Since 2005, when we interviewed Robert Cherry, the author of “Wilt: Larger Than Life,” he has published two books. “Cherry Delight” is a memoir of his family and while, as he points out, neither of his parents ever led the NBA in points or rebounds, they are still worth writing and reading about. The other book is “Living Liberia: Laughter, Love and Folly,” a memoir/travel book of his life as a Peace Corps volunteer in a West African village. He was also asked in 2019 by the Library of Congress to write an article about Wilt’s 100-point game, an audio tape of which is in the National Registry. Robert was kind enough to discuss many basketball topics with us, among them his speculation on Wilt’s role and stature in today’s NBA, dominated as it is by the 3-point shot.
HoopsAnalyst: Let’s start with Wilt Chamberlain the center. The game has changed so much since the 1960s. The argument could be made that Wilt was the greatest ever in that the NBA literally had to change the rules to keep him from dominating. In your mind, how would Wilt’s game transpose to the modern NBA? Not just the 1990s to compete with Michael Jordan but also today with the three-point line being so important and you can play zone defense so the traditional big man has less value.
Robert Cherry: Would Brad Stevens, Greg Popovich or Erik Spoelstra want to have Wilt Chamberlain on his team? I think they would, for even in the era of the three-point shot Wilt still would be a tremendous asset. Lest anyone forget, Wilt was the greatest rebounder of all-time and a great defensive player, quick enough and strong enough to cover any one from 6’8” to 7’5”. And, if I remember correctly, Wilt also had the ability to put the ball in the basket, another important facet of the sport.
HA: I imagine Wilt could play exactly the same way today and still be quite effective but do you think he would’ve changed his offensive strategy a little bit?
RC: Yes, he would have shot less, as he did especially with the Lakers toward the end of his career. And he would have enjoyed, and still thrived, coming out from the basket area. If Joel Embiid can succeed in today’s NBA, then Wilt Chamberlain, who was more athletic and stronger than Embiid, could jump higher and was more durable, and could shoot as well, would have succeeded also. (By the way, there’s a YouTube video in which Embiid marvels at the wonder that was Wilt.) There is no doubt Wilt would’ve adapted his game well to the modern NBA. If the NBA played on the moon, he would have been spectacular there, too.
HA: One of the fascinating things about going back to Wilt’s numbers is looking at some of the statistics folks trying to dissect his value and stats were a bit more sparse in the 1960s before they kept track of turnovers, blocks, and steals. There is anecdotal evidence in videos show that he might’ve averaged a quadruple-double some years.
RC: I don’t know if he would have averaged a quadruple-double, but he would have come closer than anyone. Blocked shots, as you know, were not counted as a NBA stat until the 1973-74 season, by which time Wilt had retired. The record for blocked shots in an NBA game is 17 by Elmore Smith. But Harvey Pollack, the most heralded statistician in NBA history and someone who watched Wilt play from the beginning to the end of Wilt’s career, kept the stats in a game in which Wilt 25 blocked shots; and there is also an unofficial tally from another game, the Lakers against Phoenix in 1968, where Wilt blocked 23 shots, when he was in his 30s not incidentally.
Wilt averaged a triple-double in the 1961-62 season, according to Pollock, though it is not official. Had it been an NBA stat during Wilt’s career, Wilt would had held records for blocked shots in a game and career, adding to the 68 records he currently holds (72 if you count records he shares with other players). At least that’s how many records he held a year ago when I wrote an article on Wilt’s 100-point game for the Library of Congress.
Let me ask you something….what do the statisticians say about Wilt given that they don’t have all the data we have today for modern players?
HA: It’s interesting. The leading guys, like John Hollinger, who do a lot of great work on stats, are able to fill in some of the gaps but one of the things they say, not to discredit Wilt, that when he was scoring 50 points a game, the number, though amazing, could be considered inflated by the high pace of the game at that time. Relative to league average, Wilt’s numbers were still incredible but slightly inflated.
RC: Granted, teams in the late 1950s and early 1960s were scoring more points than today, but no one—I repeat no one—was putting up 40 or 50 points a night like Wilt. He had to score because he didn’t have the great teammates, like Bill Russell had on the Celtics. Wilt had to score 20% to 30% of his team’s points during the first half of his career for them to compete and Russell, with the luxury of great offensive players throughout his career, need only score about 12% to 15% of the Celtics’ points.
