Classic Rivalries: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Elgin Baylor


Teammates from 1968 through 1971 on the Los Angeles Lakers, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain weren’t exactly the best of friends. The two men possessed huge similarly styled egos. Each always thought he was right all the time and never hesitated to express their unvarnished opinions. One locker room argument exemplifies their disdain and incompatibility…

“[The Boston Celtics] run like a bunch of turtles with arthritis,” [Baylor] joked to the delight of his fellow Lakers.
“Are you joking about people again?” Chamberlain inquired seriously.
“I’m not talking about people,” Baylor answered.
“You always talking about people,” Chamberlain replied.
“What do you mean?” Baylor asked.
“How do you think people feel when, you know, you call them turtles with arthritis?” Chamberlain said.
“I didn’t say they were turtles with arthritis. I said they run like turtles with arthritis,” Baylor responded.

… what had begun as jovial locker room interplay between teammates quickly descended into an unpleasant clash of egos…

– Via Thomas Whalen’s Dynasty’s End

Forget the arthritis, the Lakers locker room was one big awkward turtle. Chamberlain thought Baylor was beyond his prime and ought to relegate himself to secondary status behind the Big Dipper and Mr. Clutch. There was some truth to Chamberlain’s thoughts. Baylor after suffering from a serious knee injury in 1965 was robbed of his explosive first step. Prior to the injury Baylor had averaged 30 points and 15 rebounds  a game. Afterwards it was a “mere” 23 points and 11 rebounds.

In truth, though, Chamberlain wasn’t quite the overpowering force he had been in younger years either. Gone were his routine spectacles of 50 points and 30 rebounds in a game. He was still good for 20 points and 20 rebounds a night, but both of these men were past their most physically spectacular, statistically outlandish years. As it so happens, they often performed their statistical feats opposite one another.

Using the wonderful databases at, I’ve been able to find three instances where Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor scored at least 50 points against one another in the same game. And as it so happens they all took place in December 1961 and December 1962.

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The 1962 NBA Finals: the Celtics – Lakers Rivalry Begins

Elgin 1962

The Eastern Division Finals had seen the most pitched confrontation yet between the Russell-Chamberlain, Celtics-Warriors rivalry. As great as those two rivalries were, there was a temporal quality. Russell and Chamberlain were mortal and although their stories would go on, their battles would eventually come to a close. The Celtics-Warriors clashes could have sustained, but the Philadelphia franchise headed west to California’s Bay Area, putting an end to that heated dispute.

However, in the 1962 NBA Finals, the Celtics would find an eternal enemy, one that has stood the test of the time and continued to add new chapters nearly 50 years later: the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Celtics had already played the Minneapolis Lakers in the finals before (1959) as the Celtics, unknowingly, were on their way to surpassing the dynastic excellence of the Minnesota club’s early years. The 1959 Lakers were far-removed from their glory days. Leading the way was rookie Elgin Baylor and last holdover from the Mikan years Vern Mikkelsen, but they were swept unceremoniously by Boston.

Although they came within one game of reaching the finals again in the 1959-60 season, the Lakers were struggling financially. The summer of 1960 proved to be one of remarkable change for the Lakers: they moved to California and drafted Jerry West setting up an return to glory and a windfall of financial success.

For the National Basketball Association, this was truly its first national finals. For the first time a team beyond the banks of the Mississippi River would contend for the championship. And the contest between Boston and Los Angeles would prove to be just as mighty as the Mississippi.

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The 1962 Eastern Division Finals: Philly vs. Boston, Wilt vs. Russell, Barstools vs. Jungle Jim

image via Bettmann/CORBIS
image via Bettmann/CORBIS


Oh, I’m sure everyone’s familiar with mythical aura of Wilt vs. Russell, but let’s take a crash course lesson on the Boston Celtics vs. the Philadelphia Warriors, which was one of the great rivalries of the early NBA.

Philadelphia in 1956 had captured the NBA title behind the Hall of Fame trio of Neil Johnston, Paul Arizin, and Tom Gola. Johnston in 1953 had succeeded George Mikan as the pre-eminent NBA center. For 5 straight seasons (1953-1957) Johnston led the NBA in win shares and had a PER above 25.0 while also capturing 3 scoring titles, 3 FG% crowns and led the league in rebounding once.

