Is the 1976 NBA integration of four ABA teams a more significant game altering event than the racial integration of Major League Baseball in 1947? According to most of sports media record keepers the last few years, the answer is “yes”.
On the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in a season for the sports ages, the best way to honor him and his era is to remove the ever-increasing and arbitrary statistical fine print in NBA sports articles known as:
“since the NBA-ABA merger” and sometimes the “NBA modern-day record”.
These words can otherwise be known as the ”since Wilt Chamberlain Clause”.
Both demarcations are well, ridiculous. Unlike the NFL-AFL merger of 1970, the NBA-ABA so-called “merger” of 1976 was really an expansion, not unlike baseball in 1969-1970. And while baseball’s “modern era” has been marked at the year 1900, basketball’s “modern era” has suddenly and quietly become “1970″. Why? Because sports media says so . Why really? Because Wilt is not Babe.
While the legend of Wilt has been largely reduced to one game, his statistical dominance over the NBA deserves its own separate record book. And recently he has gotten one: a hidden one. And that goes for all his era’s colleagues.
The most recent “since-the-merger” beneficiaries have been the NBA future marketing dreams  named Kevin Love and Jeremy Lin.
Before Linsanity struck, perhaps you recall hearing about Kevin Love’s “record” last year of 52 consecutive double-doubles. Here were the The Associated Press and ESPN headlines:
- Kevin Love’s 51st double-double breaks single-season mark
- Kevin Love… records 52nd straight double-double in rout
- Kevin Love Passes Moses Malone
None of these stories actually referenced Wilt Chamberlain’s own record.
In ESPN’s How Impressive is Love’s Streak?, we learn that “Love can sit atop a list of all-time greats with his 52nd straight double-double Wednesday…”. Not only is there no mention of Wilt’s Streak, but the fine print on the NBA-ABA merger was also missing. If you say it long enough, even your own writers might believe it. In my own conversations with more casual or younger NBA fans, they missed the fine-print too. Kevin was king. If you want some truth, you might have to ask the son of a former NBA-ABA player, that is Kevin Love himself:
“Whether you put is as, like, a modern-day or as NBA/ABA merger, but when you look at the grand scheme of things, you have to look at that 227, Wilt the Stilt … he’s something special. It’s not like I have my eye set on that too much. I’m pretty happy in 2011 where I’m at.”
Kevin, thanks for setting the 227 record straight!
That’s right, Love’s “record” approached only 23% of Wilt’s streak.
Kurt Helin from NBC Pro Basketball Talk was kind enough to mention Wilt:
“Turns out Wilt Chamberlain did it 227 times back in the day. But as he was a freak of nature we’re just going to pretend that didn’t happen.”
Such “pretending” stuff would only be alarming if it weren’t actually the common media rule. At best, Wilt’s “freakish athleticism” is used against him. Wilt was Dwight Howard, except three inches taller, far more athletic, but had the audacity to learn some post moves. Contrary to popular imagination, he also faced better center competition (hat tip The Starting Five) than Howard while averaging over 37 points per game for his career against Bill Russell – a man many still call the greatest defensive center of all time.
Wilt could pass too. In 1968 he led the league in total assists, while also setting the record for consecutive triple-doubles with nine. No, not Magic Johnson, but Wilt Chamberlain. That year he had a game with 22 points, 25 rebounds, and 21 assists! Today’s occasion will be one of the last media opportunities to recognize what some call the most undersold athlete in sports.
But Wilt is not the only “merger victim”. Jeremy Lin’s great start and stats have been historically inflated by this “since the NBA-ABA merger” business while the 2nd greatest point guard in NBA history has gone barely mentioned. Lin’s ascent is a wonderful story to be sure, but absolutely no conversation about “great starts of point guards” should ever take place without paying homage to Oscar Robertson.
“The Big O” had a good day in his NBA debut – he messed around and got a triple-double. After just his first game a columnist wrote:
“His superb faking and generalship thrilled the fans, and there is no doubt he will be one of the greatest.” (The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, p.138).
If you think Lin is having a nice run, check out what Oscar did:
30 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists!
No, this wasn’t for his “first six games” – it was for the season.
