WILT, 1962

At Kansas, the Dipper's focus was not on the classroom. Discus thrower Al Oerter, winner of gold medals for four consecutive Olympics from 1956 to 1968, shared a business class with Chamberlain at KU. He always noticed when Chamberlain was there, which by Oerter's estimate was "one out of ten [classes]." Oerter looked up from his final examination and saw a small white student signing his name on the exam as "Wilt Chamberlain." Oerter whispered to the student, "Somehow you don't look like Wilt." Oerter trained with Chamberlain during Kansas's outdoor track and field season; they shared side-by-side lockers. The Dipper's strength and massive skeletal structure impressed Oerter. Chamberlain wanted to become a decathlete, no doubt to prove his strength and endurance in the most physically demanding of Olympic events. The Kansas track coach asked Oerter to instruct the Dipper how to throw the discus. Because of his height, Chamberlain struggled with the throwing motion, though his raw power amazed Oerter. He also saw that when Chamberlain placed his hand on a sixteen-pound shot, his fingers wrapped around it and touched his palm. These would become problems for the Dipper if he hoped to become a world-class decathlete. (The pole vault event especially worried Chamberlain: "I'd get way up there, then find myself with a lot of legs.") After a workout in spring 1957, Oerter saw the roly-poly Abe Saperstein appear in the locker room beneath the KU stadium. He heard Saperstein offer Chamberlain one-third ownership of the Globetrotters if he signed with the team at that moment. Eavesdropping, Oerter heard the Dipper say he wasn't interested, at least not yet.

Wilt Chamberlain

Chamberlain left Kansas after his junior season and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Chamberlain found his escape from Jim Crow segregation in Lawrence by driving to the vibrant African-American community in Kansas City, a city known in the 1930s as the Paris of the Plains. There, Maurice King, his lone black teammate at KU and a native of Kansas City, showed him the nightclubs along 18th and Vine, a street corner immortalized in song by Joe Turner as being where "The boys jump and swing until broad daylight." For the Dipper, Kansas City was a revelation. With King, he heard jazz jam sessions at nightclubs such as the Blue Room and El Capitan, played summer basketball games down the street at the Negro YMCA, and met former Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro baseball leagues Buck O'Neil, Satchel Paige, and Wilbur "Bullet" Rogan. He also met the colorful former Globetrotter Goose Tatum. King once had seen Tatum being chauffeured by his wife down 18th Street – well, actually he saw only Tatum's bare feet sticking out the back of his convertible. As a kid, Chamberlain had idolized Tatum and relished the chance to know him. Tatum had a deft hook shot and, after converting one, was known to ask his opponent, "How'd you like that, young white boy?" He let the Dipper drive his car a few times, and together they made a trip to Detroit, Tatum's hometown.

At KU, Chamberlain briefly hosted his own radio show, "Flippin' with the Dipper," where he spun his favorite records, mostly jazz and the blues. (Years earlier, KU basketball star Clyde Lovellette had a show at the same radio station and played country music and was accompanied by Lester, his mythical hound dog.) King remembers that the Dipper's arrival challenged segregated practices at the movie theater and lunch counters in Lawrence. Before, King and his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers had been forced to sit in a section of the theater reserved for blacks. But when the Dipper joined the fraternity, "Nobody ever asked us to leave or refused us service," King would say. "They really wanted to cater to Wilt." Once, as Chamberlain drove along the new turnpike en route to Kansas City, a police car's flashing blue lights appeared behind his souped-up red and white Oldsmobile convertible. Sitting next to the Dipper, King tensed but only until the police officer, realizing it was Wilt Chamberlain's car, turned off his lights and drove away. Chamberlain would say often over the ensuing years, "I single-handedly integrated Kansas," and counted it among his proudest achievements. In truth, his was an integration of one. Because of his celebrity Chamberlain was granted honorary "white" status in Lawrence, but his actions did not diminish racial segregation there in any lasting way.