Then along came Bill Russell in 1957.

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The Rise of Sam Jones and Jerry West


Jones’s special attributes as a player, [Red] Auerbach once explained, were his speed, touch, reflexes, and attitude. But there was another quality that made him a standout: dedication. “He’ll do anything you ask him,” said Auerbach. “He’s always in shape and ready to play, and nobody works any harder at basketball than he does.”

Via Legends Profile: Sam Jones

In the midst of the astronomical statistical hijinks of the 1962 season, one of the more important developments happened rather quietly and unassumingly: the emergence of Sam Jones in Boston. Such an unbeknownst trumpeting of a new era couldn’t have happened to a more fitting player. Sam Jones himself was not flashy or demonstrative or demanding of the basketball. He just went on the court and flowed within the offense and amazingly he’d end up with 25 or 30 points. A parallel player would be Alex English of the 1980s Denver Nuggets. These cats just killed you softly.

Well, usually, the killing was soft. If Jerry West was Mr. Clutch then Sam Jones was the eastern branch of Mr. Clutch, Inc. as he hit shots to win several Eastern Division and NBA Finals games. And the 1962 season was where Jones would finally begin his ascent to the Hall of Fame.

The fact that Jones was even in the NBA in 1962 was a tad bit startling. Hailing from North Carolina, he attended tiny and practically unknown North Carolina Central University. Then came two years of military duty. On the advice of a friend, Red Auerbach drafted the 24-year old Sam Jones in the 1957 NBA draft without ever seeing the young man play. The tales of Jones’ jump shot were enough to convince Red to take Jones with the Celtics’ 1st round pick that year.

But Jones’ jump shot wasn’t usually of the swish variety. He took it to the bank early and often. From nearly every angle, Jones was able to utilize the backboard to guide his shot into the hoop. But Sam didn’t show it off too much his rookie year. Backing up Hall of Famer Bill Sharman, Sam rode the bench heavily averaging only 4.6 ppg. As the years ticked by Jones steadily saw his minutes and points rise as Sharman aged.

Season Jones (PPG – MPG) Sharman (PPG – MPG)
1957-58 4.6 – 10.6 22.3 – 35.1
1958-59 10.7 – 20.6 20.4 – 33.1
1959-60 11.9 – 20.4 19.3 – 27.0
1960-61 15.0 – 26.0 16.0 – 25.2

Following the 1961 season, Sharman called it quits and Sam Jones stepped into the starting lineup .

The 6’4″ shooting guard would do his silent assassin routine. 20 points here. 18 points there. 26 one night. 24 the next. Never quite explosive in total numbers, but he could catch fire in certain moments, like this oddball game played against the Lakers not in Los Angeles or Boston, but at the University of Maryland:

Sam Jones led the way with 16 points in nine minutes as Boston moved from a 24-24 tie at the end of the first quarter to a 66-48 halftime lead. Jones finished with 22 points, high for the Celtics.

Jones leading Boston with 22 points was pretty normal for the Celtics. In a season where Wilt averaged 50 and six other players averaged over 29 points, the Celtics’ leading scorers were Tommy Heinsohn at 22, Bill Russell at 19 and Sam Jones at 18.5 points per game. This kind of balance suited Jones just right. He was more than capable of going for 30 points a night, but Jones’ personality and demeanor just didn’t call for that type of night after night scoring explosion like his Lakers counterpart Jerry West could summon.

Speaking of Jerry, this too was his break out season


Unlike Same Jones, West immediately found his way to the NBA and was highly coveted. Along with Oscar Robertson, he was the most famous college player of the 1960 draft. But that fame didn’t immediately translate to on-court production. Joining West in Los Angeles in 1960 was Fred Schauss, his coach at West Virginia, who now took over as the head man in L.A.

