There have been many game-changing superstars. Some (Magic, Bird, Jordan) begin to dominate the moment they stepped on the parquet. Others (Steph Curry, Giannis) took coaching and system adjustments to make their mark truly. Meanwhile, there have been 4 players who were expected to be so dominant that the game itself would cease its competitive phase. In our recent memory, clearly, Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 is one example. And of course (love or hate him) LeBron James in 2003 is another example. But the first two, without a doubt, are Wilt Chamberlain in 1959 and his understudy Kareem Abdul Jabbar (or Lew Alcindor, as he was then known). Wilt and Kareem have always been a curious duo, a sort of “odd couple.” Their similarities and differences are in itself fascinating. In so many ways, what Wilt created Kareem extended. For instance, Wilt practically invented nationwide recruiting. Then, a decade later, Kareem would permanently enshrine it in the national consciousness.
Wilt would set 72 records on the way to becoming the most prolific scorer ever (Jordan notwithstanding). Then, a decade after Wilt’s retirement, Kareem would become the #1 leading scorer in NBA history (which endures today). Wilt would become the greatest statistical rebounder, while Kareem is the best statistical rebounder since his retirement. Wilt would make joining the LA Lakers a cool and “sexy” choice, while Kareem led a generation that permanently enshrined the Lakers into the national psyche. As we can see, Kareem took a lot of his cues from his mentor, Wilt. Yet, there were also marked differences between these two greats. For instance, Wilt was from a large depression-era family who clearly enjoyed the spotlight.
Kareem, meanwhile, was a post-World War II only child who never liked the publicity, preferring to remain intensely private. Wilt, despite his era, was a man who largely shunned faith-based spiritual systems. Kareem was raised Catholic, would become (through the mid-70s) a devout Muslim. Both men (because of their talent) had to face the daunting task of integrating into the larger society. Wilt embraced it, while for a time Kareem became a staunch social separatist. What reason did this difference manifest? Well, Wilt in the public sphere took his cue from two great African American Boxers, Jack Johnson. Like Johnson, he was a notorious braggart. Like Johnson, he lived like a wealthy European aristocrat (which grew after he spent a year with the Harlem Globetrotters). Like Johnson, he flaunted the unspoken rule against interracial dating. Meanwhile, Kareem was much like his heroes, Malcolm X and Jackie Robinson. Like Malcolm, he embraced Islam as a rejection of the American social order. Like Robinson, he embraced activism to make life better both for himself and his race.
These key differences would beguile both men during their 37-year acquaintance (through Wilt’s death in 1999). Like their personalities, their acquaintance would run the gambit of the human experience. This writing will examine how they are both similar and different.
The Club: 1953 In NBA history, Milton Kutscher is not a name commonly known today. But his importance to the survival of the NBA is considerable. In 1953, the NBA was an 8-team league. A television contract at that point would have been absurd. Also, most of the owners were first-generation NBA owners. By that, most of the men had some connection to basketball or were sportsmen themselves. Moneywise, they did not have the “Bill Gates” like pockets associated with the modern owners. In short, these men took the considerable financial risk to operate a team and keep the league afloat. Thus, one way to do that would be to have informal pick-up games. Kutscher, who owned a country club, agreed to allow these games.
So, to both attract attention without being condemned, Kutscher in 1953 hired as bellhop a 6-10 16-year-old out of Philadelphia named Wilton Norman Chamberlain. Wilt, though “working,” was basically being shielded so the pros could see how good he actually was. The resident great center, George Mikan, was not present. But two great centers named Dolph Schayes and Donald “Neil” Johnston were there. Wilt held his own against Johnston, then after a few weeks, was dominating him.
The owners present had mixed feelings, but a certain coach named “Red” Auerbach noticed. He was so impressed he did two things. First, he tried to give the youngster some tips as a coach. He noticed the kid was ignoring him, and he privately concluded that he would be a difficult player to coach. Second, he suggested that Wilt “attend” the University of Massachusetts. Back then, the league agreed that a player from a certain region would go to the team in a “territorial” draft. Auerbach’s ruse, however, would not work. Ed Gottlieb, the owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, declared Wilt completely off-limits, and began searching for a non-NBA college for the kid to attend. He didn’t need to worry. By now, the dominant Chamberlain had about 200 colleges interested in offering him a scholarship. Gottlieb, however, was also a business partner with Harlem Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein; he would offer Wilt to join the Globies until his college class graduated. Wilt, though visited the University of Kansas.
Harlem 1962: A decade later, the greatest prospect since Wilt was dominating New York prep basketball. His name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. Playing for Power Memorial; he was rewriting the book for dominance. He was also a product of his time. Having attended Catholic school since elementary, he lived in a thoroughly integrated world (he did attend a black boarding school for a year). Like everyone, Wilt had heard of the young kid. Meanwhile, the teenager would drift toward his birthplace of Harlem. It just so happened that Wilt lived in New York and owned real estate in Harlem (including the restaurant that Malcolm Little worked in). Wilt also had friends on the New York Knickerbockers, and they all played in tournaments organized by legend Holcombe Rucker. Wilt would dominate the competition, and his displays deeply impressed the youngster. He was absolutely in awe, believing that Wilt could do no wrong. Wilt, 25 years old at the height of his powers, would take the boy under his wing. But he noticed the same streak of rebellion (as did Auerbach with him). Though socially conscious, Wilt didn’t have the residual anger at the larger society. “Lew,” on the other hand, was developing a more decidedly militant outlook. He would quietly believe the boy was developing bad influences. Meanwhile, Lew’s mom was concerned about the value system (as a devout Catholic) of her son’s new hero. Though still a reverential relationship, the issues that would separate the two had already begun. In part II, we will look at how the college experience (Kansas and UCLA) would permanently shape the way history would view each man.