When Wilt was on the Lakers and led them to 33 straight victories and the NBA title, he played defense and rebounded and set up the offense, particularly their awesome fast break, with his outlet passes to Gail Goodrich or Jerry West or Jim McMillian. He averaged 14.8 points a game. When I claim that Wilt would have started on the championship Golden State Warriors or San Antonio teams of recent years, he would be playing the role he played on the Lakers. Occasionally to remind everyone he could still score, he’d throw in 30 or 40 points, and maybe, if he hadn’t eaten a bucket of chicken at halftime, 50 points.
HA: That’s what is interesting. The stat guys I’ve read or listened to have concluded that Wilt’s best years were actually with the 76ers, when he was doing a lot of different things on the court, and the pinnacle of his career was in 1966-67 when they beat up the Celtics convincingly and he led the league in assists but scored much less.
RC: Correct. The operative point is that—finally—Wilt had a strong supporting cast. When Wilt’s teams, whether it the Warriors, the Sixers or the Lakers, lost to the Celtics, people wondered why? The reason is that Bill Russell played with eight future Hall of Famers, nine if you count Red Auerbach, one of the greatest coaches of all-time. “Nobody ever wins a team game,” to quote Leonard Koppett, who covered the NBA during Wilt’s era for The New York Post and The New York Times. Koppett added and I quote, “Only the team can win. Except for one year in Philadelphia and one in Los Angeles, Wilt was never on a team the rest of which was as good as the Boston Celtics. It’s that simple.”
HA: In that vein, I actually recently wrote an article looking back at the Boston Celtics of the Bill Russell Era and seeing how much that stats comported with number of titles they won [11 in 13 years]. Based upon expected win-loss as calculated from point-differential showed that every season, expect for two, Boston was vastly better than the rest of the league, including Wilt’s teams. Even in 1967-68, when the Sixers had a much better record than Boston, my thought was that Philly had a much better team and blew a huge lead. According to point-differential the teams were actually dead even.
RC: I watched Wilt play dozens of times in person and many more dozens of times on television. In 1961-62, the Celtics had six players who average double-figures in points per game. In addition, Boston had one of the great defensive centers and rebounders in Russell, one of the great defensive forwards of the time in Tom Sanders, and one of the great defensive guards of that era in K.C. Jones. And always a superb sixth man, like Frank Ramsey or John Havlicek before Hondo was a starter. And, by the way, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this in an interview, but I was a Celtics’ fan and take pride that someone could read my book and not know that. I really like teams that play or played great defense, as well as offense, like the Celtics, like the 1970s Knicks; and, in the 1950s and 60s, the Yankees and Dodgers in baseball. And, in recent years, like the Golden State Warriors.
HA: If you looked at team defense, Russell’s Celtics were always first and Wilt’s teams were usually second. The lion’s share of the defensive credit for Wilt’s teams would go to Wilt. In some ways, Wilt’s value was more on the defensive end. His team’s offenses didn’t rate that high, even in years when he was scoring 50 a game. That was likely because the Warriors didn’t really have good second and third offensive options but Wilt’s defense was always important.
RC: Absolutely. In researching my book, I read thousands of articles from a variety of newspaper: “The New York Times,” the Boston papers, the “LA Times” and the then three Philly dailies, “The Bulletin,” “The Inquirer” and the “Daily News.” Even in the Philly papers, Wilt’s teams, pre-season, were not favored to win the Eastern division title from Boston nor, in the playoff, were they favored to defeat Boston. That even in the Philly papers that the Warriors or the Sixers were not picked to defeat Boston was a revelation to me. The exception was in 1966-67 [when Wilt’s team did win] and 1967-68, when they blew the 3-1 lead. I criticize Wilt for not playing better in the seventh game of the ‘68 series, as well as his teammates, who were awful, and his coach, the great Alex Hannum.
