Will Wilt Chamberlain Be Denied Number 3, Again?

Keith R. Thompson,

August 1997

In 1973 as he took the floor of the celebrated Los Angeles Forum to compete in his sixth and final NBA Finals Wilt Chamberlain had a funny feeling in the depths of his stomach. He had come through the golden decade of the ‘60’s as undoubtedly the greatest offensive player professional basketball has ever seen, only to be turned back time and again (7 times in fact) by Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics. And if Russell’s insurmountable dominance wasn’t challenging enough, he now had to deal with a determined Knickerbocker by the name of Willis Reed after Russell’s retirement.

Because the 1973 Finals was going to be his last in the NBA Wilt wanted to augment his two NBA championships and bow out as the champion he always knew he was. But in a stark reversal of fortunes of the ‘72 championship series his Lakers team was
emphatically brushed aside four games to one by the Knicks, and so ended his dreams of a third NBA ring. Wilt was denied number 3 the first time around.

Wilton Norman Chamberlain, arguably the greatest basketball player in history, has always remained a championship enigma. With only two NBA rings to show for his 14 seasons in the NBA he has never proven to be a truly intimidating force in the play-offs.
Nevertheless over the course of his career he has led his various teams to a combined 63% winning record, including an 88-72 record in the play-offs.

The dominance of Wilt’s career was eloquently epitomized in 1978 when he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, on the first ballot. This accomplishment, though significant, was by no means his best or only accomplishment however. Wilt’s NBA career had spanned some three teams: the Warriors in Philadelphia and San Francisco, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers. And from two of those teams – the 76ers and the Lakers – he was offered the team’s highest honor by having his number 13 jersey retired to lofty heights. But in one of professional sport’s most bizarre scenarios no such honor was bestowed from his first competitive pro team, the Warriors now of Oakland’s Golden State.

Wilt Chamberlain’s Regular Season Performance Per Team

In his five and one half seasons as a Warrior, Wilt Chamberlain established countless franchise and league records that may likely never be broken. As a Warrior he was the first player to score over 3,000 points in a single season (doing it thrice), the only player to score over 4,000 points in a season in 1961/62, the only player to collect over 2,000 rebounds in a season (twice), and the highest career scoring and rebounding averages in NBA franchise history of 41.5 points per game and 25.1 rebounds per game (for players with over 400 regular season games per franchise). His 17,783 total franchise points is still unsurpassed after 32 years, as is his NBA single game records of 100 points and 55 rebounds.

While Wilt never won a championship with the Warriors he nevertheless did lead them to one NBA Finals, and two Eastern Conference Finals, losing on all three occasions to Russell’s dynastic Celtics of the 1960’s.

During the Warriors 51 years of basketball franchise operations (35 of which were spent in California) only four players have had their numbers retired to the arena’s lofts. Two of these – Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond – were later named to the NBA’s Fifty Greatest players of all-time, yet neither had superior career stats over Wilt who was also named to the elite all-time team. And while Barry led the Warriors to the NBA title in 1975, neither Thurmond nor the other two retirees, Alvin Attles or Tom Meschery, have been nearly as successful.

With that in mind the established view which held that Wilt’s not being honored by the Warriors was the result of his never leading the franchise to an NBA title despite his many individual accomplishments now appears to have been bogus.

A more plausible explanation for Wilt’s snubbing at the hands of the Warriors can be traced to the summer of 1962 when Eddie Gottlieb sold the franchise to a group of San Francisco businessmen led by Frank Mieuli. Wilt was very disapproving of the move but did his best that first season to win over the hearts of San Franciscans with his second best statistical season ever. Nevertheless the team finished 18 games under .500 and missed the play-offs for the first time since Wilt joined the team. From then on Mieuli and Wilt never saw eye-to-eye despite a 48-32 record and an NBA championship appearance the following season. It had also been rumored that Mieuli was very egotistical and resented Wilt’s monopoly over all the fame and glory that went the Warriors way.

In the summer of ‘64 Wilt was hospitalized for four weeks with an irregular heart-beat and suspected pancreatitis. However Wilt’s indifference to Mieuli’s welcome-home party led the lambasted owner to declare that that type of behavior “does not endear me to Wilt. He is not always a gracious gentleman, and is far from my favorite player of all time.” That incident and the fact that he was still owed back pay by Mieuli only escalated frictions between the two. The tail-spinning 11-game losing streak of the Warriors heading into the ‘65 All-Star break (with a 10-34 overall record) may also have served as the final straw as Mieuli determined to trade Wilt at the break, and rid himself of his ‘expensive head-ache.’ Though Wilt did not question the inevitability of his trade that season to the 76ers he did resent the manner in which Mieuli paraded him as though he were a container of undesirable nuclear waste, and their enmity was never quelled since.

Wilt’s contribution to the Warriors basketball franchise is indisputable and deserves recognition of the highest order through the retiring of his iconoclastic number 13 jersey. This would retire his number by three different basketball teams. Only one other player in the history of professional sports – Nolan Ryan of Major League Baseball – has ever had his number retired by three different teams. Yet while Ryan was an undoubtedly great pitcher he was certainly no Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt’s contribution to basketball can only be compared to Babe Ruth’s contribution to baseball in the decade of the roaring twenties.

Wilt was not the most liked personality in all of sports, but his accomplishments in basketball in general, and with the Warriors franchise in particular, should not go unrecognized. Will Wilt be denied number 3, again?

Important editorial note:
Two years after this article was first written Wilt Chamberlain died (in October of 1999) and was posthumously honored by the Warriors in December of that same year by the retirement of his number 13 jersey.


1997 PER Sports, Inc.

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Will Wilt Chamberlain Be Denied Number 3, Again?