The lack of video and all the content we read about dieting and workout programs makes us believe players today are, without a doubt physically dominant compared to those in the 60s and 70s. Even players such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain get an honorary mention but are never really considered in the "greatest athlete" conversation.
A walk down memory lane teaches us a different lesson. Wilt was always a superior athlete; but the main premise is that, while Wilt was a great athlete, the disparity comes from his competition being bad. To put sum it up - he was great, but his competition sucked.
The year was 1978, and Wilt was 42 years old. He had retired five years ago, yet the Warriors and Bulls were trying to convince Wilt to come back and play for them. The Lakers stepped in and claimed he could only come back to LA, as he had a year left on his contract when he retired.
Wilt was still in great shape, but the teams didn't understand that it wasn't the physical conditioning that made him retire. Like many other players, Wilt spoke of not being willing to do all the mental work necessary to go out on an NBA court and compete.
Wilt would get offers to come back and play for years to come, and we are talking serious, official offers - not just a hint in the press. He rejected the Suns and Cavs in '79, 76ers in '85 and the Nets in '86. Imagine that, Wilt defending the rim on a Jordan drive! The last offer, from the Nets, annoyed Wilt. They offered $362.500 for the last seven games of the regular season and the playoffs. (via LA Times)
"It was not a fair proposal. They didn't ask what kind of shape I was in, whether I had a cold or a toothache. ... You don't take a guy and throw him out there with nine others, four on his team, five playing against him, and expect anything like you used to get. ... It's an honor that someone thinks you're capable of doing it. I stopped playing because I was no longer mentally capable of going out there every day. I don't want to play. I'm quite happy doing what I am doing."
So Wilt, at age 50, rejected the chance to go back out there and play for New Jersey. Why did they think he was capable? This archive video might explain a few things.