Answer Man: Rules changed when Wilt the Stilt hit the court

News-DemocratDecember 3, 2013 

Is it true that when Wilt Chamberlain played high school basketball, he would make his free throws by tossing the ball into the air and then slamming it through the basket? -- R.J. Krause, of Fairview Heights

At first, I thought you were pulling my leg, which, if I were Wilt the Stilt, would be quite a feat considering his 7-foot frame.

Having been too young to follow basketball in the mid-1950s, I assumed that players always had been required to stay behind the free throw line while attempting their charity tosses.

But your memory, while not quite accurate, is no Internet urban legend. Even before he played his first game at the University of Kansas, the National Basketball Committee in March 1956 made not one, but four changes to try to cut the big man down to size. Moreover, he apparently isn't the only giant who forced alterations in how the game is played.

According to the Toledo Blade on Nov. 28, 1956, a new rule drastically altered Chamberlain's behavior after he was fouled.

"It seems Wilt has an unorthodox method of shooting free throws," the paper reported. "The big guy takes aim at the basket from several feet behind the line. Then he takes about three giant steps, leaves his feet before reaching the line and stuffs the ball through the hoop."

Under the old rule, this was perfectly legal because his feet would not touch the floor in front of the line before he let go of the ball. But even before Wilt could make his first college toss, Coach Tex Winter at arch-rival Kansas State apparently jumped up to protest.

"Look," he said, "you fellows may think it's funny but I don't. We have to play that big buy for the next three years. Why, he would have had a free throw percentage of 100. He never missed."

As a result, Wilt had to change his style when the rules committee ordered that free throws "must be made from within the semicircle," i.e., entirely from behind the line. The committee didn't mention Chamberlain by name in making its decision, only that the change was instituted "to prevent freak activity."

The change put a crimp in Chamberlain's game, but it didn't stop his dominance. As a pro, he would make only 51 percent of his free throws in 14 seasons with the Warriors, 76ers and Lakers. But even in his first game as a K.U. sophomore on Dec. 3, 1956, Wilt showed them who was boss with 52 points and 31 rebounds (both shattered school records) in an 87-69 thrashing of Northwestern.

Those eye-popping numbers came despite three other rules changes designed to chop these cage sequoias down a notch. In preparation for his first collegiate season, Chamberlain apparently had worked on another nifty little move: During an out-of-bounds play under their offensive basket, one of Wilt's teammates would toss the ball over the backboard and Chamberlain would slamajama it home as it fell.

That was now verboten. According to the new rule, when putting the ball in play, a player "must throw it in bounds from either side of an imaginary line extended from the 12-foot free throw lane."

They didn't stop there. During free throws, both positions nearest the basket would go to defensive players instead of one from each team. And to further limit Wilt's height advantage, officials restricted his airplay around the basket.

"A player may not guide a teammate's shot into the basket if, at the point it touches his hand, the ball is above the plane of the rim." In other words, a 5-foot-10 guard can't toss up a ball for Chamberlain to drive home.

But Chamberlain wasn't the only giant who had rules makers changing the books. From 1946-1956, 6-foot-10 George Mikan was such a powerful force for the Minneapolis Lakers that he was nicknamed Mr. Basketball.

With his size, skill and coordination, he would rule the free-throw lane with a deadly hook shot he developed at DePaul University under then-rookie coach Ray Meyer. As a result, the NBA widened the free-throw lane from 6 to 12 feet before the 1950-51 season so Mikan had just three seconds to stay within a larger area of paint. (It would be widened to 16 in 1966 because of Chamberlain.)

And after UCLA won the national championship in 1967, the NCAA outlawed the dunk shot to slow sophomore Lew Alcindor (better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Still, UCLA won the national crown during his final two years and his scoring average dropped only from 29 to 25 points a game. The rule was then rescinded in 1976.

Today's trivia

Speaking of rules changes, how did Bronko Nagurski change the game of pro football on Dec. 18, 1932?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Trick question. All three of those illustrious quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdown passes during their careers: Joe Namath (220 picks, 173 TDs), Ken Stabler (222 to 194) and Jim Hart (247 to 209). By comparison, Brett Favre had 508 TDs and just 336 interceptions.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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