Wilt Chamberlain, 1936-99: A Gentle Goliath The Big Dipper was basketball's nonpareil scorer and rebounder, who might have been even better but for one flaw: He didn't possess a mean streak



Seven feet, one and one-sixteenth inches tall was Wilton Norman
Chamberlain. No one, however, believed him. He once said to me,
"I could tell a little person, 'Oh, I'm 10'3",' and he would
answer, 'No, you're taller than that.'" To almost everyone he
encountered, Wilt appeared simply larger than life, a human
optical illusion. He loomed. It was as if he blocked out the sun.

Were it only that. Were it only everyone else's perception. But

the irony was that Wilt Chamberlain, who died of a heart attack

last week at 63, was never quite big enough even for himself.

Especially in his prime, he constantly felt compelled to do

more, to be better, to go higher. For someone so curious and

sensitive, he was too influenced--seduced, even--by his own

physical preeminence. In a world where he knew he was the Most

Man, he never would allow himself the legal dictum res ipsa

loquitur: the thing speaks for itself. No, Wilt needed numbers

to validate himself. If the most points were not enough, then he

would get the most rebounds, then the most assists. Never take a

rest. Never foul out. Alas, near the end, when he crowed of

having had assignations with 20,000 women, that numbing

statistical braggadocio made him a figure of fun. Always before

he had been controversial, often even villainous, but never

foolish.

 

As bad as his judgment was in that case, he didn't deserve

ridicule. Wilt's other flaw, you see, was that he was a very

nice and gentle man. His best friends called him Dippy, which is

hardly a name we associate with ogres and giants. David and

Dippy? I don't think so. Bill Russell even pointed out that if

Wilt had possessed a mean streak, there would have been no

stopping him. On the one occasion when Wilt was very angry at

me, he delegated Jerry West to suggest that I depart from the

Los Angeles Lakers' locker room; he couldn't bear such

confrontation himself.

 

In fact, I rarely recall that great deep voice rising in anger,

although, coincidentally, the last time I saw Wilt, we fussed as

friends. "Sometimes, my man, you take a right turn, and I just

don't know where you are going!" he groaned, alluding to

something I had written. By chance, someone snapped a shot of me

then, pointing what appears to be a menacing finger at Wilt. I

look at that photo now--Wilt in some outrageous Arabian Nights

outfit--and I'm amazed at how surprised and cowed (well, he was

sitting down) he is, reacting to my impolite gesture. It shames

me because I know Wilt never would have acted so intemperately

toward me or any other mere mortal. He was careful not to scare

the little people. A little late, but: I apologize, my man.

 

This night in question was last May, in Boston, where Russell

was being celebrated. Wilt had flown across the country on his

own hook, even though he knew that he was traveling 3,000 miles

just to be the evening's appointed bad guy. No matter. He had

learned to endure the cape of villainy slung round his shoulders.

 

Wilt always recognized that the loss that hurt the most--and that

set the precedent for his being perceived as a loser--was his

Kansas team's triple-overtime defeat by North Carolina in the

1957 NCAA final (in which, in fact, he played valiantly).

Afterward, he morosely walked the rainy streets of Kansas City,

and when he left college after the next season, it would be

another 40 years before he returned to the campus. The shame he

inflicted on himself for this defeat simmered for that long.

"That goddamn one against Carolina," he would mutter. Worse, at

the beginning of the game Tar Heels coach Frank McGuire had sent

out his shortest starter, 5'10" Tommy Kearns, to jump center

against Wilt--or, really, to call mocking attention to Wilt's

height. Cruelly, it worked; it hurt him. Yet McGuire would become

Chamberlain's coach with the Philadelphia Warriors in his

greatest quantitative season--50.4 points a game, in 1961-62--and

Kearns would become his friend and stockbroker. So there Wilt was

in Boston for Russell, too, ready to take his public lumps to

help honor his old friend and foe.

 

Oh yes, the January before last Wilt finally went back to

Kansas, where he put on his old letter jacket (which still fit

perfectly) and watched as his jersey was raised above the court

at Allen Fieldhouse. "I felt like I let the university down," he

told the crowd.

