double: 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game.

And both men did it in a 9-team league, much more balanced than the 23-team league I grew up with and the 30-team league we have now. The competition was tougher. Even from the league office: The league widened the lane to make it tougher for Wilt to score. It didn't stop him.

Top 10 NBA Players Ever

10. George Mikan, center, Minneapolis Lakers, 1947-54.
Bob Ryan, the great Boston Globe sports columnist, grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and thus had a great opportunity to watch the Warriors and their opponents in the Wilt years, and as a result, he probably knows more about the NBA and its history than anyone who's never been actively employed by an NBA team -- and more than all but a few who have been.

On a 1996 ESPN panel, seeking to determine the greatest NBA team ever, after the Bulls won the title with a record 72 wins, he was asked about the players in the early days of the NBA, and he suggested that the 1954 institution of the 24-second shot clock, designed to stop Mikan and the Lakers, who'd won 5 of the last 6 titles, not only worked, but changed the game completely.

"I'm not going to kid you," Ryan said about the effect the shot clock had on the game. He cited the star of the NBA's 1st Champions, the 1947 Warriors: "I don't think Jumpin' Joe Fulks makes it in today's NBA, except maybe as a 12th man. George Mikan? A good backup center. Deserved every accolade he got in his time, but, now? He's Greg Kite with a hook shot."

But Mikan did dominate the 1st decade of the NBA. So much so that this famous photo of the old Garden's famed marquee shows that he, rather than his team, was the drawing card. It doesn't say, "Knicks vs. Lakers," or even "Knicks vs. Geo. Mikan." Mikan got top billing, over even the home team.

9. Shaquille O'Neal, center, multiple teams but best known for the Los Angeles Lakers, 1992-2011. Shaq turns 40 next week, and while his inclusion in the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players was met with disbelief in 1997, it cannot be disputed now, 15 years and 4 titles later.

For good, and for excess if not necessarily for ill, he defined an era, more so than his ex-teammate Kobe Bryant, more so than Tim Duncan, more so than, thus far, LeBron James (who doesn't yet come close to making the Top 10, or even the Top 20). George Mikan (1947-54), Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain (1959-69), Magic Johnson & Larry Bird (1979-89), Michael Jordan (1989-98): These men defined eras in the NBA. So did Shaq.

8. Jerry West, guard, Los Angeles Lakers, 1960-74. He has arguably had a greater impact as an executive, the man who built the Laker dynasties of 1980-91, 1999-2004, and 2008-present. But he remains the greatest shooter in NBA history, in spite of being relatively short (6-foot-2), and was so popular that not only was he the 1st Laker to get his number retired (44), but a photo of him dribbling lefthanded became the NBA logo.
7. Julius Erving, forward, New York Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, 1973-87. People who say that Magic and Larry "saved the NBA" starting in 1979 are idiots. The NBA was not in dire straits, except maybe with the way it was covered on TV. And there were already some great stars in the league. Kareem. Bill Walton. Elvin Hayes. And the man known as Doctor J.

Like a lot of great scorers in other sports (including hockey and soccer), Erving became a better defensive player after he lost a step on offense. But that step he lost was one that most players will never have. He could have shaved his head instead of having one of the greatest Afros (or should that be "Afroes"?) ever, and he still would have been 1 of the 5 coolest men in the world.

How many human beings, let alone basketball players, have ever moved like Doc? Indeed, how many athletes have ever been credibly described as "graceful"? However many there have been, I can think of only 3: Joe DiMaggio, Lynn Swann, and Julius Erving.

6. Bill Russell, center, Boston Celtics, 1956-69. Sport's ultimate winner. He led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back National Championships, part of a 60-game winning streak that was the longest in college basketball history until UCLA broke it with an 88-game streak in 1971-74 (after Lew/Kareem, but including Bill Walton). He led the U.S. team, including his USF and Celtic teammate K.C. Jones, to the Olympic Gold Medal in 1956.

Then he played 13 seasons with the Celtics, getting into 12 Finals and winning 11 of them -- the last 2 as not just player-coach, but as the 1st black coach in major league sports history. (Unless you count the NFL, in its first days, as "major league": Look up a man named Fritz Pollard.)

Those 11 World Championships have been matched in North American sports only by Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. The record in baseball is 10 by Yogi Berra; in football, 6, by Forrest Gregg and Herb Adderley, teammates on 5 titles in Green Bay and 1 in Dallas.

The reason the Celtics won all those titles, beating Wilt's Warriors, Wilt's 76ers, and the Lakers of West and Baylor and eventually also Wilt, is that they were a more balanced team. But also because, like Jordan but unlike Wilt, Russell was a cutthroat. I'm not saying he cheated (this wasn't the current era of Boston sports), but he took pleasure in beating an opponent. I've seen pictures of Wilt where he looks like he's trying to find out if looks could kill, but that really wasn't his personality. It was Russell's.