HA: There is something about the Celtics. They were a great organization. They lost Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and found great guards to replace them. They lost Frank Ramsey and got John Havlicek. I’m not sure if I was Red Auerbach’s ability to find people or…
RC: It was Red. He recognized talent and, equally important, identified the players whose game would fit in and make the whole of the Celtics greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why he was incomparable. Wilt played for eight coaches in 13 NBA seasons, some of them mediocre, while Russell and the Celts had the stability of one great coach. Wilt needed a talented coach with a strong personality whom he respected, like Frank McGuire, Alex Hannum and Bill Sharman. And the results speak for themselves. The 1966-67 Sixers, coached by Hannum, and the 1971-72 Lakers, coached by Sharman, won championships and are considered two of the greatest teams of that era. And those Lakers still hold the record for consecutive wins by in a major sport by any North American professional team, so that also includes Canadian teams in hockey.
HA: Let’s pick up on your point that the Celtics were usually favored. In 1968-69, Russell’s last season, Boston famously upset Wilt and the Lakers with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In fact, though the Celtics struggled in the regular season, their point-differential was significantly better than the Lakers. On paper, the Lakers were not better than the aging Celtics.
RC: The 1968-69 Finals had a lot of drama. It was the year of the infamous Game 7. The Lakers’ coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who hated Wilt as much as Wilt hated him, refused to put Wilt in for the final minutes of the game. Wilt had wrenched his knee and hobbled off the court with 5:20 minutes remaining. But with a few minutes left, having iced the knee, Wilt told van Breda Kolff he was ready to reenter the game. But a spiteful Butch Van Breda Kolff left backup center Mel Counts in the game to show that the team could win without Wilt. The Lakers lost and Van Breda Kolff was fired and never got a pro coaching job again.
Bill Simmons in his basketball book implies that Wilt faked the knee injury, so intent was Simmons, a rabid Boston fan, to prove Russell’s superiority over Wilt. In “The Book of Basketball” Simmons writes of Game 7 of the ’69 Finals, and I quote “when Wilt ‘injured’ his knee in ‘crunch’ time.’ ” The implication of those quotations marks around “injured” is a slur on Wilt’s character, implying he really didn’t injure his knee, but faked the injury, that he was a quitter and did not want to face Russell and the Celts in “crunch time.” Nonsense, Mr. Simmons. Wilt wanted back in the game and the coach refused to put him back in. Van Breda Kolff said so after the game. And, years later, when I interviewed him for my book, he confirmed it.
Three weeks after the 1969 Finals, Bill Russell said that he [Russell] would’ve played with a broken arm and implied that Wilt dogged it. Wilt was rightly incensed. As for playing with a severe injury, that is exactly what Wilt did during the Finals in 1972—he played with a broken right wrist, injured when he had fallen in game 4 of the 1972 Finals. Some quitter! Not incidentally, he was named the Final’s Most Valuable Player.
Russell and Wilt had once had been close friends but after Russell’s comment Wilt refused to speak to him for the next 20 years. Finally, Russell privately apologized to Wilt. And then, during a joint interview with Wilt by Bob Costas at the 1997 All-Star game, publicly apologized.
HA: There is a tendency of fans, and Simmons is a fan, to conform the facts to the preconceived notions or outcome.
RC: Anybody, with an open mind, who delves into it would conclude Wilt didn’t dog it. I have the tape of my interview with van Breda Kolff who confirms Wilt wanted to return.
HA: Well, van Breda Kolff’s pride cost him his career. I know Counts hit a few jumpers but the box score shows Wilt had 18 points, 27 rebounds, and shot 7-8 from the field and Counts shot 4-13 from the field.
RC: Criticize Wilt, as I do in my book, but Wilt Chamberlain, who led the league in minutes played a record 8 times, didn’t dog it in game 7. In fact, nine games into the following season (1969-70), he blew out his patellar tendon in that same knee. That injury was likely related to the injury that occurred in Game 7 of the 1968-69 Finals.
The injury was so severe that Wit was told he would never play again. But if you tell Wilt he can’t do something, he wanted to show you that you were wrong. He made it back for the 1969-70 playoffs. That was probably the turning point in Wilt’s relationship with the fans. After the comeback from this injury, people saw how much he tried and cared and there was much more love from the LA fans for the rest of Wilt’s his career.
