Come ahead, and with one bend in the road, imagine yourself in
Seoul, late in September of 1988 as the U.S. Olympic basketball team
takes the court for its opening game against Spain. The starting five
for the Spaniards is introduced: Creus and Villacampa at the guards,
Sibilio and San Epifanio at the forwards and Martin at center. And
then the Americans: Lebo and Rivers at the guards, Ellison and
Manning at the forwards and Chamberlain at center. The cheers are so
great for the one player, the last man, that the referee, Fiorito of
Italy, delays the jump for three minutes, until finally the roar of
the crowd dies down. ''O.K., my man,'' the big fellow says, taking
It does not seem possible (except, of course, that time flies when
there are no free throws to shoot), but next Thursday, Aug. 21, at
the end of Leo, on the cusp of Virgo, the most incredible physical
specimen ever to walk the earth will turn 50 years old. Even now,
save perhaps for a tiny white fringe in his beard, he doesn't look a
day older than the legend. He favors black, revealing garb -- usually
tank tops and tight-fitting pants -- and unfettered feet. Even on the
pavement of Manhattan he goes barefoot, donning shower clogs only on
the most demanding, formal occasions. The deep, resounding voice
(with the curious, contradictory little boy's occasional stutter) has
not risen so much as half an octave, and he is even trimmer than when
he played, 25 or 30 pounds down; but, more important, as far as he
knows, he has not shrunk a whit from the seven feet one and
one-sixteenth inches, which he says he is but which no one ever
believes. How's the weather up there?
He was, always, the Giant. But he was also the Monster. ''Nobody
loves Goliath,'' Alex Hannum, one of Wilt's coaches, once said. Yet
the benign irony of Chamberlain's middle-aging is that while he has
lost the villain's stigma, he yet retains the giant's stature. Wilt
is still the very personification of height, for good or for
caricature. Even now, 13 years after his career ended, 24 years after
he scored 100 points in an NBA game against the Knicks before 18,000
screaming fans at Madison Square Garden, grandfathers don't say to
tall boys: ''My, you're going to be a regular Ralph Sampson.'' Or ''.
. . a regular Manute Bol.'' They say, ''My, you're going to be
another Wilt the Stilt.'' If you have something to sell involving a
point you're trying to make about size or stature -- like a car or an
airplane seat or a brokerage house -- you still call Wilt Chamberlain
and have him represent your product because then people get the point
right away even if they never saw a basketball game or weren't even
born when Wilt Chamberlain was playing.
For all the times that Bill Russell trumped Chamberlain -- and
while he was at it, almost broke Wilt's heart -- for all his
championship rings, still, Russell would walk into a coffee shop
somewhere and little old ladies would come over and ask ''Mister
Chamberlain'' for his autograph. Years later, at the height of his
career, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would suffer the same fate. But nobody
ever mistook Wilt for anybody else until, he reports proudly, the
last couple of years when, every now and then, people call him
''Magic.'' Magic Johnson is 23 years his junior.
But the tragedy to Chamberlain was that although he was probably
the greatest athletic construction ever formed of flesh and blood, a
natural who was big and strong and fast and agile, accomplished in
virtually every challenge he accepted -- for all that, he was never
allowed to win. If, by chance, he did win, it was dismissed because
he was the Monster. If he lost, it was his fault. He was a road
attraction, the guy to root against. And Wilt, baffled that his
bigness and bestness were the very cause of that disaffection, fought
back in the worst way, with more bigness and bestness. If the most
points would not win him love, then he would grab the most rebounds,
tally the most assists; or he would make the most money, eat the most
food, go to the most places, drive the fastest cars, sleep with the
As, through the ages, men who could pull off only one or two of
these feats found out, it doesn't necessarily assure satisfaction,
accumulation doesn't. Al Attles, an old friend and teammate, now
vice-president of the Golden State Warriors, says, ''I don't think
Wilt would ever admit this, but he would try to do things just to get
acceptance from other people. But people would never be happy with
what he did, and beneath that veneer, I knew how much it was hurting
him. He was so misunderstood. So few people took the time to try and
appreciate Wilt. Most everybody just assumed that a great player
couldn't possibly also be a great person.''
