IDON’T STARE. I haven’t in a long time. When you work as a sportswriter, you get used to seeing famous, large, muscular human beings entering your field of view. Staring is the worst option. Nothing says “outsider” more than a gape.
Nonetheless, I stared when I met Wilt Chamberlain. Ogled him like a kid seeing his first Santa Claus. I knew better. Knew it was inappropriate. I still did it. He was that big. Bigger than the normal rules of behavior.
Which, of course, could serve as his epitaph, now that he is dead, apparently of heart failure, at age 63. Bigger than the normal rules, Wilt was, because the normal rules did not apply to a guy 7-feet-1 and 275 pounds, not in basketball — where he so dominated offensively that he once averaged 50 points a game for an entire season — and not in life, where his oversized socializing led to his now infamous claim of having slept with 20,000 women.
“Don’t you believe in abstinence?” he was once asked.
“I believe in it,” said the lifelong bachelor, “but I don’t think I can sustain it.”
Big man, big appetites.
The occasion of my personal audience with the man they called the Big Dipper was a radio show I hosted in Detroit. Wilt agreed to fly in to be a guest. He entered the studio, ducking under the doorway, and as he sat down, he habitually slid the chair very far from the desktop, in order to accommodate the mileage of his legs. His elbows were like anchors on the countertop, and his hands, as he pulled the microphone close, were large enough to cover a bowling ball. He seemed to me, at that moment, to be the biggest man in the universe.
“Your life must be like Elvis Presley’s,” I remarked to him. “There’s no place you can go where people don’t recognize you.”
“Actually,” he said, “I knew Elvis for a while. I used to tell him, you’re luckier than I am. If you want to go out, you just have to put on a mustache, a hat, some dark glasses, and they don’t know you. Me, the only way I can get away with it is a wheelchair.”
Big man, big problems.
Records for the ages
Much about Wilt Chamberlain is common knowledge. Like the fact that he was the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game. He did it back in 1962, in, of all places, Hershey, Pa., while playing a meaningless, sparsely attended game between his Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knickerbockers. Wilt had stayed out all night the night before. Nonetheless, something kicked in when the whistle blew, and once he started throwing in baskets, he didn’t stop. He passed 30 points, 40 points, 50, 60, 70. By the fourth quarter, his teammates were feeding him endlessly, even fouling the Knicks to get the ball back quicker, doing everything they could to nudge Wilt to triple digits. He hit that mark with little time left on clock. History was assured.
There were no TV cameras that night, so the only record exists in people’s minds and a few still photographs, like the one of Wilt holding up a scribbled piece of paper with the number “100” drawn in pen.
“Are you sorry nobody ever filmed that?” I asked him the night we met.
“No, no, I’m glad,” he said. “It gives the night a certain mystique.”
Not that Chamberlain needed more mystique. Much is about him is documented, as I say — his battles with the Celtics’ Bill Russell, his two NBA championships, his lifetime averages of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds — but other things about Chamberlain are not so commonly known.
Like the fact that he played with the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the NBA.
Like the fact that he threatened to retire after his rookie year, because teams put three and four defenders on him and roughed him up so much, he figured he was going to have to fight the rest of his career.
Or the fact that Eddie Gottlieb, who owned the Philadelphia Warriors in the late 1950s, bent the NBA rule book so he could get Wilt on his team.
There was a “territorial” rule back then that allowed teams first dibs on local college stars, in order to cash in on their local popularity. Chamberlain went to college in Kansas. But, Gottlieb argued that, since there was no NBA team in Kansas, his team, in Philly, should get the rights to Chamberlain, since Wilt, after all, had been a high school star there.
Somehow, the NBA agreed — the only time in history the rules were twisted that way. Chamberlain became synonymous with Philadelphia basketball.
Not many people know that. Nor do many people know that he was a tremendous high jumper. Or that he was once a disc jockey. Or that his interests ranged from studying the saxophone to talking philosophy.
Or that the biggest salary he ever earned in basketball was $450,000 a year.
Or that his parents were both 5 feet 9.
“I was a regular-sized kid until about age 11,” he told me that night. “I went away one summer to Virginia, and when I got back home, I had grown more than five inches. My mother didn’t want to let me in the door. She said, ‘I don’t know you. You’re not the kid who left here.’ “
And while the growth spurt would serve him well in sports, it resigned him to a life of gawks and gasps.
“I was always looked at as a freak. People think it’s easy being this size, because today they see all the benefits that come to athletes. But back in the 1940s, it wasn’t easy. It was a circus. A freak show.”
He sighed. At that moment, I didn’t see Goliath.
I saw David.
A bad case of timing
I always thought Chamberlain took an unfair rap on the 20,000 women thing, because, first of all, the number may well be exaggerated, and second, people forget that his revelation was considered amusing and even admirable for about two weeks in America. Talk show hosts celebrated him. The media glorified his conquests. He was a stud!
And then Earvin (Magic) Johnson made an announcement that he was HIV-positive. Said he contracted the disease from being promiscuous.
And suddenly, 20,000 women wasn’t funny any more.
“It was bad timing,” Chamberlain later admitted. “What people didn’t understand was that, when I wrote (in his autobiography) that I slept with all those women, I was talking about the ’60s and ’70s, when I was young, strong, willing and able. But this is the ’90s. People shouldn’t be like that.”
Nonetheless, the promiscuous label stuck, as did the “villain” label that shadowed Wilt throughout his career. That, too, was unfair, for Chamberlain may have looked imposing, may have had a devilish suggestion in his mustache and beard, may have worn the No. 13 (who in his right mind would take that number?) but he was hardly a villain.
In fact, Chamberlain, who never once fouled out of a game, believed fiercely in respecting the opponent. Year after year, when the Celtics would beat his 76ers in the playoffs, he always went to the Boston locker room to shake the hands of the men who had vanquished him.
True, he had an ego. True, his talent was offense, not defense. True, he liked to say that he could come back and play at age 40, and 45, and 50, that he could still teach those young kids a thing or two on the court.
But who’s to say he couldn’t?
Remember, few teams ever played him one-on-one.
But this was, clearly, a one-of-a-kind guy. There is a tendency to say Chamberlain was often out of step, that he bragged when bragging wasn’t admired, that he played offense when he needed defense, that he was in Philly when he should have been in Boston, that he was promiscuous when he should have been careful. Out of step? Perhaps. But then, those are big steps he took.
Maybe Wilt Chamberlain simply lived his life on a grander scale than most.
He leaves behind records that will almost certainly never be broken, and a legacy of changing the game he played forever.
He also leaves behind a trail of people who, when he walked by, or drove past, or slid into a chair for a radio interview, could only stare in amazement.
No matter how hard they tried to resist.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760). On today’s show, Mitch will replay his old interview with Chamberlain.