Wilt Chamberlain, whose size, strength and intimidation made him probably the most dominant player in basketball history, and whose 100-point game stands as one of the towering records in sport, was found dead yesterday in his home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles. He was 63.
John Black, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chamberlain’s last team, said that the authorities were called to the home shortly after noon Pacific time and found the body. Jim Wells, a Fire Department spokesman, said there were indications that Chamberlain had suffered a heart attack.
At 7 feet 1 inch and 275 pounds, Chamberlain was an awesome offensive force, and while he scored many points with gentle finger-roll shots he also became the game’s first monster dunker.
Before he came along, basketball had such big centers as 6-10 George Mikan and 7-foot Bob Kurland. But Chamberlain was bigger and stronger, with a more potent inside game, so overpowering that the National Basketball Association widened the free-throw lane to force him farther from the basket.
He helped usher in an era of dominant centers that included Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, his antagonist in so many playoff and championship series, and continued with the 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and today with the 7-1, 315-pound Shaquille O’Neal of the Lakers. They, like Chamberlain, were effective not just because of their height, but because they combined strength with agility and the ability to play above the rim. Indeed, the title of Chamberlain’s 1991 autobiography reflected his legacy — ”A View From Above.”
His name overwhelms the pro basketball record book the way his presence on the court overwhelmed everyone else on it. He not only holds the record for most points in a game — the 100 he scored against the Knicks on March 2, 1962 — but for the highest scoring average in a season (50.4) and the most rebounds for a career, 23,924. In some categories in the record book, the list of top performances has only his name.
His physique and skills earned him not just one nickname but two — Wilt the Stilt, which he disliked, and the Big Dipper.
Chamberlain had recently suffered a large weight loss following dental surgery, his sister, Barbara Lewis, said at a news conference yesterday. He had dropped at least 50 pounds and perhaps as much as 60.
His sister and her husband were with Chamberlain on Saturday night at his Bel-Air home along with Linda Huey, a longtime friend. The group watched the film ”Shakespeare in Love” on pay-per-view, but about an hour into the movie, Chamberlain grew uncomfortable and left the room.
”He was moving and fidgety,” said Huey, who has known Chamberlain for 30 years. ”I knew something was wrong.”
His sister said he looked worse than she had ever seen him. ”He said he felt worse than he ever did Saturday,” she said.
In the N.B.A., Chamberlain played five and a fraction seasons with the Warriors, first in Philadelphia and then in San Francisco. The Warriors traded him to the new Philadelphia team, the 76ers, and he played for them for three and a fraction seasons. His last five seasons were with the Lakers.
Over all, he played 1,045 regular-season and 160 playoff games. He scored 31,419 points, the N.B.A. career record until Abdul-Jabbar broke it, and averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds a game over his career. He never fouled out of a game.
His teams reached the playoffs 13 times, but only two won championships — the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and the Lakers in 1972. Four of his teams lost in playoff finals and six others in conference finals. In three of those championship finals, Russell and the Celtics won the seventh and final game by 1 or 2 points.
His 100-point night against the Knicks has become one of the most famous performances ever and gave rise to a legion of false boasts by fans who swear they were there at Madison Square Garden when Wilt scored 100. The game, however, was played in Hershey, Pa. What made it more stunning was that Chamberlain, one of the poorest free-throw shooters the sport had known, sank 28 of 32 that night.
He led the league in scoring seven consecutive seasons (1960-61 through 1966-67) and in rebounding 11 times in 14 seasons. He was the league’s most valuable player as a rookie in 1960 and again in 1966, 1967 and 1968.
”We’ve lost a giant of a man in every sense of the word,” the National Basketball Association commissioner, David Stern, said in a statement yesterday. ”The shadow of accomplishment he cast over our game is unlikely ever to be matched.”
Chamberlain seemed almost irritated over the fuss made over his 100-point game at the expense of other accomplishments.
”I was hot that night,” he said. ”They were feeding me and it was just one game.”
The N.B.A. records he liked best were his season records of 50.4 points a game in the 1961-62 season, 48.5 minutes a game the same season (including overtimes) and 27.2 rebounds a game in 1960-61. He also holds the single-game record for rebounds, 55, set against Boston in 1960.
”I give Kareem full credit for breaking my all-time scoring record,” Chamberlain said in an interview in 1994. ”It’s a record of longevity, not a flash in the pan. The important records are the ones that take an athlete many games or years to amass. Anyone can have a great game, but having 1,000 good games has more significance.
”There are more records to shoot at now, and records become a bigger deal. Some records are manufactured out of thin air. When I was playing, who knew of double doubles and triple doubles? They had no significance, no meaning. I had triple doubles every night, and they didn’t even keep track of blocked shots then.”
