Despite playing over half a century ago, Wilt Chamberlain is often one of the first names to come to mind when considering all-time great Jayhawks.
“The Big Dipper” had one of the most statistically impressive careers in college basketball history. In his two years with the varsity team, Chamberlain led Kansas to a combined record of 42-8 and a Final Four. His 1,433 career points rank him just 25th all-time, but that number is misleading when considering he played just two seasons. As a result, he owns the highest career scoring average with 29.9 points per game.
Chamberlain came to Kansas in 1955. As was customary, he began his career on the freshman team. He made his impact felt soon, though, as in his first scrimmage against the varsity team, Chamberlain dropped 42 points, 29 rebounds and four blocks. His strong play soon gained the attention of legendary Jayhawks coach Phog Allen, who was one of the main reasons behind his decision to come to Kansas.
He wouldn’t get a chance to play under Allen, however, as by the next year the 40-year veteran coach had retired. Chamberlain didn’t let it affect him, averaging 29.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game in his first varsity season.
Despite never getting the chance to coach Chamberlain at the varsity level, Allen knew that he was going to be a special player.
"He easily has greater possibilities than any player we ever had here," Allen said in a 1955 Sporting News article by Don Pierce. "He has coordination, can run and can jump. He can do everything.”
This success rolled over into his junior year, as he posted an equally-spectacular 30.1 points and 17.5 rebounds per game. His game was built off of his sheer physical dominance, which elevated him to a level unparalleled by his peers at the time.
"A fan simply can't realize the effect of such an overpowering man,” Allen told Pierce. “He just paralyzes smaller players.”
Unfortunately for Kansas, that was the end of Chamberlain’s career in Lawrence. Allegedly due to his strained relationship with Allen’s replacement Dick Harp, Chamberlain left the team and University after his junior year. Due to NBA rules, he had to wait until his scheduled graduation year to enter the draft. So, instead of his senior year of college, Chamberlain opted to sign on to play with the Harlem Globetrotters for one year before heading to the pros.
To get an idea of Chamberlain’s legendary status in his time, consider this lede from Pierce’s aforementioned article:
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The greatest basketball player in the game today, greater than Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit and Neil Johnston of the pros and Bill Russell and Robin Freeman of the collegians! Greater, perhaps, than any player who ever lived; so good, in fact, that the rules are certain to be rewritten to curb this fabulous performer.
Now, consider that Pierce wrote such praise before Chamberlain had even played his full freshman season. Barely 19 years old, he was already known as one of the greats before he even suited up for the varsity team.
In the NBA, Chamberlain continued to grow his legacy. After 15 seasons, he finished averaging 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game. He owns the all-time highest career rebounding average in NBA history, and is second in scoring to only Michael Jordan. The peak of his career (and arguably the peak of all individual performances ever) came in 1962, when he scored 100 points in a single game for the Philadelphia Warriors.
Chamberlain passed away in 1999 at 63. Less than two years prior, he made his final appearance in Allen Fieldhouse for his jersey retirement.
Despite not publicly returning to the Fieldhouse since leaving for the Globetrotters, he claimed to have no qualms with the Jayhawks or the University. The root of his absence was much more internalized.
“A little over 40 years ago, I lost what I thought was the toughest battle in sports: losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels by one point in triple-overtime (in the national championship),” Chamberlain said in his jersey retirement speech. “It was a devastating thing for me, because I felt as though I let the University of Kansas down, and my teammates down.”
It’s understandable as to why Chamberlain felt this way. For a player as dominant as him, the expectations must have been astronomical. To fall just one point short in triple overtime could have only made the feeling worse. But, the wound is one that has healed over time.
“I’ve learned over the years that you must learn to take the bitter with the sweet…and how sweet this is right here,” Chamberlain said, looking at his newly-hung jersey in the rafters.
Chamberlain’s name has been forever etched in Jayhawk history. As arguably the greatest scorer, rebounder and athlete the program has ever seen, he’s consistently one of the first names to come to mind when considering the greatest players to ever don the crimson and blue. To be such a pivotal piece of such a rich history and tradition, Chamberlain is eternally grateful.
“I’m a Jayhawk, and I know now why there’s so much tradition here, and so many wonderful things have come from here,” Chamberlain said. “I’m now very much a part of it by being (retired), and very proud of it. Rock Chalk Jayhawk.”