The Master Plan to Change Wilt Chamberlain, 1962

[Much has been written about Wilt Chamberlain over the last 65 years. This article, which appeared in March 1962 issue of SPORT MAGAZINE, ranks high on the list of must-reads to try and understand the young, enigmatic Chamberlain. Sandy Grady, a fantastic columnist with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, wrote this thoughtful piece that has stood the test of time as great sports journalism.]

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Though professional basketball is staged under the bright lights of big arenas, with the action almost always in full view, the game’s most-interesting battle this season is invisible to the grandstand. It is the conflict of egos belonging to a two-fisted Irish charmer, Frank McGuire, and a moody, gifted giant, Wilt Chamberlain. 

McGuire deserted the rich basketball duchy of University of North Carolina to become coach of the Philadelphia Warriors this season. His move, however, did not automatically make him coach of Wilton Norman Chamberlain, who is not only the tallest and wealthiest of pros, but the most unshakably resolute in going his own way. Said Clair Bee to his old friend McGuire when Frank took the job: “You’ll either find Wilt an uncoachable player or a coach’s dream.” The result would not only shape the futures of McGuire and Chamberlain, but of the Warriors and their struggle to overtake the Boston Celtics. 

“Wilt,” said McGuire, when the pair first met at the Hershey, Pennsylvania, training camp, “I have two goals. I hope we win the championship. And I hope you break every record in the books.”

McGuire seemed doomed to be 50 percent happy. The Warriors were sputtering in their early games, but Chamberlain was ripping up the record book like a barracuda with a can of tuna. Something had to be done, McGuire said, to transform Wilt’s skills into victories—even if it meant changing Chamberlain’s game.

Watching Wilt score at a 47-point average (78 at one gulp), a layman had to be puzzled that Frank McGuire would tamper with such a destructive paragon. Wouldn’t most of the eight other NBA coaches have traded a year’s salary to possess a bomber such as Wilt? True, but all eight coaches would have agreed with McGuire’s nagging, privately-held theory—that Chamberlain’s potential as a pro was still untapped, like the hidden lode of a gold mine. 

“Wilt paces himself,” said Jim Pollard, coach of the Chicago Packers. “Lord knows what he could do if he got mad—he’d hit 100 points some night.”

“All Wilt has going for him is his height,” said Paul Seymour, then coach of the St. Louis Hawks. “That’s why I always hated to lose to him.”

“Wilt has everything but a championship,” said Neil Johnston, ex-coach of the Philadelphia Warriors. “There will have to be changes in him and the team before it happens.”

“Wilt is the most perfect instrument ever made by God to play basketball,” said his loudest critic, Dolph Schayes of Syracuse. “But Wilt is the king, and the other Warriors are serfs and pawns. If the material were used right, the Warriors should beat Boston.”

Since Chamberlain had averaged 37.6 and 38.3 points his first two years, with 26.9 and then 27.2 rebounds, criticism of Wilt often seemed fatuous, like rapping Roger Maris because he couldn’t bunt, or the Venus de Milo because she had one arm, or the book Moby Dick because it had no love angle. Yet Frank McGuire knew what he wanted at Philadelphia: a more complete Chamberlain—a more energetic defender, a Wilt who gave nearer to 100 percent each game, a team leader who would blend his enormous strength and talent with the other Warrior personnel. 

Like other experts on Chamberlain—and who in the NBA wasn’t one?—McGuire felt that his prize stallion could better employ his power by “going for the basket.” But Wilt had fierce pride in his repertoire of scoring arts—his jumper, his fall-away shot, his hook, even a set shot he rarely used. 

“I can hit that jump shot from 15 feet about 50 percent of the time. It’s my best shot,” said Chamberlain, and he was right. But McGuire knew these fancier weapons moved Wilt away from the basket after a shot, out of rebound range. He knew Chamberlain had to get the ball off the boards or the Warriors would never reap full team benefits from the 7-foot and 1/16th of an inch star. 

In the Warrior dressing room one night, McGuire took off his coat and grabbed a basketball. “Wilt,” he said, “George Mikan scored over 11,000 points in the pros, most of them like this. He liked to play where you like it, Wilt, to the right of the bucket. He’d make one feint left, wheel to the right—and if anybody got in the way, Mikan’s elbow would decapitate them. I’d like you to go more directly for the basket too, Wilt.”