Saperstein got his man in 1958. Kansas Coach Dick Harp was working in his yard when the Dipper drove up. Chamberlain's car was already packed. He told Harp he had accepted an offer from Saperstein. He thanked Harp and left for Saperstein's one-year contract that, with guarantees, would pay him $65,000; this at a time when the average NBA player's salary was less than $10,000. With the Globetrotters, Chamberlain entered a world of slapstick entertainment, a basketball minstrel show. He made that choice for a simple reason – money. As racial strife in the South intensified, the Globetrotters performed yuk-it-up comedy that white crowds, particularly in the South, found comforting and unthreatening. With the Trotters, the Dipper joined teammates nicknamed Gipper and Ripper. He became a seven-foot-one guard and played so many games in his unwashed sweaty uniform that he wore Band-Aids over his nipples to keep the skin from rubbing raw. He reveled in the camaraderie with teammates. On bus trips, he was known to open two cans of salmon, two loaves of bread, and two cartons of milk and pass them around. He tried to blend in on the court with the more established Globetrotters stars but only until Saperstein showed up in the locker room at halftime to make a plea to his big-money gate attraction: "You gotta shoot more, Wilt. You gotta score." He traveled to Milan and Moscow and Germany and Switzerland, drawing attention from foreigners who had never seen a man so tall and impressing them by lifting the backs of cars to announce his strength. He chased women of all different races and nations along the way. That's what the Globetrotters did, Chamberlain quickly learned, first and foremost. The greatest girl hounds I've ever seen. The Globetrotters called their comedy acts "reams." If a Globetrotter spotted a pretty woman in the crowd, he'd write his name, hotel, and room number on a slip of paper, hide it in his mouth or in his jockstrap, and connive a ream to approach the pretty woman whereupon he would secretly hand her the note – "dropping the bomb," they called it. The Dipper began to see himself as an entertainer. Playing in Germany on a plywood floor laid atop a dusty soccer field, Chamberlain watched five-foot-seven Louis "Red" Klotz steal the ball from him and chortle, "You're in my country now, Wilt." But moments later Klotz fell to the floor, dust swirling all around him, and suddenly he felt a big shoe on his back. Klotz looked up and saw Wilt towering over him and saying, "Now you're in my country, Red."

"I need you for a couple hours tonight," Ike Richman told his son, in May 1959. Richman hated to drive, but his boy, Mike, still in high school, had obtained his driver's license – a ready-made chauffeur. "Drive me to 4700 North Broad Street," Richman said. As they pulled away from their home in the Melrose Park area of Philadelphia, Ike Richman said, cryptically, "When we get there make a U-turn and pull over." His son didn't ask any questions, not even, "Why, Dad?" Ike Richman was that kind of father, that kind of man. You didn't ask him questions – you answered his. Richman was Eddie Gottlieb's attorney and friend. He was smart, definitive, and combustible. His son drove him to 4700 North Broad Street in Philadelphia, a commercial district in transition. He made a U-turn and pulled over. They waited. Soon a white Cadillac convertible pulled up. Ike Richman got out of his car and told his son, "Wait here. I'll be back." The son couldn't tell who was driving the Cadillac as his father opened the front door and got inside. The Cadillac drove off. In the darkness, the son waited for more than an hour. The Cadillac returned, Ike Richman got out and waved to the man inside as he drove off. He got back into his own car. "Let's go home," Ike Richman said. They drove home in silence until finally the father said, "Mike, I just worked as hard as I've ever worked in my life." The son replied, "Yeah?" Ike Richman nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I just convinced Wilt Chamberlain to play for the Warriors."

* * * * *

Wilt Chamberlain

Chamberlain is congratulated by teammates and fans after he scores his 100th point.

A man of big appetites, the Dipper liked adding notches in his belt. That's what all of those points were, and his women, too – notches – a way to define himself, a way to keep score of his manhood and put a sheen on his celebrity.

Chamberlain had learned about the pursuit of women from the masters, the Globetrotters. When they weren't trying to get laughs, the Globies were trying to get laid. Saperstein didn't want his players to date white women, fearing white fans might resent it. (The Globies sometimes dated white women, anyway.) They had their own terminology: blacks were rocks, whites were you-alls, and ugly women were mullions. If spotted with a mullion by a teammate, a Globetrotter fled or simply claimed later, "That wasn't me." The Dipper fell in step with them, happily and devotedly. He learned their tricks, and now, liberated by fame and wealth, he took them a step further. He had become bigger than the Globetrotters. He could do this solo now. He didn't need a team.

