WWWD: What Would Wilt Do?
While recently vacationing at Sunset Beach (Cabo), among other things I read The Gulag Archipelago; Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox; and A View From Above, the latter the autobiography of Wilt Chamberlain. If you were to 1) measure the extent to which Joseph Stalin, George Armstrong Custer, and Phillip Sheridan were self-absorbed, 2) add those hypothetical numbers together and 3) multiply by 10, you would still not come close to whatever the number was for Wilt. But, considering all his other statistics, I’m sure he’d want it that way.
Prone to hyperbole, occasionally self-contradictory, but always certain he was right, Wilt gave opinions on everything.
Wilt had some insightful things to say about non-basketball topics. For example, the fact that three lanes of traffic (imagine the Renton S-curves) are bumper-to-bumper burning considerable gas-per-mile while going start-and-stop, averaging five miles per hour, but commuter lane traffic is sparse, suggests that Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, somebody, should be mass-producing light, inexpensive, single-passenger commuter cars that get gas mileage similar to a motorcycle. With what’s going on in Iran (but not going on in Alaska, Canada and the Gulf), Wilt, we may finally be there.
Wilt Chamberlain, the guy who went an entire career without a single game in which he had less than double digit rebounds, obviously also had a lot of basketball insight. On size, for example. Size has never been a basketball panacea according to Chamberlain.
“Let me tell you that unless you are a seven-footer you don’t have a clue about how things like body control, quickness, stamina, and speed are usually lacking. Those are small people’s attributes.”
Later he says, “Not till you are a seven-footer can you really understand how hard it is…to negotiate a slalom course…or even to just roller skate…the 80 pound, four foot eight inch bundle of dynamite on the balance beam…she is the one with all the advantages.” Except in basketball, of course.
A Center In Swingman’s Clothing
Chamberlain said a good big man needs to be almost like a swingman in a larger body. Relative quickness, foot speed (I’ve seen the Big Dipper go coast-to-coast), hand speed, soft hands and savvy court vision are necessities. As implied above, Wilt made the point that size without versatility only results in embarrassment, while with versatility, size enables domination.
“The [Goodwill Games] Europeans who were killing the Americans were the six-eight, six-nine, six-ten shooting forwards who could hit the three-point shot and also rebound.”
When the Husky Bigs scrimmage against each other, the most effective scorer is usually seldom-mentioned Jernard Jerreau because he is versatile. Some fans have expressed hope that next season Jerreau will remind fans of Oklahoma Thunder forward Kevin Durant. Durant? Perhaps among current NBA players – but the comparison is still a bit weak. A better comparison might be a taller Keith Wilkes.
Wilt changed the rules of the game. He was the man responsible for the goal-tending rule, lanes being widened and no inbound passes over the backboard. But in spite of rules meant to corral Chamberlain, Wilt made it his mission to never foul out of a game and, like most everything else, he was successful.
“It was not by accident that I never fouled out of a game, either. I was taught early in my career by an old Philly coach that my value was on the court, not on the bench…So I worked extremely hard from making dumb, over-the-back fouls.”
The whole foul thing is a game in itself but someone good at playing basketball also knows how to play the foul game.
Raw-talented Aziz N’Diaye has been learning to play the foul game and is obviously getting better. Aziz is getting better at a lot of things. While Wilt held himself to standards higher than those of most other NBA players, Wilt was empathetic and tried to be on best of terms with all other players (the night he scored 100 points against the Knicks, he got a ride back to his NY apartment with three Knicks players who good-naturedly complained the whole way about his phenomenal night – when he got out of the car, with a smile he thanked them for the ride and the 100 points) although off-the-court comments by his two primary competitors, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, did not always make it easy.
On the subject of N’Diaye, when Aziz made that steal against Arizona two weeks ago, essentially passing the ball to himself, driving to the basket and slamming it home, were Wilt still alive and in attendance, like everyone else, Chamberlain would have been pleased – but not because it was a sensational play by a big man (not known for sensational plays). From reading the book, it would be because, in Wilt’s rarified world, that was what he would have expected to do if the opportunity arose, and Wilt would have been delighted to see the seven-foot N’Diaye doing something like Wilt.
All Washington fans are delighted N’Diaye is beginning to realize his potential. Chamberlain averaged 23 rebounds and 30 points per game during his NBA career; the scoring average would have been higher but coaches during the latter years asked him to score less and assist more (in 1968, Chamberlain led the NBA in assists – while still averaging nearly 25 rebounds and 25 points per game). N’Diaye has some physical gifts not common among big men. If N’Diaye (in the Pac-12) could average half of what Wilt averaged (in the NBA), Aziz would be reaching his potential.
Some will naysay: N’Diaye doesn’t have that kind of potential. He does; it goes back to what Chamberlain said about versatility. And something else: basketball smarts.
Chamberlain said, “When the [young] athlete is faster, stronger or taller than his opponent, he depends on those attributes; more often than not the athlete relies on them too much. As a result, these natural attributes keep the athlete from becoming more diverse, more of a complete player…Larry Bird and Dominque Wilkins [a phenomenal leaper] are classic examples…One of them always thinks his jumping ability is enough; the other knows he has to do something else to get that ball [Bird had superior rebounding stats].”
As N’Diaye continues to work on variations of “something else”, further enhancing his God-given talent, the gradual improvement in his play should be rewarding for N’Diaye, Washington and fans. Thirteen points and thirteen rebounds per game is a realistic expectation. It will depend on how much Aziz can emulate Larry.