HA: Let’s go back to Game 7 and theory that Wilt dogged it. I agree with your conclusions but the only argument that could be made against Wilt, and this is more a stretch than a legitimate argument, is that when you evaluate the best of all-time 99% of players would’ve been upset with the benching like Wilt was, but Simmons was probably thinking of Michael Jordan, who literally might’ve strangled his coach in that scenario and would not accept the outcome. Wilt was tough but he wasn’t the scorched earth competitor that Jordan was.
RC: Regarding the game 7 incident, I don’t buy your reasoning. Citing Michael Jordan in this context, I think, with all due respect, you’re giving Bill Simmons too much credit. Having reread the relevant pages of his book recently, I’d said he viewed it as another opportunity to take a whack at Wilt.
HA: I agree with the part that he had to come out but when he was ready….
RC: You mean, when he was ready, Wilt ought to have stood up and screamed, “Put me back in the damn game”
HA: I’m not saying I agree with it but I think that’s the argument.
RC: There is no doubt that Michael Jordan had an intensity that made him Michael Jordan. And that Wilt often said he might have been more ruthless on the court. But that doesn’t apply to the situation in that game 7. The blame lies with van Breda Kolff, whom, by the way, I think was a terrific coach. But not that night.
HA: Wilt was tough and wanted to win but I don’t think his teammates ever feared him physically or his mood swings. He didn’t want to be one of the guys but did want to be liked by his teammates.
RC: There is a quote from Jack McMahon, an NBA player and coach, who said: “The best thing that ever happened to the NBA is that God made Wilt a nice man. He could’ve killed us all with his left hand.” Wilt’s temperament derived, in part, from his upbringing. He came from a loving and stable lower-middle class family. His father was a maintenance man, his mother was a maid until Wilt entered the NBA and bought them a nice house and eventually moved them to Los Angeles.
The late Dick Schaap, a liberal Democrat and the author of many critically acclaimed sports books, said that he liked Russell’s politics more than Wilt’s, who was a Republican. But Wilt was just the more likable of the two, Schaap told me, and he added that Russell was difficult to deal with. Wilt could be high maintenance and bitch about things, and that annoyed coaches and owners and he was not as intense on the court as Jordan or some of the other stars.
Tommy Kearns, who played for North Carolina against Wilt in the famous 1957 NCAA title game, decades later did some business deals with Wilt. They became friends and Kearns visited Wilt in Los Angeles many times. Kearns said that Wilt often said that he [Wilt] regretted that he didn’t take it to Russell harder or wasn’t more aggressive in their matchups.
HA: Speaking of Russell, he was known as a difficult guy at the time. You can observe that his upbringing and how he was treated in Boston caused that. The funny thing is that now Russell is fairly active on Twitter and has shown a sense of humor that the public had not really seen before. How do you think Wilt would’ve dealt with Facebook, Twitter and the way people interact online now?
RC: Wilt would’ve reveled in it. I’m not into Twitter and did not know that Russell was on it and seems mellower. I think, and people who knew them both agreed, that Wilt was more comfortable in his skin than was Russell. God bless Russell if he is more at peace with himself and thus mellower and funnier in his sunset years. Wilt loved gadgets and would’ve been into all the latest technology and apps.
It’s interesting to speculate what his politics would’ve been today. Wilt was socially active and well ahead of his time in speaking his mind, more than probably any other athlete of that era save Muhammad Ali. For example, in 1968, Wilt wrote a book and said it was a mistake that 90-95% of Blacks were in one political party and he criticized the NBA for not having more Black executives, long before people were talking about this issue.
HA: He was complicated politically. He was a big Nixon supporter at a time when Nixon was not considered a friend of the African-American community.
RC: Exactly. He was a contrarian but was thoughtful too. He supported decriminalization of victimless crimes, like marijuana use, gambling, or prostitution. All of which, as I noted in my book, he indulged in. So maybe that’s the reason he supported decriminalization. I say that somewhat facetiously. I think he was serious in his stance. Now, marijuana use is effectively decriminalized. So Wiltie, which his LA friends called him, was ahead of his time, even though he was never into drugs. Wilt was also a big believer in population control and spoke about it often.