The Dipper was young and frisky, full of life, and full of himself. It seemed that everything belonged to him, and he took it. Women were attracted to him. He was famous. He had the aphrodisiacs of money, size, mystery. As a New York City high school basketball star then known as Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was befriended by the Dipper. He became a regular at Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise and often visited his apartment near Central Park. There, he was awed by the Dipper's collection of jazz records and his collection of beautiful women, one more lovely than the last: once, a blonde, blue-eyed Dane, the next time a beauty in a form-fitting Danskin "with thighs that made me want to cry on the spot." Out on the town, the Dipper would place himself in a woman's view, make eye contact from across the room, and hope she would come to him. Short of that, he would send a go-between, ofttimes using a go-fer hanging by his side (a role filled deftly at Smalls Paradise by Charlie Polk). The Dipper had his charm. Introduced to a woman whose affections he sought, he flirted and teased. He kept her on the edge of not knowing what to say by being slightly rude. Self-assured, and physically imposing, Chamberlain stood nearly two feet taller than many women. He'd try to convince a woman that sex was an experience not to be missed. Here was the Dipper's theory: "If we lust in earnest for each other, that's real and we should act on this, because how many real things are there in life?"

His teammates rarely saw Chamberlain with women, not because he wasn't with women, but because they rarely saw him at all. Gola had seen a young white woman waiting for Chamberlain after a few home games. Interracial dating in 1962 was widely considered social taboo – in sixteen states, mostly in the South, interracial marriage remained against the law – and his white teammates noticed that some of the Dipper's dates were white. (In their telling of stories decades later, they considered this fact significant enough to point out.) The rookie Frank Radovich knew of Chamberlain's womanizing and heard teammates wisecrack about his peccadilloes: "Guess we won't see Wilt until game time tonight. Hope he can still walk ..."

Once, Chamberlain's pursuit of women created tension with a teammate. On a flight back from the Midwest, he and Tom Meschery hooked up with two white stewardesses. The women suggested a double date, the Dipper suggested Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise, and it was so arranged. They would meet at the stewardesses' hotel. Though a rookie, Meschery, a.k.a. The Mad Russian, had a game, linguistic fluency, and a heritage that impressed nearly everyone. Meschery (pronounced Meh-shair-ree) was infused with the San Francisco spirit. He had a longshoreman's swagger and rough-and-tumble attitude and an intellect to befit the bohemian cafι crowd. Born in Manchuria and descended from Czarist Russian nobility, Meschery counted on his family tree cousin Leo Tolstoy, who, it was said, had been kicked out of the house by Meschery's grandmother because she thought him godless. Meschery spoke French and Russian fluently (prompting Tom Gola to say, "You don't hear that from the guys on the streets of Philadelphia!"), and he liked to discuss literature and world politics. A few of Meschery's white teammates heard about his planned double date with Chamberlain and teased him. They called him Wilt's boy and Wilt's pimp. Their teasing had a sharp metallic edge. There was a cutting message in it: You've overstepped yourself, rook. Meschery cared about perceptions within the team, particularly what the veterans thought. He felt mocked. He decided to back out of the double date; he gave Chamberlain a made-up excuse, and then the Dipper got a phone call from his date, canceling. Meschery showed up at the hotel at the appointed hour, anyway, because ... well, there was still a stewardess waiting for him.

