'GOLIATH' OF NBA IS GONE\ CHAMBERLAIN IS DEAD AT 63  

''The world is made up of Davids, and I am Goliath.'' - Wilt Chamberlain He was Goliath. Maybe in more ways than he ever realized. Wilton Norman Chamberlain, who died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack at age 63, towered over his sport the way he towered over the average person on the street. The way he towered over an entire generation.

 

Wilt was the strongest man in basketball history. The most unstoppable force the sport has ever seen. And probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest athletes of the 20th century. ''In my opinion,'' said John Wooden, ''he was the most dominant physical player who ever played the game.''

 

Chamberlain was an American original, the first true 7-footer who wasn't considered a goon. He could run a quarter-mile in 50 seconds, high jump and long jump well enough to win most track meets, play volleyball at a world-class level and he once considered getting into the ring with Muhammad Ali.

 

''Wilt The Stilt,'' they called him, and he catapulted the game to a dizzying new level. From the time he first emerged, as a precocious 6-foot-11 ninth-grader at Overbrook High in Philadelphia to his explosive but frustrating college career at Kansas until that extraordinary evening when he poured in 100 points in a single NBA game, Chamberlain managed to

revolutionize his sport.

 

A sculpted, mountain of a man, he made it look too easy, too simple. They even changed the rules because of him. But they couldn't stop him. Nothing could.

 

He averaged 50.4 points per game in 1961-62. His rebound average a year earlier was more than 27 a night. He scored 50 or more points 118 times and led the league in just about every category imaginable, including assists, at one time or another in his remarkable career.

 

''As a basketball player, no one has come close to doing the things that he has done,'' said Bill Russell, his great adversary who will forever be coupled with Chamberlain. Together, Chamberlain and Russell gave us perhaps the finest, sustained

one-on-one rivalry we've seen in any sport. The greatest player of his time against the greatest winner of all time.

They were a basketball junkie's delight.

 

But then, everything about Chamberlain was captivating, or at least controversial. From his ferocious dunks to his supposed voracious appetite for women. From his well-advertised clashes with head coaches to his sometimes

startlingly sudden reversals into a team player.

 

He was probably at his best on that marvelous Philadelphia team in 1967, the one with Lucious Jackson and Billy Cunningham, the one that went 68-13 and finally captured Chamberlain's first elusive NBA title.

 

Strangely, it wasn't until Chamberlain was traded to Los Angeles, until he and the late Jack Kent Cooke got together in 1968, that the full measure of Chamberlain's personality seemed to burst forth, like one of his backboard-rattling slam dunks.

 

The two first got together at Cooke's Bel-Air mansion and found they had much in common besides their ample egos, beginning with the fact each owned a 1962 Bentley Continental. ''We talked about antique furniture, art, even the English language, '' Cooke would relate later. They also talked money. Lots of money. Wilt received a five-year deal

paying him $250,000 per season, which made him the highest-paid athlete in America at the time.

 

But Cooke knew what he was doing. With Chamberlain to go along with his two incumbent All-Pros, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, the Lakers, playing in Cooke's plush new showplace, the Forum, became the glamour team of the NBA. Boston might have won all the championships, but the Lakers grabbed all the headlines.

 

And Chamberlain was always in the middle of it. Getting into loud shouting matches with his first LA coach, Butch van Breda Kolff, who would privately refer to his stubborn center as ''The Load.'' Complaining off the record to

reporters that West and Baylor received preferential treatment. Failing once again to beat Russell and the dreaded Celtics one year, then falling to a limping Willis Reed, a future presidential candidate named Bill Bradley and the Knicks in an unforgettable seventh game at Madison Square Garden another year.

 

Later, after Russell and Baylor had retired, Chamberlain reconfigured his game once again, concentrating on defense, rebounding and passing, to help the Lakers win 33 consecutive games and their first NBA championship in LA in

1972.

 

Wilt, the headband-wearing non-scorer? Believe it or not, he somehow made it work. As riveting as he was on the court, Chamberlain could be even more charismatic off it. He spoke several languages, dined in only the finest restaurants and generally enjoyed being in the spotlight. ''I remember being invited to his open house,'' Wooden said. ''And Nellie

(Wooden's late wife) didn't care for him because of his stories about being with so many women. But then he came over and he was the most gracious, nicest person you could ever hope to meet. Nellie was very impressed.''

 

Wooden was, too. In fact, a Chamberlain statement once made UCLA's legendary Hall of Fame coach change a passage in a book he was writing.  ''I was at a function when someone asked Wilt if his new coach would be able to handle him,'' Wooden said. ''Wilt replied: 'You handle things. You deal with players.' I went back and changed the wording in my book

to deal, instead of handle, players.''

 

The comment was pure Chamberlain. Insightful, thought-provoking and, most of all, honest. ''My man,'' he would say, with that rich baritone of a voice, ''you heard me right.'' And you usually did. Maybe you didn't always agree with everything

he said, but he made you listen. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, Wilt Chamberlain demanded your

attention.

 

Alex Hannum, his old 76ers coach, once said: ''Nobody loves Goliath.'' All these years, and all those staggering achievements later, you realize Hannum was wrong. Goliath will be missed.

 

Memo: We've lost a giant of a man in every sense of the word. The shadow of accomplishment he cast over our game is unlikely ever to be matched.' ' - David Stern, NBA Commissioner\ We were talking about Wilt, how he was going to score 100 points in a game real soon. When we got off the airplane, somebody said, 'Hey, did you hear about Wilt Chamberlain? He scored 100 points in a game.' That's one record that will never be broken, I can assure you. - Jerry West, Chamberlain' s

teammate with the Lakers

 

Copyright The Arizona Republic (1999)

By Steve Bisheff, Orange County Register, 'GOLIATH' OF NBA IS GONE\ CHAMBERLAIN IS DEAD AT 63. , The Arizona Republic, 10-13-1999, pp C1.


Copyright 1999 Infonautics Corporation. All rights reserved.