In the pantheon of all-time basketball legends, both Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan loom large. While the two men were some of the best to ever set foot on the hardwood, the Los Angeles Lakers legend once said that His Airness would have encountered a specific issue if he had played during his era.
During a 1997 interview with Conan O’Brien, Chamberlain was asked about his perspective on MJ. Although Wilt the Stilt made sure to acknowledge Jordan’s incredible talent and impact on the game of basketball, he also claimed that the Chicago Bull’s high-flying ways would have landed him on the bench.
Wilt Chamberlain and Michel Jordan dominated the NBA in different eras
For better or worse, basketball fans tend to debate who was the greatest athlete to ever hit the professional hardwood. While it’s tough to find an overall consensus, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain are accepted as two of the GOATs.
Although Chamberlain last appeared in NBA action nearly 50 years ago, his on-court exploits still stand tall in the record books. The big man proved to be a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per outing over 14 seasons in the Association. He also surely blocked plenty of shots, but that stat wasn’t officially tracked during his career.
While Jordan more than held his own from a statistical perspective, averaging 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game, he also became a pop-culture presence. MJ hit his prime as the NBA exploded into a truly global game, and he became the face of the sport. Thanks to his incredible talent and willingness to endorse everything from McDonald’s meals to underwear, His Airness became a world-famous star.
Although that doesn’t directly affect his GOAT status, it certainly doesn’t hurt the argument from a sheer name-recognition perspective.
Wilt Chamberlain said that His Airness would have been benched due to his dunks
Even if you don’t believe he’s the GOAT, His Airness was a game-changing talent; leaving him on the bench would be an incredible misallocation of resources. According to Chamberlain, though, that’s exactly what would have happened if Jordan played in his era.
“The mentality of the fan is wonderful when they’ve learned to accept showbiz,” Wilt explained during a 1997 conversation with Conan O’Brien. “And Michael is the epitome of showbiz, along with that great talent. During my time, if you did a 360 [dunk], first of all, the opposition would take it as an insult that you would try to do something like that against them. The coach on your own team, if you weren’t at least 90,000 points ahead, would bench you. And the fans would look at you like, ‘He’s the biggest hot dog in the world.'”
The host then asked a clarifying question, wondering if the great Michael Jordan would have actually been stapled to the bench. Chamberlain insisted that would be the case.
“Absolutely,” the big man said. “And that’s the truth. But now, in Chicago, if he doesn’t give you one of those 360s you’re talking about, even though their team is 90 points ahead, they’re looking for something spectacular.”
The Big Dipper also paid Michael Jordan quite the compliment during the same interview
In isolation, Chamberlain’s comments seem like a fairly standard slight; it’s no different than how MJ’s peers will say the modern NBA has gotten soft. In fairness to Wilt, though, he also made it clear that he held Jordan in high regard.
“Michael Jordan is one of those rare specimens that could have played at any particular time and is a gifted athlete who is using those gifts in basketball incredibly so,” the big man explained. “He has been the liaison between something that’s not so good and making it great for all the rest. I think that almost every man in the NBA should give him 10% of their checks.”
With that being said, though, Chamberlain still believed that MJ would have had a tough time venturing into the paint during his era: “I don’t think, I know he’d have been crushed.”
Unfortunately for basketball fans, we’ll never get to see Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan face off on the hardwood. That battle of the titans will have to remain hypothetical.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference