Black History Month

How Wilt Chamberlain paved LeBron’s path to Los Angeles

50 years ago, the NBA’s biggest star took his talents to the Lakers

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to Los Angeles, he began retracing the steps of another game-changing player who wanted to move beyond basketball into the world of entertainment: Wilt Chamberlain.

Fifty years before James set his sights on Hollywood, Chamberlain reconfigured the intersection between basketball and celebrity. In orchestrating his move from the Philadelphia 76ers, the Big Dipper was instrumental in bringing both glamour and the Lakers’ first championship in Los Angeles to the “Fabulous Forum.” The NBA’s first true off-court celebrity, Chamberlain built the platform that James stands on today.

Comparing their playing careers, personalities and politics, it’s clear that although they differ in many ways, James and Chamberlain came to Los Angeles at similar stages in life. Leaving their hometown teams — James in Cleveland, Chamberlain in Philadelphia — both joined the Lakers in their early 30s. Chamberlain had won one title in Philadelphia, while James won two in Miami and one in Cleveland. Yet both men uprooted themselves to move to California, realizing their value as basketball players and celebrities was worth far more in Hollywood. Only in Los Angeles, a city of infinite beginnings, could they find a stage big enough for the final chapter of their playing careers.

Wilt Chamberlain of Overbrook High School jumps circa 1953 in Philadelphia.

Charles T. Higgins/NBAE/Getty Images

At an early age, they were viewed as transformational athletes, the very future of the sport. In 2002, Sports Illustrated crowned James, a 17-year-old high school junior, as “The Chosen One,” a once-in-a-generation talent whom scouts compared to Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Nearly 50 years earlier, in 1955, Sport magazine labeled Chamberlain “The High School Kid Who Could Play Pro Ball Right Now.” His enormous talent inspired the first national recruiting campaign in college basketball. According to a 1977 biography by sportswriter Bill Libby, more than 100 schools offered him a scholarship, many of them promising cash for his services. His recruitment signaled the beginning of treating high school basketball players as commodities, a lesson that James learned when he became a household name playing on ESPN for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.

St. Vincent-St. Mary’s LeBron James dunks during the second quarter against Walsh Jesuit on Jan. 24, 2003.

AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin

Despite their common experiences with fame, the personalities of the two men could not be more different. Born and raised in Philadelphia, one of nine kids, Chamberlain was a loner who trusted few people. He never married, and most of the women in his life passed through like it was a revolving hotel door. “He was always afraid someone would see through him or look inside him,” Lakers trainer Frank O’Neill told Libby. A complicated figure, Chamberlain could be extremely confident and egotistical, boasting of his achievements, and yet he was also deeply sensitive.

On the court, fans could see his ego and insecurities on full display. For Chamberlain, basketball was not truly a team game; it was a one-man show. At times, his overwhelming presence diminished his teammates. “It was as if when he was in the room, they weren’t,” Gary Pomerantz wrote in Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era. “He made them feel their inadequacy and smallness. He was large, luminous, and occasionally loud, at the center of every moment. … He existed apart from his team, orbiting in his own glittery realm.”

Off the court, Chamberlain sought the attention and recognition that came with being known as the best. And like James, who is an active television and film producer, Chamberlain was a businessman, investing in real estate, restaurants and racehorses. Early in his career, he spent much of his time in Harlem, New York, where he used his money to cultivate fame, purchasing the legendary nightclub Smalls Paradise. Moving comfortably among entertainers and musicians, it was a place for him to be seen, impress people (especially other ballplayers) and revel in the company of women.

As Howard Cosell (left) looks on, Muhammad Ali (center) attempts to ward off a playful jab thrown by Wilt Chamberlain (right) just before the taping of a television show. Chamberlain, star of the Philadelphia 76ers, said he was ready to debut as a fighter. Ali, 35, who suffered his only defeat in 32 professional fights a month before to Joe Frazier, and Chamberlain, 34, planned to fight in Houston’s Astrodome on April 26, 1967, with each man receiving $1 million. The fight never took place.

