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How Wilt Chamberlain And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Relationship Fell Apart: From "My Hero" To "Crybaby And Quitter"

How Wilt Chamberlain And Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Relationship Fell Apart: From "My Hero" To "Crybaby And Quitter"

Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are two of the undisputed greatest players in NBA history. Chamberlain dominated the NBA to such a degree that the league had to change the game in order to keep parity between him and other players in the league. Whereas Jabbar went on to succeed Wilt and Bill Russell as the NBA's dominant big man. Kareem ended up winning six MVP trophies and six NBA titles during his career. 

It seemed that initially when the two were in the league at the same time, there was mutual respect between the two, and an admiration. But as time went on, we saw the relationship unravel to a great degree in the public eye. Their relationship got worse and worse until Chamberlain's unfortunate passing in 1999. But how did things get to this point? Thanks to a breakdown by Reddit user u/factcheck, we get an in-depth look at the relationship between two all-time greats.

Wilt Chamberlain Takes Lou Alcindor Under His Wing (1962-1969)

For that, we need to go all the way back to 1962, when a 13-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lou Alcindor) met Wilt Chamberlain on a court in Harlem. Meeting his hero was an incredible experience, and Chamberlain immediately took a liking to Alcindor. Chamberlain made Alcindor his protege, but even Alcindor admitted that he couldn't understand why Wilt would do certain things. 

"I first met Wilt Chamberlain right here on the original Rucker court. I was in the eighth grade, I was almost as tall as he was at that point. And it was finally my opportunity to meet my hero....He kinda took me under his wing. Some of the things Wilt did sometimes bothered me (laughs). I got on an elevator with Wilt, and as the elevator's going down, some guy gets on and says 'Oh wow, how's the weather up there?' to Wilt. Wilt spat on the dude and said 'It's raining.' And I was like, 'Oh my god! What is all of this about?'"

The two clearly had a strong relationship as Kareem was finding himself as a player. He eventually went on to represent UCLA after being the standout high school player of his era. At UCLA, he was a phenomenon, playing some exciting collegiate basketball. During this time. Chamberlain was dominating the NBA, setting and breaking all sorts of records. Chamberlain eventually left his first team, the Philadelphia 76ers, to go join the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Kareem And Wilt Go Head To Head In The NBA (1969-1974)

Eventually, Kareem entered the league with great excitement and hype. He had an incredible stint at UCLA, where he established himself as one of the greatest collegiate players of all time. By that time, Wilt Chamberlain was past his prime and nearing the end of his career. The two eventually met in the Western Conference Finals, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks against Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain lost his teammates Jerry West and Elgin Baylor to injuries. but Kareem had the likes of Oscar Robertson in his team. The Bucks walked away victorious of the series with a 4-1 advantage. Kareem and the Bucks would go on to sweep the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA Finals, and Kareem was named the Finals MVP.

The next season, the two teams met again in the WCF, but this time, Wilt had back-up with Jerry West. Wilt played excellent defense  The Lakers ended up toppling the Bucks to reach the 1972 NBA Finals, which they won by defeating the New York Knicks. Wilt's performance against Kareem and the Bucks was heralded as one of the greatest ever. 

To take on a supreme athlete in Kareem, especially at the age of 35 for Wilt, was an intense affair, and is considered one of the greatest contests ever. Wilt's Game Six performance in the WCF is perhaps the one that stands out the most, where Wilt helped the Lakers rally against the Bucks, and close a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to help the Lakers win 106-100. 

His Lakers teammate Jerry West heralded Wilt's performance as “the greatest ball-busting performance I have ever seen.” And Time Magazine heaped further praise on Chamberlain, writing “In the NBA’s Western Division Title series with Milwaukee, he [Chamberlain] decisively outplayed basketball’s newest giant superstar…” (H/T Bleacher Report).

And so, both stars were tied 1-1 when going against each other. The next season in 1973, fans expected the third edition of a Bucks-Lakers WCF. But the Bucks shockingly lost to the Warriors in six games. Whereas the Lakers were able to make their way to the NBA Finals again to face the Knicks once more. But this time, the Knicks bested the Lakers, and it was the end of Chamberlain as a player in the NBA. 

Chamberlain And Abdul-Jabbar Engage In A War Of Words (1974-1990)

A few years later, Kareem would follow in Wilt's footsteps when he joined the Los Angeles Lakers after a six-year stint with the Milwaukee Bucks. But as he was embarking on a new journey in his career, he saw his idol change his stance on him. Wilt Chamberlain became a very vocal critic of Kareem's. Some of his criticisms about Kareem focussed on him not fully realizing his potential, having to improve on certain aspects of his game, and him not calling time on his career earlier.

During his playing days, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never actually responded to these comments and criticisms. But as he called time on his legendary career, Kareem finally responded to Wilt in a scathing open letter in his autobiography, where he addressed his former mentor. He compared Wilt's success to that of Bill Russell and himself but noted that Wilt was never able to match up to them with accomplishments. He also accused Wilt of running away from adversity. The most damning statement came at the end, where he called Wilt a crybaby and a quitter, despite his legacy.

An Open Letter to Wilt Chumperlame

It’s been several years now, Wilt, that you have been criticizing my career with your friends in the press. Since this pattern does not seem to have any end in sight, I feel that I might as well have my say about the situation.It would seem that someone who achieved as much as you did would be satisfied with his career. After all, some of the things you did in your time were quite admirable and have given us an enduring set of records for the books. So why all the jealousy and envy?

