“He has the potential to be the greatest,” says Chamberlain. “Do you mean that Lew Alcindor could become greater than you?” a skeptical questioner wanted to know. “I said the greatest,” Wilt replied without hesitation, “the greatest!“
Quite a thing to say about someone who didn’t play a single minute against NBA competition. But this is what Chamberlain said of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – at the time Lew Alcindor, back in 1967. Wilt was playing in his 11th NBA season, putting up 2K-type numbers. He recognized something special in a kid playing at UCLA. Let’s be honest; Wilt didn’t have unique abilities to find hidden-gems. It was fairly obvious Alcindor was going to become something special. Chamberlain just said something which at the time sounded like sensationalism. But it turned out to be true. Well, for some people anyway.
Chamberlain’s words had some merit to them since what Alcindor was doing throughout his high school career, and at the time, his ongoing college career was extraordinary. He led his Power Memorial Academy high school team to three straight New York City Catholic championships, during which the team had a run of a 71-game winning streak. Alcindor finished his high school campaign with the overall record of 79-2, setting a New York City scoring mark with 2,067 points.
After being recruited to UCLA, he led the freshmen to 21 straight victories. He also led the team to the first-ever triumph of a freshman team over a varsity in a pre-season exhibition. His college career was as successful as his high-school campaign, winning 88 out of 90 games and becoming the NCAA champion three years in a row. By the time Chamberlain made the statement about him potentially becoming the greatest, Alcindor had already won an NCAA title and was on a quest for going back-to-back, which he accomplished, just weeks after Wilt publicly announced his prediction.
When you think about it, it wasn’t something Wilt said just for the sake of saying it. At the time, he was a dominant NBA big man and was in the conversation for being the best player in the league. Chamberlain knew the type of player that would be successful in the league, and obviously, Alcindor fit the parameters. He was already incredibly skilled at the time, with incredible physical gifts he possessed. I guess Chamberlain saw a more skilled, almost equally athletic version of himself in Alcindor, which prompted him to make such a bold prediction.
As it turned out, his prediction turned out pretty accurate. Or at least being very close to being accurate. Kareem has to be considered the greatest winner in basketball history. I’m not just talking about the NBA. I’m talking about basketball as a whole. What he did on all three stages he played on was none other than incredible. Some would argue he even became underrated when engaging in the GOAT debate. But the fact is that Wilt’s prediction, as sensationalist as it may sound at the time, now has some solid arguments behind it.