It’s been 40 years since Wilt Chamberlain scored his last basket in the NBA, a meaningless dunk in the closing minute of a blowout loss to the New York Knicks in the 5th game of the 1973 NBA finals, a series the Lakers lost; yet, the name Wilt still resonates with NBA fans both young and old. Even if you have never seen him play a game, fans of the NBA have most certainly heard of his great feats. Those feats when compared to what we are accustomed to seeing in the present day NBA seem downright impossible.
31,419 career points (5th all time)
23,924 career rebounds (1st all time)
100 points scored in a single game on 3/2/62 (highest points scored single game)
7 x NBA scoring titles
11 x Rebounding titles
50.3 points per game average in 1961-62 (Highest single season scoring average)
4 of the top highest single season scoring averages in NBA history
27.0 rebounds per game average in 1960-61 (Highest single season scoring average)
6 of the 7 highest single season rebounding averages in NBA history
4 x NBA MVP
2 x NBA championships
0 x fouling out in a game in 1045 career regular season games and 160 playoff games
The further we get away from Wilt’s time, the more his accounts of his playing career and who Wilt was as a player begin to sound like the fables of William Wallace in Braveheart, except, they aren’t fables, they were cold hard facts of what he did on an NBA court.
When Wilt first came to the Lakers in a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers back in 1968, he had already amassed his legendary status in the NBA, won an NBA championship and at age 31 had very little to prove.
It was quite a different story from the Los Angeles Lakers side. In the summer of 1968, the Lakers were coming off loss in the NBA Finals to Wilt’s long time nemesis Bill Russell and the hated Boston Celtics, a team that they had lost to in all of their previous 6 match ups in the finals prior to Wilt’s arrival. The Lakers had long grew tired of getting close and losing when making the trade for Wilt, as they hadn’t won an NBA championship in 14 years dating back to their time in Minneapolis.
The Lakers already with legends Jerry West and Elgin Baylor didn’t bring on Wilt to be a savior of the franchise, they brought him as the final piece to get them over the top and bring the city of Los Angeles their first championship.
Wilt’s start in Los Angeles was a rocky one. He tangled with teammate Elgin Baylor and then coach Butch Van Brenda Kolff. In his first season with the Lakers, he reached the NBA Finals to face off against the Boston Celtics, but lost in 7 games. In the deciding game 7, Wilt is hurt in the 4th quarter and doesn’t return. He is later criticized by the media for not dominating the games offensively and by Bill Russell for not playing through injury in a crucial deciding game.
Wilt’s second year in L.A.he suffered a serious injury that kept him out for most of the 82 game season. Wilt returned in time to help lead the Lakers to another finals appearance, this time against Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and the New York Knicks; but, in the end the same result for the Lakers, a finals series lost.
The Lakers failed to make the finals in Wilt’s third season, as Wilt lost the match up against the up and coming superstar center Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals.
Despite Wilt putting up incredible numbers, averaging no less than 20 points and 18 rebounds per game in each of his first 3 seasons with Los Angeles, the results were the same for the Lakers, numerous final appearances but no championship. That would all change in the season of 1971-72 which would go down as the greatest season ever for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers brought on coach Bill Sharman who convinced Wilt to take on a different role with the team, one that up to that point he had not taken on: the role of a defensive enforcer and offensive afterthought. With Wilt’s focus strictly on rebounding and defending the paint, the Lakers offensive perimeter players Jerry West and Gail Goodrich flourished; as a result, the team dominated the league like no other team had before.
The Lakers won 33 games in a row, a single season record that still stands today, and ended the season with a 69-13 record, a regular season performance that wouldn’t be topped until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 games 24 years later.
In the conference finals, Wilt got a rematch against Kareem and the Milwaukee Bucks; this time, Wilt was victorious in 6 games and outplayed the much younger Kareem. In the NBA Finals, the Lakers again faced the New York Knicks, but this time behind Wilt’s MVP finals performance, the Lakers finally are crowned NBA champions, their first in Los Angeles.
The following season ended up being Wilt’s last as a Lakers and of his NBA career. Wilt still put together a great season despite being 36 years of age and on his last legs; he led the league in rebounding for the 11th time in his career and shot a career high 72.7 percent from the field, an NBA record that still stands today. The Lakers did win 60 games and reached the NBA finals in a rematch with the New York Knicks; however, the Lakers struggling with injuries and lost to the Knicks in 5 games.
While Wilt’s time in Los Angeles was a short 5 years, it was memorable and vastly important in the history of Los Angeles Lakers basketball. Wilt led the Lakers to the NBA finals in 4 of his 5 seasons with the club and was a major part of one of the most rewarding championship in the rich history of Los Angeles, its first. He anchored the middle for the most successful regular season team in Lakers history in 71-72 and capped that season off by being named Finals MVP for dominating the Knicks for the NBA championship.
Year after year, the Lakers had fought valiantly, but despite hall of fame names like West, Baylor, Goodrich on the roster, the Lakers couldn’t break through and achieve the ultimate goal of becoming champions. The Lakers were the Buffalo Bills of their era and nowhere near resembled the decorated team they we know today.
That was until Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain arrived and changed the direction of the Lakers franchise forever.
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