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“Wilt Chamberlain had a great deal to do with the success of the NBA,” said Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ long-time coach, general manager and president. “His dominance, power, demeanor and the rivalry with Bill Russell says it all.”
Another ex-Celtic, Hall of Fame forward Tom Heinsohn, put it succinctly: “There would be no NBA without Wilt.”
At least not the way we know it.
Chamberlain is the reason the NBA’s foul lane is 16 feet wide. It was 12 feet when Chamberlain entered the league in 1959, and the 7-foot-1, 275-pounder captured both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors by setting up shop in the low post, then using his strength to lean in on opponents and lay the ball in the basket with his soft finger-roll.
After five years of watching Chamberlain score virtually at will, the powers-that-be added four feet to the width of the lane to make it a little tougher on him. Chamberlain responded by perfecting a turn-around jumper.
Chamberlain is responsible for changes in rules as well as court dimensions. When he was playing college ball at Kansas, his teammates’ favorite play was to lob the ball toward the basket, hoping simply to get it in the vicinity of the rim. Chamberlain would roll to the hoop, catch whatever came within his enormous wingspan and slam it home. His rivals couldn’t stop him, so the rules-makers outlawed offensive basket interference, preventing Chamberlain from touching the ball in the cylinder above the rim. That rule remains in effect to this day, in both the college and pro games, though it is widely ignored in today’s offense-starved NBA when it comes to alley-oop passes, many of which are caught in the cylinder.
Rulemakers also banned the practice of lobbing the ball in from the baseline directly over the backboard so a player — read: Chamberlain — couldn’t catch it near the basket in position for an easy score.
Chamberlain was an athlete of magnificent ability and mammoth ego, one of those rare figures who truly transcended his sport. “He is Babe Ruth all over again,” said Eddie Gottlieb, the long-time president of the Warriors and one of the NBA’s founders, who convinced — some would say finagled — his peers into allowing Philadelphia to obtain the rights to Chamberlain as a territorial pick when he graduated Overbrook High School in 1955, even though it would be four years before he would be eligible to play in the league. “You can have my first-round pick four years from now; I want Chamberlain,” Gottlieb told them, knowing Chamberlain would be worth the wait.
Indeed, Chamberlain redefined basketball the way Ruth redefined baseball. He stretched the dimensions of the game, expanded its possibilities.