Chamberlain was on holiday on the Adriatic in the summer of '74
when it occurred to him that he would finally hang it up. It wasn't
anything dramatic that made him quit. Good Lord, he could sure still
play. (Twelve years later, just this past April, the New Jersey Nets
reportedly offered him nearly half a million dollars to play out the
last couple weeks of the NBA season -- and he was 49 by then.) He
didn't have any special new career plans back in '74 either. No,
there was just one thing: ''The more I thought about it, the more I
realized that there was always so much more pain to my losing than
there ever was to gain by my winning.''
And so he walked away. Not long after, he published his
autobiography, and in it he unequivocally declared that his happiest
year had been the one with the Harlem Globetrotters, the one when
nobody asked him to break any records, but just to go out there, put
his rubber bands on his wrists like always, have fun and help other
people enjoy themselves.
Is that year with the Globies still your happiest? Wilt drew his
bare feet across the tiles. Los Angeles stretched out below him, his
great house soaring above. ''Oh, no, my man,'' he said with a big
smile. ''There's been 10 great years since then. There's been 10
straight happier years.''
No one comprehends better than Wilt himself that he had to lose
all those many times to satisfy other people, so that then, after
basketball, he could live happily ever after.
Wilt is aiming his white Ferrari down the freeway at a
considerable speed. ''I've never had any bad habits for spending
money except on cars,'' he says. He has a classic Bentley -- baby
blue -- back in the garage, and is involved, in England, in a project
to build a $400,000 custom sports car that will be ready soon,
known as the Chamberlain Searcher I. Peter Bohanna, an automotive
designer who worked on special effects for James Bond films, is
personally developing the Chamberlain. There will be a prototype mold
so that 20 copies can be run off, should you want to order one.
The white Ferrari is something like 8 1/2 centimeters from road to
roof, but Wilt fits in comfortably, a revelation that infuriates
littler people. These people hate to think that big people can ever
be comfortable, especially in a) cars and b) beds. Little people are
always asking Wilt how he sleeps, and they are mightily upset to
learn that he sleeps like a baby. Little people forget that everybody
starts off their existence sleeping all tucked up, and it's not
really all that hard for tall people to revert to that when a bed is
But then, little people no longer aggravate Wilt. After 50 years
of this, he just laughs -- down -- at them. ''I know that,
subconsciously, little people feel anybody tall has enough going for
him, and so there's envy and they try to belittle your height,'' Wilt
explains. ''People will never come up to a stranger and say, 'Gee,
you're small,' or 'How much do you weigh, fatso,' but nobody ever
minds asking anybody tall how tall they are. It doesn't make any
difference what you tell them, either, because if you're tall, no
matter what you answer, little people will say, 'Oh no, you're taller
than that.' You think I don't know how tall I am, and they do? But it
doesn't matter. I could say, 'Oh, I'm ten-foot-three and the guy
would say, 'Oh, no, you're taller than that.' ''
Little people, Wilt says, get it all wrong even when they're
trying to be polite. For example, whenever he gets on an airplane,
the top of the door is about at his belt level, but the stewardess
will always say, ''Don't forget to duck.'' Wilt shakes his head.
''What am I going to do?'' he asks. ''Bump into the door with my
stomach?'' In a world where doors and doorknobs, mirrors, shower
heads and everything else is built for little people, big people
learn to duck instinctively all the time. Wilt laughs at the fact
that when little friends spend time with him, after a while they all
start to duck, subconsciously, just from being around him. Actually,
it is little people who bump their heads most, because they're not
used to the occasional low-hanging thing. Little people are the ones
stewardesses ought to really worry about.
''I wouldn't say it's always been the easiest thing being seven
feet and ; black, but never once in my life did I ever feel like I
was a misfit,'' Chamberlain explains. ''Athletics probably had a lot
to do with that.'' Still, it is not just that he is extremely tall.