What happened next stunned him. Greeting his date at the hotel, Meschery saw, looming on the far side of the lobby, Wilt Chamberlain. The Dipper silently watched his every move. Meschery froze, unsure of what to do, how to proceed. He felt himself shrinking from the Dipper's glare. Suddenly, Chamberlain turned and walked out. The next day in the locker room, he confronted Meschery, not angrily or with shouted threats but with patience and forbearance. This was a side of the Dipper that Meschery had never seen. "Why did you do that last night?" Chamberlain asked. Meschery struggled to answer. Teammates, Meschery said, had pressured him and laughed at him. He didn't want to cause problems or friction. The Dipper listened. He thought Meschery had backed out for racial reasons. Finally he spoke. "I want you to look at this skin" – he touched his own hand –"and then look at your hand. Now look at my hand. We're exactly the same, just a different color." The Dipper did not raise his voice, made no physical threat. That would have been much easier for Meschery. This was worse, an intellectual threat, an intellectual shout-down. Chamberlain was scolding him as if he were an unschooled child who needed to be chastised. He seemed nearly sympathetic, as if he felt sorry for Meschery. He said, "I'm not angry with you." Sitting in the locker room, alone with the Dipper, Meschery was certain of only one thing – this was not one of his own finest moments. He interrogated himself: Was it that he was embarrassed to go to Harlem? Was it that he was unwilling to go out with a black man and a white woman? Or was it simply a rookie's buckling to the peer pressure of his teammates' whispered jeers, Wilt's boy and Wilt's pimp? Whatever it was, Meschery knew he had succumbed to it. The exchange brought him a deeper realization, an epiphany: His West Coast liberal faηade was nothing more than that, a faηade. Certain moments in life change you, Meschery decided, and cause you to grow up. This was one of them. He was indebted to Chamberlain for that. In a new way, Chamberlain had shown himself the bigger man. This experience "allowed us to be truthful with one another," Meschery would say. "Wilt and I became more friendly, not less friendly."

* * * * *

Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt scored 100 of his team's 169 points in the 1962 game.

The Dipper's basketball exploits played against the backdrop of the larger drama of race in America. The Freedom Rides rolled across the South. The nation's black leaders cheered President Kennedy for his civil rights promises but complained about his slowness to deliver on them. Jackie Robinson, in his ghostwritten editorial page column in The Amsterdam News in Harlem, expressed his frustration: "We think that the President is a fine man, like we said. But Abraham Lincoln he ain't." In Philadelphia, 400 black ministers led their congregations in a Selective Patronage Program to boycott Tasty Baking Company pies and cakes and then Sunoco and Gulf gas until more African-Americans were hired to prestigious jobs. From Harlem, James Baldwin wrote, "For the Northerner ... Negroes represent nothing to him personally, except, perhaps, the dangers of carnality. He never sees Negroes. Southerners see them all the time. Northerners never think about them whereas Southerners are never really thinking of anything else. Negroes are, therefore, ignored in the North and are under surveillance in the South, and suffer hideously in both places. Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro as simply a man."

The race issue was aboil in America, and it pulsated, too, beneath the surface of professional sports. For black athletes, Jackie Robinson remained the standard-bearer. Robinson had persevered and come through the slurs and the rage, keeping his deportment, performing like an all-star. Robinson had, in his way, presaged King's nonviolent movement, putting a face on the black struggle for assimilation in America. Even as a businessman now, as director of personnel for a chain of coffee shops called Chock Full o'Nuts, Robinson remained, in the deepest sense, a race man. He gave speeches and raised funds for the NAACP, led civil rights marches in Washington, traveled to racially tense spots in the South, addressed discrimination in public housing in Rhode Island, and hosted his own radio show in New York City. He had supported Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign, rising up against bigoted southern Democrats, but also had lobbied in the 1960 Democratic presidential primary in Wisconsin for the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, playing both sides, as perhaps only Jackie Robinson could. A week before the hundred-point game in Hershey, Robinson appeared at an NAACP rally before 4,000 in Jackson, Mississippi, where his most fervent hope of enlisting other famous black athletes in the civil rights cause finally came to fruition, with the participation of boxer Archie Moore and the young baseball outfielder Curt Flood. ("Is there a medal anywhere which is worth a man's dignity?" Robinson wrote.) Of course, Robinson had the protection of a supportive boss at Chock Full o'Nuts who effectively subsidized his civil rights work.

