Rich Hofmann | Kobe's great, Wilt was better

Posted: March 28, 2007

"FREE THROWS: Despite scoring 15 in the first period, Wilt failed to hit 50 for the first time in eight games . . . "

- First note tacked onto the end of the Inquirer game story, Dec. 31, 1961.

LADIES AND gentlemen, the winner and still champion . . . Wilt Chamberlain.

Only he could be so good that he bored people with his excellence.

It really does need to be said more often - how revolutionary Chamberlain was, and how different his times were - and the occasion of Kobe Bryant scoring 50 points in four consecutive games before failing in the fifth game Sunday night gives us all the chance.

Because by the time Bryant had reached three straight 50-point games, it was a big national story. But when Chamberlain set the record with seven consecutive 50-point games for the then-Philadelphia Warriors, it was barely noted. In some place, it was dismissed as too easy. In a season when Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game, there was no celebration, no wonder, no wow.

In the midst of the streak, there was even a story in the Inquirer that talked about how the Warriors' average home attendance had dropped to 4,467, their lowest in six seasons. Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb was actually asked if things might be better if the NBA got rid of the 24-second clock and the ban on zone defenses - and if the Warriors got rid of Chamberlain.

"What do you think would happen if we got rid of him?" Gottlieb said. "Do you think they'd come out then? Not if we lose they wouldn't . . .

"I don't think it's the rules and I don't think it's because people are getting tired of Chamberlain. I think all that talk about zone defense is a joke. I think the big trouble is the race [in the NBA's Eastern Division]. I know if we were up in the running we'd sell a lot more tickets."

But such was the man and his times and his city. Ground beef was 43 cents a pound at the A & P. Eagles tickets in the East stands at Franklin Field were raised from $3 to $4. The pope was John XXIII. Wilt scored 50. Yawn.

You look at the game stories. Many were from road games that were not staffed by the papers. And they bore an odd similarity to each other.

From one:

"The disappointed Cincinnati Garden crowd of 4080 saw the big man account for 57 points, but it was the clutch play of teammates Tom Gola and Guy Rodgers that made his points worthwhile in the final reckoning . . . "

From another:

"Wilt Chamberlain won his personal scoring war with Elgin Baylor, but it was substitute York Larese who delivered the clutch shooting that helped the Warriors take a 123-118 decision over the Los Angeles Lakers in a National Basketball Association game at the Hershey Arena before 4891 Friday night. Chamberlain tallied 60 points . . . "

It is as if they were going out of their way not to talk about Chamberlain, as if his routine dominance was such a given that anything and anybody else were needed to tell a compelling story. It is more than 45 years now, and it is so hard to understand.

You do have to acknowledge this: It is harder to score 50 points in an NBA game now than it was then. There can be no argument there. They play zone defense in the NBA now, and the whole notion of rotating to help on defense has progressed miles from 1961 to now. It is harder. It just is.

Look at the average box score back then. In the seven consecutive games in 1961 when Wilt scored 50 or more, the two teams combined for an average of 214 field-goal attempts and 73 free throws. Compare that to the Lakers' four games when Kobe scored his 50 or more. The teams averaged 176 field-goal attempts and 52 free throws.

It is obvious how many more possessions there were in an NBA game back then. If Bryant had managed to beat that old record in these modern times, it really would have been outrageous. As it is, four games with 50-plus and one game with 43 is reasonably ridiculous. It is deserving of every bit of the attention that it received.

But Kobe still does not touch Wilt. Their high schools were 3 1/2 miles apart - some would argue a much greater distance, but I don't have the energy for that whole street cred thing right now - and there is a very good argument to be made that they are the two greatest basketball players every produced by this basketball place.

But some things have not changed, not in all of this time. *

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