for wilt chamberlain’s entire basketball career, he wore number 13, right? everyone knows this fact: the number is synonymous with the big dipper. It’s the number that has been retired by all three franchises he played for (Warriors, 76ers and Lakers) and it was also the number he wore while he was in college in Kansas and during his high school years in Philadelphia. but there are two other numbers that he wore during his time in the sport that are incredibly obscure…
We’ll start with the one you supposedly used first: #12. While at Kansas, Wilt had worn the famous 13 for most of his career. as mentioned above, it was also the number he wore in high school, so naturally it was a safe assumption that he would continue to wear the number for his junior season. however, he supposedly (you’ll see why I say this later) he changed his number to 12 at some point during the 1957-58 campaign. Of course, the number change had no negative effect on his on-court play, as Wilt was a unanimous selection to the first-team varsity all-america despite the fact that he was sidelined with injury for a season. part of the season. at least, that’s what the sothebys website claims, with his autographed 1957-58 kansas white house number 12 jersey being the only site i could find that stated for certain that chamberlain wore that number.
The claim is supported by a photograph of the autographed jersey, with the marker reading “wilt chamberlain #12” just below the jersey number printed in large print along with the inscription reading “of chamberlain estate” . To verify this claim that a different jersey number is attributed to Wilt (since she had never heard of it before), I reviewed a clip from December 7, 1957 of Chamberlain playing Northwestern. Muddying the waters, it shows a clear-as-day Chamberlain wearing No. 13, dispelling any idea of him fading into wearing 12 throughout the 1957-58 period. Next, I looked up the complete 1957-58 Kansas Jayhawks roster, which lists each player’s jersey number. Wilt was surely listed as #13 on the Jayhawks Official Athletics Site for that season. so I thought, “maybe him wearing 12 was just an occurrence from a game?” Out of curiosity, I searched the web for such an event and… nothing. but interestingly, there was no kansas player listed as number 12 on the roster, still leaving the opportunity open for a single game or some other small period of time where chamberlain was not documented using the number, rather than potentially belonging to a different player, as he had thought might have been the case while researching. thus, case #12 ends in mystery.
so the whole #12 story may have just been a ruse, but we may never know. maybe it was all made up to sell a jersey, or it was all true and has gone so unnoticed that there are no films or photos of chamberlain with the jersey number. however, that is certainly not the case with the other mystery number wilt chamberlain used at another point in his career. the story is just as confusing and overlooked, but it has more proof than a listing on a website and an autograph. Here’s the story of wilt chamberlain and the number 54, as told by a curious and observant wilt fan 50 years after the unusual number was donned.
being a huge fan of basketball from the 50s and 60s, i stumbled across an interesting 20 minute mini documentary about the 1966-67 season on youtube, and i didn’t think twice about playing it. Uploaded by a guy who goes by the username “hal15greer” one of my favorites when it comes to classic footage like game tapes, I knew it would be a quality piece full of nuggets of the day and maybe even footage I hadn’t seen before before. surely, less than a minute into the video, I was completely floored.
after a couple of clips of alex hannum, head coach of the 76ers team that won that year’s championship, and bill russell, the celtics hall of fame center and wilt’s biggest rival, Discussing the season, we’re greeted with some bits of tape from two games: a 76ers game against the Celtics and a Knicks game against the 76ers. the latter of which is the one we will focus on here.
at the forty second mark, a clip from the knicks game plays. the camera focuses on hal greer dribbling the ball, but a huge man comes out of frame with his back turned. We only see one digit on his uniform: 5. But every other physical attribute of the man in question screams Chamberlain wither. very long legs and arms, very toned but not exactly burly in nature as far as arms go, a wrist brace, and once the camera pans in, it’s clearly wilt’s face.