Chamberlain nodded. “You’re right, Coach,” he said. 

But Wilt had heard this before, and he had his reservations. “Coach has something. Maybe I could go a little more for the basket,” Wilt said later. “But Mikan played in a different era. He didn’t have the same rules. Look, if I wheel around like this, I’m charging. Also, I’ve got two or three men playing me—damn-good professionals. They’re not going to let me make the simple move. I have to keep varying my shots so I can sneak in for the close one. They defense me tough inside, so where can I go best? Up and out, that’s where.”

The episode pointed up two important things. One: McGuire intends to teach and coach basketball in the pros, a novelty among a harried fraternity that has time to do little but scream at the officials, arrange airplane flights, and hail taxi cabs. (“Frank will find the travel gets you,” St. Louis owner Ben Kerner had said before the season. “He’ll have 80 games, not the two-dozen he had in college. Who has time to teach basketball?”) The second insight of the Mikan episode is Wilt’s attitude: He liked McGuire, and he’d listen to him, but changing his own style was something else.

“What did you think when you first heard McGuire would be your coach?” I asked Wilt a while ago. 

“My first reaction was a little worried because he was from the South,” said Wilt directly. “I know that’s absurd. Good men can come from there as well as up here.”

“And now  . . . ?”

“Now I respect him. Tell you why. He knows that after 48 minutes of basketball, you still have to put on your clothes and live your life. By that, I mean he carries over the same principles of his life to the basketball court. He’s got integrity, that man.”

Away from the arenas, Chamberlain and McGuire seemed to have a rapport which was clearly lacking between Wilt and Neil Johnston. On the first trip into Cincinnati, Wilt was assigned to a hotel suite. McGuire had a room barely large enough to hold his four suits, half-dozen sport coats, and dozen shirts, much less himself. “Coach, let’s switch,” said Wilt quickly. “All I do is flop down and watch TV.” In Chicago later, the coach and player spent two hours at dinner, discussing basketball while the coffee cooled. 

“You know, Wilt, every team in this league plays harder against us because of you,” said McGuire, among other things. “It’s a compliment. I remember the first time I saw you at Kansas. Just looking at your size, I knew I had to find some way to beat you.”

“Yeah, so you jump that little Kearns against me,” said Wilt, still edgy over the incident. “You know, coach, we were so far behind (19-1), I don’t see how we ever caught you to go into those three overtimes.”

In that game, McGuire’s North Carolina team defeated Chamberlain and Kansas to win the 1957 national college title. In a move to rattle Chamberlain, McGuire jumped six-foot Tommy Kearns  against Wilt to open the game. Throughout the game, Kansas tried desperately to get the ball to Chamberlain, who was barricaded most of the way by a four-man Carolina box.

“I wanted that game badly,” Wilt says now, “because I knew I was quitting school, and I didn’t want to leave a loser. I never thought about McGuire since then, though, until I read he would coach the Warriors. I hold no grudge.”

When McGuire held his first squad meeting with the Warriors, he told the team: “The people I’ve listened to and respected in my life are those who haven’t been afraid to say no to me and tell me off when I’m wrong. I’m an Irishman, and I’m unhappy when there’s discontent. Let me know when you think I’m off base.”

One night, Wilt did question the boss, if only half-seriously. A habit of Chamberlain’s rankled the coach. When a competitor, particularly a friend of Chamberlain’s on another club, hit a spectacular shot, Wilt would often give the shooter a congratulatory pat on the back as they jogged up court. “No more back patting, Wilt,” offered McGuire. “I want these guys to be your enemies.”

A few nights later, the Hawks were playing in Philadelphia. Fuzzy Levane, an old McGuire colleague who had replaced Seymour as the St. Louis coach, came over to the Warrior bench before the game. He put his arms around McGuire—Fuzzy is an emotional fellow, and the embrace is a trait—and whispered, “I’ve got my troubles, Frank. The way things are going, I’ll bet Wilt will kill us tonight.” McGuire laughed and shooed Fuzzy back to his own province. When Frank sat down, Wilt had his head under a towel, chuckling. 

“Hey Coach,” said Wilt. “You know what you said about no back-slapping, about being enemies? How about you and Fuzzy in that bear hug?”

