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NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 18, 2022, to make it free for all readers.
Who was the NBA's biggest of the big men in 1970-71?
The season represented a spiritual passing of the torch between the Los Angeles Lakers' legendary Wilt Chamberlain and the Milwaukee Bucks' already dominant Lew Alcindor (who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following that season), although it wasn't as simple as identifying Milwaukee's championship season as the pivot point.
Chamberlain, 34 years old that year, still had plenty left in the tank, and Alcindor, who didn't turn 24 until late in the season, already was a nationally recognized superstar thanks to his college exploits at UCLA and sensational rookie year.
The two powerhouses faced off 28 times in the NBA, with 14 wins apiece. Abdul-Jabbar was by far the bigger scorer in the head-to-head meetings as Chamberlain's scoring averages declined in the final stage of his career, but Chamberlain remained a megastar presence on defense and on the glass.
To say it was the twilight of Chamberlain's career during the Bucks' title run was fair but also misleading. One year later in 1972, he won his only title in a Lakers uniform, his second ring along with the 1967 crown he won with Philadelphia while teammates with 1970-71 Bucks coach Larry Costello.
Chamberlain still led the NBA in rebounding and shooting percentage in the final two seasons of his career and made the all-star team in the final three, never missing a game in those three seasons.
But 1970-71 was by far the best stretch for the Bucks against Chamberlain's Lakers, with four wins in five regular-season games and a 4-1 win in the Western Conference finals. The tête-à-tête between big men ended with Milwaukee fans giving Chamberlain a standing ovation as he checked out of Game 5 in the Western Conference finals, representative of the matchup's amiable nature.
In the fourth quarter, Chamberlain reportedly said to Alcindor, "It looks like you're going to win it, so I hope you go all the way."
Said Alcindor: "There was satisfaction on both sides. There was a lot of give and take out there. Wilt was on his job. He's so strong and yet it isn't especially exhausting to play him. You don't shove him around much because he's just about immune to it."
It's also true that the highest-profile clashes between the two happened outside the 70-71 season. There was a much-hyped first meeting in 1969, a January meeting in 1972 in which the Bucks snapped the Lakers' record 33-game winning streak and a battle for first place on the final day of the 1973 season. But it was always special when Kareem and Wilt shared a court.
Lew and Wilt play to a draw
Chamberlain suffered a knee injury that limited him to only one matchup with the Bucks in 1969-70, so fans were eager to see a rematch between big men in the Nov. 20 game early in the 1970-71 season. Chamberlain blocked six Alcindor shots and finished with 28 points and 23 rebounds, plus 10 blocks for the triple-double, but the Bucks won the game easily, 117-100. Alcindor was limited by foul trouble but still had 29 points and 13 rebounds, and the Bucks moved to 13-1 on the year.
"I thought I played a very good game," Chamberlain said afterward. "They were triple-teaming me in the pivot. I don't think Alcindor killed us, but they did. You can't add guys like Oscar (Robertson) and Bob Boozer and Lucius Allen and not be a better ballclub. And they've got a lot of guys who are exceptionally quick — Lew, (Bob) Dandridge, Greg Smith. Quickness is what does it for you."
Alcindor said he didn't think he played well. When he was asked to elaborate he simply said, "No."
On Dec. 21, the Bucks again handled the Lakers, 113-88. This time, Alcindor was dominant with 37 points and 16 rebounds with a national TV audience looking on. After two career matchups between the players in which Chamberlain matched or surpassed Alcindor, Alcindor was the clear winner this time.
"In the last game, Wilt would back away from me. Then when I would make my move, he would time his leap perfectly and block the shot," Alcindor said. "This time I turned around and faced the basket, and that made him play more honestly. I never did that before."
Chamberlain had 25 points and 14 rebounds.
"I'm just happy we played a good game and that things went the way they did," Alcindor said. "I have no big thing with Wilt."
Los Angeles handed Milwaukee a demoralizing 116-93 defeat on Feb. 5, but even that had a silver lining; it was the last time Milwaukee would taste defeat before rattling off an NBA-record 20 consecutive victories. The Bucks beat the Lakers twice during that streak, though Alcindor wasn't at his best in either contest, including a season-low 15 points and six rebounds in the second of those clashes.
Who rules the Western Conference?
The Bucks won Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, 106-85. Alcindor (32 points, 22 rebounds) got the slight edge on Chamberlain (22, 20, eight blocks).
"We stopped going to Wilt, who was having success against Alcindor, and we started going one on one," injured Lakers star Elgin Baylor said afterward.
But Game 2 was worse for the Lakers, who scored the fewest points in an NBA playoff game in 16 years, and the Bucks prevailed, 91-73. L.A. briefly bit back with a 118-107 win in Game 3, when Alcindor had 20 points and 19 rebounds, but Chamberlain had 24 and 24 to win the day.
But that was the Lakers' last stand. On April 16 — Alcindor's 24th birthday — he finished with 31 points and 20 rebounds and held Chamberlain to 15 and 16 in a 117-94 win. On April 18, Milwaukee finished off a 4-1 series win with a 116-98 victory.
Chamberlain finished Game 5 with 23 points and 12 rebounds; Alcindor had 20 and 15.