On the subject of playing smart, Wilt wasn’t just writing about other players; he was also writing about himself (his favorite subject) as an example. He was blessed with unique size and athleticism but Wilt was also blessed with intelligence, and he knew he had to work hard physically and mentally to perfect his talent. That obviously paid extraordinary dividends in the NBA.
Other examples, are Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas. Both had physical skills, certainly, but what set them apart was court awareness. When watching Thomas, watching his eyes, he was always on top of what was happening, what his options were, what his options weren’t. After Roy left Washington, Roy’s basketball IQ was readily apparent during his NBA rookie season and thereafter, as is Isaiah’s presently.
Wilt pointed out the paradox that when a team wins, in the eyes of the fans the team played well – regardless of how poorly certain things may have been executed, or whatever bone-headed mistakes may have been made. More realistically, however, according to Wilt, it’s playing smart, not hoping to get lucky (although luck is good), that wins games.
Talent and winning
From top-to-bottom, this is probably the most talented team Lorenzo Romar has had. Perhaps in the past there have been better starters, e.g., Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Isaiah Thomas, Jon Brockman, but when we look at the whole 2012 team including the bench (and redshirts for that matter), this team is the most impressive aggregate athletic group to come along. Wilt discusses (and the reader has no doubt seen) smart, mature, confident, hustling teams with inferior athletes that beat superior athletic teams with inferior team proficiency.
The goal, of course, is to have a superior athletic base develop into a cohesive, high-octane unit (with a high combined basketball IQ) that goes deep into the NCAA tournament. The other Huskies, the Connecticut Huskies, did that at the end of last season, coming together, winning the NCAA Championship in spite of a regular season finish in the middle of the Big East Conference. The key to success, as Wilt has implied, is for the talented Washington Huskies to develop confidence and maturity, and wind up playing fluidly, intensely and, especially, smart.
Wilt had some other interesting comments. He didn’t like showboating (sometime watch the musical Showboat with embarrassing racial stereotypes, and compare with present showboating behavior). While Chamberlain liked natural “flair” (he used Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan as examples), going beyond that was not O.K.
Chamberlain said, “When I was playing…you respected your opponent, you did nothing overtly to embarrass him, and you believed in fair play. Today too many athletes are not sportsmen but assholes…I understand enthusiasm and I’m all for it, but these things are in bad taste and should not be accepted.”
That from the athlete who, of all athletes, might have had the most justification for showboating.
Chamberlain also warned of the “entourage,” the hangers-on whose best interest usually does not coincide with the athlete’s best interest (I also think of Whitney Houston as I type this). Wilt said that while the size of an athlete’s entourage may increase the athletes’ self-perception of importance, all it really does is demonstrate overcompensation for feelings of inferiority. Wilt added that the best NBA players do not have entourages – so if you have an entourage, you’re not there. He went on to describe a seminal type in a typical entourage.
“You’re also surrounded by parasites who will appear day and night and be at your beck and call, no matter what. You get confused as to who’s a friend and who’s a parasite because a lot of parasites are pros at what they do – they can fool you, believe me.”
“There are not enough people in the world who are willing to give you a lift without taking you for a ride,” was a “Wiltism” in the book. Wilt added he never wanted any “yes-men,” people who would tell him what they thought he wanted to hear as opposed what he needed to hear.
Tony Wroten has been exposed to some of this stuff, and continually told how good he is, since the eighth grade. He has had the good fortune thus far of having caring people, including Lorenzo Romar, screening him from grasping, heartless users. Hopefully by the time he goes pro, he’ll have enough maturity and experience to make the right decisions. Eschewing an entourage would be a good start.
What Would Wilt Do?
Washington is presently 13 – 3 in league play with a chance to go much further than many expected. If Wilt were on the team, what would he do at this moment? He’d encourage the team, including the bench, to become stone-cold focused, and prepared to play with as much physical but especially mental intensity as they can muster.
Above all, they must play smarter, avoiding stupid mistakes, fouls, turnovers, the little things that, added up, can lose a game for Washington.
He’d encourage Coach Romar to use, from among a team of excellent athletes, the line-up that gets the best results, that is, the smartest lineup. The smartest line-up isn’t always the most obvious line-up. Chamberlain tells how, immediately following All-Pro Elgin Baylor’s early retirement (he retired rather than agreeing to come off the bench), the Lakers went on a 33-game winning streak, finishing the season at 69 – 13. Taking the job after Bob Hopkins was fired, Lenny Wilkins initially shook-up the Sonics lineup significantly en route to the NBA play-offs. Determining the smartest line-up (at any given moment) is probably Lorenzo Romar’s biggest challenge. Ultimately, however, while smart teams with inferior athletic ability can beat undisciplined teams with superior ability, smart teams with superior athletic ability usually do very well.
Washington has the athletes. For Washington to go any considerable distance, as reiterated throughout his book, Wilt Chamberlain most strongly suggests playing intensive, smart basketball.
Oh, One More Thing
20,000 women? That’s what he wrote. He gave an example of five in one day while in Hawai’i. Considering what some young women will do for seedy rock stars, I suppose five is possible for someone like Wilt. But how likely is 20,000? And not a single pregnancy or paternity suit? How likely is that? No doubt the Dipper did often (it’s a pun) but, as is evident throughout the book, the most dominating basketball player of all time could still be unnecessarily prone to hyperbole. On the other hand, what Chamberlain did on the basketball court says volumes, and because of that, when Wilt speaks to the issues above, people should listen.