Wilt's is a phenomenal, overwhelming presence. Tom LaGarde, who tops
out at a mere 6 ft. 10 in., was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic
team. He remembers being on court before a game in Montreal when Wilt
strolled into the arena. Several people on the floor were as tall as
Wilt, or nearly so. It didn't matter. Everything just stopped.
Everyone just stared. Bob Lanier, 6 ft. 10 in., 270, one of the
hugest men anywhere, filled out a questionnaire recently that asked
him to cite the most memorable moment in his entire athletic career.
Lanier wrote: ''When Wilt Chamberlain lifted me up and moved me like
a coffee cup so he could get a favorable position.''
No matter how well one knows Wilt and, presumably, gets used to
him, no one is ever able to consciously accept his majesty. Wilt's
oldest friend, since third grade, is Vince Miller, a schoolteacher in
Philadelphia, a man of better than average height himself. Yet, no
matter how many times they play each other in tennis, Miller never
fails to lob too short when Chamberlain comes to the net, and as the
overhead comes screaming back, there is Miller shouting, ''I just
never remember how tall you really are.''
And how strong was he exactly? How fast? How high could he jump?
How long? Who knows? By now, the myths of what Chamberlain did at his
leisure (or might have done, if he hadn't been concentrating on
basketball) compete in memory all too much with whatever did happen.
Wilt is not averse to embellishing his own legend here and there,
either. At the moment, Lynda Huey, an old friend, a travel agent by
trade, a track nut by passion, is trying to get Wilt to enter the
World Veterans Championships in track and field (50-year-old
division) next year in Melbourne. ''Wilt will rewrite all the record
books,'' Huey says blithely.
And what event would you enter, Wilt? The discus, the 200, the
high jump? ''Almost anything,'' he shrugs. These days, for typical
daily amusement he competes (against others or himself) in the
following activities: basketball, racquetball, volleyball, tennis,
polo (yes, the kind with horses), rowing single sculls, swimming,
running races, lifting weights, hurling objects, performing the
martial arts, aerobics and walking long distances. He still holds his
own in scrimmages with current NBA players. The Nets' offer, while
obviously of considerable publicity value to a team somewhere out in
the suburbs that nobody knows exists, was perfectly legitimate. Wilt
finally turned it down only because he was afraid he would disappoint
people, afraid that even though he was sure he would acquit himself
proudly, playing in the NBA in his 50th year, nothing he could do
would be enough to satisfy expectations. He would lose again.
But maybe, Wilt, maybe you could shoot free throws better now?
Wilt shakes his head in tolerant chagrin, suffering another fool as
best he could. No matter what, he is never going to escape from free
throws. He could always score and rebound and run and jump and arm
wrestle and throw shot puts and god knows what all, but he couldn't
shoot free throws. It just goes to show you: Everybody really is
human. Nobody Can Do It All. In fact, one theory was that deep in his
soul, Chamberlain wanted to miss free throws so that people would
see, at last, that he had human limitations, too. Certainly it was
psychological -- ''totally, a head trip,'' he says -- because early
in his basketball life he did quite well shooting free throws. That
night at Madison Square Garden, when 50,000 fans jammed in to see him
score his 100, he went 28 for 32 at the line.
Countless suggestions were proffered. He shot underhanded,
one-handed, two- handed, from the side of the circle, from well
behind the line. Hannum suggested to Wilt that he shoot his famous
fadeaway as a foul shot. Hannum checked the rule book and said he
found that you had to be behind the line only when you shot, so he
proposed that Wilt start near the basket and fade back to the line.
Wilt thought the idea had merit, too, but he was just too scared to
try the scheme and bring even more attention to his one great
failing. And so he never did learn to shoot free throws as well as a
man as he did as a boy. It was a very peculiar Achilles' heel.
When Wilt was negotiating to fight Muhammad Ali in 1971, his own
father, who was 5 ft. 8 3/4 in. and a boxing fan, said, ''You'd be
better off if you gave back those gloves right now and went down to
the gym and worked on foul shots.''