Despite their previous relationship, or maybe because of it, Schauss underutilized West. Fearing the 6’2″ shooting guard would wear down if given too many minutes, too fast, Schauss limited West to 35 minutes a night usually bringing him off the bench. Although 35 minutes sounds like a lot, it was actually the lowest average of West’s career until the 1973 season, his last full one in the league.

And while he was on the court, West was not the focal point of the Lakers’ offense. His averages of 17 points and 41.7% shooting would be career lows. Even his FT% was a sinister 66.6%. Elgin Baylor was the star attraction that season, the 1st that the Lakers played in Los Angles after their days in Minneapolis. Baylor averaged 35 points, 20 rebounds and five assists so that was understandable. However, Elgin would miss large chunks of the 1961-62 season with military service thus allowing West the opportunity to step out of his shadow.

The reins were loosened, Hot Rod Hundley was planted on the bench instead of sopping up Jerry’s minutes and a genuine star was unleashed. Averaging 41 minutes a night, West dramatically improved his offense. His scoring went from 17 to 31 points. His FG% from .417 to .445. His FT% from .666 to .769. West’s torrential scoring downpour drowned the Knicks in January of 1962:

The 6-foot-3 Los Angeles backcourt star, an NBA sophomore from West Virginia, scored 63 points [on 22 of 36 shooting] in the Lakers’ 129-121 victory over the New York Knickerbockers.

Only Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, West’s Los Angeles teammate now in the Army, have bettered the mark.

Despite such amazing strides, and tremendous defensive ability, West remained a bit reticent about his own abilities. Gradually, he grew into the familiar Mr. Clutch that season and despite only having Baylor for half the schedule, the Lakers would improve from 36 wins in 1961 to 54 in 1962.

Back East, Sam Jones’ Boston Celtics won a then-record 60 games.

These were the two best shooting guards on the two best teams in the league that season. Odds were that they would meet in the Finals.

The Lakers had a relatively easy time dispatching the Detroit Pistons, but the Celtics would have their hands full with Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors in the Eastern Division Finals. It was truly one of the great series in NBA history, that naturally came down to a last second shot in a game 7…

The Misunderstood Journey of Walt Bellamy

Walt Bellamy

Walt Bellamy had one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NBA history. His 31.6 points per game remain the 2nd-highest ever for a rookie behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6 in 1960. His rookie rebounding average of 19.0 is behind only Wilt’s 27.0 in 1960 and Bill Russell’s 19.6 in 1957. His field goal percentage of .519 was the highest a player had ever shot from the field up to that point in the NBA. He was big, strong, agile, durable and ran a pick-and-roll perhaps better than any center of his era.

He could go toe-to-toe with the Big Dipper:

Wilt Chamberlain won a personal scoring duel with Chicago rookie Walt Bellamy in the opener [of a double header] as the Philadelphia Warriors topped the Chicago Packers, 122-108.

Chamberlain scored 55 points. Bellamy dropped in 47.

He could throttle the Russell-led Celtics defense:

Walt Bellamy scored 35 points and grabbed 30 rebounds Wednesday night to lead the Packers to a 103-90 triumph over the Boston Celtics to break a seven game losing streak.

But what he couldn’t do was escape the shadow cast by his spectacular debut season.

Bellamy was the 1st pick of the NBA draft in 1961 taken by the expansion Chicago Packers. As is typical of an expansion franchise, the team stunk. They finished with 18 wins and it’s a miracle they got that many. Bellamy was the only above average player on the team. This explains why he shot a gaudy 24 field goals a game. Given that defenses didn’t have to worry about his teammates it’s amazing Bellamy connected on a then-record 51.9% of his shots.

This “opportunity” to score at-will and necessarily dominate the glass to the tune of almost 20 boards a night would come to haunt Bellamy. As he slowly found better teammates in his career, his averages predictably fell as he needed to handle less of the burden. His scoring average fell through the years as he teamed with better teammates and the Packers/Zephyrs/Bullets as a team improved.