McGuire was stopped for once. “Now Wilt,” he said with a grin, “you know Fuzzy came over and grabbed me. When the game starts, he’s my enemy. What I said about fraternization still goes.”

Even while the Warriors were struggling to win in McGuire’s first 30 games, it was evident that the rookie coach had what his predecessor lacked: a truce with Wilt. Neil Johnston, an able player who took the disastrous task of trying to coach his old friends, was barely on speaking terms with Chamberlain at times. The reason was simple: Johnston knew that in any showdown, owner Eddie Gottlieb would throw his support to his gate attraction, Chamberlain.

“It’s tough to coach a team where one man gets so many privileges,” said Johnston after he was fired. “How can a coach control the team when one player is in charge?”

When I asked Chamberlain about his relationship with Johnston, Wilt was quick to deny that a full-time feud had raged. “I got along with Neil as well as anybody on the team, maybe better than some of his old teammates,” said Wilt. 

“But you had arguments?”

“Sure, one hot one,” said Wilt. “We came into the dressing room at the half, and Neil said, ‘Wilt, you have to play Lovellette closer.’ I said, ‘Neil, it’s funny you never tell Arizin or Gola or anybody that they have to play their man closer. You know I’m trying to rebound and cover my man, too.’ You know what Neil said then? ‘But Wilt, they’re not making $65,000 a year like you.’ 

“Well, I blew up at that. He had no business bringing my salary into a discussion. We said some rough things. I sat down on the bench and told him I was in no mood to play until we settled this thing with the owner. But after that, things were okay.”

Johnston’s No. 1 problem for two seasons was similar to McGuire’s No. 1 problem now—beating the Boston Celtics. There seemed little chance the Philadelphians could overhaul Boston, although Wilt was on a December rampage that had him scoring 78, 61, 55, 54, and 52 points. (“Gee,” said Tom Gola, “that’s more than some guys score in a career.”)

The club lacked backcourt consistency from Al Attles and Guy Rodgers, and when Gola and aging Paul Arizin had the front shots, they were often overpowered. Rookie Tom Meschery, a 6-foot-6 battler from St. Mary’s, added hustle, but not enough fire by himself to get Philadelphia going. The team needed a gutty, driving player of the Tom Heinsohn type to instill more fire, but a trade for a frontline player, always difficult to make in the tight little NBA jungle, was impossible, so McGuire’s main hope was that Wilt Chamberlain—an improved, unselfish, totally engaged Wilt—could light the furnace.

“The challenge of this job is finding out what makes Wilt tick,” McGuire said. “In college, I brought a kid in as a freshman and molded him, season by season. Wilt’s 25. In some ways, he’s a man. In some ways, he’s still a boy. I’ve got to find the key. I know he can be better.”

Wilt’s ideas on Wilt were not quite the same. Soon after McGuire had spoken about finding the key, Wilt stood in the Warrior locker room, explaining that he resents a lot of the criticism leveled at him, especially the often-made remark that Bill Russell is a finer all-round pro. Wilt and Russell are friends—they often eat at each other’s homes—but Chamberlain rebels at critics who wonder why he can’t play defense as belligerently as Russell.

“If I’m playing for Boston, maybe I’d play like Russell,” Wilt told me. “If Russell plays for Philadelphia, maybe he scores more. With Boston, he doesn’t have to score a point. Look at that talent around him—best in the league. Every time Bill goes on the floor, all he has to think about is defense and rebounding. Sure, with Bill, defense is an art. It’s a war when he plays me. That’s all’s on his mind.”

“And what are you thinking when you go into a game, Wilt?”

“I’m thinking, ‘I’d better get 40 or more points tonight, or we’re in trouble,’” said Wilt. “I know I have to score for us to win. After that comes defense and rebounding. Bill and I have different jobs. People make me mad when they don’t realize a man has to play according to the team that he’s with.”

Another charge—that Wilt rarely plays at a 100-percent pace—stirred up anger in Chamberlain. “Who does in this league?” he said. “You gotta pace yourself. College was different. Go full blast. You can rest tomorrow. Here, this schedule will burn you out. Look, I can’t sleep after a game. I get to bed at six in the morning. I’m up at 10 to get ready for an afternoon TV game. Then we go to the airport for a roadtrip. If I play my hardest every minute, I’d have nothing left. I think nature gave me unusual stamina, but I have to save something for a burst at the end of a game, if we need it.” McGuire, apprehensive of charges that he would be running up scores, warned other coaches early that Wilt would go 48 minutes. 