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The press portrayed him as a villain, a brooding star who destroyed team morale and undermined coaches. Chamberlain represented indulgence and excessive individualism, expressing his persistent desire to prove his greatness, whether it meant scoring 100 points or bragging that he had slept with more than 20,000 women. “More than anything else,” he told Libby, “I am Wilt Chamberlain, an individual. It is my individualism I treasure most.”

James has also been criticized for his egotistical displays, especially for the way he handled The Decision, his move from Cleveland to Miami. He, too, has been the dominant player on his teams. But, unlike Chamberlain, James is widely recognized for pushing his teammates to succeed. At his core, he is a creator and facilitator, directing his teammates like an orchestra conductor. The only child of a single mom, James is a family man, an involved father to his three kids and well-known for his philanthropy in Akron.

Before taking the stage, LeBron James greets third- and fourth-graders on their first day at his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 30, 2018.

Michael F McElroy for ESPN

At the height of their careers, James and Chamberlain, the most recognizable basketball players of their respective eras, both dabbled in politics. Early in his career, Chamberlain had made clear that he did not share Bill Russell’s impulse for confrontation or protest. In 1960, he told a writer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, “I’m not crusading for anyone. I’m no Jackie Robinson.” But in 1968, after joining the Lakers, Chamberlain and a handful of other black athletes campaigned on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon even though most African-Americans supported the Democratic Party. Endorsing the “law and order” candidate, a slogan that many black citizens associated with racism, convinced Chamberlain’s critics that he had sold out his people.

James, by contrast, is an outspoken leader among athletes publicly challenging racism and injustice. He wore a hoodie with his teammates on the Miami Heat to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin and used The ESPYS award show to voice his concern about gun violence. During the 2016 presidential campaign, James criticized Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed law and order presidential candidate, and endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton. Rejecting a conservative pundit’s demand that he should “shut up and dribble,” James has emerged as one of the most influential voices in sports, unafraid of jeopardizing his business interests at the expense of his social activism.

Fans and teammates rush onto the court to congratulate the Philadelphia Warriors’ Wilt Chamberlain (center) in Hershey, Pennsylvania, after he scored his 100th point in a 169-147 win over the New York Knickerbockers on March 2, 1962. For 50 years, Chamberlain’s 100-point night has stood as one of sports’ magic numbers.

AP Photo

The origins of basketball’s place in American entertainment culture and the worldwide fame of NBA stars like James can be traced to Chamberlain. When he entered the NBA during the 1959-60 season, professional basketball was played mostly by earthbound white men in half-filled arenas. Standing 7 feet, 1 inch tall, the Big Dipper transformed professional basketball into a game played above the rim in front of packed crowds. No single event garnered more attention than his 100-point game against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962. In that moment, Pomerantz wrote in Wilt, 1962, Chamberlain became “a one-man revolution,” the central figure in the first generation of black stars who elevated the NBA from obscurity. “Almost by himself,” Oscar Robertson told Pomerantz, “he made the league a curiosity, made it interesting.”

No basketball player was more recognizable than Chamberlain. “At first glance,” historian Aram Goudsouzian wrote, he appeared “almost a cartoon giant, a man of dazzling dimensions and magnified mythology.” The most talented basketball player of his time, Chamberlain ruled the court with an unprecedented combination of size, strength and athleticism.

His gargantuan presence made him an object of fascination, jealousy and scorn. For many white Americans, Goudsouzian suggested, he represented a threat to the established order of the game and the limits imposed on black people. He was Goliath terrorizing David. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray compared him to Frankenstein’s monster, reducing him to something less than human: “He was put together in a laboratory by a mad doctor with a pair of pliers, a screwdriver and a Bunsen burner. If you look close, you can see the bolts in the forehead. You don’t feed it, you oil it, baby.”

The Chamberlain mythology created enormous expectations for him to dominate every game. When he failed, the press reduced him to a broken-down heavyweight fighter who couldn’t throw a knockout punch. After the 76ers squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Boston Celtics in the 1968 Eastern Conference finals, reporters blamed Chamberlain. Refusing to shoulder the blame for the team’s collapse, he decided it was time to move on.