In contrast to Robinson's full engagement in the civil rights movement, the Dipper, like most young professional black athletes in 1962, was more a spectator of the movement than a participant. (Few white athletes at the time engaged in political or social issues, either.) In one instance when Chamberlain had become active, in spring 1960, he provided a caveat: Upon agreeing to serve as honorary chairman of the annual membership drive for the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he made clear to local NAACP leaders that he was lending only his name, not his time. Attorney A. Leon Higginbotham, president of the NAACP branch in Philadelphia, thanked the Dipper for serving as "titular head of the drive intended to make democracy a reality throughout America and throughout our State," and then reassured, "We hope to keep those contacts [with you] to a minimum." In another instance, he contributed in a quieter way: While building his Villa Chamberlain apartment complex in Los Angeles, he privately insisted that only black contractors and subcontractors be hired. In all ways, the Dipper did what he wanted, and from afar others decided what his action, or inaction, meant.

After his record-breaking rookie season, he had stunned the Warriors by announcing his retirement from the NBA, and he suggested race was partly to blame. Chamberlain insisted he had no problems with his teammates. But he said he was getting beaten up on the court by opposing players and that if he responded in kind and became embroiled in fistfights "it would reflect on me and then indirectly on my race."

This comment made Boston's Bob Cousy blanch: "In my ten years in the NBA, I never saw any evidence of racial prejudice. There are over one hundred Negro players who have either tried out or made positions with clubs in the league and I have never heard such a similar complaint from them. Chamberlain feels he's being pushed around more than anyone in the league. The guy has only averaged thirty-six points per game, broken rebound records and had more foul shots than anyone else. How easy does he want it? ... Wilt is the biggest complainer ever to hit the NBA. Standing six feet one inch, it is difficult for me to feel sorry for a man seven feet tall." The Dipper's reply: "Maybe if Bill Russell said it, I'd pay attention. But Cousy has never encountered the problems that we have."

The Dipper had announced his retirement while sitting in the locker room, only moments after the Warriors had been eliminated from the playoffs by Boston. He expressed interest in touring again with the Globetrotters. Only days before this startling retirement announcement, over lunch, Gotty had offered him a new three-year contract, telling the Dipper he had earned it with his performance as the NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player and also for increasing attendance at Warriors games by twenty-three percent. The Dipper's suggestion that he was retiring as a way to keep from discrediting his race was less than credible. Even Jackie Robinson, in a newspaper column, wrote, "If Wilt is worrying about the effect on anyone other than himself, I'd suggest that he forget about it. Great numbers of Negro athletes have had good years and bad years in their fields and the race has continued to progress. There have been fights before and there will be fights again." Besides, Robinson wrote, "I look for him to change his mind ... I have a hunch that Wilt is not only a great basketball player, but a fine businessman as well. He is certainly in a position to use his tremendous draw as a means to exact more favorable terms for next season from the Warriors."

As it was, the Dipper retired for long enough to tour Europe with the Globetrotters. He returned to the Warriors in time for his second NBA season and signed a three-year contract with Gotty that rivaled the largest in all of professional team sports – Willie Mays's $85,000-a-year deal with the San Francisco Giants. Upon his return, the Dipper explained how he'd talked with family, friends, and "leaders of my race" and decided, "It would be better for me and I could do more good for my race if I played rather than if I retired."

Racial barriers remained in sports. In the college ranks, the South's three most prominent athletic conferences – the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, and Southwest – had yet to desegregate. In the nation's capital, the Washington Redskins remained the NFL's last all-white team. In Philadelphia, the Phillies had been the final team in the National League with a black player, a full decade after Jackie Robinson first joined the Dodgers. Even now, the NAACP branch in Philadelphia threatened to boycott the Phillies to protest the team's continuing use of a segregated motel at spring training in Clearwater, Florida. This arrangement relegated the Phillies' five black players to living in private homes in the black section of town.

