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Chamberlain rated greatest in court game

Phenomenal 7-footer chose Kansas offer over more than 100 other bids

by Don Pierce
The Sporting News
December 21, 1955

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The greatest basketball player in the game today, greater than Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit and Neil Johnston of the pros and Bill Russell and Robin Freeman of the collegians! Greater, perhaps, than any player who ever lived; so good, in fact, that the rules are certain to be rewritten to curb this fabulous performer.

Veteran observers of the cage game are couching such superlatives for only one player -- a hard-to-believe college freshman, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain.

Unlikely as it may seem to bracket a teen-ager with the greats of the game, it's even more unlikely that the harshest critic will reserve any doubts after seeing the Kansas University phenom stretch his seven feet of sinew in his patented hardwood pyrotechnics.

The rave notices that preceded Wilt from his native Philadelphia to the Kansas campus were taken with the traditional grain of salt by hard-shelled fans in these parts who had been steeled against phenoms after years of watching Clyde Lovellette and B.H. Born.

But then Wilt made his appearance and the bandwagon shifted into high gear with a capacity load, and no trace of a dissenting vote.

Playing for the KU frosh against the varsity in the annual homecoming weekend game, Chamberlain scored 42 points in spearheading an 81-71 victory for the greenies.


With The Stilt as obvious magnet, 14,000 fans, 3,000 short of capacity in the Jayhawks' new Allen Fieldhouse, paid to watch the contest. The Jays, including two bona fide All-Americas in Captain Dallas Dobbs and Gene Elstun, have been conceded a sparkling chance of winning the Big Seven championship, but with Wilt dominating the play throughout, the varsity bowed for the first time in the series that was started in 1922.

Playing every minute of the game, Chamberlain hit on 16-of-35 shots from the field for a percentage of .460 and added 10-of-13 free-throw attempts. He scored four of his goals on two-handed dunks, lifting his elbows as high as the rim. He sideboarded home three more when teammates appeared to fire short or wide. The rest he leveled from ranges of point blank to 15 feet. And he found time to harvest 29 rebounds and block four enemy tries almost before they could clear the fingers of the shooters.

Chamberlain's feats in this game can be brought more clearly into focus by consideration of these facts: KU's single-game scoring record is 44 points, held jointly by Lovellette, now ace of the Minneapolis Lakers, and Born, now with the Peoria Caterpillars. The one-game rebound mark is 24, owned by Lew Johnson, current varsity center. The fieldhouse scoring ceiling is 25, established by Oklahoma's Jimmy Peck last year.

After Wilt's opening salvo, the gold rush was on. The 19-year-old wonder and his coach, Dr. F.C. "Phog" Allen, no stranger in the publicity mill himself, have been patiently answering interview questions, and posing for stills and movies, almost everyday. National publications have been on the phone almost daily. Television networks sent movie crews to Lawrence. All this over a freshman who will not put on a varsity uniform for a full year.

But what a freshman!

As Allen remarked jocularly a few days before the varsity-freshman match: "Wilt could team with two co-eds and two Phi Beta Kappas and do pretty well."

Wilt, however, drew considerably more help than that from as highly-rated a yearling squad as ever was assembled at Mt. Oread. And he performed much better than "pretty well."

The Stilt is most effective simply because of his physical qualities. He stands 7-feet in his sweat socks. Over this frame are spread 225 sinewy pounds. He is almost as agile as a 5-11 playmaker. He can jump 24 inches straight up. Against the varsity he was not bothered noticeably by the new 12-foot lane. His timing on the slightly off-target shots of his mates, in another year, will match that of Bill Russell, the fabulous human funnel of San Francisco. Spectators can actually see his pie-plate hands jam down inside the net.

Chamberlain hasn't shown yet that he ranks as a shooter with Lovellette, the 6-9, 244-pound mastodon who led Kansas to the 1952 NCAA title. Against the varsity, Wilt didn't hook once. He likes to use the board to bank, unless he is at point blank. His favorite shot is a jump-turn righthander down the middle of the lane, accomplished off an unusual left-to-right movement. He combines this well with a wedging drive to the goal, which is more dexterous than swift. This is his maneuver to gain position for the two-hand dunk, which is going to splinter some planks at both ends of the fieldhouse before the lad graduates.


