Wilt Chamberlain: The Babe Ruth of Pro Basketball

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He electrified the sport at a time when few people were paying attention.

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The celebration of Wilt Chamberlain's career that accompanied the 50th anniversary of his 100-point game last weekend was too short and passed too quickly.

Wilt Chamberlain was the Babe Ruth of pro basketball. Like Ruth, he was by far the most dominant force in his time, and quite possibly of all time. Like the Babe, Wilt was the lightning rod for interest in the sport in a time when it was badly needed. In Chamberlain's case, he was more important to basketball than Ruth was to baseball.

Contrary to popular opinion, baseball was doing quite well at the turnstiles when Ruth came along and would have survived the stink of the Black Sox gambling scandal with or without him (though the recovery certainly would have taken longer). But without Wilt, who knows if the NBA would have made it from the 1960s—when it was scarcely one of the big three pro sports behind baseball and football—to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird boom of the late 1970s and the Michael Jordan tidal wave a few years later?

If you doubt this, consider one extraordinary fact: Wilt played his 100-point game not in New York or even in the Warriors' home city of Philadelphia but in an odd-looking, plain concrete barn-like structure with an arched roof in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Warriors played several games a year in order to increase a fan base that wasn't showing them overwhelming support in Philly.

Try and imagine the equivalent in baseball: Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run in, say, Newark, New Jersey, at a Yankees "secondary" park in front of a handful of fans. If not for an unknown student listening to a late night rebroadcast of the game who thought to tape the fourth quarter on a reel-to-reel, we'd have no live coverage of the game at all.

Chamberlain's triumph came at the Hershey Sports Arena. Today the HersheyPark Arena looks virtually the same, a practice facility for the AHL's Hershey Bears and home ice for a local college that is also open for public skating. It's easy to miss the notices that here Chamberlain played his landmark game: a small sign on a pole outside the main gates and a copy of the photo of Wilt holding up the handmade "100" in the back side of the lobby.

There is one primary difference between the careers of Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain: Ruth was—and is—regarded by most baseball analysts as the greatest player in his game. But basketball people have never quite been able to make up their minds about Wilt.

Back in the '60s, it was common to hear sports fans say things like "Well, yeah, he scores a lot of points, but it's just because he's so big." Yes, at 7'-1", he was big all right. The reply to everyone who said that should have been, "Yes, and how many clumsy, slow, seven-foot guys are superstars in pro basketball?"

The truly amazing thing about Chamberlain was not his size, but the agility and savvy that propelled him. There are great scorers in the game, and there are great rebounders. Seven times Wilt Chamberlain led his league in scoring and 11 times he led it in rebounding. LeBron James is having the greatest season of any player in basketball s history. And, indeed, LBJ has been dazzling, averaging, after 38 games, 27.7points. 8.4 rebounds, and 0.8 blocked shots per game.

Over 16 seasons, Wilt Chamberlain's averaged 31.1 point s and 22.9 rebounds per game. Blocked shots? We don't know—they didn't keep that stat for most of Chamberlain's career. The reason they started counting block shots was because Chamberlain blocked so many.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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