The Philadelphia 76ers are shown in their dressing room after defeating the San Francisco Warriors for the 1967 NBA championship on April 24. Wilt Chamberlain drinks champagne as coach Alex Hannum looks on.

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He had led the 76ers to their first NBA championship the previous season, but soon afterward he became disenchanted with team owner Irv Kosloff. The Big Dipper maintained that when he re-signed with the Sixers in 1965, co-owner Ike Richman, his close friend and attorney, offered him half of his team shares, which would have meant giving Chamberlain 25 percent ownership of the franchise. The verbal agreement would have violated league rules since no player could hold equity in a team, and after Richman died later that year, Chamberlain had no proof of the deal. Kosloff claimed that he had no knowledge of his partner’s arrangement and had no intention of giving away any shares. “Kosloff and I argued about that through the whole summer after we won the championship,” Chamberlain told David Shaw, his co-author on the 1973 book Wilt. “I finally decided I couldn’t play for that man if that’s the way he was going to treat me.”

A furious Chamberlain threatened to hold out unless Kosloff fulfilled Richman’s commitment. This was before free agency, when every player’s contract effectively bound him to one team unless the owner decided otherwise. Yet Chamberlain had some leverage: He knew, as did Kosloff, that the 76ers could not contend for a championship without him. On the eve of the 1967-68 season, with one year remaining on his existing deal, they struck a compromise: Kosloff shredded Chamberlain’s original contract, paid him a “sizable” cash settlement and signed him to a new one-year deal for $250,000 with the understanding that after the season Chamberlain would be a free man.

Almost immediately after the ’67-68 season, Chamberlain began contemplating a future outside Philadelphia. Still, Kosloff understood the enormous value The Big Dipper brought to the franchise. The 76ers had set a team attendance record, outdrawing the Celtics and Lakers. The owner offered Chamberlain the opportunity to become a player-coach like Russell, but he turned it down. If he was going to return to Philadelphia, he wanted a significant raise, one that general manager Jack Ramsay refused to pay. Insulted, Chamberlain threatened to sit out the whole year. He told a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “When you become more than just a player, when you’re an attraction, a personality, you can’t put it into figures.”

Los Angeles Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain lounges on his deck chair in his backyard.

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Chamberlain wanted to move to Los Angeles. Playing in L.A. appealed to him for a number of reasons: He owned properties there. His parents lived in Los Angeles, and he wanted to be near them. (He was especially close to his father, who was dying of cancer.) It also was no secret that he dated white women, and Chamberlain believed that his life would be easier in a more progressive city like Los Angeles.

He aspired to start a career in the movie business too, although it never amounted to much. Chamberlain appeared frequently on television but had only one significant movie role: Bombaata in Conan the Destroyer.

Wilt Chamberlain (left) and Olivia d’Abo (right) in the 1984 movie Conan the Destroyer.

Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Most importantly, though, Chamberlain thought he could win a championship in Los Angeles.

Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke viewed the team as one piece of his larger entertainment portfolio, and he had wanted Chamberlain to be part of it since he bought the team in 1965. When he spent $16.5 million building the palatial Forum, a circular structure with massive, Roman-inspired columns, Cooke envisioned it as a grand theater for entertaining the masses. “The Fabulous Forum,” as Cooke called it, showcased not only basketball and hockey but also boxing matches, tennis, ice skating, the circus and rock concerts. The Lakers were already an excellent team. Adding Chamberlain, Cooke estimated, would bring sellouts at the largest NBA arena and earn him another million dollars each year.

Once Chamberlain and Cooke started contract discussions, though, Kosloff hesitated to let his star player go. Fortunately for Chamberlain, the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA) desperately needed marquee players and the league’s owners were willing to pay top dollar for his services. Negotiating without an agent — “I make my own deals because I make the best deals,” Chamberlain told Libby — he leveraged an offer from the ABA’s L.A. Stars to get what he wanted. By threatening to jump leagues, Chamberlain forced Kosloff to trade him or receive nothing in return. Finally, on July 9, 1968, the Lakers announced they were sending three players — Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers — to Philadelphia in exchange for the reigning MVP. It was, Joe Jares wrote in Sports Illustrated, “as if the Niblets people traded the Jolly Green Giant to Heinz for a soup recipe and two vats of pickles.”

