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LeBron James

How LeBron James is the new Wilt Chamberlain

LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain share striking similarities
LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain share striking similarities (Getty Images)

An athletic marvel from an early age that could have dominated in any number of arenas that's ultimately stood the test of time while regularly living in a statistical stratosphere that others can only dream of.

An annual contender questioned early on for postseason shortcomings before finally breaking through and vanquishing a long-time nemesis.

A 4-time MVP that's larger than life and always in contention, seeking all there is to offer in Los Angeles by playing for the Lakers after a delivering a title and dominating for the hometown team.

One of the greatest basketball players of all-time with significant interests and a competitive fire to succeed away from the court that includes producing, acting, political involvement and extensive charity work.

I am, of course, talking about Wilt Chamberlain…

… but also LeBron James.

LeBron James and Michael Jordan: the wrong comparison

As LeBron James passes Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the NBA's all-time scoring list, it's almost hard to fathom that a player once dubbed "more Magic, than Michael" will now have more points as an NBA player than the legend who once averaged over 50 points per game for an entire season.

And yet here we are.

When it comes to player comparisons for LeBron James, the low hanging fruit for several years now has been Michael Jordan. Between James himself admitting to chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan and endless debate across every platform about who is the GOAT, that's become every NBA fan's 'white and gold dress' debate.

To a certain extent, it makes sense.

Jordan was the undisputed greatest player of all-time until James, the most hyped NBA prospect of all-time, actually over-delivered on his immense promise and unprecedented expectations. Not until his heroics in recent years, badly outmatched and going up against a team considered the best since Jordan's Bulls, did James truly enter the conversation alongside the legend we've foolishly searched for a "next man up" all of these years without ever actually getting there.

But James really isn't Jordan. And that's not picking a side either because likewise, Jordan really isn't LeBron.

Jordan evolved over the years, changing his game from one of dynamic above-the-rim athleticism to one steeped in impeccable footwork and mid-range jumpers. Stitched together by a competitive drive and unrelenting desire to defend that was nothing short of peerless, Jordan's dominant run was characterized by equal parts skill and intensity.

That's not to say James isn't skilled or intense. He's both.

But if you were to describe the essence of his stranglehold on the NBA universe to someone who had never watched a single minute of the sport, you'd likely settle on some combination of powerful and cerebral, physically able to do whatever he wants while astutely aware of every other piece on the board.

And in that respect, he's much more Wilt than Michael.

Freakish athleticism

There's never been a more physically dominant force on a basketball court than Wilt Chamberlain.

Sure, he played in an era in which many centers stood 6'9".

But he also played in an era with the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Bellamy, Bob Lanier and Nate Thurmond. Given the lack of teams, it also meant facing off against those Hall of Fame bigs far more often. Consider the 1960-61 season, in which Chamberlain and Russell played each other a whopping 12 times, a far cry from the two to four times a year that stars face their toughest marks today.

Chamberlain's gaudy stats speak for themselves .

The tales and anecdotes spin a far more complete story.

In Gary Pomerantz's book "Wilt, 1962", there are details on Chamberlain's weight lifting abilities including the claim that he could deadlift 625 pounds. By comparison, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won first place at the 1966 international powerlifting championships, he won with a lift of 550 pounds. (Ironically, Schwarzenegger was in attendance as LeBron passed Wilt).

In that same book, Pomerantz goes on to say that he could run the 440 (meter dash) in 49 seconds and shot put 53 feet. The former was just one second slower than the world record in 1912 while the latter would have been a world record into the 1930s.

All of that in addition to doubling as an award-winning high jumper.

Chamberlain's combination of strength, speed and explosiveness was incomprehensible in his day, much in the same way that James is today.

Google "LeBron James best athlete" and you'll uncover stories from nearly every major publication asking if he's the best athlete ever with former teammates and coaches alike. There's really not much that hasn't been said on the topic.

When first asked to name the league's most athletic player as part of the annual NBA.com survey in 2008-09, GMs anointed James. They proceeded to do so every season until finally relinquishing the honour to Russell Westbrook in 2015-16, ending a seven-year run of dominance that extended into his 30s.

The punishing size of Karl Malone and the blinding speed of Russell Westbrook, James is an athletic specimen that stands alone in an age of nutritionists, personal trainers and sleep doctors, where nearly everyone is smarter about how to best take care of their bodies.

Defeating Father Time

"In some ways, I was getting better as a player." That's what Wilt Chamberlain told People Magazine in a 1984 profile when talking about the end of his career after calling it quits at the age of 36 following the 1972-73 season.

In his 14th season, Chamberlain not only became the oldest player in league history to lead the NBA in rebounding, but set an NBA record by making 72.7 percent of his shots.

Both records still stand today.

Though obviously no longer the same caliber of scorer, Chamberlain remained a record-setting force right up until the very end and well past the point where even the best players succumb to statistical mortality. He finished fourth that season in MVP voting, over 10 years older than each of the three players ahead of him.

It's a similar arc to what we're seeing now from LeBron James.

"This is the best I've felt in my career." That was James after scoring 57 points in a win over the Wizards last November.

"My game is probably at an all-time high." That was James after making four shots in the final two minutes of a close win over the Nuggets in March.

In his 15th season and well past the point where any reasonable mortal would have started to drop off, James wasn't simply falling prey to hyperbole as he proved in the postseason.

Against the Pacers in the 1st Round, he scored or assisted on 54.4 points per game and single-handedly carried the Cavaliers to a seven-game series win in which no teammate scored 20 points in any game.

Against the Raptors in the Conference Semifinals, James once again swept away Toronto, the signature moment coming in Game 3 as he hit a running shot at the buzzer.

Against the Celtics in the Conference Finals and the Cavs down 3-2, James averaged 40.5 points, 13.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists over the final two games to reach an eighth straight Finals.

Against the Warriors in the NBA Finals, James erupted for 51-8-8 in a Game 1 loss, arguably the greatest performance in a losing effort in Finals history.

Simply put, James looked nothing a player at the tail end of his 15th season and with more mileage at that stage of his career than any player in league history.

When it comes to sheer late career dominance, James is stealing a page from a chapter once penned by the man he just passed.

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