Barry vs. the Babe . . . Wilt vs. Shaq
I saw Wilt play often in his prime, and I don’t agree at all, but before I get into particulars, I’d like to talk a little about how I make comparisons.
Generally speaking, I try to make comparisons within a player’s era. Let’s look at two examples: Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, the dominant players of their eras.
Ruth was the first hitter to hit 30 home runs, the first to hit 40, the first to hit 50, the first to hit 60. In his breakout year of 1920, when he hit 54 homers, the next best in the American League was George Sisler, at 19. When Ruth hit 59 in 1921, the second-best mark was 23, by Ken Williams. When he hit 60 in 1927, Lou Gehrig had 47 and the third-best mark was 18 by Tony Lazzeri, another Yankee. The Yankees had 158 homers that year, but no other team in the league equaled Ruth’s 60.
All of Ruth’s records have been broken since, but when he was in his prime, nobody else was close.
Bonds, too, has been dominant, but not quite to that extent. He holds the season home run record of 73, but Mark McGwire had seasons of 70 and 65, and Sammy Sosa had years of 66. 64 and 63.
Ruth, of course, played in an era before the color line was broken, and the influx of great black players in the ‘50s and Latino players in the last couple of decades shows what a difference that can make. He also didn’t have to cope with night baseball, or day games after night games So, with Ruth and Bonds, you’re not comparing like to like, which is why I’d say Ruth was the dominant hitter of his era and Bonds has been the dominant hitter of his – and leave it at that.
Similarly, in football, people argue about the best quarterback and, again, I think you have to look at it by eras because the game has changed so much in the last 60 years. I’d rank Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach and Joe Montana the best of their respective eras – though a very strong case could be made for John Elway in the last era. Dan Marino had the best statistics but Montana and Elway won, which is the same criterion that shapes the current debate with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Who’s the best? I’ve seen all but Graham but wouldn’t want to rank them. Montana, Elway and Staubach were all known for their comeback victories, but Graham was in the championship game every one of his 10 seasons, which should count for something.
IN BASKETBALL, there’s a clear divide between the era since the 24-second shot clock was adopted in 1954 and everything that went before it.
The key player in the pre-shot clock era was George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, whose size (6-10, 240) and strength overwhelmed everybody. The Lakers played very deliberately, waiting until Mikan got down the floor, often after clearing a defensive rebound, and set up in the low post. The ball would go into him and Big George would bully his way to the basket.
In 1950, Mikan was voted the best basketball player of the first 50 years of the century, but the 24-second clock doomed him. He retired soon after it was adopted because he couldn’t function in the speeded-up game. At best, he’d be a backup center if he were playing today.
The players who started coming into the NBA in mid-decade in the ‘50s, many of them black, were superior athletes. Bill Russell was the ultimate defensive center with his sense of when to jump to block a shot. Elgin Baylor was the first player to play the in-the-air game that made the NBA so exciting. If he’d played in this era, Oscar Robertson would have jumped from high school to the NBA and soon have been a star, with his combination of shooting and playmaking. Jerry West was “Mr. Clutch,” with an unstoppable jump shot.
It’s easier to make judgments in basketball than in football, where systems often have as much to do with a player’s success as his own play. In basketball, everything is right in front of you. I’ve been watching the NBA since 1963 and I’m convinced that the best players of the earlier era, and especially Russell, Baylor, Chamberlain, Robertson and West, would be just as good in today’s game.
That doesn’t necessarily mean their statistics would be quite as gaudy because there’s much more of a slow-paced, half-court game now, except for blessed exceptions like the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and, when they’ve had the players, Sacramento Kings. Wilt would still score a high percentage of his team’s points, but when he scored 100, his team’s total was 168. We won’t see that again in our lifetime.
Wilt was an amazing athlete, not just a big man playing basketball. He high jumped and ran the quarter-mile for the track team at Kansas and had visions of trying the decathlon. Can you imagine Shaquille O’Neal doing that? He played point guard in his one year with the Harlem Globetrotters.
He seemingly could do whatever he wanted. He played 48 minutes a game, so he concentrated on scoring and rebounding in his early NBA years, but when he chose to, he could also play defense. When Walt Bellamy came into the league, in his first game against the Warriors, Wilt blocked his first nine shots.
COMPARISONS CAN be made between stars from that earlier era and those who came later – Baylor with Julius Ervng, Robertson with Michael Jordan, for instance – but I’ve never seen anyone quite like Chamberlain.
Wilt was smaller than O’Neal, who approached sumo wrestler size in his final season with the Lakers, but he was much more athletic. His favorite shot was a fallaway jumper, which he’d have had no trouble getting off, and his quickness would have enabled him to get around Shaq to get his points.
None of this will convince anybody who didn’t see Wilt, but I did. Shaq wouldn't have been able to stop Wilt or even slow him down. It's too bad NBA players and coaches are so rooted in the present that they can't recognize greatness from the game's past.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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