Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Wilt Chamberlain

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on how a pick-up game featuring Wilt Chamberlain changed his perspective about basketball

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will never forget a pick-up basketball game featuring Wilt Chamberlain where he witnessed firsthand the sheer power of Wilt.

Pick up game with Wilt Chamberlain

Numerous stories from various people describe the late great Wilt Chamberlain as perhaps the greatest athlete in NBA history. The combination of size, speed, strength, and overall high basketball IQ turned Wilt into an unstoppable force on the basketball court that still, to this day, holds numerous records that will never be broken. On top of that, he was an iconic figure with multiple other talents that made him one of the most exciting individuals of his time.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looked up to Wilt a lot when he was a teenager, and one summer, he had the opportunity to meet him and spend more time with Wilt. Since he was getting more and more recognition by the media as the next big young basketball star, Kareem wanted to learn as much as he could from Wilt, and in one pick-up game, he was able to witness firsthand Wilt’s immense strength.

Times were definitely different in the ’60s when players like Wilt would still play in summer leagues to stay in shape after a grueling NBA season. Wilt had his own team named after the nightclub he owned, and Kareem said he never saw someone that got so much beating during a basketball game like Wilt did that specific game. In his book ‘Becoming Kareem’ he details what Wilt had to endure while remaining poised and calm.

“Wilt was there with his own team from Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise, the Harlem nightclub he owned. I gave him a wave, he nodded back, and I settled in to watch him play. The battle against Wilt’s team looked to be pretty even at first, but then the other team started to pull ahead. Wilt was fuming. For three quarters, Wilt endured the pounding until he decided he just wouldn’t take any more.”

Kareem learned a lot from Wilt

Wilt was an unbelievable competitor, which is something Kareem was able to witness that specific day when he decided to turn the game around for his team. Kareem remembers Wilt dunking the ball every single time and the crowd going absolutely wild, seeing one of the best athletes in the world dominate the competition.

“I could see the determination not just in his face, but in his whole body. Wilt refused to lose. He went after every rebound and grabbed it no matter how many other players also went after it. His teammates fed him the ball under the basket, and he dunked it. If Wilt got his hands on the ball, he dunked it. And there was nothing they could do to stop him. He dunked ten times in a row, with the crowd screaming in delight at the show he was putting on.”

That game was of utmost importance to young Kareem to understand the importance of willpower in controlling the outcomes. Wilt did it in that pick-up game after he made a conscious decision he would not lose, which was an experience that impacted Kareem for the rest of his career.

“Sometimes he’d go up with three players hanging on to him. But they might as well have been fluffy scarves for all the trouble they caused. Watching him, I learned the advantage of sheer willpower in winning a game. It was a lesson that stayed with me my entire basketball career.
“That was amazing,” I said to him afterward. “We got it done,” he said. No boasting. No grinning.”

As we all know, Kareem would have one of the most accomplished and historic NBA careers, similar to Wilt’s and even greater when it comes to team success. They even played against each other for a few years, forming a mini rivalry for the best center in the NBA, which Wilt wasn’t ready to give up that easily to young Kareem. Nevertheless, it’s great to hear Wilt took Kareem under his wing early on, recognizing his potential even before his first professional game and letting him soak up the knowledge and see what awaits him when he becomes a professional.