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, center, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, 1969-89. The man originally named Lew Alcindor was the most accomplished player in the history of college basketball, winning the National Championship and the tournament MVP all 3 years he was at UCLA, going 88-2. If he had never played a professional game, he would still be 1 of the Top 20 basketball players of all time.

He did play basketball professionally, longer than any man before him. He helped the Bucks win what is still their only title in 1971. Then, preferring to live in a more culturally-advantageous city, demanded a trade to either his hometown of New York or his college town of Los Angeles. He was sent to the Lakers and, along with Magic, led them to 5 titles.

Kareem remains the NBA's all-time leading scorer, surpassing Wilt's old record of 31,419 career points by 7,000. At the age of 38 (1985), he was still 1 of the top 3 players in the game; at 40, he was still 1 of the top 5. Although his reticence and his intellectual pursuits (he was always a student of history, music and religion, even before his conversion to Islam) rendered him an enigma in the eyes of the media, he has opened up a bit in recent years, and is truly one of the most interesting people alive today.

4. Oscar Robertson, guard, Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, 1960-74. The Big O has often been called the most complete player in NBA history. For years, until Magic and then John Stockton, he held the NBA career records for most assists and most steals.

Although the 1960s Royals (forerunners of the Sacramento Kings) had Oscar, Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman, the closest they ever got to a title was losing to the Celtics in the 1964 Eastern Conference Finals. Oscar finally won a title in 1971, with the Bucks, with young Lew as a dominating center and a much more balanced team than Oscar had in Cincy.

3. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, guard, Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-91, with a brief comeback in 1996. Whereas Jordan inspired his teammates through cold stares and fear, Magic made them better through joy and trust. That he was able to play center despite being 6-foot-9 (which wouldn't have been a big deal 20 years earlier, but was at this point) in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, filling in for such a talent as Kareem, on the road against a team as tough as that era's 76ers, and score 42 points and lead his team to victory, at the age of 20, shows his completeness and his leadership even then.

Even before illness forced him to stop playing, he was investing the money he'd made from playing, putting it into inner-city businesses and becoming the kind of job creator the Republicans like to talk about, but who haven't been creating many jobs the last few years. Magic built a business empire that has grown exponentially in the 20 years since. Shortly before he announced his forced retirement, right after Jordan had won his 1st title, I saw an interview with Magic in his office at his company, where he said, "If Michael was doing what I'm doing, he really would own the world."

By the way, you'll notice that I do not have Larry Bird in this Top 10. It's not to spite New England sports fans. I simply believe that there have been at least 10 players in the league's 65-year history that were better. In fact, I don't even think Bird was the greatest-ever Celtic forward, and I don't mean that he's been surpassed by Paul Pierce. I give that honor to John Havlicek, who I probably would've included in this Top 10, except, at this point, I had to get Shaq in.

2. Michael Jordan, guard, Chicago Bulls, 1984-98. That 2001-03 comeback with the Washington Wizards shouldn't diminish his legacy: 6 NBA Titles, Finals MVP in all of them, and a great defensive player too.

Put it this way: In Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals, at age 35, he had the flu, and had to play the Utah Jazz, the team with the best defense in the league, in Salt Lake City at altitude. And he scored 38 points and led his team to victory. When you or I have the flu, the only thing we usually feel like doing is dying.

1. Wilt Chamberlain, center, Philadelphia-San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, 1959-73. At the NBA's 50th Anniversary celebration at the 1997 All-Star Game, the 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players were announced, and, in the locker room beforehand, Jordan was telling people that, in spite of all the talent in that room, he was the greatest ever. Wilt walked over to him and said, "Michael, my man, when you played, they changed the rules to make it easier for you. When I played, they changed the rules to make it harder for me. And it didn't work." And Wilt walked off. Game over.

True, Wilt won only 2 titles, but, both times, with the '67 76ers and the '72 Lakers, they broke the established NBA record for wins in a season. True, the '96 Bulls broke the '72 Lakers' record... but if you had a time machine, and brought the '96 Bulls back to play either the '72 Lakers or the '67 76ers, who was gonna guard Wilt? Wilt would have completed teaching Jordan the lesson. (Who was gonna guard Jordan? Hal Greer or Jerry West.)

Oh, and, by the way, that 1st title Wilt won? With a team often considered the greatest in NBA history? That was the 1st season he played in which he didn't lead the NBA in scoring. The next year, he led it in assists, the only center ever to do so. Jordan never led the league in assists, or rebounds, like Wilt did.

A generation whose template is Jordan needs to know: Wilton Norman Chamberlain of Overbrook, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the greatest player the game of basketball will ever see.


nutballgazette said...

Good list, Glad to see someone who knows that the NBA was not invented in 1980,

nutballgazette said...

Just another note, Your top 10 series you are running is terrific, It goes along with Series like (Sully's Baseball) All Homegrown vs Acquired Series

Logan Kulas said...

That was good I just don't think Dr J is in the top 10 but it's glad to see that George Mikan is in the top 10 I mean the NBA was around since 1946