Wilt Chamberlain

He seeks his place in a world where guards dominate and sex isn't safe
December 09, 1991

He certainly has been a big man in the news lately. His second volume of autobiography, A View from Above, was published last month to a lot of noise. It contains Chamberlain's candid observations concerning his 7'1" height, his celebrity, his 14 years in the NBA, his former opponents, today's athletes, George Bush, gun control and much else. It also contains his astonishing claim that he has slept with 20,000 women since age 15. That boast landed Chamberlain in the tabloids, on TV and, after Magic Johnson's disclosure that he was HIV-positive, in the middle of a brouhaha over promiscuity among big-time athletes.

Having had time to reflect upon his claim, Chamberlain explains why he regrets the way he discussed sex in the book. Further, he elaborates on what's wrong with pro basketball today, and what should be done to make it right. He says he has problems with the way the Olympic team was chosen. Lastly, he talks about a new lovable Wilt—at only age 55, already, as he sees it, the George Burns of basketball.

Sports Illustrated: In A View from Above, you confess that you were not entirely satisfied with the hedonistic life-style you lived in the '80s. Why not?

Wilt Chamberlain: I had a home in Hawaii, homes in Vancouver and Los Angeles—all very idyllic spots. I was still active in sports. I played a lot of racquetball. I was doing things that kept my body pretty busy, but my mind was going to pot. If you're the type of person that enjoys accomplishing things, you find that kind of life extremely boring after a short time.

SI: And you didn't have to work?

WC: A celebrity can make money doing nothing these days. I was just vegetating in Hawaii.

SI: So 18 years after you wrote Wilt, with the assistance of David Shaw, you decided to do a hook on your own.

WC: Right. And I tell you, it was a fantastic experience. It's therapeutic to put yourself down on paper. Writing is like looking into a mirror: You start to realize who you really are.

SI: Is it true that you wrote the entire book in longhand?

WC: Longhand, yeah. I can't type. I'd keep some paper with me, and as thoughts came, I'd write them down wherever I was. I'd get back home and transcribe them onto another piece of paper, because it's hard even for me to read my handwriting. My secretary would come over, and I'd read to him what I'd written. He'd record what I said on tape and transcribe it, and I'd look at that as if I were reading a book. Then I would correct it. It's a long process.

I think I may have a niche in writing. I never would've dreamed of this a few years ago—that I could sit down and write some things that people really would want to read, and have something to say that's worthwhile. Maybe I should write a column. The only thing about a column is, it's regimentation.

SI: Deadlines?

WC: Yeah. That's why Wilt Chamberlain left basketball, because he was through with regimentation. Maybe if I could write, say, 50 columns at one time.

SI: Writing a book affords you the opportunity to edit yourself. But, if anything, you're more outspoken in A View from Above than you are in person.

WC: I'll tell you why. It's because you write for yourself. When you write, you're still thinking it's a private matter between you and the pen, you understand? And you put these private matters down. Then, all of a sudden, someone else reads them.

Like with the ladies. The 20,000 ladies that caused all that furor. It was put down in context, to let people know about Wilt Chamberlain's life. Hey, I'm 30 years out on the road, as I say in the book. I only gave a number [of women] so that people would recognize what I meant by "many, many ladies." Like if I said, "I'm a basketball player and I scored a lot of points," you wouldn't have any idea that I scored 100 points in a single game or averaged 50 points for a season.

SI: But surely, at this point in your life, you 're wise enough in the ways of the media to have anticipated that your paragraph about the 20,000 women....

WC: Absolutely, without a doubt. You do some things for effect, you understand? And I knew damn well this was going to have some effect. My gardener went to get some feed for his horses in some small town, 300 miles from L.A., and he heard two old ladies talking: "Did you hear that Wilt Chamberlain's seen 20,000 women?" He couldn't believe it.

But you hope that a little sensationalism will not take away from what you're trying to say. When Phil Donahue's people called me to do a show on promiscuity, I told them no. I'm not an expert on that, and that's not what the book's about. Some people try to use you in particular ways, and I will not be used.