As for race, Wilt experienced racism when in his sophomore year he was in the NCAA Tournament in Texas. The management of a hotel wouldn’t let Wilt, or any black, stay in a local hotel due to segregation. Wilt’s coach Dick Sharp refused to stay at the hotel and took the whole team further away from that area. So, racism wasn’t just theoretical to him. Wilt had many friends who were white and Jewish. Though Wilt was not obsessed with race, as his doctor and good friend, the late Stan Lorber, told me, Wilt was proud when Tiger Woods dominated golf. Also, Wilt would, quietly, give money to help Black athletes who needed it, such as a fencer in New York City.
HA: Let’s talk about some of the offbeat Wilt stuff. People don’t remember but after his rookie year, Wilt threatened to retire claiming he was fouled too often.
RC: He threatened to retire but added that he also wanted to be a decathlete and didn’t have the time to train. Dr. Lorber told me that someone offered Wilt a lot of money to tour Europe and compete in track and field events. Wilt changed his mind and decided not to compete and, instead, signed three one-year contracts with the Philadelphia Warriors that made him the highest paid player in sports.
The motivation driving Wilt Chamberlain was his need to demonstrate that he was a great all-around athlete. Which he was. Team sports did not afford him the same opportunity to rely only on himself that track did. I contend that Wilt would’ve set records in the decathlon, if a pole vault circa 1960 or 1964 could’ve supported Wilt’s weight (about 275). The pity is that pro athletes were not permitted to compete in the Olympics back in the day. Track, lest we forget, was Wilt first love. Not basketball.
Wilt would regularly threaten to play in other sports. He talked about signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as an end—and after a tryout Coach Hank Stram said that he would have taken Wilt in a second after seeing him catch a football (some of them one-handed). And there was the time Wilt almost signed to fight Muhammad Ali. These were serious efforts.
I’m not sure fighting Ali would’ve worked out well for Wilt. One sportswriter, at the time, said if they were fighting in a phone booth, Wilt would win, but in a boxing ring Ali would win. After Wilt’s accountant told him, right before signing for the Ali fight, that he [Wilt] could get seriously injured if he fought Ali, Wilt backed out.
The longer I live, the more I realize that the strongest motivating factor of Wilt’s life was his need to prove he was an all-around athlete. And not a one-trick pony.
HA: There was always an element that Wilt was half testing his limits and half seeking better leverage in the NBA.
RC: Yes, that too. But they were serious options and some leverage.
HA: I would’ve loved to see Wilt play in the ABA.
RC: Yes, but the reserve clause prevented him from playing unless he sat out one year, so he coached the San Diego Conquistadors instead. There is a nice anecdote from that time: Wilt walked into practice in an expensive suite and loafers. A ball was stuck in the guide wire and none of the young players, including the 6’11” jumping-jack, Caldwell Jones, could dislodge it. Wilt, grumbling a bit, took off his shoes and, in his bare feet, he jumped up and knocked the ball loose, leaving the players’ mouths agape.
There is another great story when Larry Brown was coaching at UCLA [from 1979 to 1981] that he tells about Wilt. Magic Johnson and a bunch of pros [editor’s note: Byron Scott, Bernard King, A.C. Green, and James Worthy were on Magic’s team] were playing Wilt and a few UCLA freshmen in the Bruin’s gym. Near the end of the game, Magic shoots and calls goaltending on Wilt and says the game is over—his team prevails. Wilt disagrees and after an argument, in which Larry Brown took Wilt’s side, that he did not commit goaltending, Wilt says to Magic, OK, you win but let’s play another game, same teams. This time, according to Brown, Wilt tells Magic that no one on Magic’s team will score. Wilt, 43-years old, blocks almost every shot and shuts out Magic’s team. I love anecdotes like that which show his larger than life personality and ability.
HA: That leads to another stage of Wilt’s post-NBA career, his various flirtations with comebacks with the Knicks, the Cavs, and a few other teams. Colton Jones of Sports Illustrated recently did a great article on the Cavs comeback that fell apart because the intern who was supposed to deliver the contract, left it in a folder jammed into Wilt’s gate. Wilt saw the contract blown around and thought the Cavs were unprofessional. Do you think Wilt was really set on coming back? I know his interest was sincere but do you think part of it was he didn’t really want to bang with a young Moses Malone and other like him?