For whatever reason, Chamberlain has always been a loner. His
favorite sport to this day remains track and field, an individual
game -- not basketball, with its team clutter. His fondest early
recollections in sports are of his going over to a field at the
Philadelphia Rapid Transport Company and throwing the shot. It was
something he enjoyed the most because he could do it all by himself.
Perhaps he became a loner simply because he was so much bigger and
stronger than everyone else. It is also true that he sucked his thumb
until he was in junior high. But, he says, ''you've got to like
yourself more to be a loner,'' and anyway, Wilt never has lacked for
His closest friends -- most of whom have always called him Dipper
or Dippy -- go back 20 years or more; his advisers, as well, have
been tight with him for decades. Chamberlain also numbers among his
buddies women who were once lovers -- whom he always describes, most
properly, as ''young ladies'' -- but for all his affairs there has
been little real romance, and never once has he come close to getting
His reputation precedes him. During a time when Groucho Marx was a
neighbor, Groucho would suddenly appear at Wilt's house, cigar in
tow, walking in his crouch, the whole bit, come in, smirk, say only,
''Where're the girls? Where're the girls?'' and then slink away. And,
like free throws, the subject of Chamberlain's bachelorhood forever
clings to him. ''I just don't think I'm the sort of person who could
be with one soul,'' he explains. ''I'm too individualistic . . . and
too gregarious with the young ladies. And I'll tell you this, too, my
man: I have no need to raise any little Wilties. Not any --
especially in a world where overpopulation is our biggest problem.''
In many respects, Wilt, even at 50, looms as the perpetual
adolescent -- playing games by day, chasing broads by night, no
family responsibilities, plenty of money. One could even say he is
narcissistic. But it is not quite as simple as that. All along, as
his old teammate and friend Tom Meschery says, ''what Wilt was on the
outside identified him as a person. It's that way with many athletes,
but it's all the more so with Wilt because there was more on the
outside of him than anybody else.''
The well-adjusted athlete can, in effect, grow beyond his body
when the time for games is over. The weak ones have trouble. ''Many
athletes hang on because they're afraid of the real world,'' Wilt
says. ''They miss the limelight, the young ladies on the road. So
maybe I was lucky. The fans were so fickle with me. I had to learn
that self-acclaim is more important than what anybody else says.'' In
all his years in the NBA, he never once gave a young lady a ticket to
one of his games.
Still, unlike other athletes who could retire from sports,
Chamberlain could not retire from his body. It's not unlike the
famous story told of Winston Churchill, when the lady next to him at
dinner said, ''Why, Mr. Churchill, you're drunk.'' And he replied,
''Yes, madam, but when I awake tomorrow I will no longer be drunk,
but you will still be ugly.'' A lot of athletes will wake up some
tomorrow, and they won't be athletes anymore; they'll be insurance
salesmen or restaurant owners or TV color men. But it didn't matter
when Chamberlain gave up basketball -- that was nearly coincidental
-- for he would forever be one of the most imposing creatures in the
world, never able to retire from his body.
Not that he minds. ''I have to exercise three, four hours a day,''
he says. ''If I miss just one day, my body tells me. I don't sleep as
well. I get irritable. But then, maybe it's not so bad for me to
depend on something. Most people depend on someone. Besides, I work
hard at keeping my body in shape, because that's been my
money-maker, you understand. Most of the commercials that I still get
wouldn't have been mine if I had gotten fat. You see, my man, it's
still important that I look like I could do it.''
And, just as he turned down the Nets' six-figure offer for a few
weeks' work, so does Wilt pick and choose his jobs around the globe.
He remains very much a worldwide phenomenon, and, indeed, almost
wherever Wilt goes he is sure to meet someone who tells him how he
was personally there in the Garden, along with 475,000 others, SRO,
the night Chamberlain went for his 100. When Wilt does agree to work,
he is most often involved with the movies -- as a budding producer or
as an actor of sorts in the latest of the Conan films -- or in
commercials, for the variegated likes of Drexel Burnham, Foot Locker
and Le Tigre. He can be most discriminating, for few other athletes
ever invested so wisely. Chamberlain made money in traditional areas,
such as stocks and real estate, but also at his famous Harlem
nightclub, Smalls Paradise, and in something as risky as broodmares.