In trying to figure this out, I started to look for what you would be jealous of, and that’s when the picture started to become clear. Many remember how frustrated you were when your team couldn’t win the NCAA tournament. Your talent and abilities were so great that everyone assumed the NCAA was all yours. But after a terrific triple-overtime game, Kansas lost. You complained about the officiating, your teammates and other things, and then quit, leaving college early to tour with the Globetrotters. That seemed to set a pattern for you. After any tough test in which you didn’t do well, you blamed those around you and quit.

In professional basketball, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics gave you a yearly lesson in real competitive competence and teamwork. All you could say was that your teammates stunk and that you had done all you could, and besides, the refs never gave you a break. Poor Wilt.

In 1967, your team finally broke through. That 76er team established records that are still standing today. But the following year, the Sixers lost and, predictable as ever, you quit. You came out to L.A. and got with a dream team. The only lack that team had was leadership at the center position. Bill and the Celts took one from you in ’69, and the Knicks followed suit in ’70. People are still trying to figure out where you disappeared to in that series. True to form, after the Knicks beat the Lakers in the world championship in 1973, you quit and haven’t been seen on the court since.

Of course, you came out every so often to take a cheap shot at me. During the sixth game of the world championship series in 1988, you stated, “Kareem should have retired five years ago.” I can now see why you said that. If I had quit at the time you suggested, it would have been right after a disappointing loss to the 76ers. And it would have been typical of one of your retreats.

But after that loss, I decided that I had more to give. I believed in myself and in the Lakers and stuck with it. We went on to win three out of four world championships between ’85 and ’88. The two teams you played on that won world championships, in ’67 and ’72, never repeated. They never showed the consistency that the Lakers of the ‘80s have shown. And you didn’t want me to be part of that.

Given your jealousy, I can understand that. So , now that I have left, one thing will be part of my legacy: People will remember that I worked with my teammates and helped us win. You will be remembered as a whining crybaby and a quitter, stats and all.

Clearly, the continuous criticisms from the man he grew up watching and idolizing took a toll on him. And Kareem responded with great ferocity in his open letter. Years and years of criticism with no response left Kareem feeling like he had no choice but to respond in the long-form manner that he did. 

Both Players Soften Their Position (1990-1999)

Eventually, Wilt Chamberlain responded in an interview with Bob Costas a year later. During the interview, he spoke about Kareem, but in a more complimentary manner. He seemed to renege on his earlier criticisms, noting that only the negative aspects of his comments on Kareem were focussed on. None of the positive things he said about him were put in the spotlight. However, Wilt did defend himself from Abdul-Jabbar's comments about him being a quitter, noting that he persevered through situations in his career where most other players would have thrown in the towel.

Kareem has the right to say what he feels. I think he went above and beyond the call of being critical. In my criticism of Kareem, first of all, let's talk about how it came about. I would be maybe interviewed by the LA Times and we talked about the Lakers and we talked about Kareem. I would say nine positive things about Kareem. Like if I had to go to so and so in the last play of the game, give it to Kareem. He wants it, he does will with it. The tenth thing I may say is that, 'but I don't think he rebounds very well. I don't think he's really doing the job there that he could do and he should do.' Headlines next day has 'Wilt criticized Kareem for not doing his job rebounding' or whatever. So that's how Kareem began to view that I was maybe taking him apart in the latter stage of his game...

And I must say this now, and I never said this in public before: I respected Kareem, and I had a lot of guys who I respected in sports, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Mays, and a few of us Muhammad Ali, who I thought should have given it up two or three or four years before they did. And they lost, I believe, a lot of esteem by not doing so. I felt the same about Kareem, and maybe I was subconsciously saying some things about him so he could maybe give it up because I thought it was time for him to do so. That was my personal opinion and it may not have been his and he has a right to feel, you know, maybe somewhat taken aback by that. But I never really went to his measures to talk about, you know, 'quitter.' I mean, I've played in games and situations where I'm sure a great many athletes would never play. Playing 14 years in the NBA, I don't think makes you a quitter...

So what does that tell you though, Bob? I think he was just maybe a little angry and misguided, and once again as Bill Russell may have done, just venting a little anger and saying something that he really doesn't mean... I think that as far as I'm concerned, I've made my peace [with Kareem]. If Kareem was here today, I have no real animosity. I don't think he believes all those things he said.

So it appeared that Wilt was not taking what Kareem said personally. But he did refute some of the claims made against him. Wilt further showed that he had softened his stance against Kareem in 1994, 10 years after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar surpassed him in the all-time NBA scoring charts, Wilt commented on how good Kareem had to be on a regular basis to set that kind of record, acknowledging the greatness his former protege had achieved in his career.

"I give Kareem full credit for breaking my all-time scoring record. It's a record of longevity, not a flash in the pan. The important records are the ones that take an athlete many games or years to amass. Anyone can have a great game, but having 1,000 good games has more significance...There are more records to shoot at now, and records become a bigger deal. Some records are manufactured out of thin air. When I was playing, who knew of double doubles and triple doubles? They had no significance, no meaning. I had triple doubles every night, and they didn't even keep track of blocked shots then."

Unfortunately, Wilt Chamberlain would pass away a few years later. In a eulogy to him, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said "Wilt was one of the greatest ever, and we will never see another one like him." While their relationship suffered through its highs and lows, there was obviously a great degree of respect between the two. To go from proteges to adversaries, to rivals, and then legends in their own right, their journey together was a long one. Kareem and Wilt showed how it was to have two of the greatest ever players be contemporaries, and how the line between friend and foe was so paper-thin. Their duels with each other (as seen in the video above) were always intense, with both players looking to get the best of each other at every stage.