King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Most dominant ever? Wilt, not Shaq. But Chamberlain was playing pre-modern basketball. When did "today" start?


Salon Staff
June 23, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

Several readers wrote asking how I could call Shaquille O'Neal the most dominant NBA player of all time, which I did the other day, when there was such a player as Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain averaged 50 points a game one year, more than 44 the next year, and more than 33 in each of his first seven years, ending in 1966. He also averaged well over 20 rebounds a game until he was in his 30s. He led the league in rebounding 11 times and is No. 1 on the all-time list, led the league in scoring seven times and is No. 4 all time. And, literally for the hell of it, he led the league in assists one year.

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There's a simple explanation for my calling O'Neal the most dominant ever: I'm an idiot.

What I meant and should have written was that O'Neal is the most dominant player of modern times. That's what I suspect most people for whom the world didn't begin 10 minutes ago mean when they call Shaq the most dominant ever, a label that's applied often enough that one of his many nicknames is MDE. I don't know how anyone else defines "modern" basketball, but I use 1970 as a rough dividing line, again probably because I'm an idiot.

But I like to think about this stuff. When did the "modern" era in various sports begin? By modern I don't mean recognizable, like when townball became baseball or they stopped jumping center after every made basket or legalized the forward pass.

I mean when did the sport change into essentially the game we see today, with similar-size people following roughly similar strategies. When, for example, did basketball become an above-the-rim game played almost exclusively by giants, with 7-footers playing small forward and leading the break and players under 6-2 a freakish rarity?

Baseball is the easiest to define, though there are various ways to approach it. The sport's more or less official history places the beginning of the "modern" era at 1900, a conveniently round cutoff date by which time the rules of today's game were pretty much in place. It's also convenient that the American League was only one year away. A better date, though, would be 1920, the agreed-upon dawn of the live-ball era, and even better than that would be sometime in the mid-'50s, the point at which integration had really started to take effect.

The equivalent date to 1900 for basketball would be 1954, when the shot clock was introduced. Or perhaps 1954 compares better to 1920. We could call pre-shot clock basketball the dead-ball era too if you like. But really the earthbound game Wilt dominated in the early '60s can't be compared to basketball today.

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In fact, Chamberlain's total domination itself was a symptom of pre-modernity. As a sport matures, the competition becomes tougher, the average player improves. It becomes progressively less possible for one player to tower over others -- figuratively, I mean -- the way Chamberlain did early in his career.

There were fellows getting regular minutes in the NBA when I was a kid, in the early '70s, who wouldn't have been able to dream of making a roster if they came along with the same skills today, even though there are 13 more teams, 156 more roster spots. If you've ever watched films of NBA action from the early '60s, you know that the level of play then wasn't even close to what it would be a decade later, never mind during Shaq's career.

There's probably no good reason to call 1970 the start of modern basketball except that that's about when I started paying attention, and it's also about the time from which pretty much all the highlights are in color.

If you really pushed me for an accurate date for the start of the modern era, I'd first move it up to 1976, when the ABA merged into the NBA. And if you kept pushing me until I revealed my true feelings, I'd say 1979, when Magic Johnson came into the league and introduced the concept of playing point guard with what until then had been a power forward's body.

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It just feels weird to call, say, 1978 "pre-modern" when you're not talking about home electronics.

I'd call the '70s a transition decade, a time when Julius Erving and others transformed basketball into an aerial game, when it became pretty much a requirement for NBA players to be superb athletes. When the decade opened, there were plenty of jobs for slow guys who could do little more than shoot the lights out. By its close, players like that weren't extinct, but they were rare.

I'd date football about the same way, though its history as a big league sport goes back further than basketball's. The sport that Jim Brown owned in the '50s and '60s wasn't yet the modern game. The '70s were a transition from the days of sub-200-pound linebackers to the age of behemoths that began in earnest in the '80s.

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Push me hard to come up with a date for the start of the modern era and I'd say somewhere around 1980, when the passing game began to overtake the running game once and for all (so far) as the primary mode of offense. I'd take 1980 because it's a round number and that was the year the Chargers became the first team since the first year of the AFL to throw for 4,000 yards. But we could also say 1978, when a team in each conference threw for 3,000 yards for the first time since the '60s, or 1981, when a team in each conference threw for 4,000 yards. I'm not proud.

Now, that doesn't mean Jim Brown wasn't a spectacular player, and the same goes for Wilt Chamberlain. If Brown came along today, he'd obviously be great, maybe the best running back in the game and maybe the best ever. But I don't think he'd be the colossus he was in his own time.

I'm leaving hockey out of this discussion, by the way, because I'm simply too ignorant about its history to have anything to say on the subject.

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To get back to our original topic, there's no doubt that Shaq hasn't dominated his era the way Wilt dominated his. Nobody ever will. If Chamberlain and O'Neal were the same age, I don't know who would have been the better player. I suspect O'Neal, who had Chamberlain's quickness and agility plus about 75 pounds. But then again I'm sure I'm biased because I never watched Chamberlain in his prime. I'm really just talking out of my hat here.

But I'm not trying to cover my tracks or anything. I made a mistake. I should have qualified my praise of Shaq's dominance. Most dominant player of the modern era.

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Short break [PERMALINK]

This column will be on a short vacation for a long weekend, returning Tuesday. Enjoy the NBA draft.

Previous column: Walking Barry Bonds

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