A dozen years after the color barrier was broken in 1950, the NBA now had thirty-seven black players, roughly one-third of the total, and more than double the percentage of black players in either Major League Baseball or the National Football League. Referee Pete D'Ambrosio worked an NBA game in 1961-62 featuring the expansion Chicago Packers and noticed five black Packers on the court at the same time, something he'd never seen before. With the emergence of the black player, the NBA game was undergoing a cultural and stylistic shift. It was played faster, higher, and better than ever before. A new epoch was at hand, and it created tensions. For the NBA's black players, St. Louis, the league's southernmost city, remained the most difficult and racially intolerant place to play. (Bill Russell would call it "the loneliest town in the world.") In the middle 1950s, each NBA team typically had only one or two black players. Now, most teams had three or four. Privately, the NBA's black players talked about the league's quota, certain of its existence, even if team owners would not admit to it; when black players lost roster spots to inferior whites, they viewed it as the quota's evil work. Al Attles, who came to the Warriors in autumn 1960 from virtually nowhere (North Carolina A&T, a historically black college), learned that he had earned a spot with the Warriors from a black man who worked as a redcap at the Philadelphia airport. The redcap told him: "Woody Sauldsberry's gonna be traded." Attles thought the idea of trading his black teammate preposterous. After all, Sauldsberry had been NBA rookie of the year only two seasons before. But then Sauldsberry was traded and Attles did the math: That left four black players on the 196061 Warriors: the Dipper, Guy Rodgers, Andy Johnson, and Attles. He had heard about the quota – four black players per team, maximum. Now, here was Al Attles's proof.

In October 1961, during the exhibition season, the champion Celtics had been involved in a racial showdown in Lexington, Kentucky. Boston's black players left town hurriedly before their game against St. Louis after the coffee shop in the team's hotel refused to serve Tom Sanders and Sam Jones. Celtics owner Walter Brown fumed that the Celtics would never play another exhibition game in the South, or any other place, where they might be embarrassed. Back in Boston, Russell told newsmen, "I will not play any place again under those circumstances." One of Boston's white players, Frank Ramsey, who once played at the University of Kentucky, apologized to his black teammates on behalf of the entire state. "No thinking person in Kentucky," Ramsey said, "is a segregationist."

In Detroit early in the season, the Pistons' Ray Scott, an inquisitive and deeply introspective rookie, sought to understand the NBA and a black man's place – his place – in it. He found a mentor in Detroit assistant coach Earl Lloyd, who in 1950 had joined Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, Chuck Cooper, and Hank DeZonie as the league's first black players. In hotel lobbies, on the Pistons bus, in restaurants and in nightclubs, Earl Lloyd explained to the rookie the way things were in the early Fifties in the NBA: how in St. Louis, restaurants would serve you on Styrofoam plates because "if you were black your order always was to go"; how he used to pick up Clifton or Cooper from their hotel and bring them back to his house for dinner and how "you felt responsible for each other. It was kind of you against the world"; and how Don Barksdale, another black pioneer in the NBA, once played a full quarter of an NBA game in 1953 without receiving a pass from his white teammates. (Later Barksdale would say, "I about wanted to cry.") Lloyd told the rookie that it was imperative for black players in the NBA now to carry themselves with a quiet dignity and strength and not step out too far unnecessarily. It was one thing, Lloyd explained, if you were Elgin Baylor or Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain. No one spoke for them. Their unique talents, to a certain degree, protected them. They could speak for themselves. But for the other thirty-four black players in the NBA the rules were different, more rigid: As a representative of the Negro race, you must wear a suit and tie. You must eat at the right places. You must conduct yourself as a gentleman at all times. Ray Scott listened carefully. He accepted all of it as gospel.

Of course, the Dipper remained his own man. "I'm not crusading for anyone," he said in 1960. "I'm no Jackie Robinson. Some persons are meant to be that way ... others aren't."

His seeming shrug, or passivity, in public about matters of race in the early Sixties stood in stark contrast to the way he crushed in his fist any race-based impediments to his own self-definition. Rather than complain, the Dipper imposed his own impressive will. He sometimes dated white women, if discreetly; drove his Cadillac convertible at high speeds; and made more money than anyone else in the league. By averaging fifty points per game in 196162, he proved his physical superiority night after night and made a mockery of the league and its racial quotas and the notion that his white opponents were the best players in the world. He reduced to rubble the white-defined ideas of fair play and sportsmanship, which he knew as lies. Whites didn't want fair play; they feared it. The quota proved that. Beneath the veneer of public quiescence, the Dipper fought his own freedom struggle simply by being – aggressively, flagrantly, unapologetically – the Dipper.