His house and the Bel Air hilltop it stands on may be worth eight
figures. He remains in demand. ''I'm still something of a
yardstick,'' he says. ''They say, 'When you're hot, you're hot.' But
I've always been hot.''
In his spare time, he works with young amateur athletes, often as
a patron. He has sponsored volleyball teams, the Big Dippers (men)
and the Little Dippers (women), and track clubs, Wilt's Wonder
Women and Wilt's A.C. (WHERE THERE'S A WILT, THERE'S A WAY, reads the
slogan on the team bus.) Currently, mid-Olympiad, he is concentrating
his support on a few individual comers, and dreaming dreams of 1988
in Seoul for himself, too.
It's amazing what it will do for a man when, suddenly, his size is
only an object of awe, and not an instrument of might. The worst
thing in sports is to be expected to win, and then to lose. The
second worst thing is to be expected to win, and then to win.
Nothing, of course, in all Wilt's life so affected him, so undid
him, as his rivalry with Russell. ''Wilt always played his best
against Russell,'' says Meschery, now a teacher living in Truckee,
Calif., ''but then it wasn't just that Russell's team always beat
Wilt's team. It was that somewhere along the way, Russell became the
intellectual, the sensitive man, the more human, the more humane. And
Wilt wasn't supposed to be any of those things. Well, that was a bad
rap. Wilt was every bit as good a person as Bill, and you could tell
how much he was hurt by the way he was perceived.''
The argument about who was more valuable, Chamberlain or Russell,
will never be resolved. The variables of team, the subtleties of
contribution, temperament, achievement and synthesis, are all too
complex -- even contradictory -- ever to satisfy truly dispassionate
observers. But whatever, Russell clearly enjoyed much the better
press and public image. Also, it seems, he got the best of Wilt
personally. When Russell quit, Chamberlain was shocked at the
criticism Russell suddenly unleashed about him.
''Friends had told me that Bill had been conning me,'' Chamberlain
says now. ''I didn't want to believe them. You want to believe that
somebody likes you for yourself. But now, I'm afraid that they were
more right than I was.''
For all the criticism he suffered, though, Wilt remains remarkably
charitable about the past. ''All that stuff is beyond me,'' he says.
''Besides, I think it's even better for a person to change his
attitudes. That's a bigger thing to do than to be born with all the
right ideas.'' Only Russell's old coach and mentor, Red Auerbach,
still draws Chamberlain's ire. He refers to Auerbach not by name, but
as ''that man I don't like'' -- but even then, he goes on to credit
Auerbach for his professional successes.
''Looking back, maybe I was luckier than Russell,'' Wilt says.
''Working with so many coaches was probably more character-building
for me, as opposed to Russell, who had only one coach, that man I
''I know this, my man: It took a lot for me to go out there year
after year, being blamed for the loss. I'd be in a crowd somewhere in
the middle of the summer, and someone would holler, 'Hey, Wilt the
Stilt, where's Bill Russell?' But after the Celtics would beat us,
I'd always make it a point to go into their locker room -- and maybe
those losses were good for my life. Everybody would like to have a
few more rings, but I wouldn't trade the experiences I had. If you
win like that, like the Celtics did, year after year, if you win
everything when you're a young man, then you expect to win everything
for the rest of your life.''
Curiously, while everything about the physical Chamberlain is in
the extreme, he is a man of moderate instincts. He even chose to
support Richard Nixon instead of liberal Democrats. His upbringing in
Philadelphia was stable and middle class. He was raised in a large
family by two southern parents who ''never stressed anybody's race or
religion.'' His neighborhood in west Philly was mixed, his closest
neighbor a white numbers banker. Overbrook High was largely Jewish
at the time, and then he went to the University of Kansas, which put
him in touch with middle America, and the Globies, which introduced
him to the world. Wilt possesses a perspective that is more global
than that of most Americans, let alone most Americans who grew up in
the parochial world of locker rooms.
