“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.
The league had just nine franchises in 1961-62. The Celtics had Russell. The Syracuse Nationals had 6-foot-9 Johnny Kerr, a solid, long-time center. The Cincinnati Royals had rugged Wayne Embry. The Chicago Packers had 6-11 Walt Bellamy, who became a Hall of Famer. Half the league had a good center. About like always. Why didn’t Shaq score 25 points 106 times?
And besides, what if Wilt did have a physical advantage? What if he was bigger and stronger and faster than all his foes? How is that somehow unfair? How does that diminish what he did? How is that any different than what LeBron does today?
LeBron is bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than everybody in the 2014 NBA. And Wilt Chamberlain was exactly the same in the 1962 NBA.
The best argument against Wilt’s Everest achievements — the 100-point game, the 50.4 scoring average in 1961-62, the streaks of seven straight 50-point games and 14 straight 40-point games and 65 straight 30-point games and 106 25-point games — is the change in tempo.
The NBA was a faster league in 1961-62. Teams shot more quickly. Teams didn’t play the same kind of defense then as now.
Teams scored more in 1961-62 — an NBA average of 118.8 points per game, compared to 100.8 now.
Individuals scored more. Six of the nine teams in 1961-62 had a player who averaged at least 29.5 points a game. Now, only five of the 30 teams have at least a 25-point-a-game scorer.
Of course, Wilt didn’t play with the 3-point line, which would have helped against sagging defenses, and he didn’t play with chartered flights and educated training staffs. Chamberlain rode buses in the middle of the night and took 7 a.m. commercial flights to St. Louis and Chicago.
I said it was the modern era. I didn’t say it was enlightened.
And while Chamberlain blazed a trail like Babe Ruth, Wilt also went where no other player could go.
Within a few seasons, baseball had all kinds of players who were hitting home runs like Ruth. The Babe hit 54 in 1920, then the majestic 60 in 1927. But Jimmie Foxx hit 58 in 1932, and Hank Greenberg hit 58 in 1938, and Hack Wilson hit 56 in 1930.
But Chamberlain averaged 50.4 in 1961-62, then 44.8 in 1962-63, and no one else ever approached those numbers, even though the league eventually filled with skilled giants.
Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87 is the closest anyone ever has come to Wilt.
“He’s the one who made me better,” said Russell, the greatest champion in American sport. “He’s the one who made everyone wonder what was possible … part fable, all real. A legend everyone wanted to be a part of.”
And now Kevin Durant’s streak is part of the Chamberlain tale. Don’t dismiss what Wilt did. Embrace it.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.