SI: Magic Johnson's announcement that he is HIV-positive must have put some unwelcome spin on your statements.

WC: That's true. I tell people—and I'm remiss for not doing so in the book—that I definitely believe there's a need for safe sex. I was fortunate enough to be in my prime in the '60s and '70s, when there was a sexual revolution for women and there wasn't the concern about AIDS and these social diseases that are so very scary. I haven't come to the point where I abstain, but believe me, I'm much more selective these days. Yes, Wilt Chamberlain himself has become totally selective.

SI: How did you hear about Magic?

WC: I was at an autograph signing in San Francisco two hours before he went on national television, and somebody asked for my response to what was still a rumor. I was completely shocked and didn't want to believe it, because I feel very close to Magic.

I don't understand how everybody's suddenly aware of AIDS now, and they weren't aware before. AIDS has been killing people for close to a decade. But when people thought it touched only the "undesirables"—drug users, gays, minorities—it was quite all right to let this thing run rampant. That bothers me greatly. I wonder why it takes one of our heroes' falling for people to see how real this thing is.

SI: Vice-President Quayle used Magic to make a public plea for sexual abstention.

WC: To say that we should abstain, I think, is ridiculous. That's not going to happen. Let's be realistic and do something about the disease.

SI: Let's change subjects. Let's discuss your ideas about pro basketball. You think that basketball in the '90s is showier and more entertaining than in the past, but that the game has not actually improved.

WC: No, it hasn't—not at all. The game has reached an apex of popularity, but that's been programmed. People see a guy do a 360-degree dunk and go, "Wow, man, you see that!" But when I played, if you were down by 10 points and you did a 360 dunk, the coach would sit you down. The fans would call you a hot dog. Do you think Johnny Green couldn't have done these dunks? Of course he could have. But if he had, his teammates would have looked at him funny. The top international teams are playing closer to how we played in the NBA back in the '60s, because that's where their coaches learned the game.

SI: But our fans aren't getting the message, are they? We lose the Olympics to the Soviets, we lose the Goodwill Games, we lose the Pan Am Games, and all people can say is, "Well, we would have won if we had used our pros."

WC: You're right. They are not getting the message. The type of game we're playing has put us in the doldrums. We're not using the center position as we once did. We don't use good forwards who can shoot well from outside. Jerry Lucas was the perfect prototype—he shot the ball from outside, shot the ball from inside and rebounded well. Who does that anymore except Larry Bird?

SI: Do you think one Lucas-type player in the last Olympics would have made for a different outcome?

WC: Absolutely. Absolutely. A Dave DeBusschere. A Bob Pettit. The great power forward today, the guy from Utah—what's his name?

SI: Karl Malone.

WC: Malone. Great player, but can he shoot? No, he can use his power only on the inside. He's limited. The guys who can go outside and shoot a 30-footer and also be a force inside—we just don't have them anymore.

SI: What do you think about the virtually all-NBA team we're going to send to the '92 Olympics? Does it have some of the same faults?

WC: I think it does. First, the guys who chose the players should be ashamed to have formulated the team this way. They've deprived a lot of youngsters, like [LSU center] Shaquille O'Neal, of a chance to try out for the team. It's not the American way—some guys in the back room smoking cigars, saying, "Hey, this is who's going to be on the team."

As for our chances, Bird can jump shoot from outside, but can he do it anymore with the bad back? I'm not sure. The center position is strong; we've got two great centers in [Patrick] Ewing and [David] Robinson. But other than that, I don't think the players complement each other. The game today is controlled by the guards. These guards are saying, "It's my ball, it's my game, and I'm not going to give it to you."

It probably doesn't make any difference, though, given what's going on in the world today. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the two basketball powers, won't be able to represent themselves in their usual manner. Therefore, I don't think the U.S. will be challenged.

SI: You mentioned Bird as a player you admire. You like players who want to take that last shot, guys that don't shy away from responsibility.

WC: To me, Jerry West was the epitome. Most guys don't want it. There are a few out there who want it and shouldn't have it, but most guys really don't want it.

