Chamberlain's big mistake

Pro basketball's great rookie quits at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons



After a five-month season, during which they clearly demonstrated that they are the best team in professional basketball, the Boston Celtics are now being called on to prove their national superiority once again in the East-West playoffs this week against the St. Louis Hawks.

But nothing that is likely to occur in the playoffs can match in importance Wilt Chamberlain's announcement—after Boston beat Philadelphia last week for the eastern championship—that he is quitting the sport. Chamberlain would not have issued such a statement if Philadelphia had won. He says that his decision to quit comes as no surprise to Philadelphia Owner Eddie Gottlieb. But it certainly does. Only a few days before the announcement Chamberlain and Gottlieb had reached verbal agreement on a three-year contract under which Chamberlain would have been paid, in salary, more than any professional athlete in history—about $100,000 a year.

He is worth it. In his first year as a pro he set new records in every important department of the game and has now won every award worth winning. He drew 500,000 new fans into NBA arenas around the country; singlehandedly, and in one season, he made basketball a paying attraction for people who, before he appeared, wouldn't have attended a game with complimentary tickets. He is as valuable to this sport as Babe Ruth was to baseball, but he is quitting at the wrong time and for the worst possible reasons.

All season long he has complained about the rough treatment he has received from rival players who, he claims, have been fouling him consistently without being penalized by the NBA's referees. But the facts refute him. No pro basketball player ever has been awarded as many free throws as Chamberlain shot this year. He had 991, about 14 every game. What apparently has annoyed him—and it certainly should—is that he also set a new record for missing free throws. He hit on only 577 for a terrible 58%. (If he had made a reasonable number of free throws consistently, Philadelphia would have won some of the games it lost by narrow margins.)

Chamberlain knew very well that he would be the target for every kind of legal and illegal defense. In baseball pitchers do not throw at the heads of the weak hitters; in football the best passers and toughest runners are the ones dumped hardest. But the champions—the Jackie Robinsons and Charley Conerleys—do not quit. When Bill Russell came to the NBA, with advance billing as the best defender and rebounder in college basketball, every pro front-court man with half a muscle tested him severely. Russell didn't quit. This is not to imply that Chamberlain lacks courage. It is to say that he lacks judgment. He is still the same impetuous kid who wanted to quit college basketball (in his sophomore year) after his Kansas team lost the final NCAA championship game to North Carolina in 1957. "Wilt," says one of his close friends, "has never grown up. For as long as he can remember he's always been 'Wilt the Stilt' and 'The Big Dipper,' and everything's come pretty easy for him. You don't grow up when it's that easy. He sulks when things go wrong, and he says things he doesn't really mean. Then he gets stubborn and sticks by them. He may have trouble getting out of this jam, but I'd bet he changes his mind and plays for Philadelphia next season. His pride will bring him back—that and all that money."


In quitting, Chamberlain also implied that problems connected with his being a Negro contributed to his decision. It is certainly true that he—and every other Negro player—encounters intemperance and prejudice from some fans and occasionally even from rival white players. It took courage and strength of spirit for Chamberlain to face the fact that some Americans will pay to watch him play basketball in St. Louis, for example, but will not allow him to eat a hamburger in a restaurant a few blocks from the arena. If Chamberlain wants to register his feelings about such indignities by quitting, that is his right. But is it the wise decision? At the very least, the question is debatable. Chamberlain says he would be serving Negroes poorly if he got into fights with white players on the court. This, too, is doubtful. Among millions of Americans who look upon him—and Russell, Willie Naulls, Oscar Robertson, K. C. Jones, et al.—as an athlete without regard to race, he loses very little of his stature when he loses his temper. All sensible people connected with basketball deplored the incident shown in the picture at left, but none was concerned because of the fact that Chamberlain is a Negro. Wilt is a fool if he worries about those people who make capital out of a Negro-white player squabble at a tense moment in a basketball game.

All in all, the sport will be poorer without him, if he sticks to his decision, and he will lose a great deal of the nationwide respect he has earned in a brief career.

In Philadelphia's deciding game with Boston last week, Wilt was nowhere near as effective as he has been all year, during which he frequently outplayed the Celtics' Bill Russell (thus settling basketball's biggest preseason argument). But in that deciding game, Russell rose to the critical occasion and did a magnificent defensive job on him, keeping the ball away from Wilt often and beating him to the good position on the floor. Still, Philadelphia almost defeated the champions in the marvelous sixth game chiefly because of a great performance by Guy Rodgers, who had 31 points, five more than Chamberlain. Boston won with its bench. The Jones boys, Sam and K. C, repeatedly came into the game to stop Philadelphia's momentum and upset its attack. These two may well be the deciding factor in the final series with St. Louis, which has little reserve backcourt strength now that Slater Martin is injured. Boston also has every reason to expect a few good games at this stage from its superb veterans—Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman—both of whom were way below par in the playoffs with Philadelphia.