Wilt Chamberlain is a skyscraping, 18-year-old schoolboy with a thin mustache and a swelling price tag on his head who just might be the best basketball player there is. “Just might be” is the cautious phrasing of a reporter seeking an editorial hedge. Others are less timid. One coach, of some repute and conservative mood, says Wilt is as good as George Mikan was last year or the year before that. Another coach, of equal repute but more courage, says he’s better.
In the recorded history of the game Dr. Naismith designed in a YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts, it is doubtful if there ever has been such praise for a young, untested basketball player as there is for the towering senior of Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. Nobody can watch Wilt play and come away without being astonished—or at least somewhat impressed.
But then you probably have never seen Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. He is something special in a game devoted to unusual athletes. He can run and shoot and pass and dribble and jump. He is strong and smart and tough and determined. His legs are thin and powerful, his hands are large and firm. He loves to play and he wants to win. He weighs about 230 pounds. He stands about seven-feet tall.
But don’t let the height fool you—don’t fall into the common trap of labeling him a mere basketball goon who parlayed proximity to the basket into success. Wilt is unusual—if a seven-footer can be unusual on other counts. He was good before he was tall.
The history of the big man in basketball has been one of height first, ability—or striving for it—second. The way it usually seems to work is a coach, in high school or college, spots a kid bending over to walk through a doorway and quickly hands him a basketball and sends him out on the court to learn the game. Wilt, however, was a good little man—before he became a good big man.
None of this should suggest that his height hasn’t helped him. It has. It has made him one of the most sought-after high school basketball players in the shadowy annals of sports recruitment. Only, and this is the point we want to make, Wilt does so many things well that he would have been a good ballplayer if he had been a mere six-footer. He runs like a little man (he had done 880 yards in under two minutes); he has basic court savvy; he can hit with a one-hander from the corner, thrown off the ear; or with a two-handed set from the outside. He passes well out of the pivot, learns and develops quickly, and thinks in sound basketball terms. It is when all of this is packed in a seven-foot frame of bone and muscle that the total talent becomes awesome—and most desirable.
Everybody is after Wilt. The pros want him to join them right after high school graduation without bothering about the four-year stopover at some college. “He can finish his schooling on the money he’ll make,” someone close to the National Basketball Association suggested. (At least one pro team would be willing to pay him $12,000 as a first-year man, its owner says.) Abe Saperstein wants him to go on the road with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Wilt, a bit of a ham on and off the court, has displayed some typical Trotter talents. He can spin and fake, look one way and pass another, thrust the ball with one hand in the face of an opponent and then take it back, shoot without looking, etc. Then, naturally, the colleges want him, too.
At the beginning of this season, Wilt admitted that he had over 100 college offers. Some of the people who have been close to him at Overbrook claimed that he had over 100 offers last year when he was only a junior. This year’s bids, they say, are mainly renewals, updated with more attractions. What is probably the most unprecedented aspect of the recruitment campaign is that it started two years ago, when Wilt was 16 and a sophomore. It has been building in momentum and attractiveness ever since.
The local Philadelphia colleges were probably the first to approach him. LaSalle, it is reported, has been interested in him since 1953. Basketball people in Philadelphia think that the Explorers stand a good chance of landing him. One point in their favor is that ex-LaSalle star Jackie Moore, who is Wilt’s local hero, also played at Overbrook. The argument LaSalle alumni have been giving Chamberlain is that he would be entering a ready-made national spotlight. He would be replacing the supposedly irreplaceable Tom Gola and would lead a standout team that has good prospects for the immediate future in an annual battle for national honors.
Several Midwest schools have been in on the Chamberlain race almost from the beginning. An Indiana University basketball enthusiast admits he offered Wilt $100 a week, plus the usual scholarship benefits, to join the Hoosiers. The $100 would be payment for an off-campus job, the toughest part of which would be picking up his weekly check. Since then, it was learned, matching offers have been submitted by other schools.
