“Let me tell you a story. It’s about a giant. A basketball giant. Part fable. All real. His name was Wilton Norman Chamberlain…”
Bill Russell, on NBATV’s “Wilt 100”
The other night in Phoenix, Kevin Durant surpassed Michael Jordan’s streak of 40 straight games scoring at least 25 points. A great feat. A monumental achievement. A historic deed.
Just don’t call it a record, which some are. Just don’t call it a modern record, which many are.
Durant didn’t make it halfway to the record. The record for most consecutive games with at least 25 points is held by that giant of whom Bill Russell spoke. Wilt Chamberlain scored at least 25 points in 106 straight games — the entirety of the 1961-62 season, plus the first 26 games of the 1962-63 season.
And there is nothing illegitimate, nothing prehistoric, about that streak.
Every few years, I feel compelled to remind my readers about Chamberlain, the giant who ran the hardwood not in the dusty days of forgotten history, but when the world was new and thriving.
When Chamberlain’s streak ended, John Glenn already had orbited Earth. The Beatles had recorded “Love Me Do.” Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News, Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show,” the Clampetts were in Beverly Hills and “The Jetsons” were in outer space.
Baseball fans revel in its history. NFL fans respect its history. And NBA fans think the league is 15 minutes old.
Some say the modern pro basketball era began with Jordan’s ascent into Nike nirvana in 1985. Some say it began with David Stern’s ascent into the commissioner’s throne, 1984. Some say it starts with the Magic/Bird rivalry, 1979. Some say it started with the NBA/ABA merger of 1976.
All are pretenders. The modern NBA arrived in 1959, when that basketball giant joined the Philadelphia Warriors and changed the sport forever.
Chamberlain was Babe Ruth. He took the game places it never had been. From being played on the floor to being played above the basket. From a “slow motion, slow dance game, here comes this phenomenon,” said former Warrior teammate Joe Ruklick, “showing everybody what the future is.”
Exactly what the Babe did. But while Ruth reigned supreme in baseball lore for more than half a century and in some ways still does, here in the 100th anniversary of his major league debut (July 11, 1914), basketball has dismissed Wilt.
Long-term memory loss is a vile thing. Chamberlain didn’t play in the modern era? He played dozens of games against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Wilt played against Dave Cowens and Clifford Ray and Bob McAdoo and Downtown Freddie Brown and Pete Maravich and Tiny Archibald.
Of course, most things said about Chamberlain aren’t true. Like he overpowered weaker foes.
Was Bill Russell weak? Still acclaimed the greatest defender in NBA history, Russell ruled the league when Chamberlain arrived. And in 1961-62, Russell’s Celtics played Chamberlain’s Warriors 12 times in the regular season. That would be like a dozen Durant/LeBron James duels this season. In their careers, Russell and Chamberlain matched up 142 times.