FEW YOUNG basketball fans know it, but there was a time when the rules of the game allowed an in-bounds pass to be thrown over the top of the backboard. That ended in the late 1950s, when a player named Wilt Chamberlain came to the University of Kansas. His teammates soon found that they could score almost at will by tossing the ball over the board to the graceful giant (7 feet-plus), who seemed able to snag anything thrown at him from whatever height or angle.
The ensuing alteration of the rules was only the first of many ways in which Wilt Chamberlain, who died this week at the age of 63, changed basketball -- and American sports -- in the years to come. With his prodigious scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and passing, he created a statistical record that still astounds followers of the game and helped turn the National Basketball Association into the international phenomenon it is today.
Mr. Chamberlain was the first -- and almost certainly will be the last -- player to score 100 points in an NBA game. He seemed able to set whatever record was called for at the moment -- points, assists, deflections (anything but free throws, at which he was pretty terrible). His command of the area around the basket was, against most teams, formidable. With legs and arms spread, he was not so much a tower as a spreading tree, an overwhelming presence that seemed not merely to dominate the front court but to fill it up.
Mr. Chamberlain could be brash, cocky and indiscreet, but he was no jerk. He practiced his trade with a professional's seriousness and consistency, scoring more than 35,000 points in his professional career. More important, as one of the first wave of African American athletes who were to transform the NBA, he insisted on doing things on his own terms, on and off the court. Mr. Chamberlain and his longtime nemesis, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics (also very much his own man, but in a different way), in their epic battles under the boards, set a standard for the league of which they could be proud and for which the young men who have come after them should be grateful.