Wilt Chamberlain: 1936-1999 // One of a Kind // Wilt was not a caricature, but a complex, caring man

Minneapolis Lakers standout Vern Mikkelsen retired after his team was swept by the Boston Celtics during the 1959 
NBA Finals. That Oct. 14, he officially made the transition from tired player to unabashed fan.
The event was called the ``Lakers Sports Spectacular,'' and it attracted a sellout crowd of 3,200 to the Minneapolis 
Armory. ``It was definitely an event to be remembered, and Bob Short [the Lakers owner] played it up big,'' Mikkelsen 
said Tuesday. ``He had the gold section - $50 seats - the silver section and the copper section. I was thrilled to be there.''
In Game 1 of the NBA exhibition doubleheader, a rookie named Elgin Baylor made his debut as a member of the Lakers. 
At halftime, heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson fought. In game two, Bill Russell and the Celtics took on the 
Philadelphia Warriors and a former Harlem Globetrotter named Wilt Chamberlain for the first time. ``I remember Bob 
saying this was history,'' Mikkelsen said. ``That there was only going to be one time when Russell and Wilt were going 
against each other for the first time ever.''
Chamberlain outscored Russell 26-16, and the Celtics won 103-98. ``Yeah, I outscored Russell, but we lost the game,'' 
Wilt said. What Chamberlain, at age 23, could not possibly have known that night in Minneapolis that this was a dilemma 
that would torment him the rest of his career - and beyond. It was only in retrospect that basketball fans came to truly 
appreciate the measure of the player, the preposterous numbers he produced, the sheer power he brought to the game, 
the force with which he changed it.
It was Russell who won most of the titles in their classic and enduring rivalry, but it was Chamberlain who forced the 
league to widen the foul lane and made the dunk more than a curiosity.``There were and are almost no men of my size 
blessed with my ability, strength and stamina,'' Wilt once wrote.
Wilt was so big and strong and blunt and cocky and irrepressible - and so unable to beat Russell's Celtics - that he 
became the first of a mold. He was the first big-man villain. ``Nobody roots for Goliath,'' Wilt once said.
On Tuesday, Goliath died. That he was so big and strong and irrepressible makes this news seem almost unfathomable. 
No force seemed capable of cutting down the Big Dipper.
And what should be remembered now - what Wilt has always deserved - is that he was far more complicated than the 
caricature. He was a Goliath with layers. He was a blue-collar throwback. In his first 10 seasons, he rested an average 
of 1.4 minutes a game.
He was ahead of his time. Mikkelsen remembers riding the train with Chamberlain from New York to Boston in the 
early '60s for an All-Star weekend. ``He was absolutely gracious and great to talk to,'' he said, ``but he also had an 
entourage of about 10 people with him. Now those were the days when nobody had entourages. Wilt was never alone.''
He was a victim of circumstance. Yeah, Russell won most of the titles, but he also often had a superior supporting cast. 
The Celtics asked Russell to rebound, block shots and play defense. Every team Chamberlain played on asked him to 
do all that, and score, too. In 1961-62, he scored 60 or more points 13 times. In a triple-overtime game in 1961, Wilt 
scored 78 points and grabbed 43 rebounds. In 15 playoff games in 1966, he averaged 47.8 minutes, 21.7 points, 29.1 
rebounds and nine assists. In 1972-73, he shot 72.7 percent, the best mark of all time.
He was a victim of his own stubborness. When he started being criticized for scoring too much and passing too little, 
Wilt went to the rather useless extreme of leading the league in assists - just to make a point. ``The media was merciless 
with him,'' said Mikkelsen. ``He'd score all those points, and the team would lose to the Celtics, and he would go into a 
funk. Wilt was an unbelievable force, but sometimes, he could be his own worst enemy.''
He was a victim of bad timing. ``You gotta be in the right place at the right time,'' said Mikkelsen. ``Wilt won a title 
[in Philadelphia] when Alex Hannum started coaching him, and Alex understood him. Alex knew how to feed his ego 
and deal with him. I honestly believe if he would have had more time with Alex, he could have had won almost as many 
titles as Russell ended up with.''
Wilt was capable of great acts of kindness. Former NBA officiating legend Earl Strom once told of the time Wilt saved 
him from an angry mob during a game in Memphis. Strom made a call that went against the St. Louis Hawks, and as 
Strom passed the scorer's table at halftime, Hawks general manager Irv Gack called him a ``gutless bastard.''  Strom 
asked Gack to repeat the comment. Gack did. ``I reached across the table and grabbed him by the shirt,'' Strom said later. 
``Well, the fans start coming down from the seats to surround us, and Wilt Chamberlain, who was playing for the 76ers, 
saw this. Wilt stepped across the table, and picked me up and said, `C'mon Earl.  Let's get the hell out of here.' ''
He was capable of great acts of bombast. Chamberlain challenged Muhammad Ali to a boxing match, boasted of having 
had 20,000 sexual encounters,  proclaimed at age 50 that the NBA had become so wimpy he could come back and lead 
the league in rebounding.
 What Mikkelsen and more than 3,000 others could not have known that memorable October night at the Armory was 
that they were not merely seeing Goliath. They were seeing an original.
NBA: Giant numbers
- Won seven consecutive scoring titles
- Won 11 NBA rebounding titles
- Four-time MVP (1960, '66, '67, '68)
- Only player with 4,000 points in a season
- Averaged 30.1 points in a 14-year career
- Averaged 22.9 rebounds for his career
- All-time rebound leader with 23,924

Copyright 1999 Star Tribune. Republished under license to Infonautics

Corp. All other rights reserved.

Dan Barreiro; Staff Writer, Wilt Chamberlain: 1936-1999 // One of a Kind // Wilt was not a caricature, but a complex, caring man. , Minneapolis Star Tribune, 10-13-1999, pp 01C.