The next year “The Big O” averaged 30 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists in perhaps the greatest all-around season in NBA history.
But sports media doesn’t want to talk about that – and this dynamic extends far beyond acceptable “marketing” license.
While Wilt was a media villain in his day and never fit into ”humble role” required of African-American athletes, The Big O has more than worn out his NBA and media welcome. As President of The NBA Player’s Association from 1965 until retirement, he led a landmark anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA. He was also part-founder and past President of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, and last year joined Ed O’Bannon’s class-action lawsuit against NCAA partner EA sports. Robertson’s continued activism on behalf of players has also helped to eliminate any real post-career NBA opportunities, and has induced a post-career silencing of his strong voice outside of local media .
Sadly, his on-court legacy has also suffered, and even Jeremy Lin’s great start can’t revive it. In December, Robertson wrote in the New York Times “The NBA Should Honor Its History and Learn From It”. Yet, the opposite has happened. Small words like “since the NBA-ABA merger” shows one small example of media’s incredible power to decide who to promote and demote according to who they like. But why does promoting Kevin and Jeremy have to come at the expense of Wilt, Oscar, and historical accuracy? Why not promote Lin and Oscar”?
Beyond that, the “since the merger” language leads to a far more serious question:
How can sports media minimize the NBA’s “pre-merger” era, invalidate baseball’s “steroid era”, but somehow still elevate and celebrate baseball’s pre-1947 “Jim Crow Era”?
The answer tells us nothing about the players or eras, but everything about the journalists that judge them.
Wilt Chamberlain’s larger-than-life NBA statistics are the NBA’s mythical version of baseball’s Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. While Barry’s incredible feats were “asteriscized” by big headlines, Wilt has been shrunken with fine print. On the 50th anniversary of his 100 point game, sports media no longer needs to “pretend [his records] never happened”, it just needs to pretend Wilt were Babe.
Just let the question soak in: How might all of modern day media cover all of Wilt’s records if he were white?
By “modern day media”, I mean since Disney’s 1996 merger with ESPN/ABC of course.
March 4 Stat Update: The Celtics Rajon Rondo just had a brilliant game against the Knicks with 18 points, 20 assists, and 17 rebounds. The announcers falsely stated that Rondo is only the second player in NBA history (Jason Kidd) to have a 15-15-15 in theses areas. As stated in article, Wilt accomplished the feat in 1968, and Oscar Robertson likely accomplished this feat on many occasions. The most likely reason for the error is that Elias Sports Bureau fed this on-the-spot data “since 1970″, and announcers mistakenly said “in NBA history”.
Update #2/ABC Correction: At halftime of the Laker-Heat game, ABC noted and corrected the previous statement, and informed audience that Rondo is only the 3rd NBA player to have 20 assists with at least 15 points, and 15 rebounds. In addition to Wilt, Oscar Robertson did have a game of 32 points, 20 assists, and 15 rebounds in 1961. It was unclear if Wilt and Oscar did this more than once.
Collection of articles on Oscar Robertson
that rarely made national media news.
 For more intricate statistics beyond “double-doubles”, sometimes “modern-day record” is legitimately needed since the Elias Sports Bureau began keeping more comprehensive statistics since 1970. In Love’s case, “since the NBA merger” of 1976 had a significant distinction since the “modern-day” record for double-doubles was held by Elvin Hayes at 55 consecutive games in 73-74. Either is often chosen depending on convenience and promotion.
 There are few players more marketable to the NBA’s future than Love and Lin. Love’s unique place has been less documented than Lin’s. Love, a wonderful rebounder who is the NBA’s only legitimate white American all-star, has been quietly groomed for the super-stardom that awaits him as soon as the young Minnesota T-Wolves become a winning and contending team (which will be sooner than later). Besides the early promotion of Love’s non-records, his continued on-court misbehavior has also received a media pass that is unheard of for an African-American NBA-All Star.
 As an example, just recently, Robertson firmly stated to The Orlando Sentinel that the treatment of Lebron was “totally unjust“, but Shannon Owens’ column was not picked up nationally at a time when almost any utterance or tweet about Lebron makes big headlines.
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