wilt chamberlain vertical jump

Analysis: Did Wilt Chamberlain Have A 48 Inch Vertical Jump?

Wilt Chamberlain is a legend of the NBA. His physical stature as well as his accolades are still talked about to this day. With a nickname like “The Stilt” in the world of basketball, where athletes are commonly a foot taller than the average man, it is no wonder why this guy was something special.

There are many claims and stories surrounding his athletic prowess. The most popular of which is that in his prime Wilt had an amazing ability to jump high, like all time, best in the NBA high. But is that really true? What was Wilt Chamberlain’s vertical jump?

Wilt Chamberlain is said to have had a 48 inch vertical jump. In fact, he once claimed in an interview that in his prime his vertical was easily 46 to 48 inches.

Easily! At his stature that would mean that he was able to reach a higher max height than any other human in history. Impressive stuff, but because of the era that he played in there simply isn’t much information out there on his athletic abilities. This is why I have set out to analyze the infamous Wilt Chamberlain vertical jump to determine if in fact he was able to leap 48 inches through the air.

Wilt Chamberlain Physical Attributes

Now before I can analyze the 48 inch vertical, it is important to understand his physical attributes so that we can better put his jumping ability into context. Wilt Chamberlain stood 7’1″ tall and weighed 250 lbs as a rookie, before eventually bulking up to 276 lbs.

His wingspan was confirmed on film as 7’8″ during a television appearance. However, it is important to note that Muhammad Ali was also measured at the time and his wingspan came out to be 2″ shorter than his regularly measured length. I would say it’s a safe bet to assume that Wilt had a much greater wingspan than that. In fact, he was measured at 8’4″ while playing for the University of Kansas in 1957.

His standing reach was also measured while playing at KU and it came out to 9’6″. That means he was nearly able to touch the rim from a flat footed position off of the ground. The physical attributes here are just off the charts, Wilt Chamberlain possessed a coveted combination of size and athleticism by today’s NBA standards. In his era he dominated and is widely regarded as one of the best players to ever play the game.

If all of these Wilt Chamberlain vertical jump stories are true then this man was an all time level athlete.

How High Could Wilt Chamberlain Jump?

Wilt Chamberlain’s vertical jump height has been claimed to be an astounding 48 inches, but the exact details of this incredible leaping ability is very unclear. He played in an era that simply didn’t value or have access to the things we have today. Sports performance training as we know it was non-existent, making it difficult to understand just how great of an athlete he was. The testing protocols and training methods to increase performance were in their infancy and because of that we don’t have anywhere near the data that we have now.

The footage quality is also a big issue in determining the validity of that claim. All we really have left is grainy videos shot from camera angles that leave a lot to be desired. So the cards are somewhat stacked against us here but I have done a good amount of research and feel like I can definitely determine how high Wilt Chamberlain could jump.

To prepare you for just how athletic this man was, check out this clip of Wilt Chamberlain blocking the impossible to guard sky-hook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He did this on back-to-back attempts in his mid thirties, while weighing around 300 lbs.

Wilt Chamberlain Vertical Jump Evidence

Now let’s get into the details and start to unpack the answer to whether or not Wilt Chamberlain had a 48 inch vertical jump. Wilt himself has been quoted as saying that his vertical jump during his prime was, “46 to 48 inches, easy”. He has been known for some pretty outlandish claims in his day, so I am not going to just stop there and take his word for it. I do feel confident that there is enough information out there to determine how high Wilt Chamberlain could really jump and have included the most compelling arguments below.

Dunked On A 12 Foot Basketball Hoop

While playing at Kansas, Wilt was exposed to the 12 foot basketball hoop. The 12 foot rim used to be more than just something that got brought out during slam dunk contests. In fact, during the early days of the NBA it was seriously considered as a means of leveling the playing field between the big men and the rest of the league.

Wilt himself confirmed that he was able to dunk on a 12 foot rim, saying:

“What’s unfortunate is that most people regard the great leapers as being only the short guys who could dunk,” said the 7′ 1 & 1/8″ Wilt Chamberlain. “My sergeant [vertical leap] was higher than Michael Jordan’s. When I went to Kansas, they had a 12-foot basket in the gym, because Dr. Phog Allen was advocating the 12-foot basket. I used to dunk on that basket. It was an effort, but I could do it.LA Times

This is a tough thing to do on a consistent basis. Wilt was more than capable of jumping high enough, however to do so repeatedly or while in live gameplay is another story. That is a full 2 foot difference in height, the amount of force an athlete would need to generate to get up that high is off the charts.

Wilt Chamberlain Could Touch The Top Of The Backboard

There are a good amount of stories alleging that Wilt Chamberlain was able to touch the top of the backboard. That’s a full 13 feet up in the air! At his height that would still require a 40+ inch vertical jump, so we know that he is at least in the ballpark of the 48 inch claim.

On the claim that he was able to touch the backboard, Wilt has said:

“I defy anyone to say they took change off the top of the backboard,” Chamberlain said. “I could. Someone would put a quarter up and I’d snatch it down. I’ve heard stories about Jackie Jackson doing it, but I’ve never seen anyone (but himself) come close.”

That goes far beyond simply touching the top. Wilt claimed that he could take change off the backboard. Just like dunking, he would have to jump a good bit higher than the height of the backboard to be able to grab the change resting on top. His claims were backed up by Sonny Hill, a former Philadelphia 76ers legend.

Sonny said this on Wilt’s jumping ability:

“The only man that’s been to the top, that’s Wilt. I asked Kareem if he ever did, and he could jump a little bit. He told me, `Sonny, no.”