Just compare these rosters. I’ve given you Bellamy’s top 5 teammates, who played at least 1000 minutes, based on player efficiency rating (PER) for each season he was with the Chicago/Baltimore franchise.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – Andy Johnson (PER 13.6), Slick Leonard (12.2), Charlie Tyra (10.8), Horace Walker (10.3), Ralph Davis (9.9)

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – Terry Dischinger (20.8), Charlie Hardnett (16.2), Don Nelson (13.9), Si Green (11.4), Mel Nowell (10.5)

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – Terry Dischinger (19.6), Gus Johnson (16.3), Rod Thorn (12.9), Don Kojis (12.6), Si Green (11.6)

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – Bailey Howell (18.9), Gus Johnson (16.6), Don Ohl (13.5), Kevin Loughery (11.6), Si Green (11.6)

Now let’s check back with Walter’s PER, scoring, rebounding and shooting average for these seasons.

1961-62 Chicago Packers (18-62) – 26.3 PER, 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, 51.9% FG

1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs (25-55) – 24.9 PER, 27.9 ppg, 16.4 rpg, 52.7% FG

1963-64 Baltimore Bullets (31-49) – 23.3 PER, 27.0 ppg, 17.0 rpg, 51.3% FG

1964-65 Baltimore Bullets (37-43) – 21.7 PER, 24.8 ppg, 14.6 rpg, 50.9% FG

So as the teammates improved, Walter’s numbers appropriately declined. It’s some perverse culture of hero ball that leads people to think Bellamy should have stymied the following players their chance to shine:

Gus Johnson – 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA, 2x All-Defense, Hall of Famer

Don Ohl – 5x All-Star

Terry Dischinger – 3x All-Star, 1963 Rookie of the Year

Bailey Howell – 6x All-Star, 1x All-NBA, Hall of Famer

Bellamy looking around and giving in to some “alpha male” bullocks would have been nonsense. It would actually be antithetical to his nature. He was a thoughtful, introverted individual interested in politics and spent his free time registering African-Americans to vote in the 1960s. And really, a player averaging at least 24.8 points and 14.6 rebounds in all these seasons getting a bad rap is absurd. His quiet nature was misunderstood as apathy but couldn’t be further from the truth. Upon his retirement he scored over 20,000 points and grabbed over 14,000 rebounds but it was the 38,940 minutes played and only 12 games missed in a 13-year career that gave him the most pride (and notice his deferential tone):

“I look back on the number of coaches I had who permitted me to log the sixth most minutes [as of his retirement in 1975] of all time. The statistic I treasure the most is my playing time.”

By 1965, the Bullets made the playoffs, upset the St. Louis Hawks in the 1st round and then gave the Los Angeles Lakers a tussle in the Western Division Finals ultimately losing 4 games to 2. Then Bellamy was traded to the New York Knicks where he tagged-team at center with a young Willis Reed. But the Knicks were a mediocre-at-best franchise. They had finished in last place 9 of the previous 10 seasons in the Eastern Division. However, Reed and Bellamy got the team to the playoffs twice in their 3 seasons together (1966-’68), including the 1st winning season for New York since 1959.

But eventually one center had to go and it was the older Bellamy, shipped to Detroit for power forward Dave DeBusschere . The Knicks went on to win two titles and Bellamy continued to accrue a “can’t win” label, which overlooks the emergence of youngsters Walt Frazier, Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley for those Knicks teams concurrently with the DeBusschere trade.

The “can’t win” label became nearly branded on Bells after Detroit parted with him after just a season and sent him to Atlanta. But with the Hawks, Bellamy would find some redemption in the twilight of his career as the defensive and rebounding anchor for a team that made four straight postseasons and featured flashy Pete Maravich and smooth Lou Hudson.

But that rookie season in 1962, Bellamy never could shake it. There’s just something off-putting seeing a player who had 13 seasons rack up his career high in PPG and RPG in his rookie year. And not just career highs, but staggering career highs. You look at his player card or a table of his career stats and it just looks like a long-steady decline. But this is why you move beyond the snapshot and take in the full view.

Athletes in the 1960s did not determine their lot in pro sports, they merely made the best of it

Maybe if he had fallen into a better situation, on a team more loaded early in his career, he would have had a more “natural” career arc. The rookie who delivers the slight edge to a veteran team to make noise in the playoffs. Then as the vets slough off, he emerges as the team’s best player and either a) keeps the good times rolling or b) suffers a martyr’s death trying to save the franchise.