Alumni have been busy talking to Wilt on flying trips to the respective campuses. Almost every weekend since the end of last summer, Wilt has been picked up at home on Friday night, flown to the college campus, shown around, and deposited back in Philadelphia Sunday night. When we spoke to Wilt about these trips, he was reasonably close-mouthed, admitting only that he had been on the weekend jaunts and suggesting something of what went on. Briefly, it went like this: Some personable alumnus would guide him through the campus, saying something like “this will be your room, and this will be your field house, and this is your training table, and this is your coach.” The alumnus would chaperone him to fraternity houses and dances and parties over the weekend, giving him the best of good times and only casually reminding him of the economic benefits to be gained.
Wilt has already been to the campuses of Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State. In fact, he was there last year, too, and only brought back for a second look this season. As of last December, his friends said Wilt favored Indiana. For one thing, he wants to go out of town. For another, the Indiana alumni have been pointing out to him that Milton Campbell, the high school football-and-track wizard from New Jersey, picked the Hoosier school.
But Indiana’s edge can be quickly overcome when the full force of Philadelphia’s hometown pressure is applied. Wilt may well be prevailed upon to stay at home and play for one of the local schools. Eddie Gottlieb, owner-coach of the Philadelphia Warriors, wants him to, and, although he says he has not spoken to Chamberlain yet, there is evidence of his fine hand at work. Gottlieb, understand, doesn’t care which Philadelphia school Wilt chooses, just so long as he stays at home. That way, the Warriors get first crack at him in the pro draft four years from now [claiming territorial rights].
A similar high-pressure campaign was used to keep Tom Gola in Philadelphia. Tom, too, had decided to go out of town to school, and he, too, was talked into the benefits of staying at home.
Meanwhile, the offers continue and Wilt keeps his mouth shut. He could, some people think, even end up at Harvard, which as yet has shown no unusual interest in him. Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics, who coached Wilt at Kutsher’s Country Club, a Catskill Mountain resort, last summer, suggests that he apply for admission at Harvard. “Wilt is an intelligent boy and he should definitely go to school,” Red said. “If he went straight into the pros, he’d never get to finish school. He should go to a good school like Harvard for the education as well as the basketball. I’m not suggesting Harvard because it is in the Celtics’ draft area. The kid has to think of the future, when his basketball is over.”
Meanwhile, Wilt has remained uncommitted. “I don’t intend to decide until after the basketball season,” he told us. One thing seems certain. Wilt wants to go to college. He has turned the Globetrotters down cold. He doesn’t want the year ‘round playing, the constant traveling, or the bizarre approach to the game. When you talk to him, you get the feeling that the kid senses a need to continue his education.
What is it that so many schools see in Chamberlain? His basketball assets are there for all to see. On defense, he stops the other team from scoring. He is more than a goaltender, though. Overbrook uses a zone defense and Wilt “plays” the basket. He can come out to block a shot before it gets off or he can stay back and slap it away from the rim. He rarely gets charged for goaltending (touching the rim on the defensive basket), and he fouls infrequently. He plays the backboard like few big men we’ve ever seen. When a shot is up, he faces the basket—if he can’t block the ball—with one hand hovering on either side of it, and jumps. If the ball rebounds left, he grabs it with his left hand. If it bounces to the right, out goes his massive right hand to catch and hold it. Whenever he can use both hands on a rebound, he takes a firm and loud-sounding smack at the ball and comes down hard. It is questionable how college players will react to this, but in high school ball, it is absolutely fearsome.
Once down with the rebound, he knows what to do with the ball. One of the most-exciting sights we’ve seen on a basketball floor is Chamberlain jamming down off the backboard with a ball (when he goes up, his elbow is invariably higher than the rim), raring back like a football quarterback and passing the ball one-handed off his ear and across the court to one of his little teammates—usually Marty Hughes, 5-feet-8 inches tall and Wilt’s best friend—for a simple layup.
