Over the last several years in the NBA, we’ve had plenty of competitive MVP races, from Steph Curry versus James Harden, to Russell Westbrook versus James Harden, LeBron versus James Harden [hey, he won that one!], to Giannis against, you guessed it, the step-backing, gather-stepping, beard himself.
However, while these races and many others have featured great battles between the league’s best, none can hold a candle to the insane numbers put up by the leading candidates of the 1961–62 MVP race. Just to give you a taste of what the MVP conversation was like that year, Bob Pettit averaged 31.1 points, 18.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game and finished in just sixth place in MVP voting. As just a rookie, Walt Bellamy put up very similar numbers, averaging 31.6 points, 19 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, but didn’t receive any MVP votes. And I’m not just talking about first-place votes. Bellamy didn’t get any second or third place votes either!
The 1961–62 season produced some of the most ridiculous stat lines of all-time. In a few minutes, we’ll take a look at the special campaigns put together by the top four finishers in MVP voting that year, but first, let’s break down the conditions that made the 1961–62 season so special.
Right off the bat, this season took place almost 60 years ago, when the NBA was still a very young league and not nearly as popular nor influential as it is today. This means that the overall level of competition was not as high as in the modern day, making it easier for the best players to dominate.
However, while this is definitely true to some degree, I would like to push back against the idea that this makes accomplishments from this era worthless. The 1961–62 season featured just nine teams, meaning there were only 85 rotation players, which I defined as players who were on the court for at least 500 minutes that season. In 2018–19, there were 361 players who hit the 500-minute threshold. So while the quality of play is better today, it was by no means easy to make the league, even back then.
Moving on, teams didn’t use to worry about load management or not giving their stars enough rest during games. It wasn’t too uncommon for players to play all 48 minutes in a game, and all of the top four finishers in MVP voting averaged more than 44 minutes per game. In what is one of the greatest stats in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes per game in this season, including overtime, and only sat for eight minutes in a single game throughout the entire year.
In total, 10 players averaged at least 41 minutes per game in 1961–62. The most recent players to do this are Monta Ellis and Gerald Wallace in the 2009–10 season, and it will probably never happen again. This means numbers from this time are more impressive because of their volume than their efficiency, although they remain amazing regardless.
The incredibly quick pace of the game also helped players accumulate a high volume of stats. In 1961–62, teams averaged 118.8 points per game, which remains an NBA record. It was also one of the seasons with the most rebounds. The early 60s as a whole were a crazy time for rebounding numbers. Just consider that this era featured the highest-scoring seasons of all-time despite very low shooting percentages and the absence of a three-point shot. That adds up to a lot of misses, and in 1961–62, teams grabbed more than 71 rebounds per game. Just how crazy is that? Teams haven’t even averaged 50 rebounds per game since the 1972–73 season!
And finally, there have been a lot of rule changes over the last 60 years, but most notably, back in 1961–62, the lane was only 12 feet wide, making it easier for big men (**cough cough Chamberlain**) to get the ball close to the hoop. The lane would be widened to the modern distance of 16 feet a few years later.
So, the circumstances were right for star players to have monster individual seasons, and they certainly delivered. It’s finally time to talk about the MVP contenders, and we have to start with Wilt Chamberlain.
Plain and simple, this was the season Wilt Chamberlain broke the game of basketball. Chamberlain averaged an NBA record 50.4 points per game to go along with 25.7 rebounds. Forget 20 and 10 seasons, this was a 50 and 25 year.
Wilt shot over 50% from the field and a career-high 61.3% from the free-throw line while using an underhanded shot. And remarkably, he only committed 1.5 fouls per game despite averaging more than 48 minutes per contest. In December, Wilt scored 78 points and grabbed 43 rebounds in a game against the Lakers. Then in 1962, he put together a string of four consecutive 60-point games, capping it off with his famous 100-point performance. But despite accomplishing all of this and leading the Philadelphia Warriors to a 49–31 record, he didn’t win the MVP.
Coming off a 1960–61 season where he won Rookie of the Year, led the league in assists, and finished just shy of averaging a triple-double, Oscar Robertson managed to elevate his game even further in year two. The 6’5” point guard averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, the most ever for a guard, and 11.4 assists, becoming the first person in NBA history to average a triple-double. No one else would match the feat until Russell Westbrook did so 45 years later. Playing for the Cincinnati Royals, “The Big O” tallied 41 triple-doubles on the year and improved the team’s record 10 games up to 43–37, good for 2nd in the Western Division.
Next up is the legendary Bill Russell. Russell’s Boston Celtics teams were arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of North American sports, and the 1961–62 season was the fourth year in a streak of eight straight championships. As the center for the first team in NBA history to win 60 games in a regular season, Russell averaged 18.9 points and 23.6 rebounds per game while also elevating his passing game with 4.5 assists and continuing to be the greatest defensive player in the league. In head-to-head matchups against the other best teams in the league, Russell’s Celtics went 8–2 against Wilt’s Warriors and 6–3 against the Lakers, making them unarguably the top dogs.
Finally, we have Elgin Baylor. The L.A. Lakers forward tallied 38.3 points per game, the fourth-highest single-season average in league history, while also grabbing 18.6 rebounds and dishing out 4.6 assists per game. Baylor’s Lakers were the best team in the Western Division. However, Baylor only played in 48 regular-season games, which was the biggest obstacle to his MVP campaign. Baylor, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, was called to active duty in the middle of the season. While stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington, he would use his weekend passes to drive back and play with his team, where he would continue to dominate. In games where Baylor was active, the Lakers went 37–11, a 62-win pace that would’ve given them the league’s best record. However, without Baylor, the team was just 17–15.
Through the 1979–80 season, players voted for the league MVP, with the rules being that they couldn’t vote for themselves or their teammates. Following an 85-player vote, Bill Russell was awarded the 1961–62 MVP award, with Wilt Chamberlain in second, Oscar Robertson in third, and Elgin Baylor in fourth place, just ahead of his teammate Jerry West.
It was Russell’s second-straight MVP and third overall, and surprisingly, it wasn’t even close, as Russell finished with nearly double the total MVP points of Chamberlain. This was nothing like the 1975–76 race, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar edged out Bob McAdoo and Dave Cowens by the thinnest margin in league history, or other famous races such as Karl Malone’s slim 1996–97 win over Michael Jordan or when Magic Johnson won arguably the deepest race of all-time in the 1989–90 season despite Charles Barkley receiving the most first-place votes.
For voters, the overall success of Bill Russell and the Celtics likely proved to be the deciding factor. While that result might seem controversial today, the 1961–62 season will forever be remembered as one of incredible individual accomplishments by some of the league’s greats.
Who do you think should have won the 1961–62 NBA MVP award?
Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium, and the host of the Connor Groel Sports podcast. His book, “Sports, Technology, and Madness,” is available now. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.