Chamberlain parachuted into Philadelphia in 1960, a team just 4 years removed from a title and still with Hall of Famers and all-stars abounding. Russell arrived in Boston in 1957. No title yet for the Celtics, but they had Cousy and Sharman and Heinsohn. Nate Thurmond arrived with the Warriors in 1964, lost in the Finals that year, kind of stunk when Chamberlain left and then got Rick Barry and another Finals appearance.

Walt Bellamy was the great center of his era with the bad fortune of being taken by the 1st expansion team in a decade and had 5 different coaches in his first 5 years in the league.

That’s a particularly bad lot, but Bells certainly made the best of it.

Especially in that magnificent rookie season.

Oscar Robertson’s Triple-Double Season


“Looking back, I never fully realized what he was doing,” [Jack] Twyman said.”It was not called a triple-double. We just went out every night trying to win. I don’t think Oscar or anyone really worried about statistics.”

– Via “Unnoticed Then, Oscar Robertson’s Triple-Double Unparalleled”

The triple-double is a most intoxicating basketball feat. It announces and confirms a player’s all-around, comprehensive ability to control a game. It’s mastering the art of scoring, the grueling task of rebounding and the finesse duty of passing.

And no one did the did the triple-double quite like Oscar Robertson. Or did it quite as much. His career total of 181 triple-doubles is 43 ahead of 2nd-place Magic Johnson.

Robertson accomplished the bulk of his triple-double mania in the first 6 years of his career (1961 – 1966). In fact, if you average out his total points, rebounds and assists from these seasons you get the following: 30.4 ppg, 10.7 apg, and 10.0 rpg.

But only during the 1961-62 campaign did Oscar accomplish the triple -double average within a single season.

Oscar Robertson entered the NBA in 1960-61 and was the long-awaited savior for the Cincinnati Royals. The franchise had suffered moribund back-to-back 19-win seasons in 1959 and 1960. These atrocious campaigns were mostly the result of the paralysis suffered by Royals big man Maurice Stokes at the end of the 1958 season. Without the big forward, Jack Twyman valiantly tried to keep the team afloat.  In 1960 he became the 1st player (along with Wilt Chamberlain that season) to average over 30 points a game.

But Twyman as great as he was – a hall of famer in fact – was no Oscar.

Robertson immediately turned the Royals around his rookie year pushing them to a much-improved 33-46 record behind his 30.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg and 9.7 apg. Almost a triple-double average, but not quite. The Big O would have to settle for the Rookie of the Year Award, 1st-Team All-NBA honors and being named the All-Star Game MVP.

Although the Royals missed out on the postseason, they were obviously on the way up with such a devastating, unique player in tow.

Robertson stood 6’5″ and weighed a good 210 lbs. That’s a big load for a point guard playing in today’s NBA, let alone in 1961. A decade earlier, Robertson could have easily slid into the PF spot for most teams. But actually, Robertson did play with a tremendous amount of power. He would use that bulk to pummel opponents into submission just wearing and bearing down on them. Getting to a favored spot on the court, he could easily rise up to shoot over the shorter defender or just make a spin and be at the rim for a layup.

The Royals opened the 1961-62 season in St. Louis taking on the Hawks. Robertson led the Royals to victory with 35 points and 15 rebounds and helped set up Twyman for 39 points. A little over a week later in the home opener at Cincinnati, the Big O again led the attack:

After sparking the Cincinnati Royals to a 44-point first quarter in their home opener, Oscar Robertson scored six points in the final two minutes to squelch a Syracuse Nats rally and produce a 139-132 Royals victory…

Robertson also set a Cincinnati Garden record with 8 assists in the first quarter.

A little over a month later in early December, Robertson orchestrated an absolute drubbing of the last-place Chicago Packers. The only bright spot for the Packers that season was the phenomenal rookie Walt Bellamy. But there was nothing Bells and company could do this night to thwart Oscar:

With Oscar Robertson scoring 32 points and also leading his team in rebounds and assists, the Cincinnati Royals defeated the Chicago Packers 133-117…

Robertson finished with 20 assists, feeding off 15 in the first half when he made only seven points. He also led his team with 15 of their 70 rebounds, while the Packers got 60.