One coach who has been scouting Chamberlain for almost two years said recently that he could find only one flaw in his play, and that not a serious one. “He needs brushing up on defense if he is going to play pro ball someday. We don’t allow the zone, and he is going to have to come out and take a man. But that is no big problem. Up to now he hasn’t had to play defense. Once he moves up to college, he’ll learn. “
On offense, Wilt carries a heavy arsenal. His best shot is a jump [shot], but because of his height, there is no arc to it. Instead, it is a straight, hard toss that banks in sharply off the backboard. Cecil Mosenson, his coach at Overbrook, explains: “Wilt doesn’t take a soft shot. Everything is a line drive. But he has a good eye, a touch and absolute mastery of the backboard. He knows his spots, the angles, and just how the ball is going to bounce. Almost every close shot he tries is banked in.”
In place of the conventional layup shot, Wilt has a “dunk” shot. Standing flatfooted, he can almost touch the rim with the ball (he misses it by a quarter of an inch). Once he leaves his feet, he jams the ball down the throat of the basket. It touches nothing, not backboard or rim, until it swishes into the nets. Wilt, in fact, leaps so high on most of his layups that (1) he can throw the ball through with one hand and catch it with the other on the way down; (2) he can go up with a ball in each hand and knock both through while in mid-air; and (3) he frequently hurts his forearm against the rim of the basket. He moves and jumps so quickly and slams the ball through the basket so forcefully that, in his follow-through, his arm often smacks into the basket.
Again because of his reach and spring, many of his shots carry only a few inches. This contributes to his amazing shooting average, almost 65 percent. But it isn’t the whole story. Wilt refuses to rely on his close-up shots alone. After his junior year, he felt he needed a left-handed hook shot to help him move more freely around the bucket. So he began to work on it and developed a good one.
Wilt’s hook shots, incidentally, look like layups. He has a gigantic—that’s the only word for it—initial stride and can come around the defense in one step. Often, when he gets a pass in the pivot, he holds the ball in one hand as if it were a softball, and, without a dribble, spins around and up in classic hook-shot style. Only, by the time he finishes his arching motion, he is up at the basket and lays it in from only a few inches out. Or, when he wants to fool the defense (Overbrook opponents either triple- or quadruple-team him), he’ll fake a spin, stick the hand with the ball behind the defenders, while the rest of his body is in front, and toss the ball up underhanded.
Probably as amazing as anything else about this amazing athlete is his stamina. He can run all day. While other big men are usually the first to sit down for a rest, he would be the last, if his coach would let him. But in runaway games, and there have been many, Wilt often plays only one half. In scrimmage, however, he goes all the time. We watched him in a recent two-hour practice against a small-college team. All the other members of the Overbrook squad got to play about equal time. Wilt played straight through, without a break. His stamina, he says, was acquired in the playgrounds when he was a little fellow.
The little fellow was born on Aug 21, 1936, in Philadelphia of normal size and weight. His parents are slightly more than average height, his father is 5-feet-8, his mother 5-feet-9. “But I had a grandfather, my mother’s daddy, who was about 7-feet-2,” Wilt says.
The other eight children in the family are good-sized. His six sisters are all around 5-feet-8. His older brother, Wilbur, who is 21, is 6-feet-4. When Wilt was a youngster, it appeared that he would run about the same, a good-sized fellow, but nothing more. Then, when he was 15, he began to shoot up. He grew four inches in three months that summer. By the time he entered Overbrook, he was 6-feet-11, and apparently stopped growing when he was 17. Although not as much as he likes to suggest. If you ask him, Wilt says he is 6-feet-11 ½. He’ll tell you that he has a size 13 foot, a wingspan of 7-feet-2 inches, and a finger span of 15 inches, but he refuses to be measured. One day at Kutsher’s, however, he was taunted by some girls into standing still for the tape. The girls swear he measured 7-feet and ½ inch.
