Measuring Up to Wilt Chamberlain May Take More Than Stats

From a courtside folding chair at Fiserv Forum, where Dick Garrett has assisted fans as a Milwaukee Bucks employee for more than two decades, he recently watched Giannis Antetokounmpo toy with the Washington Wizards, levitating above the rim as if he were frolicking in a slam-dunk contest.

“Fifty-five points and he was doing it so easily, like no one could even challenge him,” Garrett said. “I’m thinking, ‘Geez, he’s a man playing against boys.’ ”

Not unlike what he witnessed, but with an even better view, more than a half-century ago.

Such physical dominance took Garrett back to his rookie N.B.A. season, 1969-70, with the Los Angeles Lakers. In a postseason run to a Game 7 finals loss to the Knicks, he lobbed passes into the post from his backcourt position to the man best known as Wilt, in that familiar one-name tribute to fame.

This season, Antetokounmpo, among others, has been drawing enough statistical comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain — who scored a record 100 points in a game and averaged a mind-boggling 50 per game for a season — to wonder if the sport has ascended to its most exceptional athletic plane.

Or, if its video-game mimicry is as much or more the result of competitive engineering.

Take a significantly expanded area of attack due to rampant 3-point shooting; open up driving lanes to the physically blessed and skilled likes of Antetokounmpo to score or find open teammates on the perimeter. What you get is an array of eye-opening individual stat lines in a league where team scoring has soared by roughly 15 points from where it was a decade ago.

On Dec. 30, Garrett watched Antetokounmpo manhandle the Minnesota Timberwolves for 43 points and 20 rebounds, two nights after notching 45 points and 22 rebounds against the Bulls in Chicago. Antetokounmpo’s seven assists in Chicago and five against Minnesota made him the first player to record at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and 5 assists in consecutive games since, well, Wilt.

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of several players who have put up Wilt-like stat lines this season.Credit…Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Antetokounmpo, with his seven-foot frame and elastic wingspan that can optically delude one into thinking he scratches the ceiling, is indeed what Garrett called the ringleader of a “big man revolution.”

It hasn’t just been the tallest of the league’s elite — Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic in Denver, Joel Embiid in Philadelphia — whose statistical bingeing has reintroduced Chamberlain, who died in 1999, into the N.B.A. discourse.

When Luka Doncic, Dallas’s 6-foot-7 do-everything Slovenian import, strafed the Knicks for 60 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists in a comeback overtime victory late last month, commentators breathlessly noted that no one, not even Wilt, had ever posted such a line.

Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame guard who broadcasts Knicks games and once shared a backcourt with Garrett at Southern Illinois, has an idea why.

“What you mostly see now are guys running up and down, dunking on people,” he said in a telephone interview. “Only a few teams buckle down on defense. They don’t double-team when someone goes off. When someone came in and dropped 40 on me, it was always, ‘Clyde got destroyed.’ Now Doncic scores 60 and no one even says who was guarding him.”

Frazier, 77, was echoing recent laments on the state of the sport from the old-school coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. It’s no surprise that appreciation, or lack thereof, for the contemporary N.B.A. would break down along generational lines. For those who played with or against Chamberlain, he is basketball’s Babe Ruth, the game’s all-time goliath. Everyone has a tale, perhaps on the tall side, to tell.

Billy Cunningham, 79, a Hall of Famer and Chamberlain’s teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers, cited the night Gus Johnson, a very strong forward for the Baltimore Bullets, went at Wilt with every intention of dunking over him as he’d done earlier in the game.

Chamberlain didn’t just block the shot, Cunningham said: “He actually caught the ball, and while Gus went to the floor, he just stood there holding it over his head.”

However grainy the video, however dorky the short shorts, do not try to convince Cunningham and company that what Chamberlain achieved was the result of an ancient, inferior era. They will remind you that he averaged 45.8 minutes per game for his career and seldom sat one out, in stark contrast to the more coddled modern star — who, in fairness, represents a far greater financial investment to protect.

But when a knee injury limited Chamberlain to 12 regular-season games in 1969-70, he returned for all 18 playoff games to average 22.1 points, 22.2 rebounds and 47.3 minutes per game. And this, Garrett reminded, was Chamberlain at 33, several years removed from when he could run like the track-and-field star he had been at the University of Kansas — as freakish an athlete as the Greek version, Antetokounmpo.

Chamberlain and the Lakers lost to the Knicks in the N.B.A. finals in 1970 but beat them two years later, giving Chamberlain his second championship.Credit…Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images

It is foolish to think that professional athletes aren’t physically enhanced from a half-century ago, if only for their weight training and nutrition. As Garrett said: “You look at the size of Giannis — who’s not as strong as Wilt or even Shaquille O’Neal. But he and a few of these other big guys, they’re athletic enough to play like smaller guys, and that’s what’s changed.”

Having played with Elgin Baylor on the Lakers, and watched from up close the modern-day smaller and midsize players, Garrett said: “I honestly think the wing players and guards are pretty similar in what they do.”

But, he added, in comparison with Wilt’s time: “The way Giannis and some others are scoring, the level of resistance is not the same. I don’t know if that’s for the better or not.”

Now the league eagerly awaits the arrival of the latest in a parade of big men from abroad who have, along with the likes of Kevin Durant, dramatically altered positional perception. France’s Victor Wembanyama may be the next greatest thing or at least Kristaps Porzingis 2.0. But for every progression in size, skills and worldwide production of talent, the old guard will judiciously argue that theirgame was fundamentally sounder, tactically superior, defensively stouter.

They will remind you that when Wilt averaged 50.4 points per game for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961-62, team scoring was at 118.8 points per game — or five points per game higher than this season. And that was when there was hand-checking, hard fouls and other generous interpretations of traveling rules.

Wilt established four of the top five season-scoring averages while clanking half his free throws and, as Cunningham noted, “when there were only eight or nine teams and he had to play against Bill Russell 10 times a year.”

Conversely, in Wilt’s time, the flow of African American talent into the N.B.A. was limited by a de facto quota system, which no doubt affected the league’s overall quality.

Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics posts up against Chamberlain during a game in 1968.Credit…Dick Raphael/NBAE, via Getty Images

Cunningham conceded that comparisons are, beyond futile, “almost unfair because everything is so different. The game in all sports now is about entertainment.”

The bottom line: The more cash that pours into sports, the more tinkering there will be to satisfy contemporary highlight tastes, especially those of younger fans who drive internet clicks, fantasy leagues, merchandise sales and the newest revenue deity: online gambling. In a league where regular-season relevance has been dampened by injuries and load-management caution, and further diluted by recent postseason expansion, why so many games have taken on the eye candy nature of all-star games is no great mystery, just calculated marketing.

For Frazier, who quarterbacked the acclaimed 1970 and 1973 championship Knicks, the playoffs are when the bridge between old and new is rebuilt. “That’s when the continuity and defense that we older guys love does return,” he said.

Only then, perhaps, can we gain a meaningful perspective on the historical numbers game currently in play, and on how to more accurately measure the young wannabes against Wilt.

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