Records aside, Chamberlain is forever linked with Russell. It was Chamberlain, the extrovert, against Russell, the introvert; Chamberlain, the bull, against Russell, the smoothie.
Their rivalry through the 1960’s and 70’s captivated fans and helped build the N.B.A. into the attraction it is today.
Leonard Koppett, the basketball historian, called Chamberlain ”clearly the most dominating player who ever played basketball, maybe not the best, but the most dominant.”
”Bill Russell was probably the most influential player,” Koppett said, ”but one on one, Wilt overwhelmed him like anybody else. There has been nothing like Wilt since.”
When he started playing pro basketball, the 24-second clock (under the rule that requires a team to shoot within 24 seconds of gaining possession) had been introduced only five years earlier. The public was fascinated by scorers. So when Chamberlain entered the N.B.A., Eddie Gottlieb, who owned the Philadelphia Warriors, wanted to maximize that appeal. If others could score 30 points a game, Gottlieb wanted Chamberlain to score 40 or 50 or more.
Chamberlain obliged, but once he had averaged 50 points a game for an entire season, the thrill was gone. The team wanted him to pass more, and he soon became the league leader in assists. The team wanted him to play defense more, and he became even more of a terror. Whatever the team needed, he did it, and better than almost anyone else.
Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born Aug. 21, 1936, in Philadelphia. At Overbrook High School, where he also ran cross-country, he was such an outstanding basketball player that most of the major basketball-playing colleges strained to convince him to accept an athletic scholarship. The University of Kansas won him, but so did the Philadelphia Warriors.
In those days, high school players could not play in the N.B.A. and college players were barred until their college classes had graduated. There was also a territorial-rights rule by which N.B.A. teams could get the first chance for players from a regional college.
Gottlieb knew how good Chamberlain would be. He steered through an amendment that would allow N.B.A. teams to exercise territorial rights over a local player while he was still in high school. The team would have to wait until he finished college and would have to take him even if he did not turn out to be a good college player.
That was how the Warriors got Chamberlain. His future success was never in doubt. Soon after he arrived at Kansas, his freshman team beat the varsity behind his 42 points and 24 rebounds. Forrest C. (Phog) Allen, the celebrated Kansas coach, said that performance came from ”the greatest player in the world.” Chamberlain said he had an off night.
Chamberlain’s college career, as expected, was outstanding, with one major disappointment. In his junior year, he led Kansas to the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, only to lose to North Carolina in triple overtime.
That turned out to be his last college game. He was tired of the triple-team defenses and zones designed to foil him, and he gave up his last year of eligibility. He still had to wait a year to play in the N.B.A., so he signed a one-year contract with the touring Harlem Globetrotters for $65,000, the richest basketball contract to that time. Years later, Michael Jordan would earn $35 million in one season.
After a full season with the Globetrotters, Chamberlain went to the N.B.A., but during a few summers he toured with the Globetrotters. In 1967, he went to Italy with them because he was having a Maserati sports car adjusted for his height and wanted to test it there. He sat so close to the floor that he almost had to crawl out of the car.
While basketball was his business, he loved many sports. For many years after retirement, he was an elite-level volleyball player. He ran the quarter-mile and high-jumped in college, and later he sponsored a women’s track team, Wilt’s Wonder Women. At championship track meets, he would be in his seat two hours before competition began, his long legs covering two rows of seats, talking to anyone about track and never stirring until long after the final event.
When Muhammad Ali was in his prime, Chamberlain talked of challenging him to a fight. Chamberlain even carried boxing gloves with him, but when an airline ticket clerk asked him if he was serious about fighting, he replied, ”No. It’s just good publicity.”
He received publicity of another sort when he wrote in his autobiography that he had had sexual relations with 20,000 women. Many people criticized him as promiscuous.
He never married, and in 1991 he told The Associated Press:
”The women who I have been the most attracted to, the most in love with, I’ve pushed away the strongest. There are about five women I can think of I could have married. I cared for them a lot, but not enough to make a commitment.”
In addition to his sister, Barbara, Chamberlain is survived by three other sisters — Margaret Lane, Selina Gross and Yvonne Chamberlain — and two brothers, Wilbert and Oliver Chamberlain.
Huey, his friend, said that Chamberlain’s private demeanor differed considerably from the public perception of him.
”The hardest thing for him was to be the normal guy,” she said in a telephone interview last night. ”To be the person thrown into something else always with people surrounding him, calling him, demanding him. He had to become this hard guy who would brush people off just to get from point A to point B.”
In 1978, Chamberlain was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. His role in history was secure, but he knew he would never be judged without blemish.
”Nobody,” he said, ”roots for Goliath.”