The evidence that Wilt Chamberlain could touch the top of the backboard gets even more solidified by an article found in the June 10, 1958 edition of Look Magazine. The article credits Wilt with a 9’6″ standing reach and a height of 13’3″ after jumping. That is more than enough height to touch the top of the backboard and getting real close to proving that Wilt Chamberlain had a 48 inch vertical jump.

His vertical jump based on the article would come out to 45 inches. The information is unclear on what testing procedures were utilized, if any.

Wilt Would Dunk His Free Throws

Wilt Chamberlain was such a fantastic jumper that he was able to dunk his free throws. That’s right! The man would successfully jump from the free throw line to complete a foul shot. I was skeptical when I first came across this one but I can assure you that this is in fact true. He would start from the top of the key, take a step, jump, and successfully dunk the basketball.

This move was legal because he never stepped foot inside the paint area until after the ball went through the rim. At the time there was no rule that prevented a player from dunking their free throws. Wilt Chamberlain appears to be the first and maybe only player to ever be able to consistently do so.

He has been quoted as saying:

“When I was a freshman, I fooled around with shooting free throws this way: For some reason, I thought you had to stay within the top half of that free-throw circle, so I would step back to just inside the top of the circle, take off from behind the line and dunk. They outlawed that.”

As a freshman at Kansas he was seen dunking his free throws, the NCAA decided to quickly move to ban the practice before Chamberlain could play his first game. At the time freshman couldn’t play so they made a point to rush the rule before his sophomore season. The NBA made a similar quick rule adjustment when Wilt entered the league.

Wilt Chamberlain Vertical Jump Analysis

There is some pretty compelling evidence that Wilt Chamberlain had a really high vertical jump, like all time high. For his size there is no denying that he is possibly the most impressive jumper in league history, but is he capable of jumping 48 inches? I have laid out the available evidence and it includes some pretty impressive feats of athleticism. Now it’s time to analyze all of this evidence to determine the legitimacy of each claim.

Wilt Contradicts His Vertical Jump Claims

There are some conflicting statements out there regarding just how high this man could jump. A review of his quotes so far in this article proves that. On one hand he is saying that his vertical was higher than Michael Jordan’s and was easily 46 to 48 inches, but on the other hand he is quoted as saying that dunking on the 12 foot rim was a challenge.

How can a 12 foot rim be a challenge when his claimed vertical puts him well above 13 feet in the air?

With his 9’6″ standing reach, a vertical jump of only 36 inches would put Wilt at 12’6″ in the air, which would be more than enough height to complete a slam dunk on a 12 foot rim. I know that a 12 foot rim seems high, but it is really only 2 feet higher than a standard rim. So, if Wilt Chamberlain did in fact have a 48 inch vertical jump that would mean that he would be able to reach a height of 13’6″ off the ground. This is a full 18 inches above a 12 foot rim!

I find it hard to believe that an athlete capable of reaching that height would describe dunking on a 12 foot rim as requiring “effort”. This raised rim dunk has been replicated quite a few times now at this point, maybe most famously by Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Let’s analyze that video since Dwight is somewhat comparable in size and jumping ability to Wilt.

Dwight Howard is 6’10” tall and has a vertical jump of 39.5 inches. So an impressive athlete in his own right but not quite Wilt. The dunk shown below by Dwight looks to require some effort and I can’t say that he had much more in the tank on that jump. Would Wilt Chamberlain easily complete that same move? Without a doubt, but does he get to the 18 inches above that rim necessary to have a 48 inch vertical? That I don’t know.

How High Is He Jumping Really?

Wilt was 7’1″ tall. A 48 inch vertical jump would mean that the top of his head would be 13 inches above the rim, or 11’1″ off the ground. This would put Wilt’s neck above the rim.

Do we have any pictures or footage where Wilt’s head appears to be significantly above the rim? Nope.

Sure the camera angles were terrible, mostly shot from the ground angled up at the players, but one would think that you could at least clearly tell if a guy’s neck was above the rim. That I can assure you would be a significant site. Throughout this process I have reviewed plenty of pictures and game footage of Wilt Chamberlain jumping through the air, and I can confidently say that I have yet to come across a single example of Wilt getting his head that high above the rim.

For the most part Wilt’s head appears to be right at the rim or slightly above it in all of the jumps that I’ve looked at. Taking his height at 7 feet 1 inch tall we can calculate that if he can jump with his head level to the rim he would have a 35 inch vertical jump. This is nowhere near the 48 inch jump height he was rumored to have.

So How High Could Wilt Chamberlain Jump?

Wilt was an impressive athlete with a seriously impressive vertical jump. I in no way have tried to take anything away from his game, but rather I sought out to analyze an athletic skill through the eyes of a sports performance coach. Through that analysis I think it is safe to say that Wilt Chamberlain could not jump 48 inches off the ground.

If I account for the available footage and combine it with the impressive displays of jumping ability that we know Wilt was capable of, I can confidently say that Wilt Chamberlain had between a 38 – 41 inch vertical jump.

At 7’1″ that is amazing, but not quite the 48 inches that he has been claimed to reach. That 48 inch mark is coveted across the league because it stands as the highest vertical jump in NBA history. A title that has been granted to Wilt on many occasions, but in reality doesn’t belong to him.

This doesn’t change the legendary status of Wilt Chamberlain. He was much more than just a big man with leaping ability, he was an all time great who was one of the most dominant athletes to ever play the game. I have enjoyed analyzing this man’s athleticism and found myself in awe of his speed and explosiveness. Wilt was definitely one of a kind, both on and off the court.

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John Evans

Strength coach and owner of EPOK Performance. Covering how to improve performance for both sport and life.

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