The first thing that came to mind when I noticed this detail (the first time I saw the clip) was simply “what the heck? did anyone else notice that?” immediately rewinding the film and looking back back, it was obvious that yes, it was wilt chamberlain wearing some sort of jersey number oriented to “5” this was before i heard about the #12 situation, and i definitely had never seen anyone point out that wilt had worn a Different number than 13 in an NBA game so I was obviously confused.Scrolling down to the video comments to check if anyone else caught this oddity, to my surprise and disappointment there was no mention of Wilt wearing a different number. Around the 2:15 mark in the documentary, we can clearly see that Wilt is wearing #54, which usually belonged to fellow fielder Luke Jackson during the 1966-67 season, however the commentator doesn’t take note of this. , leaving us with an elephant in the room as spectators – what the hell is wilt doing wearing that number, instead of his iconic 13?
I searched other corners of the internet for answers. youtube searches with the keywords “wilt chamberlain wearing #54” returned some clean wilting videos, but nothing that was even in the realm of being related to what i saw in the footage. but miraculously, i found a thread on an obscure nba forum called apbr (association for professional basketball research) that was posted by someone who was as curious as i was about this unknown phenomenon. This thread was posted by a user named kkowalski_1998 in August 2009, and details a completely different experience of finding out that Wilt had worn number 54 in a game against the Knicks.
Kowalski claims he initially noticed this when he saw a video uploaded by an old-school YouTuber from Wilt, Wiltat, Kansas, apparently showing clips of the 1968 playoff matchup between the Wilt Sixers and the Knicks. I knew this detail had to be out of place, since the footage I saw sounded exactly like the footage Kowalski saw, except it was in a 1967 movie about the 1966-67 season, but I kept reading. Kowalski explains that number 54 was normally worn by Luke Jackson, the beefy power forward who played alongside Wilt, who was actually wearing number 21 in the same clip that Wilt was wearing number 54. Going back to the documentary to confirm that this detail was also It was consistent in that footage, sure enough, the number 21 was taped to Jackson’s chest instead of his usual 54.
a response from a user named mct tries to clarify the situation, tracing old articles from the 1968 knicks series, but had no luck finding evidence that this event happened in that 1968 playoff series, as everyone lists wilt as #13 and jackson as #54. he speculates that maybe wilt and jackson wore the different numbers just for one game because someone forgot his jersey, but he can’t provide any concrete answers as to when or why this happened. the original poster then responds to mct, stating that “wilt may have only used the number 54 for part of a game”, though he “he can’t be sure”. Eleven days later, Kowalski follows this post by stating that the video actually combined clips from multiple sources into one complete piece, mixing footage from the aforementioned 1968 postseason series and a 1966-67 regular season game, clarifying that “he’s actually wearing it (#54) during a 1967 regular season game,” which confirms my suspicions and explains why both the 1967 documentary and a video claiming to be from a playoff contest between the Knicks and the 1968 76ers contained the same strange detail.
honeycomb, another apbr forum user, provided what is pretty much the final explanation for this strange finding in his reply to the thread. he was able to identify the year 1966-67 from the material of the shorts the sixers wore (which is just a fun detail I felt like leaving out, given that I’ve never heard of this specific method of dating faded images), and even had his own personal story of asking the man himself why he used the number. as the story goes…
”in the early 1990s, i met wilt at an autograph show in philadelphia and asked him if i could wear the number 54. he said the jersey was stolen or left behind in philadelphia. He also said that Luke Jackson’s was the only other shirt he could wear.”
and so is the story of wilt chamberlain wearing luke jackson’s #54 in a regular season game against the knicks that ended up being captured in high quality and placed in a year-end documentary, left as a dark nugget for some too curious wilt chamberlain fan to find out about it decades later. This is an event I’ve never seen discussed anywhere other than that little niche APBR thread almost a decade ago, and yet it’s so interesting that I’m surprised it’s gone unreported before. wilt having his own mj-wearing-number-12-esque moment roughly 25 years before jordan himself had his, and yet he has no documentation for it, aside from an obscure movie or two on youtube and a quick interaction with a fan at a book signing event is just poetic. His entire career has been overlooked, forgotten, and left to be unearthed by generations far removed from his playing days, just like this story…
listing for #12 autographed withered chamberlain jersey (sothebys)
“1966-67 nba – a year to remember” documentary (hal15greer)
apbr thread on wilting using #54