RC: I think Wilt was insecure about a lot of things and wanted to remind people that he was still a player, in the figurative sense of that word. He would make a point of saying no one was calling Bill Russell to comeback. I’m glad he didn’t. Wilt probably did want to sign with the Knicks for the 1975-76 season, but for complicated legal reasons, which I discuss in my book, he didn’t. Given how much he had going on his life, including playing in a professional volleyball league, I’m not sure how serious he was in 1978, when he was 42, and met with representatives of the Chicago Bulls. Or, in 1979, about playing in Cleveland. I don’t see Wilt leaving LA in the winter time to play in Cleveland, no disrespect meant to that city on the shore of Lake Erie.
HA: I know you’ve written exhaustively about Wilt but is there any particular Wilt issue or story that, if you had the time, you would want to further examine in an essay or article?
RC: Everything I wanted to say about Wilt I said in my book.
HA: In my mind, the only NBA player even somewhat similar to Wilt is Shaq. I know they are not the same player but they are the only two physical forces of nature we have seen like that in the NBA. Is that your sense?
RC: Yes. I would’ve paid a lot to see Wilt and Shaq play each other in their prime. Shaq would’ve gotten his points but it is indisputable that Wilt was a much better rebounder and defensive player. He also had much more stamina than Shaq. I remember Shaq against the 76ers [in 2000-01] NBA Finals. Shaq was slow to get up in down the court at the end of the games in that series but Wilt never slowed down. Shaq is one of the five greatest centers to play the game but Wilt could do more. The other three comprising my top five are Kareem, Bill Russell and Hakeem Olajuwon.
HA: Shaq was strong as anyone I’ve ever seen, maybe even stronger than Wilt.
RC: That I doubt! Watch the YouTube video where Arnold Schwarzenegger says that Wilt was one of the strongest men who ever lived. Schwarzenegger recalls that Wilt picked him up with one hand. There are dozens of YouTube videos in which fellow NBA players and coaches and sportswriters and friends attest to Wilt’s almost super human strength. I love watching them. Regarding Wilt versus Shaq’s strength, the long-time and superb Boston sportswriter, Bob Ryan, is quoted in one video as follows: “You think Shaq is strong? You think Shaq is unstoppable. Let’s put it this way: If Wilt is a battleship, Shaq is a row boat.”
HA: But I would say that Shaq was never super serious and gained a lot of weight. Wilt got bulky but never portly. Wilt always got tweaked for losing to Russell and people questioned Wilt’s dedication but Shaq never got seriously questioned for his commitment.
RC: I agree. It’s unfair to Wilt. Shaq had a great career. He won four titles and had one MVP. My main critique is that both of them needed to improve their foul shooting and didn’t take it seriously enough.
HA: Shaq had the fortune of always playing with great guards that Wilt didn’t get until later in his career.
RC: Shaq has a wonderful personality that kept the criticism from bothering him. Wilt would like to say criticism didn’t bother him but it did eat him up at times. Wilt always needed to be the best at everything .
HA: How do you rate Wilt and Kareem?
RC: I now rank Kareem second to Wilt. There is no denying how great Kareem was, even though he played with greats like Magic, James Worthy, and, in Milwaukee, Oscar Robertson. I go with Wilt because he was a better defender and rebounder. You could definitely make an argument, however, that Kareem was better. Or, stated another way, more valuable for the team than Wilt.
Wilt met Kareem in the playoffs in two series in the early 1970s. Wilt was ten years older, and slowed by the aftermath of a serious knee injury and subsequent operation, yet they played to a draw. Right or wrong, I imagine that a younger Wilt would’ve had the edge.
HA: Kareem was skinnier and could be physically overpowered by the really strong centers like Wilt or Moses Malone in his prime. Moses used his large backside to move around Kareem in the 1982-83 Finals but Kareem could score from further away and didn’t miss foul shots.
RC: Let me turn into the questioner for a second. If you were the GM of an NBA team and you had a choice between Wilt, Kareem, or Shaq, who would fit in best with a team today? I won’t hold your answer against you!
HA: They would all fit in well. There are a few traditional centers today that have quite a bit of value. Rudy Gobert is valuable but needs to come out depending on the offensive match ups. If I had to choose one of those three, I would probably take Kareem, since he can hit foul shots and had no drama with his coaches.
RC: Interesting. Sports, like history, is an argument without end.
HA: It was a great conversation. Thanks for talking with me again.
RC: Always glad to do it.