NBA officials, former opponents and longtime admirers mourned the passing and praised the achievements of legendary center Wilt Chamberlain, who was found dead of an apparent heart attack yesterday in his Los Angeles area home. He was 63.
Chamberlain had been ill for some time, according to his sister Barbara, who said during a news conference that he had lost 50 pounds in the last month.
A four-time league most valuable player who won two NBA championships and played for three teams, Chamberlain was remembered as a giant of a man who elevated the NBA during his 14 seasons from 1959 to '73 with an array of skills previously unimagined for a 7-foot-1, 275-pound player.
"He showed he could do it all," said Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach. "He was such a great scorer, he could get you 50, 60 points like it was nothing. There were very few players you feared more."
"He was really one of those guys that brought the NBA to its great glory," said Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, the league's most senior owner.
As news of Chamberlain's death circulated, the attitude turned somber in Little Rock, the site of the Washington Wizards' canceled opening preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom Chamberlain won his second NBA title in 1972.
"Even though our team is a very young team, we represent the Los Angeles Lakers," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said. "We grew up on Wilt and his highlights and the things he did on the floor. It's a sad day for the league."
Those who watched Chamberlain play, or played against him, marveled at his ability to take over a game by scoring, rebounding, blocking shots or even dishing off for assists. "Wilt the Stilt" averaged 30.1 points and 22 rebounds over 1,045 career games with the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Lakers.
Chamberlain's 100-point game against the New York Knicks in 1962, his fourth season with the Philadelphia Warriors, still ranks as the league's best scoring effort. He averaged 50.4 points per game during that season. Chamberlain's one-on-one battles with former Celtic Bill Russell fueled interest in the league and have been matched only, perhaps, by the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird duels in the '80s.
Chamberlain, however, wasn't considered a mean or even intimidating player. Associates said he could charm you or dunk on you, depending on his mood. Unseld recalled having the skin on his index finger sliced off when it got caught between the rim and a Chamberlain dunk--a "dipper," as it was called when Chamberlain jumped straight over a player and slammed on him.
"I realized then how strong he was," Unseld said. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous.' "
But Unseld, drafted in 1968, also remembered an encounter with Chamberlain at an all-star banquet in Baltimore. Unseld's parents had traveled to Baltimore for the game--Unseld's first appearance in the all-star classic. His mother adored Chamberlain and wanted to meet him.
"He was 'Mr. Chamberlain' to me then," Unseld said. "I asked him if he would say hello to my mother. He went over there and just charmed her to death. She was on Cloud Nine after that. After that, I always had a fondness for him as a person."
Auerbach said he met Chamberlain after his senior year at Overbrook High in Philadelphia. Chamberlain had gotten a summer job at a hotel in the Catskills in Monticello, N.Y., where he was playing in a summer league. Then about 6-11, "he was the biggest bellhop in the country," Auerbach said.
Even then, Chamberlain--who went on to play at the University of Kansas--knew his size and skills would take him places.
"He was never humble," Auerbach said. "He was confident. He was a giant among men, and he knew he would get bigger and stronger."
As a 6-8 center for the St. Louis Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Baltimore Bullets, Bob Ferry played against Chamberlain for 10 years.
"There is nobody who dunked like Wilt, so hard that lots of times the ball bounced off the floor and went back up and hit the rim," he said. "Not taking anything away from Bill Russell, but I wonder just how Wilt would be remembered if he had played with the genius of Red Auerbach early in his career."
Chamberlain led the league in scoring seven straight seasons, from 1960 to '66. He led the league in rebounding in 11 of his 14 seasons and in 1978 he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Chamberlain had remained active in athletics and involved in the NBA since his career ended in 1973. He recently competed in the Honolulu Marathon and ran a 50-mile race in California.
Former Georgetown coach John Thompson said he was "starry-eyed" when he first met Chamberlain. The meeting came during a pick-up basketball game at a Washington playground. Chamberlain was in town for NBA teammate Elgin Baylor's wedding. Thompson had not yet graduated from high school and was growing into his eventual 6-10 frame.
"I was out there standing around and Wilt's team picked me to be the fifth man," Thompson said. "I don't think I've ever been more in awe. I was tall all my life. But I never felt so dwarfed in all my life as that day. He was just so physically imposing. I was scared to death. Those were my heroes."
Staff Writers Ken Denlinger, Steve Wyche and Michael Wilbon contributed to this report.
CHAMBERLAIN'S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
NBA titles (2): With Philadelphia 76ers in 1967, Los Angeles Lakers in 1972
NBA All-Star Games (13): 1960-69, 1971-73
NBA Most Valuable Player (4): 1960, 1966, 1967, 1968
NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (1): 1972
NBA Rookie of the Year: 1960
All-NBA First Team (7): 1960-62, 1964, 1966-68
Second-leading Scorer in NBA History: 31,419 points
NBA Single Game Scoring Record: 100 points vs New York Knicks at Hershey, Pa., March 2, 1962
Record for Most Games with 50 or More Points: 118
A Hall of Fame Career
Wilt Chamberlain began his pro career with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1958. In 1959 he moved to the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors and was both most valuable player and rookie of the year in 1960. He played 14 years with the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. His athletic interests included track and field: He high-jumped at Kansas and recently ran the Honolulu Marathon. He entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979.
A few NBA records
Points in a game (100, on March 2, 1962)
Points in a season (4,029 in 1962)
Career rebounds (23,924) and rpg (22.9)
All-Star Game rebounds (197 in 13 games)
Rebounds in a Finals game (41)
Free throw attempts (11,862)
Points by a rookie (2,707)
Points per game average for a season (50.4 in 1962)
One of two players (with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to score more than 30,000 points
Won championships with Philadelphia in 1967 and the L.A. Lakers in 1972.
One of two (with Michael Jordan) to win seven straight scoring titles (1960-66)
Never fouled out of a game
13-time all-star, 4-time MVP
Scored 50 or more points 118 times, including seven straight games in 1961
Led league in rebounds 11 times
Led in field-goal percentage nine times
Went 18 for 18 vs. Baltimore Bullets, Feb. 24, 1967
Regular season statistics
Sources: University of Kansas, Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, Associated Press
Chamberlain was first team all-American in his two seasons at Kansas and led the Jayhawks to two Big Seven titles. The team lost the 1957 NCAA title game by one point to North Carolina in triple overtime. Two of his Kansas records still stand: points in a game (52) and season scoring average (30.1 in '57-58).
1,433 pts. (29.9 ppg)
877 reb. (18.3 rpg)