Work in Sports
Death of a legend
NBA great Wilt Chamberlain found dead at his home
Posted: Thursday October 14, 1999 07:02 PM
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Wilt Chamberlain, a center so big, agile and dominant that he forced basketball to change its rules and the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game, died Tuesday at 63.
Chamberlain was found dead in his bed at his Bel-Air home at about 12:30 p.m., police said.
There were signs that he might have had a heart attack, authorities said. Chamberlain was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat in 1992, and his agent, Sy Goldberg, said the Hall of Famer was on medication.
Known as "Wilt the Stilt" and "The Big Dipper," the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain starred in the NBA from 1959 through 1973, when he played for the Philadelphia (later the San Francisco) Warriors, 76ers and Lakers. He later stirred controversy with boasts of his sexual exploits.
Chamberlain scored 31,419 points during his career, a record until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke it in 1984. Chamberlain, who never fouled out in 1,205 regular-season and playoff games, holds the record for career rebounding with 23,924.
"Wilt was one of the greatest ever, and we will never see another one like him," Abdul-Jabbar said.
Chamberlain, who began his professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1958, was one of only two men to win the MVP and rookie of the year awards in the same season (1959-60). He was also MVP in 1966 through 1968. He led the NBA in scoring seven straight seasons, 1960-66, and led the league in rebounding 11 of his 14 seasons.
"We truly lost one of the icons of professional basketball and, more importantly for myself, someone who I've known for almost 40 years," a teary-eyed Jerry West, a former teammate and now the Lakers vice president, said at the Forum.
Former Lakers star Magic Johnson called Chamberlain one of the greatest sports heroes ever.
"Wilt was my idol, and definitely changed the game of basketball," Johnson said. "As a kid, I loved watching him play for Philadelphia."
Chamberlain was such a force that the NBA changed some of its rules, including widening the lane to try to keep him farther from the basket.
One of his most famous records is the 100 points he scored in the Philadelphia Warriors' 169-147 defeat of the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pa.
"I spent 12 years in his armpits, and I always carried that 100-point game on my shoulders," Darrall Imhoff, the former Knicks center, said Tuesday.
"After I got my third foul, I said to one of the officials, Willy Smith, 'Why don't you just give him 100 points and we'll all go home?' Well, we did."
Chamberlain also holds the single-game record for rebounds, 55, against Boston in 1960.
He averaged 30.1 points a game in his career, including a record 50.4 in the 1961-62 season with Philadelphia. He also was one of the most versatile big men ever, leading the league in assists with 702 in 1967-68.
He led his team into the playoffs 13 times, winning two world championships. The first came in 1966-67 with the Philadelphia 76ers, the second in 1971-72 with the Lakers, which won a record 33 straight games.
His teams lost in the finals four other times and were beaten in the conference final six times.
Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics almost always seemed to be the nemesis of Chamberlain-led teams, beating them twice in the championship series and five times in the conference finals. Three times, a series was decided by a seventh game that Boston won by either one or two points.
"Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of the NBA," said Red Auerbach, coach of those great Celtics. "His dominance, power, demeanor and the rivalry with Bill Russell says it all."
Long after his career ended, Chamberlain made news by claiming in an autobiography that he had had sex with 20,000 women.
"The women who I have been the most attracted to, the most in love with, I've pushed away the strongest," the lifelong bachelor said in a 1991 interview with The Associated Press. "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."
Before his death from AIDS in 1993, Arthur Ashe was critical of sexually promiscuous athletes like Chamberlain, saying the behavior reinforced racist stereotypes.
Ashe added that he didn't believe Chamberlain's claim, concluding, "I felt more pity than sorrow for Wilt as his macho accounting backfired on him in the form of a wave of public criticism."
Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born on Aug. 21, 1936, in Philadelphia. He didn't begin playing basketball until he was in the seventh grade. He grew 4 inches in three months when he was 15, and was 6-11 when he entered Philadelphia's Overbrook High School.
After leading Overbrook to three public school championships and two all-city titles, Chamberlain became one of the most recruited players ever with over 200 colleges interested.
He chose the University of Kansas and Hall of Fame coach Phog Allen. In his first game against the Kansas varsity -- freshmen weren't allowed to compete against other teams then -- he scored 50 points before a packed Allen Fieldhouse crowd of more than 15,000.
The next year, Chamberlain scored 52 points against Northwestern in his first game, a total he never surpassed in college, partly because of zone defenses designed to keep him from getting the ball.
As a sophomore, he led the 1957 Jayhawks to the NCAA tournament finals, where Kansas lost to unbeaten North Carolina in triple overtime.
Disgusted by being smothered by the zone defenses, Chamberlain left Kansas after his junior year and joined the Globetrotters.
Chamberlain, extremely agile for his size, ran cross-country in high school and was an outstanding high jumper and shot-putter at Kansas.
He remained active after his NBA career and was considered an outstanding volleyball player. He also ran in the Honolulu marathon recently and competed in a 50-mile race in Canada.
"We've lost a giant of a man in every sense of the word," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "The shadow of accomplishment he cast over our game is unlikely ever to be matched."
In January 1998, Chamberlain made his first official visit to Kansas since his college career ended. His jersey was raised to the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse.
"I've learned in life that you have to take the bitter with the sweet, and how sweet this is," Chamberlain said at the ceremony.
He seemed genuinely surprised at how much he was loved by the rabid Kansas fans, especially after staying away for 40 years.
"Forty years ago I lost a heartbreaking battle, losing to North Carolina by one point in triple overtime," he told the crowd. "It was a devastating thing for me because I felt like I let the university down, I let KU down."
The crowd interrupted, yelling, "No, no," before resuming another standing ovation. His huge hand brushed his cheek as he paused again, drowned out by more applause.
Chamberlain is survived by sisters Barbara Lewis, Margaret Lane, Selina Gross and Yvonne Chamberlain, and brothers Wilbert and Oliver Chamberlain.
Chamberlain's family had not yet made funeral plans, according to Kim Hill of Angelus Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements.