There's something so mystifying about the thought of two giants going at it one-on-one. Maybe it's interesting to me because as a boy I was brought up watching shows like Power Rangers where giants battle each other next to city skyscrapers pretty much every episode. Not to mention me and my friends all had monster toys and we'd slam them into each other to make them fight. But no, it's not just my upbringing. There's some kind of spectacle to it that persists throughout the rest of our lives. It's why we go see movies like Pacific Rim, and Cloverfield had us beyond hyped back in 2008.
At a cursory glance in this battle of giants, my gut reaction would be to go with Shaquille O'Neal, because I witnessed his dominance. Wilt and Shaq both towered over mortal men at heights of 7'1, and there was only a one-inch difference in their broad wingspans (7'7 for Shaq, 7'8 for Wilt). The thing was, Prime Shaq was tall and wide - yet light as hell on his feet. He was taller than almost everyone already, and top of that he had so much weight to throw around! I remember seeing him back down helpless opposing centers who weighed 50-60 pounds less than him, and there was literally nothing they could do to stop the behemoth. I, along with tons of other living people, remember seeing that with my own eyes. In my opinion, Shaq at his peak was simply the most dominant force the league has ever seen. Even more than peak Michael and LeBron. Just too big, too solid, and too quick. Peep some career highlights of Big Shaq below
My mind was pretty made up right until I happened upon some legendary stories about Wilt Chamberlain. See I already knew about the 100 point game, the season where he averaged 50 points, and how he had a reputation for stat chasing. Those ill, stat-padding intentions and the fact that he played in a weak era populated by unathletic white guys sort of caused me to brush him off.
While it's true that there was more overall talent in Shaq's day and today, that doesn't take away from Wilt's overall level skill, and in particular his strength. Wilt The Stilt was the absolute strongest player that just about everyone had seen back in the day. He might've been the strongest player ever to dribble a basketball in an NBA game. Not only did he possess uncanny strength, but he had an unbelievable basketball IQ and the conditioning of Zeus. This god-like amount of strength, athleticism, stamina, and intellectual savvy would've created possibly the greatest one-on-one battle of unstoppable basketball forces imaginable. Let me tell you why Wilt would've gotten the edge.
Starting off with his conditioning. Wilt played in an era where NBA training and medicine was either non-existent or terribly shoddy due to the low value of franchises and scarce amount of money floating around in the league compared to today. Despite the lack of help in preparation and conditioning, Wilt Chamberlain still managed to play 48.5 MINUTES PER NIGHT during the season where HE AVERAGED 50 POINTS. How often did Wilt rest? Only eight minutes during the entire 1961-62 season. That's so ridiculous that it's hilarious. Absolutely no NBA player today would be allowed to only rest 8 minutes in an entire season. The league actually ran at a quick pace like today back then too (126.2 possessoins per game, whereas the highest team today had 104.9 possessions per game, New Orleans Pelicans). Except for 3 separate seasons where he was injured, Wilt never played less than 72 games in an NBA season. The fact that Wilt played complete games every time while managing 50 points a night during the 61-62 season is inconceivably legendary. It doesn't matter what era you played in, that sturdiness speaks to the physical marvel and anomaly that he was.
To continue with his physical features, Wilt had a 9'6 standing reach to go with his 7'1 height. When he was young and spry, not only was he a giant, but he could leap like Michael Jordan! Apparently, he had a 45 in. vertical and would dunk on 12-foot hoops in practice easily (10 feet is the normal height of a basketball hoop). There's also an urban legend that he beat NFL all-time running back Jim Brown in a footrace...twice! Wilt did run track and field in college, so given his long, lengthy strides and great stamina I could see this happening. He does dart down the court very quickly when you watch old clips of him. He ran around a 4.4-4.6 40-yard dash. Below is a compilation where they discuss Wilt's athleticism and conditioning. In around the 1-minute mark, Phil Jackson (who played against Wilt from 1967-73) states that Shaq didn't have nearly the same conditioning as Wilt. The video is chock full of Wilt stories too.
An interesting little tidbit about Wilt's on-court intelligence was the fact that he never fouled out in a single game of his career. It takes an acute awareness of how to defend and analyze situations to never foul out once in your career. You can't say the same for Shaq and fouling out. One of my first memories was Shaq fouling out of a Finals game against the Indiana Pacers.
And finally, one of the main reasons that Wilt was so dominant was his raw, unnatural strength. Arnold Schwarzenegger was filming Conan The Destroyer with Wilt Chamberlain and Andre the Giant in the early 80's. It's mentioned in the video above, but Wilt was so strong he was able to pick up a jacked Arnold Schwarzenegger with one arm. He could do 150-70 pound tricep extensions (while the gym's top guys could only do 120), bench 500 pounds. He also once dunked and it slammed down so hard that it broke the toe of NBA Hall of Famer Johnny Kerr. Not to mention, he blocked Gus Johnson so hard when he went up for a dunk that he dislocated his shoulder and had to be taken out on a stretcher.
All these legendary stories about Wilt have led me to totally flip-flop on who I believe is the most dominant NBA player of all-time. I initially thought Shaq would defeat anyone in a landslide, but that was before I came across these stories of Wilts physical power. A Wilt vs. Shaq one-on-one matchup would be one I'd pay a lot of money to see, I think it'd be a hell of a battle. But in my opinion, Wilt was too fast, smart, athletic, and strong. Even for prime Shaq.