''Look, my man, I'm proud to be black, but I'm even more proud of
being an American, and I'm proudest of all of being a member of the
human race,'' Wilt says. ''I know some of my brothers in the 'to (the
ghetto) won't appreciate me saying this, but, all things considered,
I think America's dealt with the racial situation as well as we could
have. You have to look at it in comparison with similar problems in
the rest of the world -- in Ireland or India, wherever. I've never
allowed bigotry to make me bitter, you understand, and I've seen an
incredible change for good in my lifetime.
''I feel so strongly about here, about California being the Mecca,
the melting pot of today, the hope. It all works so well here, all
types of people. But I also know I can be naive, because I want it to
work so much. And I always know the Birchers and the KKK are never
far away. But we're getting there, you understand.
''And then we get hung up on the wrong things. I don't find it
shocking that if 90 percent of the people are white, then more of the
kids identify with Larry Bird than some black player. So what?
Physiologically, it's apparent that blacks are better built to handle
the game of basketball. We're quicker. We can jump. Whatever the
reason: genes, environmental conditioning -- who knows? It's like the
little black kid who says, 'Mommy, why do I have curly hair?' And she
says, 'Well, son, you have kinky hair to keep the tropical sun from
baking your brain.' And the kid says, 'But, Mommy, I live in
Cleveland and it's 22 degrees out.' 'I'm not the Maker. I don't know
''But these kids today, they've got no concept of history. They're
always coming up to me and saying, hey, Wilt, aren't the Celtics
racist? And I say, look, that man I don't like is still running that
team, but he was the first coach to play a black, and the first to
start five blacks, and the first man to hire a black coach. Now all
of a sudden he's a racist?
''Or these kids, they're trying to tell me the players today are
better. Let me tell you, my man, that I played in the golden age of
basketball. They say, look at the shooting percentages today. Are you
telling me any of these guys today can shoot better than Jerry West
or Bill Sharman? Well, they can't. One game I saw on my dish this
year, and I counted, and the two teams shot 57 layups. In one game. I
guarantee you, nobody ever shot 57 layups in a week of games I played
in. It's a good game now, you understand, but it's a different game.
They're flashier. They have more flair, but they're not necessarily
any better. And hell, Elgin was doing all that stuff 30 years ago.''
Wilt leaned back in his chair then, stretching out to his full 7
ft.1 1/16 in.(although he is, of course, much taller than that) and
he spoke about his own game. While with the Lakers in 1969, he tore a
tendon in his right knee, and while he was recuperating, running on
the beach, he discovered volleyball. Periodically since then there
has been talk that Chamberlain wanted to play on a U.S. Olympic
volleyball team, and while he still en- tertains such thoughts, now
he is also thinking seriously about trying out in '88, when he would
be a growing boy of 52, for the discus or the U.S. basketball team.
His past professionalism might well not be an obstacle. Pro
soccer and ice hockey players participated in the 1984 Games, and the
International Olympic Committee is now considering a revision of
the rule governing eligibility, which could open the door for any
athlete to compete.
Wilt would dearly love the opportunity. ''Of course, maybe I'd get
thrown out of the Hall of Fame if I messed up,'' he says. Or maybe
they would build a new wing for him if he sank a couple of clutch
free throws against the Soviets. He chuckled at that thought, and
scratched at the patio with his bare feet. The young lady he was with
looked at him with even more fascination. One minute, he was talking
about playing games in the deep past before she was even born, and
in the next, he was talking about playing games in the years ahead,
with people even younger than she.
One of the reasons Chamberlain likes to travel the world is that
it allows him to be even more content when he gets back to his castle
on the hill. It is totally his domain. Time does not operate here as
it does outside the gates, for Wilt remains the most nocturnal of
men; often, he will not call it a day before the sun comes up. Apart
from the hours he sets aside for his exercise, there is no pattern to
his existence. He does not even live a diurnal life as we know it. He
will, for example, go on a complete fast, eat nothing at all for
three days, and then suddenly, at 4:30 in the morning, devour five
greasy pork chops. He has driven across the country -- the whole
United States -- on the spur of the moment. He is as independent as
anyone in the world.