Another frequent diatribe against Chamberlain is that he rarely gets mad enough to belt an opponent. If he would, the critics say, he would reduce the bumping he gets from rivals. “For once, people are right,” admitted Chamberlain. “Maybe it would help—but it wouldn’t be Wilt Chamberlain. I can’t coldly rear back and sock a man. Somebody puts up his fists, I’ll fight him. But it has to be an instinctive thing. And I don’t play well when I’m mad. Play good defense, sure. I work harder at it. But I score better when I’m cool and loose.”

Of late, Chamberlain has corked up his feelings about men who belt him, but he has been unable to conceal his irritation with officials. “Oh, how they bug me sometimes,” said Wilt. 

McGuire discovered this early. Before one game, Chamberlain said to the coach: “You watch ‘em tonight—I got a bundle of points last game, and they’ll be after me.” McGuire scoffed. In the first few minutes, Wilt was whistled down for walking. A minute later, it was walking again. Then Wilt went for the basket, was hit solidly by two defenders, and the walking charge was called a third time. 

Chamberlain looked balefully at McGuire. Wilt’s anger seemed to rob him of desire to play. It was one of Wilt’s worst games of the year. “I can have an off-night sometimes,” Chamberlain told writers later. “You can’t get 50 points every night.”

It is obvious that Wilt is very much his own man. Ever since several Philadelphia high schools besieged him with recruiting offers when he was 14, pressures have hardened Chamberlain into a tough-minded individual. There has probably never been a recruiting war so intense as the one Kansas won for Wilt’s college talent. And when Wilt left Kansas, Abe Saperstein was waiting with a checkbook and a Harlem Globetrotter suit for him. Wilt says he took a $50,000 loss to quit the Trotters and play in the NBA.

Wilt demonstrated his stubborn flair at the end of his rookie year in the NBA when he announced his retirement. It took a three-year quarter-million-dollar contract to bring him back to the Warriors. Wilt’s independent attitude is enhanced by his business activities. (“I hope to be a wealthy man by the time I’m 30,” Wilt once said.) He has a real estate project in Los Angeles, good investments, a piece of a New York nightclub (“Big Wilt’s Small Paradise”), and he occasionally cuts a rock-and-roll record.

If McGuire changes Chamberlain’s style on the pro court, he may have to change Wilt himself—which seems unlikely. One key to Wilt is his drive to be a normal citizen, an impossible hope for a seven-footer in a five-foot-eight world. “Being a celebrity is fine, because it builds your ego, and, without ego, you haven’t got pride,” says Wilt. “But I get tired of it. You can’t hide behind dark glasses when you’re seven feet. That’s one reason I like Europe. Nobody cares much who you are.”

Wilt detests the nickname “The Stilt” (“It reminds me of an ugly big bird in a jungle.”). He detests anything that suggests he is a star only because of his height, and therein lies the stiffest problem facing McGuire as he tries to change Chamberlain. McGuire wants Wilt to use his height to its fullest advantage. Wilt prefers to show he can star by using his skill more than his size. His pro debut in New York was tremendously satisfying to him because he got most of his 43 points on jump shots. “I hope I showed them I could do something besides dunk the ball,” Wilt said. 

This season, when it was suggested that 6-foot-5 Elgin Baylor would outperform Wilt in a one-on-one situation, Chamberlain indignantly suggested to a New York reporter that he arrange a contest. Perhaps Wilt’s biggest pleasure is hitting those fall-away and other outside shots, which prove his height is not his only asset. This is such a passion that last year when Paul Seymour rapped him (“Wilt can’t pass off or hit free throws—all he has is his height.”), Chamberlain took only 14 shots the next time he played Pau’s team and spent the night passing to other Warriors. Philadelphia lost. 

Wilt can run 100 yards in under 10 seconds, high jump 6-foot-8, clean and shoulder 375 pounds, and drive his 265 pounds up and down a basketball court without flagging. He has all the endowments of physique and talent that anyone would want in a perfectly manufactured basketball player, if manufacturers could turn one out. 

“He is the greatest,” says McGuire, “but he may be even greater.” And Frank is trying right now to make it materialize. 

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