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Oscar Robertson (second from left) dribbles in front of teammate Lew Alcindor (center), surrounded by Los Angeles Lakers Jerry West (second from right), Elgin Baylor (right) and Wilt Chamberlain (left) during a game on Sept. 30, 1970, in Los Angeles.

AP Photo

James did not build the original NBA “superteam” when he went to Miami. Chamberlain did. In 1968, after he forced a trade that made him the highest-paid player in basketball history, a five-year deal reportedly worth $1 million, he joined Hall of Fame players Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, making the Lakers, at least on paper, Jares concluded, “the greatest basketball team ever.” Writers and basketball executives predicted that the “Big Three” would easily win the NBA title. Although the Lakers finished the 1968-69 season with a 55-27 record, the best in team history, they lost in the championship series to the Celtics. Since the team moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960, it was the Lakers’ fifth NBA Finals loss to the Celtics. And for the seventh time in a decisive playoff series, Russell got the best of Chamberlain.

Branding him “a loser,” critics questioned Chamberlain’s desire. It seemed that he experienced little joy playing basketball for the Lakers. The following season he suffered a serious knee injury, rupturing his right patellar tendon. Until then, he had appeared indestructible, missing only 12 games in 10 years. After surgery and an intense rehabilitation schedule, the 34-year-old center returned in time for the Lakers’ playoff run. Despite losing to the Knicks in the NBA Finals, Chamberlain believed that fans appreciated him more because he had worked hard to return and help his team. Getting hurt, he told the Los Angeles Times, made people see that he was human, “not some kind of animal.”

Predictably, Hollywood’s bright lights magnified everything about Chamberlain — his fame and his failures. He grumbled about the public scrutiny and enormous expectations that he faced. “I have done things no man ever will,” he told Libby in 1971. “But people keep expecting me to top myself, and I can’t do that. Nothing I do ever seems enough.” Increasingly, he became disillusioned with basketball and the pressures of celebrity. “Dressing rooms all come to have the same stale smell about them after a while,” he said. “Defeat and victory all smell the same after a while. You get so you don’t feel elation, you just feel beat. Basketball burns you out.”

Wilt Chamberlain (center), named the MVP in the NBA playoffs, goes up to tap in a basket for the Los Angeles Lakers against the New York Knicks, May 8, 1972, at the Forum. At left is Dave DeBusschere of the Knicks and in foreground are Pat Riley (third from left) and Leroy Ellis (third from right) of the Lakers. Los Angeles won, 114-100, to capture the first championship since the team moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis.

AP Photo/David Smith

Finally, during the 1971-72 season, Chamberlain found redemption. Persuaded by coach Bill Sharman to accept a new role concentrating less on scoring and more on defense and rebounding, Chamberlain’s outlet passes to Jerry West and Gail Goodrich galvanized the Lakers’ fast-break offense, spurring a record winning streak of 33 consecutive games. The streak transformed the Forum into a destination for celebrities. Doris Day, Peter Falk, Angie Dickinson, Tony Curtis, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, among others, brought Hollywood into the Forum, making the Lakers the most entertaining team in professional sports. The team won a regular-season record 69 games and beat the Knicks 4-1 in the Finals.

Looking back, Chamberlain’s championship team established a new standard of excellence in the NBA. Shifting the epicenter of pro basketball to Los Angeles, Chamberlain and his teammates created the world that James inherited. Raising the first of 11 L.A. championship banners, Chamberlain made Los Angeles a destination for franchise players and elevated the expectations of fans and players alike. Upon his retirement in 1973, Chamberlain knew that he had changed the game. “My impact,” he declared in Sports Illustrated, “will be everlasting.”

Someday, LeBron James will be able to say the same.

Johnny Smith is the Julius C. "Bud" Shaw Professor of Sports, Society, and Technology and an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Tech. His research focuses on the history of sports and American culture. He is an author whose books include "The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball," which explores the emergence of college basketball as a national pastime and the political conflicts in college athletics during the 1960s and 1970s.