 

"No, no!" the Kansans cried back.

 

"Rock, chalk, Jayhawk," Wilt said softly, and he cried.

 

There was that sweet side the hugeness screened. For example,

for all his masculine swagger and the sexual stats, Chamberlain

counted many women among his friends and personally financed

women's track and volleyball teams. He was a devotee of women's

tennis. In a phrase almost Victorian, Wilt always decorously

referred to his women as young ladies, even as he felt he had to

total them up. He never married, and he told one of our mutual

friends that only once, when he was playing in San Francisco in

the mid-1960s, did he ever contemplate such a possibility. He

simply didn't want to forgo his independence, and anyway, in an

overpopulated world, he said, "I feel no need to raise any

little Wilties."

 

Although he always lived alone, Wilt never seemed to be a lonely

man. He had learned to love Goliath. He was accessible. He

relished a debate, adored travel and delighted in an eclectic

range of the globe's roster of human beings. Indeed, it may be

most revealing that, of all his basketball years, the one he

enjoyed most was the one between leaving Kansas and joining the

NBA, when he was a Harlem Globetrotter, globetrotting with no

pressure on him to perform heroically, to quantify anything. I

always thought that Chamberlain would have been much more

content in an individual sport--such as track and field, in

which he excelled, disparately, in the high jump and the shot

put. The conflict between team and personal supremacy forever

confounded him.

 

There's no doubt that he could do, by himself, almost anything

he ordained. I learned that myself, just as the centers he toyed

with under the hoop did. In 1969 I wrote a cover story on

Chamberlain for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He was 32 then, his great

scoring days were behind him, and I ventured this memorable

line: "There is a growing school of thought that he no longer

possesses sufficient moves to make him a bona fide high-scoring

threat." It had, in fact, been more than a year since he had

made 50 in any game. So: The very next game he played after the

magazine came out, Wilt went for 60. Yet in the seventh game of

the NBA Finals that year, Russell's swan song, the man who never

missed a moment of any importance on the court took himself out

of the game, sore-kneed, when the Lakers fell behind the Boston

Celtics. Only when Los Angeles rallied without him did

Chamberlain petition to go back in, but coach Butch van Breda

Kolff refused. It cost van Breda Kolff his job. It cost Wilt

more, his image.

 

His defenders--and it almost defined what sort of a person you

were, whether you fell into the Chamberlain or the Russell

camp--always maintained that Chamberlain would have won as many

championships as Russell did if he had been lucky enough to be

surrounded by the deep Celtic green. "No," Bob Cousy said not

long ago. "To play with Wilt you had to go down, set up and wait

for him. We couldn't have played that way."

 

It was not, really, that Chamberlain wasn't a team player.

That's simplistic. In his great cathedral house in Los Angeles

he kept not a single trophy attesting to his individual

achievements, except for his Hall of Fame certificate. He gave

all the others away. "They make other people happier," he told

me matter-of-factly. Rather, I think, he was just so dominating

a presence that he overwhelmed his own team. He was, ultimately,

primarily an opposing force. Whereas players like Russell made

their teammates better, it was Chamberlain's fate to bring out

the best in the opposition. Finally he awoke one summer's

morning on vacation on an island somewhere in the Adriatic and

understood that. "There was always so much more pain to my

losing than there ever was to gain by my winning," he explained.

It was time to quit basketball.

 

The rest of his life was much happier. He went barefoot and

could play at being Wilt more than having to be him all the

time. And if there is a heaven, my man, it's a place where

nobody has to shoot free throws.

 

Copyright 1999 Time Inc.

Frank Deford, Wilt Chamberlain, 1936-99: A Gentle Goliath The Big Dipper was basketball's nonpareil scorer and rebounder, who might have been even better but for one flaw: He didn't possess a mean streak. , Sports Illustrated, 10-25-1999, pp 80+.


Copyright 1999 Infonautics Corporation. All rights reserved. - Terms and Conditions