The late great Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are arguably the greatest and most dominant players in NBA history that truly epitomized what it means to be a true center and a universal talent. They also had their fair share of battles in the NBA when Kareem was the up-and-coming superstar for the Milwaukee Bucks while Wilt was already past his prime years and a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
However, the history between the two legendary players dates back to the early '60s when Kareem was still in high school and considered one of the best young talents in the country. At the time, Wilt was already a superstar and, in his absolute prime, asserted himself as a unique physical specimen with an incredible combination of height, strength, power, and explosiveness.
The history between Wilt and Kareem started long before they were rivals in the NBA
In his book "Becoming Kareem", there is an interesting recollection of Kareem on the first time he met Wilt at Rucker Park in Harlem during a basketball tournament. Wilt was a coach of his team and was standing baseline in street clothes when Kareem noticed him. Like any other kid, Kareem was super shy even to try and approach Wilt, but luckily his friend had more courage and just told Kareem to follow, which luckily he did.
As Kareem got closer to Wilt, he realized what a mountain of a man Wilt truly was, despite the fact Kareem was already 6'10" but very thin compared to Wilt, who was full of muscle.
"As we got closer, I realized that even though we shared similar height, he was about twice the size of me in body mass. His arms and legs were thick with muscles. He was twenty-five and in peak physical condition. I felt tiny next to him, and that was not a feeling I was used to."
Wilt gave Kareem a compliment he never forgot
Kareem was completely starstruck by Wilt when he approached him but also extremely surprised by the fact Wilt knew about him and had heard of his accomplishments on the basketball court in high school. It's safe to say Kareem was flattered by Wilt's recognition of his talents despite him being a superstar who apparently followed the next up-and-coming basketball prospects in the country.
"Wes broke the silence by introducing himself. Then I managed to choke out, "I'm Lew Alcindor. "Oh yeah, I heard of you," Wilt said with a grin. "You're the young boy that plays for the Catholic school. Supposed to be getting good." Wilt Chamberlain had heard of me! I couldn't believe it. I rummaged through my mind for something clever to say, but all I could come up with was "I really admire the way you play the game."
Meeting Wilt was a privilege for Kareem, but what followed after their encounter was even more surprising and left Kareem completely stunned. Wilt obviously paid attention to details and was eyeing young Kareem when all of a sudden, he gave him a compliment about his legs, which Kareem had never anticipated when he first approached to meet Wilt, whom he tried to model his game around.
"As we shook hands, he eyed me up and down. He nodded approvingly. "You've got good legs." I looked down at my legs and tried to see what he saw. But they just looked like broom-handle legs, nothing special. "I wish I had legs like that," he said. What? Wilt Chamberlain wished he had something I had? Impossible!"
Their relationship deteriorated over the years
This wasn't the last time Kareem would meet Wilt before their battles in the NBA. Over the course of his high-school days, Kareem spent more and more time with Wilt, who took him under his wing as a mentor showing him the lifestyle that could potentially wait for him if he continued to work on his craft and make it to the NBA. Wilt showed him and his luxurious apartment in New York and introduced him to some of the most beautiful women Kareem had ever had the opportunity to be around in his life. That gave Kareem a taste of a life that can he could potentially lead in a few years, but even he admitted being in the presence of Wilt didn't bring a lot of basketball-related conversations but more of those lessons connected to the off-the-court activities that are sometimes equally important.
When Kareem got into the NBA in 1969, he quickly established himself as one of the best players in the NBA, despite being only a rookie. By that time, and especially when they had their fair share of battles in the Western Conference Finals, Wilt and Kareem grew apart and weren't as close as they were before. Apparently, Wilt cooled off his relationship with Kareem because of his jealousy towards the young center, especially after beating him in the 1971 WCF, where he completely outmatched Wilt on all fronts.
As someone who was by far the most dominant player in the NBA for over a decade, this didn't sit well with Wilt, who, for the first time, felt he wasn't the best and most dominant player on the court. Their relationship deteriorated even more after Kareem joined the Lakers, where he started winning more championships alongside Magic Johnson. Soon fans recognized Kareem as the greatest center in Lakers history, which didn't sit well with Wilt, who remained living in Beverley Hills, watching his former team become a true dynasty and one of the most successful squads in NBA history.