Historical Markers
Wilt Chamberlain Historical Marker
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Wilt Chamberlain

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
59th and Lancaster Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
September 28, 2000

Behind the Marker

"No one roots for Goliath."

That was Wilt Chamberlain's assessment of himself, but if basketball's first, true dominating seven-footer thought nobody stood behind him, he also knew that opponents feared what he could do on the court and that everyone who knew anything about hoops was awed by his outsized accomplishments. A thirteen-time NBA All-Star, by the time he had retired from the league in 1973, he was the game's career leader in scoring and rebounds, and had put up strings of numbers nobody would have thought were possible, many of which are likely to remain uneclipsed.

Wilt Chamberlain Shooting for the Basket, other players are on the court, game in progress.
Wilt Chamberlain in playoff action against the New York Knicks, March 30, 1968.
Consider: 100 points in a single game; Six of the 10 highest single-game point totals; An entire season averaging more than 50 points per game; A career average of over 30 points per game; A run of 35 consecutive field goals, including 18 for 18 in a single game; Led the league in scoring seven straight years; Led the league in rebounding 11 times; Led the league in minutes played seven times; And never once fouled out of any one of the 1,045 regular-season NBA games he played in (or any of his 160 post-season contests, either).

Just how big a shadow did Chamberlain cast? Big enough to force rules changes to keep him from running away with the game. Big enough for his doppelganger and great rival, Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, to concede, "I'm one of the guys who think Wilt was so good that people don't even know how good he was. I remember sitting at home, getting ready to play him one night, and thinking, ‘another night in hell.""

Unless, of course, you were one of the devoted Warrior, 76er, and Laker fans who were thankful to have The Dipper, as Wilt liked to be called, on their side. With Wilt in your colors, you were in heaven.

Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born in Philadelphia, on Aug. 21, 1936. His parents, who had eight children overall, named him for the street they lived on. Wilt's father was a porter, and his mother cleaned houses, and neither were particularly tall, nor were his siblings. None reached six feet; Wilt had by the age of ten. When he made Overbrook High School's basketball team as a sophomore, he had lengthened to 6"11"–and had just over two more inches to grow.

Overbrook High School's Wilt Chamberlain makes shot in game against Southern High School.
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Overbrook High School's Wilt Chamberlain makes shot in game against Southern...
Chamberlain dominated at Overbrook, as he would wherever he played. In three varsity seasons, he led his team to a 56-2 record. He was so intimidating under the boards that teammates regularly missed free throws to give Wilt a chance to tap them in. In these pre-goaltending days, he would just stand under the basket, to tip teammate's shots in, and deflect opponents" out. The game soon changed the rules at all levels to make both practices illegal.

Still, Chamberlain was by no means a one-dimensional athlete, or person. A solid student, he also starred on Overbrook's cross-country and track teams. He won his conference title in the long jump.

In college, at the University of Kansas, he continued to star on the court and on the track. An All-America as both a sophomore and junior, Chamberlain was named the MVP of the NCAA tournament in 1957, despite the Jayhawks" losing effort–a loss he blamed on himself despite his heroics–to North Carolina in triple overtime. On the track, he won the Big East championship in the high jump.

He left college after his junior year to make money. Since NBA rules prohibited him from joining the league until his college class had graduated, he played for the famed Harlem Globetrotters, at an unheard of $50,000 salary, before suiting up with the Philadelphia Warriors at the start of the 1959-1960 campaign. His impact was immediate. As a 7"1" rookie, he averaged more than 37 points and 27 rebounds a game, and was named the league's Rookie of the Year and MVP. His "Dipper Dunks" were like dramatic exclamation points, but even with his back to the basket, he always had a sense of where he was, turning to fire gentle fall-away jump shots that found the net with uncanny touch and accuracy.

A man in a basketball uniform stretches his arms forward to demonstrate the size of his hands.
Wilt Chamberlain showing his hands while at the University of Kansas, February...
And it only got better. In his third season, he shattered the record books, averaging more than fifty points a game and netting marker100 points in a single contest against the New York Knicks. In victory, he exhibited great gusto, and he still took every loss personally. "There was always so much more pain to my losing," he later admitted, "than there ever was to gain by my winning."

At the end of that season, the Warriors moved to San Francisco, but Chamberlain returned home two years later, traded to the new Philadelphia 76ers (previously the Syracuse Nationals) for three players and $150,000 in cash. In 1967, Chamberlain finally attained the one basketball achievement that had eluded him since high school: a title. Supported by future Hall of Famers Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer, Chamberlain tailored his game to fit the team's needs, scoring less but assisting more, and it worked. The Sixers won a then-NBA record 68 games, then dispatched Russell and the Celtics in five to break Boston's eight year hammerlock on division crown, before pummeling his old Warrior teammates to win the first of his two NBA championships.

In his thirties, Chamberlain began slowing down, but he was by no means through. Always graceful on court, he seemed to grow larger and more ominous over time as he added muscle to his enormous frame, a goatee, and headband. He also learned how to adjust his powerful approach to basketball's subtleties. In 1967-68, the NBA's greatest scoring machine led the league in assists. Traded to the Los Angles Lakers the following season, he helped his teammates–another collection of Hall of Famers that included Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Gail Goodrich–to five NBA finals in seven years, with Chamberlain himself named MVP in a winning effort against the Knicks in 1972. He retired, at thirty-six, after the 1973 play-offs.

With his playing career behind him, Chamberlain continued to lead a vigorous life. He coached basketball and volleyball, ran marathons, acted, made a sizeable fortune in real estate and wrote two controversial memoirs: Wilt: Just Like Any Other Seven-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door in 1973, and A View From Above in 1991. The latter caused a firestorm with Chamberlain's assertion that he had had sexual relations with more than 20,000 women.

Controversy also followed him on the political front. Unlike other black athletes and role models of the era, he stood in the background of the civil-rights movement, and actively supported both the election and re-election of Richard Nixon as president.

Yet, in the end, for a man who believed he heard more boos than cheers, he left behind an outsized legacy of kindness and decency. Never once did he foul out of a game, and Russell, who fought so intensely under the basket for so long with him, conceded that if Wilt had only possessed a mean streak, he would have been unstoppable. Still, if he wasn't unstoppable, he was close. But was he the best of all time? Observes Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, "The numbers don't lie."
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