Robertson was one of the more demanding teammates in league history and had a surly, difficult personality. However, the demanding tone was because the Big O expected perfection and execution. As the season progressed it was clear the Royals were still on the ascent with Bob Boozer, Wayne Embry and Bucky Bockhorn filling out the starting 5 with Robertson and Twyman. Oscar was quite pleased with the formation:

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati’s great scorer, rebounder and defensive stalwart in the National Basketball Association, said today the Royals have improved over last year because the team is “working together more, playing together.”

The former Cincinnati University All-America voiced the opinion that the Royals are better balanced in scoring than the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA.

As it happened, the Royals played the Warriors soon after Oscar gave that quote and the Royals won 151-133. 4 players scored between 19 and 28 for the Royals in the victory. Philadelphia was led by the 54 points of Wilt Chamberlain.

The Royals were 27-21 after that victory and would finish the season 43-37, the best record since the 1954 season when the franchise, then in Rochester, went 44-28. The record was good enough for 2nd place in the Western Division.

Robertson’s regular season was quite remarkable, even leaving aside the triple-double average. He shot .478 from the field and .822 from the free throw line. Extraordinarily efficient shooting for a primary ball-handler in the 1960s. He and Larry Costello were the only point guards to shot like that from the field and the line at the time.

And the amount of free throws Oscar took were plentiful. That load of his proved so unbearable for so many opponents he wound up taking 11 free throws a night. Good enough for 10th all-time among single seasons for a guard.

The 12.5 rebounds per game and 985 total rebounds remain the records for a guard in a single season. He and Tom Gola of the Philadelphia Warriors remain the only guards to average over 10 rebounds per game for a season.

Finally, the assists he handed out pretty much shattered the previous single-season record. In 1960, Bob Cousy became the 1st player to eclipse the 9.0 apg mark with 9.5. Then the next year along came Oscar who edged out that average with 9.7. Then this season, 1962, Oscar blew the mark to shreds averaging 11.4 making him the 1st player to surpass the 10.0 apg barrier.

In the postseason, the Royals would be bounced 3-games-to-1 by the Detroit Pistons, led by Bailey Howell, in the opening round. Robertson for his part did continue his triple-double ways in the series with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists per game while shooting .519 from the field and .795 from the line. A few others have come close (Wilt, Rajon Rondo, Magic Johnson), but only Jason Kidd has joined Oscar in the highly exclusive triple-double club for the postseason.

The Royals, now moved to the Eastern Division, reached their peak in 1963 and 1964. Both seasons they lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Finals, including an unforgettable Game 7 in 1963 where Oscar went off for 43 points and Sam Jones of the Celtics scored 47. Steadily thereafter, the Royals descended into mediocrity and ultimately Oscar was traded to Milwaukee. With the Bucks, he would finally capture that elusive title alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge in 1971.

But that 1962 Oscar Robertson… that was the Big O of NBA lore.

He’s not the 1964 MVP. He’s not a 1971 NBA champion. And 1960 Olympic gold medalist? Forget about it. Those aren’t the triplets that get the imagination wondering and the mind spinning.

30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game.

Those are the triplets that bewitch, bother and bewilder the boggled mind. Several other players have reached an apex as high as Oscar’s 1962 season… but the triple-double?

That’s the M.O. of the Big O.

Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-62 Season, By the Numbers

Photo by MervC (Flickr)

Wilt Chamberlain’s 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg are pretty staggering to look at. But what’s even more staggering is looking at the game-by-game running tally, especially when you see the NBA cramming in 8 games in 9 days in early February or 5 in row at one point in January. These players were run ragged as the league fit 70 total games between late October and early March.

But go on ahead and take a gander at the game-by-game tallies…


Date Opponent PTS REBS
19th Lakers 48 25
20th Lakers 57 32
21st Knicks 53 35
27th Nationals 55 24
28th Nationals 43 23
    51.2 27.8

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