His sudden growth caused some disturbance at home. His father had to raise all the chandeliers and light fixtures. But nothing could be done about doorways and ceilings, so Wilt still walks around the house in a slight crouch. He sleeps in a regular-sized bed, rolling up into a figure “S” to do it.
Wilt started playing basketball when he was in the seventh grade and made both his school and club teams. He played with boys his own age and size, and he did well. Most of his playing was in the Haddington public recreation center, where he would go almost every day to practice. Reports first began to circulate about him when he was 15 and still a little awkward from his sudden growth. People would say, “Did you see that big boy with the long legs walking down Haverford Avenue bouncing a basketball?” Wilt, invariably, was on his way to the recreation center for his daily scrimmage.
He was an immediate sensation when he entered Overbrook in the tenth grade. He led his team to the public-school championship, although they lost to West Catholic in the all-city game when four men were put on Wilt. To prepare a defense for Chamberlain, who had been unstoppable all season, the West Catholic coach had a youngster stand on a table placed at the foul line, to simulate Wilt’s size, and he had the four players selected to guard Wilt trying to block passes by jumping around the table, waving their hands in his face and generally harassing him. When, in the game, Wilt’s unguarded teammates were unable to hit from the outside, West Catholic took a convincing victory.
Last season, Overbrook took the championship, the first time in 10 seasons that a public school beat a Catholic school for the city title in Philadelphia. Wilt was high scorer in the city in 1953-54, with a 37.8 average for 12 league games. In a non-league contest, he scored 71 points against Roxborough. He broke all local existing game and season scoring records.
In the city championship game, against South Catholic, Overbrook was prepared for heavy guarding. It had become standard operating procedure by then to drop three men on Wilt. South Catholic did the usual harassing, jumping up and down with their hands constantly in front of his face—but it didn’t work. Wilt had learned something about moving around in the bucket and drew 26 fouls. Also, his teammates were hitting from the outside. When their shots were short, he would grab them and drop them in, or carry them along into the basket in one motion. Overbrook won the game, 74-50, with Wilt scoring 32 points.
A change in Wilt’s temperament deserves partial credit for his current success. When the publicity first started, he was 15 years old and understandably, he developed a big head. He showboated, didn’t try enough, refused to listen and was developing into something of a pest. But when he came back for the 1953-54 season, he was a changed young athlete. He was able to take the publicity in stride. He began helping his teammates, offering them confidence, something he has always had in himself. This season he was made captain and he has taken the assignment seriously. In practice, he doesn’t shoot much. Instead, he feeds the ball to the new kids, encouraging them to shoot. He always was good-natured and friendly, but now he has become a leader.
His fellow students are very happy to have him around. He has brought recognition and ballyhoo to the school. When he drives up in his 1947 Oldsmobile (“I bought it with the money I made bussing tables at Kutsher’s”), there is always a gang waiting to greet him. Youngsters on the basketball squad are thrilled to be listed as teammates of his. They sit on the bench during the game, cheering for Wilt, happy when he makes a particularly outstanding basket, proud when he wins a ball game for them. Some of this is even seen in his young coach, who graduated from Overbrook in 1947 and is now only 25 years old.
Despite his height—or maybe because of it—Wilt is an all-around athlete. Although he did not compete in track for Overbrook last spring, Wilt holds several AAU junior records, set when he was 16. Running for the local PAL, he once did 48.8 in the 440. This would be a high school mark except that only championship meets can be counted as records. His best time in the 880 is 1.58.6, run two summers ago. He has a 15-foot stride and could be one of the best runners ever, says Overbrook track coach Ben Ogden. Although he never competed in the event in high school, he has tossed the 12-pound shot 54 feet, 8 inches. The high school record is 51 feet. When he was 15 years old, Wilt says, he once high-jumped 6-feet-5 inches. This coming Spring he intends to run for Overbrook. If he does, and he can do as well as he did at 16, he might be the next John Woodruff as well as the next George Mikan.
[This article appeared in Sport Magazine in March 1955. Irv Goodman is the writer.]