If you have not been made aware of it, March 2nd marks the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's historic 100-point game versus the New York Knicks. While many will marvel about the historical impact of Wilt's 100, I've always found that when this discussion takes place, a discussion about "who was better: Wilt or Russell?" or "who was more dominant: Wilt or Shaq?" usually will take place. Kenny said something particularly striking to me awhile back when trying to judge players of yesteryear, in that since we've never seen them play with our own eyes, who are we to try and judge who was actually better than our generation's superstars?
It can't be done.
Its funny how statistics in sports gives us a viewpoint into the past, and when you look at the statistical dominance of Chamberlain, it's mind-blowing. As a child, I would look at Wilt's stats and swear that he must've been the greatest ever. The old men in my family would tell me different, citing things like "heart," "determination" and just being a "winner" as reasons why Wilt wasn't the best. As a child, I was clueless. As a man, I totally get it.
I remember a passage from Bill Simmons' "Book of Basketball" that was written by Chuck Klosterman about Wilt that seemed sympathetic to someone who was glorified for filling up the stat book, but was chastised for never "winning" in a way that many wanted him to:
Baseball was a different game in the 1960's, so certain statistical anomalies are irrelevant. But get this: In 1961-62, Chamberlain scored 60 or more points in 15 different games. Michael Jordan accomplished that five times in his professional life. Since his retirement in 1973, no player's single-season rebound average has equaled Chamberlain's clip for the totality of his 1,045-game career (22.9). You can come up with these kinds of factoids all night; Wilt's numerical dominance is so profound that people have stopped thinking about it. And even when they do, it tends to work against him: when writers cite the year Chamberlain led the league in assists, it's generally used to show how wilt was confused (he seemed to believe piling up assists proved he was unselfish, which is kind of like claiming you've slept with 20,000 women to prove you were interesting). He just didn't get it. He didn't understand team dynamics or the reality of perception. But how much does that matter now? If Chamberlain's personal statistics are moot, so are Russell's achievements within the context of his team. They're both historical footnotes. The real question is this: Who was better in a vacuum? If we erase the social meaning of their careers--in other words, if we ignore the unsophisticated cliche that suggests the only thing valuable about sports is who wins the last game of the season--which of these two men was better at the game?
It's possible the answer is still Russell. But everything tangible points to Wilt.
I imagine the old men in my family would go into the barbershop and argue about Wilt vs. Russell like we argue about Kobe vs. LeBron now. Wilt's 100-point record may never be broken, but his ability to serve as a catalyst for arguments will continue as long as the game of basketball is picked at and prodded by basketball fans.
NBA TV will air the documentary, "Wilt 100" on Friday night at 7pm ET.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”