Was the NBA's O.G. (Original Giant) a Real-Life Superhero?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what couldn’t Wilt do?
By Gary Thompson
Earlier in the game, Gus Johnson threw down a dunk on one of the most feared defenders in the league. Only Wilt Chamberlain had no intention of letting that happen again. And as Johnson raced down the court with plans of replicating his earlier feat, Chamberlain was the only obstacle in his way. The angry defender caught the dunk attempt with one hand in midair and sent it the opposite direction — the force from which pushed Johnson to the floor with a dislocated shoulder, the only known occurrence of that injury stemming from a blocked shot in NBA history.
It is clear from moments like this that Chamberlain usually didn’t use his full strength on the court. Sometimes, though, the 7-footer from Philadelphia would accidentally use too much. The question is, just how much was he hiding? Is it possible that the “Big Dipper” wasn’t just hiding impressive power but supernatural power? Many of the narratives sound like they were written by a comic book author. For that reason, we’re making the case that the only difference between Chamberlain and your favorite superhero is that instead of grabbing a cape, Wilt grabbed a basketball.
Unimaginable strength was not Chamberlain’s only superpower.
It is certainly possible that we have the moment “Wilt the Stilt” — a nickname he hated — realized his powers on record. “Fighting was a lot more common in his day,” says Daniel Reed, curator of the Wilt Chamberlain Archive. “But Wilt never really fought players.” In fact, Chamberlain threw just one punch on the court. According to the man himself, “I only hit one man in my career — Clyde Lovellette. Not hard. But he went down. When he didn’t get up, it scared me.” Lovellette, a 6-foot-9, 234-pound athlete, was knocked unconscious by a “not hard” punch from Chamberlain that looked not unlike something you would see in the next Avengers movie.
Unimaginable strength was not Chamberlain’s only superpower. “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” is one of the famous descriptions of Superman. Rules were enacted in both the NCAA and the NBA in anticipation of Chamberlain’s similar ability. In 1956, an Ohio newspaper ran a story about how “a free throw must be made within the semi-circle” came about. Tex Winter, a Kansas State coach and member of the conference rules committee, describes a scene he witnessed before bringing up the issue at their next meeting: “The big guy takes aim at the basket from several feet behind the line. Then he takes about three giant steps, leaves his feet before reaching the line and stuffs the ball through the hoop.” The greatest leapers the game has ever known, from Julius Erving to Michael Jordan, needed the entire length of the court to build up enough speed to dunk from the free-throw line; Chamberlain only needed “several feet.”
The superhero Wolverine is famous for his power to almost immediately heal himself. Chamberlain displayed a similarly miraculous attribute in the 1972 NBA finals: He exited late in Game 4 after a fall left him with what he believed was a sprained wrist. X-rays showed he actually suffered a fractured wrist, but he played in the final game of the series, posting 24 points, grabbing 29 rebounds and blocking 10 shots as if he were uninjured.
Of course, no superhero story is complete without a secret identity. “What a lot of people don’t know,” says Reed, “is there were several professional basketball leagues in the early days of the NBA.” One of those leagues, the Eastern Professional Basketball League, featured the Pittsburgh Raiders who were led, for a brief stint, by George Marcus out of Western Maryland. Numerous newspapers covering games that Marcus appeared in describe notable performances such as his 44 points against the Cumberland Old Germans and describe him as “within an inch of being a seven-footer” and how “not one player could jump to even his elbow.”
What these journalists didn’t realize was that Marcus was not yet done growing — he was actually a 16-year-old Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain was dominating grown men under the alias of George Marcus as a teenager to protect his amateur status so he could later play in college at the University of Kansas. Although a sportswriter brought up the issue while Chamberlain was at Kansas, the potential bombshell scandal was quickly quieted. But years later, in his autobiography, Chamberlain finally owned up to his secret identity as George Marcus, who had dismantled a number of professional teams in 1952.
Another example of on-court power featured Chamberlain, his adrenaline pumping, as he got a pass, did a drop step toward the rim and slammed the ball with all his strength. The ball passed through the net and hit Hall of Famer Johnny Kerr’s toe, breaking it. Kerr retold the story himself in the book When Seconds Count. “Wilt got upset with me and dunked the ball so hard it went through the rim with such force that it broke my toe as it hit the floor.”
Teammate Billy Cunningham, also quoted in the book, goes further: “Johnny was embarrassed to let everyone know that he got a broken toe from one of Wilt’s dunks, so he went down to the other end of the court, acted as if he tripped, grabbed his foot and went out of the game.”
Many brushed off the story because it wasn’t humanly possible. But we now know that Chamberlain was not merely human.
- Gary Thompson, OZY Author Contact Gary Thompson