"It was wonderful," Chamberlain said of the standing ovation from the fans at the Milwaukee Arena. "I can't recall if this has ever happened to me before. You give whatever you have to give, and when it's appreciated, it's gratifying. It shows you that basketball fans have come a long way, just like the players."
Said Costello of Chamberlain: "He's never played better in a long time. Wilt did a hell of a job, which points to the fine job Lew did for us."
The end of a record-setting winning streak
The Bucks, of course, went on to win the 1971 title, a triumph now celebrating its 50th anniversary. But while 1970-71 was Milwaukee's season to shine, it didn't always have bragging rights over the Lakers and Chamberlain.
The following year, the Lakers defeated the Bucks in the Western Conference finals, 4-2, en route to the 1972 title. The Lakers won three of those games by a combined eight points, but it wasn't necessarily a fluke. The Lakers also won four of five meetings in the regular season.
That one Bucks win was a big one, though. On Jan. 9, 1972, the Bucks beat the Lakers, 120-104, snapping Los Angeles' historic 33-game winning streak that blew Milwaukee's record of 20 games (set in 1971) out of the water.
Chamberlain had 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Abdul-Jabbar (who had changed his name months before) had 39 and 20 with five assists.
"I'm glad Atlanta didn't beat them Friday night so we could have the chance," Costello said. "We're the world champions; they aren't."
Chamberlain never fouled out in his NBA career, but he incurred his fourth foul early in the second half. With Chamberlain's aggressiveness mitigated (and some writers noting that his overriding desire to keep his spotless foul-out record maybe played a role), Abdul-Jabbar scored 23 points in the final 22 minutes.
The debut clash between Alcindor and Chamberlain
Their first meeting came Oct. 24, 1969, and it marked Alcindor's first loss in a Bucks uniform after Milwaukee had opened the year 3-0. Alcindor finished with 23 points and 20 rebounds, while Chamberlain posted 25 and 25 in a 123-112 win.
If there was any doubt, the headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel spelled it out clearly. "Lew Gets 23, Wilt Nets 25; Bucks lose" It was the largest crowd at the Forum in Inglewood, California, a sellout of 17,489.
"People say I tried harder tonight," Chamberlain said. "I didn't, consciously at least. I tried to stay relaxed and keep this game in its proper perspective as the fifth game out of 82. This is actually preseason for the playoff, you know. Milwaukee is going to be a contender, so it was mostly a matter of experimenting, for later on."
Said Alcindor, "This was the first time I ever played against Wilt for real, and I learned a few things. This was the most physical game I ever played. I'm satisfied that I did the best I could. We just didn't play a good game. That's all."
Warriors star Nate Thurmond, another elite center in the league, was in attendance to watch the matchup.
It wasn't on TV; Los Angeles proved too far for Milwaukee's local Channel 18 to travel, especially with a late tip time, though the station did plot out a schedule of 12 games that included one home game, a January battle with Chamberlain and the Lakers. Fans back home listened to Eddie Doucette on WTMJ radio describe the action.
The January battle, of course billed as a chance for fans to glimpse Wilt and Lew, never materialized. Chamberlain was sidelined by a knee injury, played in only 12 games during the 1969-70 season, and wasn't available for any rematches with the Bucks.
The second coin flip ... not as good as the first
But their last meeting was also a biggie, the final game of the Bucks season on March 27, 1973. Milwaukee won, 85-84, thanks to a late Abdul-Jabbar bucket. He finished with 24 points and 18 rebounds, while Chamberlain remarkably didn't even attempt a shot and finished scoreless with 14 boards.
It wasn't even supposed to be the final matchup with the Lakers that week, let alone the last Wilt-Kareem battle ever. After the Bucks won, it meant Los Angeles would have to defeat Golden State the following night to tie the Bucks atop the Western Conference with 60-22 records. Initially, the honor of top seed was expected to be settled with a one-game playoff at the Milwaukee Arena on Friday night.
But that plan was scrapped after the Lakers indeed beat the Warriors. The Lakers held a team meeting and protested the arrangement, noting that the collective bargaining agreement did not call for teams to play more than 82 games. The Bucks voted for it, but the other player representatives around the league agreed to forgo the arrangement and settle the top seed via coin flip instead.
The Bucks won the flip, but it doesn't live on in collective memory the way it does when the Bucks won the coin flip for the right to draft Alcindor No. 1 in 1969. This one had unintended consequences, when the Bucks were assigned the top seed and faced the Warriors in the first round. The Warriors shocked Milwaukee in six games, and it was the Lakers who advanced to the NBA Finals after a five-game series win over Golden State.
Chamberlain sat out the 1973-74 season, hoping to serve as a player-coach with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA. The Lakers sued to prevent Chamberlain from playing because he hadn't fulfilled his Lakers contract, and he wound up merely coaching for the season, then retiring from basketball.
But in 1975-76, the Lakers traded for Abdul-Jabbar to fill the void. He spent the next 14 years dominating for L.A.
On April 5, 1984, Abdul-Jabbar passed Chamberlain for the NBA career scoring record, eclipsing Chamberlain's total of 31,419. Abdul-Jabbar, who finished with five NBA titles with the Lakers in addition to his Bucks crown, closed his career at 38,387 points, still No. 1 all-time chart.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain went toe-to-toe