If Chamberlain falls short in any department at the present time, it is in a lack of aggressiveness off the boards and in pursuing the loose ball. He doesn't raise his arms high enough on defense but when he does it's going to be like shooting over the Fort Cheyenne stockade.

The most ominous news to league rivals are these three facts:

1) He already carries a good idea of how to get the most from his size and agility and an aptitude to learn considerably more.

2) He has unusual stamina.

3) He is going to be a blue-chip competitor. He looked better against the varsity than in any workout.

Wilt is not a one-sport man, either. At Overbrook High School in Philly, he high jumped 6 feet, 6 inches, ran the 440 in 49.0 seconds and the 880 in 1:58.3, put the shot 53 feet, 4 inches, broad jumped 22 feet. Bill Easton, Jayhawks track boss, predicts Wilt will reach 7 feet in the high jump if he concentrates on it.

"He easily has greater possibilities than any player we ever had here," says Allen, who is in his 39th season at Kansas. "He has coordination, can run and can jump. He can do everything.

"A fan simply can't realize the effect of such an overpowering man. He just paralyzes smaller players.

"I thought he'd score 40 points against the varsity and he beat that estimate by two. He's even better than he looks out there. He's the best I ever saw. You can say his presence increases KU's basketball prospects by 50 percent.

"It's natural to compare his with Lovellette, and there actually isn't much comparison. Clyde had an uncanny touch with the ball that made him a wonderful shot. He was fairly shifty, like a boxer. Clyde also had big hips and shoulders that enabled him to block out defenders and get a lot of tip-ins. But he couldn't jump nor run nearly as well as Wilt. It was hi touch that made him great."

Allen has an answer for the needlers of his long-standing avocation of the 12-foot basket, too.

"I'm not going to say one more thing about the height of the basket," he told a reporter the other day. "I've talked 12-foot baskets for years. Now let someone else argue for them."

No wonder the Philadelphia Warriors drafted Wilt right out of high school, and, as a result scored an unprecedented coup for future security four years early.

When it was announced last spring that The Stilt had chosen to matriculate at Kansas in preference to more than 100 other colleges that had bid for his services, some observers grew curious as to why he traveled so far from his home base.

There was sound reason for Chamberlain to enroll at Kansas. Any youth interested in improving his basketball fortunes would consider KU. The winning tradition, that has produced one NCAA champion -- the club that furnished seven members of the 1952 United States Olympic team -- and two runners-up, is long and rich.

What coach is more famous than Allen, builder of 31 conference title teams in 46 years? Where are there better cage facilities than the massive arena in which the Jayhawks are starting their first full season?

Allen himself is a persuasive recruiter. He visited the young man and his parents in Philadelphia. They were enough impressed that Chamberlain twice visited the campus before announcing his choice late in May.

Allen also rallied several of the university's most prominent African-American alumni. Their selling job of the school's academic and athletic advantages was a good one.

When Chamberlain made known his preference for Kansas, Joe Wilson, head of KU's dormitories and housing facilities, ordered a special 7 1/2-foot bed for the new Carruth-O'Learly dormitory, where Wilt rooms with Charlie Tidwell, national interscholastic 180-yard low hurdles record-holder from Independence, Kan.

There was some other ordering necessary, too. The in-seam of Chamberlain's new freshman warmup pants measures 42 inches. When held at ankle length, the top of the trousers reaches the nose of trainer Dean Nesmith, 5-11.

That's the sort of fate that will befall a lot of rivals over the next three years . . . looking the guy directly in the belt-buckle and wondering what to do about it!

photo gallery | q & a, 1972 | career stats | the 100-point game | wilt chooses kansas | a giant among men | pro debut | wilt the coach | wilt's mansion | looking back | kindred: nobody will ever forget wilt | more on wilt

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