Who do you think the greatest Philadelphian of all time is? I asked a bunch of people this question over the last week, and nobody really had a good answer.
William Penn? Even though he’s from England, he certainly counts as a Philadelphian.
A few founding fathers were common answers: Thomas Paine (is he really a Philadelphian?) and Benjamin Franklin (who certainly has enough damn statues to count).
I got a few suggestions from academia (from academics, of course): Margaret Mead, Noam Chomsky, even Andrew Weil (the last one from a pothead, of course).
A few people suggested politicians: Joseph S. Clark, Richardson Dilworth and, of course, ex-mayor of Las Vegas Oscar Goodman.
Somebody suggested Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon. He certainly traveled the farthest.
Another friend said "whoever invented the soft pretzel." I think Octavius Catto would be a good choice, too.
Good suggestions, all. (Well, some.) But I believe I have the answer:
The greatest Philadelphian of all time is Wilt Chamberlain.
I do not think it matters that Wilt Chamberlain gained his fame due to his stature as a professional basketball player. I think we have to judge people on a scale. Let's compare this with sports: In recent years in sports analysis, it's come into vogue to judge players based on their value over replacement. Thus while Ryan Howard had more HR and RBI than Chase Utley did in 2009, Utley shouldn't have finished several spots behind him in MVP voting (3rd vs. 8th): Second base is a much harder position to play than first, and getting a player to approach Howard's production levels at first would be much easier than someone approaching Utley's. (And Utley played second better than Howard played first, and also there are better tools for analysis than RBI. But the point stands, I think.)
So why punish Wilt Chamberlain because of the fields he chose? He was awesome at everything he did! Let's examine some of Wilt's career accomplishments and why he was one of the best at all of them.
Wilt Chamberlain is most famous for scoring 100 points in one basketball game. 100 points! The closest anyone's ever gotten since is Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 in a 2006 game against the Raptors. Bryant, you may not know, is a robot specifically programmed to play basketball by Joe "Jellybean" Bryant and the same Penn computer scientists who built ENIAC. And he was still 19 points away!
Chamberlain also averaged 50.4 points one season. Most players go a whole career without scoring 50 once. And he was subversive, too: When was ready to go pro after college, NBA rules prevented him from doing so: So he played with the freaking Harlem Globetrotters for a year. He even toured Moscow with them! He was so dominant he forced the NBA to change the rules. He's the only basketball player ever who has an excuse for missing free throws, as the NBA wouldn't allow him to dunk them.
Sure, you might say, he only won two NBA titles. But so what! This is the greatest Philadelphian we're looking for, not the greatest pro basketball player. Two NBA titles seems like a lot, to me. (Personally, I haven't won any.) And, yes, he fled Philadelphia for the Lakers, but what great Philadelphian hasn't looked elsewhere at one point? Plus, as Robert Cherry writes in Wilt: Larger than Life, Chamberlain wanted to date white women and felt it would be possible in L.A. Moving to Los Angeles to make it easier to hook up with women is pretty much the most acceptable reason to move.
After he retired from basketball, he picked up volleyball. To be fair, his 7-foot-1 frame helped him out a bit. But isn't that smart? When you're done paying basketball, go find another sport that puts a premium on height. He was named MVP of an International Volleyball Association All-Star Game, is in the sport's Hall of Fame and I assume Karch Kiraly had a poster of him on his wall as a kid.
Track and Field
Oh, yeah. Do you know what Wilt Chamberlain's first love was? Track and field! (Okay, actually some girl on the playground probably, but you get the idea.) In high school, he high jumped 6 feet, 6 inches, ran the 880-yards sub-two minutes and put the shot 53 feet, 4 inches. I don't even know of anyone who competes in three events that dissimilar besides professional decathletes. If he had stuck to track, they probably would have had to changed the rules to thwart him.
Wilt the Stilt (which he didn't like), Goliath and The Big Dipper, coined by friends because he had to dip his head as he walked through doorways. These are darn high-quality nicknames.
In Wilt Chamberlain's autobiography, he claimed to have had sex with 20,000 different women. Let's assume that his number must be exaggerated. So what? Benjamin Franklin's reputation of sexual prowess is primarily self-exaggerated, too, and that's pretty much taught to kids in schools. And if you can convince everyone you're a stud, doesn't it sort of count anyway? Plus, it's not like there isn't evidence of Chamberlain's smoothness. Cherry quotes Swedish Olympic high jumper Annette Tånnander: "I think Wilt hit on everything that moved… he never was bad or rude." He's like the exact opposite of pick-up artist culture. Per Cherry, he also enjoyed the In Living Color sketch where two women converse at a Vietnam Wall-style monument to women who had sex with him.
(Okay, perhaps he was just in it for the quantity, not quality. But interviewing women who had slept with Wilt on his skill in bed is outside the scope of this article.)
Chamberlain's only notable role was in Conan the Destroyer. Roger Ebert gave it three stars!
Although he played in an era when pro athletes didn't make as much as they do now, he managed to live an incredibly comfortable life post-basketball due to his business acumen. He even ran a Harlem nightclub, Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise. (Good name!) Cherry notes he rarely hired a housekeeper for his Bel-Air mansion, preferring to do the work himself. Even I pay some guy to clean my place.
If there's anything Wilt Chamberlain tried that he was a failure at, I haven't heard of it. He's certainly better comparatively in every field than any other Philadelphian I can think of. For example, Ben Franklin sucked at basketball.
Wilt Chamberlain. Greatest Philadelphian of all time. Spread the word.