Even 20 years after his death and a half-century past his prime, Wilt Chamberlain is still regarded as the NBA’s most dominant player. The only player who could stop Chamberlain was Chamberlain. One night, he did exactly that.
It was 52 years ago to the day, in maybe Wilt’s most mercurial season, that he played almost a full game and didn’t attempt a shot. The Sixers beat the San Francisco Warriors by seven, and even elite defender Nate Thurmond was mystified.
“He wasn’t going toward the bucket. … It beats me,” Thurmond told The Inquirer. “It wasn’t a test of defense at all because he can get a shot off when he wants to. Nobody can hold him without a shot. It’s impossible.”
That was the season Wilt pledged he could lead the league in assists and went out and did so by playing all 82 games and notching a career high 702. That Oscar Robertson (633) missed 17 games helped, but there’s no denying Wilt could distribute. Later that season, he put up 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists on the helpless Pistons.
“That was the season he was on a mission to disprove the notion that he was just a scoring machine,” childhood friend and Philadelphia basketball legend Sonny Hill said. “He was determined not to be pigeon-holed into any one category. He could dominate the game any way he wanted.”
Chamberlain hit one of two free throws that night, grabbed 18 rebounds and posted 13 assists in 44 minutes. The Sixers jumped out to huge lead in the first half. Even though San Francisco cut it to one, he still ignored the basket.
“In the third quarter when [the Warriors got close], I mentioned to him about shooting,” Sixers coach Alex Hannum said. “I can’t argue with the thought that he didn’t shoot with a 20-point lead. But I thought the game situation had changed. When in trouble, I look to the guy who has proven to be the best scorer in the history of the game.”
Wilt commuted to his home in New York around this time and in the prior spring tried unsuccessfully to line up a fight with heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali that would have broken the box office. It was the only full game during his prime that he had zero field-goal attempts.
Maybe he was bored or defiant or simply proving that point that he could do whatever he wanted. Life was on his terms. The Sixers traded him after the season, so tensions were frayed.
But after the game, it was Chamberlain who rhetorically asked the most profound question:
“We won, didn’t we?”