His house is as unique as he is, like a great cloak that surrounds
him. Wilt conceived the house and helped design it -- and it was
completed in 1971, during the time he was leading the Lakers to their
record 33 straight wins. At its highest point, the mansion reaches 58
feet. The ceilings are cathedral, and much of the glass is stained.
''Everywhere I've been in the world, the prettiest things are the
churches,'' Wilt says. There is not a right angle in the place. The
front door is a 2,200-pound pivot. There is a huge round table, a
Jacuzzi and sauna, a weight room, a pool room, a room that is
entirely a bed, and so forth. And a moat surrounds much of the house.
On the next rise over, but down from Wilt's mansion, lives Farrah
Fawcett. The rest of the City of Angels is below that.
All the doors are high so that he never has to duck, but there are
only two other concessions to Chamberlain's height: one large chair
downstairs, and a master bathroom with the toilet and shower head set
high. From his bed, Wilt can push a button and fill a sunken bath
at the other end of the room. He can push another button and roll the
roof back, ''so I can get my tan in bed.'' Except for the young
ladies who pass through, and friends who stay over, he is alone, save
for two jet-black cats, whose names are Zip and Zap. ''At last,'' Al
Attles says, ''he is so secure, so at peace with himself.''
An eclectic collection of mostly modern art decorates the halls,
but in all the house there are only two trophies. One is a huge
eight-foot carving that the late Eddie Gottlieb, the Mogul, Wilt's
friend and first NBA owner in Philadelphia, presented to him once for
something or other that Wilt can't recall anymore; the other, on his
bureau, is his citation of membership in the Hall of Fame. ''I gave
all the other stuff away,'' he says. ''It makes other people
happier.'' Attles, who was Philadelphia's second-leading scorer with
17 points the night Wilt tossed in his 100 before 1,872,000 paid at
Madison Square Garden, has the ball from that game.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, lies a copy of The New York Times of
Aug. 21, 1936, the day Chamberlain was born. An old friend had just
sent it to him as an early birthday present. The Spanish civil war
was the lead story; Alf Landon's campaign was in high gear in Omaha;
Trotsky was on the run from Stalin's Russia. And Jesse Owens was on
his way back to America, to triumph and segregation, after starring
in the Olympic Games of Berlin.
Fifty years, someone mused.
''Well, it takes awhile, you understand,'' Wilt replied. ''The
first time I was in Russia, they'd give me the best caviar, and I'd
dump it and ask, 'Hey, where're the hot dogs?' Basketball inhibited
me. It took me awhile to find out it's not all bouncy, bouncy,
bouncy.'' By now, he just thanks the people who tell him how proud
they were to have been there in Madison Square Garden the night he
got his 100.
Curiously, Wilt Chamberlain himself was in Hershey, Pa., that
evening, because that's where the Knicks and Warriors played before
4,124 fans when he got his 100.
He laughs and strides across the sunken living room. There he is:
black on black, the beard, the tank top, the skin-tight pants, the
bare feet, this great human edifice that hardly seems touched by the
years. But something seems to be missing. What is it? What's wrong
with this picture?
Suddenly -- yes. The rubber bands. Or rather: There aren't any
rubber bands. Chamberlain always wore rubber bands around his
wrists. It was his signature as a player, something he had started
as a kid, to make sure he always had extras to hold up his socks on
his long, skinny legs. And then when his legs got fuller and
stronger, he kept wearing the rubber bands, just for effect. And even
when he finished playing basketball, he still wore rubber bands.
Where are the rubber bands, Wilt?
''I kept wearing them because it reminded me of who I was, where I
came from,'' he says. ''Then suddenly, about two years ago, I felt
that I just didn't need that reminder anymore. So I took off the
rubber bands.'' He hasn't worn any since that day.
Wilt is strictly on his own now. The Giant is 50 years old, but
the Monster didn't live that long. END