Magic also wanted it down there at the end. He may have seemed to be the wrong guy to take a three-point shot at the buzzer, but he'd take it and make it. Under those conditions he was incredible. I've also said that if I had to go to a guy for the last shot, I would go to Kareem.

SI: That's a surprise, because you and Abdul-Jabbar don't get along.

WC: Kareem and I are estranged for several reasons. He may feel that I'm the one person that stands in the way of true immortality for him, because I came before him and did some things that he didn't do. But he did some things that I didn't do, and I've always said he was, by far, the greatest offensive weapon I've ever seen or played against. And he wanted the ball. Some people just respond to final-seconds pressure better than others.

In some cases, though, these guys should be used as decoys. Maybe go to the least expected guy, understand? A lot of times Michael Jordan is put under the hammer because everybody knows that in the last quarter you go to Jordan. I've seen the Bulls lose a lot of games going to Jordan when he's got too many guys playing him or he's in a bad position.

SI: How do you feel about the taunting that goes on these days, the "in your face" posturing we see in football and basketball?

WC: That mentality is one of the dumber things I've come across. You're saying, "Hey, world, I'm the best! Only I can do this right here!" And everybody knows it's done by everyone all the time.

SI: How important to your development was the caliber of competition you faced both as a kid in Philadelphia and later on?

WC: Only if you live in a place like Philadelphia or New York, where there's going to be more than five good players on a team, are you going to get some good games. That's how I got to be a good basketball player. There was always great competition.

You're only as good as the people you play against. I owe everything I have to Bill Russell and Walt Bellamy and Nate Thurmond. And the big guy from Cincinnati, Wayne Embry. I owe them because they forced me to play to my level.

SI: In your basketball prime, you were always the heavy—"Goliath," as you put it. Now you're seen by many as a likable guy with a lot of enthusiasm for life. Are you happy that people are liking you more?

WC: I think everybody enjoys being given his due, and I always felt that I was not given my due. When people talked about Wilt Chamberlain, you tended to hear about what he didn't do—didn't win enough world championships, only two; didn't make his free throws; didn't do this, blah, blah, blah. And you know, I did so many things the other guys didn't do, it's incredible. My winning percentage in the NBA was up there with the very best—like Bill Russell. Lifetime, I think I played .640 ball, or pretty close to it. [Actually, .643.] And Russell's teams [which won at a .705 clip], in my mind, were far superior.

That makes me pretty much a winner. I won eight or nine division championships; I wasn't a dog out there. So now people are starting to look at what I did a bit more positively. Sure, I'm happy about that.

SI: But why were you the heavy in the first place?

WC: The way I see it, Bill was a married man, married to a lady of color and raising a nice family. Also, he was a blue-collar worker—he could rebound and play defense and not take away from the star status of the white players. Along comes this brash, outspoken Wilt Chamberlain, who is dating people of [different] colors and making inroads in what was still [largely] a white sport and making all the white stars look like nothing. All that was too much for them to handle.

SI: So you were pretty threatening?

WC: Oh, absolutely. Wilt was just too big and too threatening. It was kind of like a mirror people didn't want to look into. And also [I represented] a future that maybe they didn't want to see. I was the Michael Jordans of tomorrow, the Kareems of tomorrow, and I don't think they were quite ready for that.

SI: But now you're older and somehow less threatening?

WC: What's the guy's name? George Burns? Everybody loves George Burns. He wasn't loved by everybody when he was doing his show with the cigar—a cocky little son of a gun who was sometimes a bit crass. But now everybody loves him. He's still got the same cigar, but now he's this old guy that you sort of empathize with.

It's almost like the line in my book: "You're only at your best when you're laid to rest." That's a little bit sad, but I fully understand it now. The frustrations that come with not winning as many world championships as I would have liked are behind me. The frustrations of having to answer "Why not?" are behind me.

I'm fortunate that I'm starting to get some real positive attention at this late date. I'm very fortunate. And I am enjoying life.

PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSA Goliath was in training at Philly's Overbrook High in 1954. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Wilt always wanted the ball and always took the big shot. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINE