So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas
This is an article from the April 23, 2012 issue
It's almost impossible to explain how little the NBA amounted to when I started covering it in 1963. It wasn't fair to call it bush, although everybody did. It was simply small—only nine teams—and insignificant.
The league offices, such as they were, were located in the Empire State Building. There may have been some symbolism in this—the sport for tall guys chose for its headquarters the world's tallest building—but I don't think it was intended. The NBA's planning was much more seat-of-the-pants.
Like this: Wilt Chamberlain was the biggest name in the league. After the 1965 All-Star Game, in St. Louis, there was a reception at Stan Musial's restaurant, and the executives and writers were upstairs drinking when a referee named Joe Gushue casually pointed down to the bottom of the stairs and said, "You know, they're trading Wilt down there." So we all peered down the stairs and, sure enough, there were the San Francisco Warriors' owners and the Philadelphia 76ers' owners working out the deal. They traded Wilt in a restaurant stairwell.
Walter Kennedy was the new commissioner, having replaced Maurice Podoloff, who had presided over the league since its founding in 1946. Kennedy was a very nice man, but invariably defensive, despairing that people called the NBA bush. Kennedy had resigned as mayor of Stamford, Conn., to take his dream job. Unfortunately my first encounter with him was unpleasant, although I was a blameless accomplice to another's alleged villainy.
In the summer of 1963, my second with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Jerry Tax, the basketball editor, got the Celtics' Frank Ramsey, the NBA's first famous sixth man, to do a piece for the magazine revealing some of the devious little tricks of his trade. Things like surreptitiously holding an opponent's shorts—nickel-and-dime stuff. Since you couldn't easily photograph such shenanigans during a game, an artist, Bob Handville, was assigned to illustrate Ramsey's devilment. I was sent along to Ramsey's house in Madisonville, Ky., to take notes. But when Handville and I got down there, we realized that, for the photographs on which he would base his illustrations, we needed someone to play the dupe to Ramsey's magician. Since I was tall, I was dressed in one of Ramsey's old uniforms and cast as his foil.
What Ramsey revealed was "inside basketball" for its time, and it made SI's cover (SMART MOVES THAT SCORE POINTS), with Handville's illustration of Ramsey outwitting Deford. Commissioner Kennedy was appalled that a player would go public about how to—my goodness gracious!—cheat in an NBA game, and he called Ramsey in and upbraided him. Ramsey, a smart cookie, acted properly chastened and then went about committing the same smooth high jinks as before. Luckily I, a mere patsy, was not officially chastised.
Kennedy had once been the public relations man for the Harlem Globetrotters, and he had the grandiose dream that the NBA would someday have the Globies' worldwide appeal. Of course, his dream would eventually come true, but not until long after he retired in 1975; college basketball was more popular in those days.
Several NBA teams got their best gates every season when they scheduled a doubleheader and booked the Globetrotters and their stooges for the opening game. The Knicks scheduled regular NBA doubleheaders, meaning that often half the league was in Manhattan at the same time. In fact, some nights as much as 25% of NBA personnel could be found drinking together at one New York bar they favored.
The camaraderie was real. Most teams carried only 10 players, and only a few rookies entered the league each year, so there wasn't much turnover, and most everyone knew everyone else. The NBA was more like a theater ensemble than a league.
Partly as a result of that, race was less of a problem in pro basketball than in the rest of the country. History was made when Texas Western won the 1966 NCAA championship with five African-American starters, but Celtics coach Red Auerbach had sent out an all-black starting lineup long before that, when he put Willie Naulls in with Russell, Satch Sanders and Sam and K.C. Jones for the opening tap on Dec. 26, 1964. Around the league it was already unremarkable to see nine or even 10 black guys on the court. It was in 1964, in fact, that I first heard an inability to jump described as white man's disease.
The NBA schedule was made up by one man, Eddie Gottlieb, who had owned the Philadelphia Warriors. Eddie had a Buddha-like body and a crinkly smile, and because he had also been an owner in baseball's old Negro leagues, he was known as the Mogul. It was amazing that he could figure out the schedule at all, because the teams were at the mercy of arenas that also scheduled hockey games, ice shows, wrestling matches, Roller Derby, rodeos and all other manner of indoor divertissements during the long, dark winter months in the Northeast.
The Mogul was officially a member of the league's Schedule Committee, but in fact, he explained to me, "I am the Schedule Committee." Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night with an inspiration, having realized he could get the Syracuse Nationals to play in St. Louis after a game in Cincinnati. It was a feat of pre-computer 20th-century human genius.
In the league's early days, if the Knicks made the playoffs, they would invariably be kicked out of Madison Square Garden, because the circus would be in town, and it drew much larger crowds. The Knicks would then have to play their most important games of the season at the ratty old National Guard armory on Lexington Avenue.
Luckily the Knicks were so bad that this didn't happen very often. When they played regular-season games at the Garden, the crowd seemed to be made up predominantly of gamblers. The largest cheers were not for the home-team stiffs but for whichever way the point spread played out. Smoking was allowed in arenas then, so by the time the nightcap was finishing in a Garden doubleheader, the haze had drifted down and it was hard enough to shoot baskets, let alone see across the court. I'd be in the front row, courting my wife-to-be with the best seats in the house, because the Knicks, desperate for any ink, gave writers seats that now go to celebrities for four figures.
Actually the Mogul had been the coach and G.M. of the Warriors when they became the first NBA champions (although the league was then called the Basketball Association of America), in 1946--47. A country boy from the Appalachians named Joe Fulks was the team's star, but he's been completely forgotten. Fulks was known as Jumpin' Joe—not because he could jump high (he was, after all, white) but because he was a jump-shot pioneer. He held the one-game scoring record of 63 points for a decade. Fulks died young, at 54, killed in the Kentucky hills over a dispute about a firearm that was, alas, loaded.
In 1962 the Mogul sold the Warriors to a group of San Francisco businessmen for $850,000. It astounded us NBA insiders that California guys could get suckered so by the Mogul. Eight hundred fifty G's for an NBA franchise that Eddie had bought for $25,000! Can you believe it? Part of the deal, too, was that Eddie got to go out to San Francisco for a couple of years as some kind of transition consultant. Then he returned to Philly, still dined at the Automat and continued making up the league schedule at his kitchen table.
Nobody in the NBA made much money. I could easily get players to go out with me after a game; they knew I had an expense account, and they could cadge free beers off me. The players doubled up in rooms and, 6'10" or not, flew coach. In 1966, when I was doing a cover story on the Celtics' John Havlicek, we were on a coast-to-coast flight, and I was in first class according to Time Inc. policy. He came up to see me, and then I went back to interview him in steerage, where the NBA champions were sitting.
Havlicek was delighted with the publicity. Are you kidding? Like the Knicks, the Celtics (and the rest of the league) would cooperate in almost any way to get ink. Freddy Schaus, the coach of the Lakers, invited me into their locker room at halftime. Elgin Baylor, the star forward, bummed a cigarette off me and then went for another set of double figures in the second half. (A lot of athletes still smoked. Hell, athletes made cigarette commercials, just as doctors did.)
By the time I came along, the NBA was using airplanes, but only a few years earlier trains had still been in vogue. Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics All-Star forward, told me about traveling to play the Pistons when they were still located in Fort Wayne, Ind., before 1957. The main line didn't go into Fort Wayne, so trains would stop a few miles outside of town at a mail pickup point to allow the players to disembark like thieves on the lam. I can just visualize LeBron James and Dwyane Wade standing by a railroad siding at three in the morning when it's eight below and their coach is on the pay phone ringing up Fort Wayne's only all-night cab company.
In 1960, on one of the rare occasions a team used a charter flight, the Lakers took a DC-3 home to Minneapolis after a game in St. Louis. Unfortunately the plane's electrical system failed, and the only thing that continued to work was the propellers. As the DC-3 began to run out of fuel, the pilots, who had no idea where they were, gingerly began to take the plane down, until at last they spotted the lights of a little town that turned out to be Carroll, Iowa. The plane windows were coated with ice, so when the pilots made out a snowy cornfield they thought they could land in, the copilot had to stick out his face to gauge their altitude.
In the back, the players huddled in the cold, praying, while Baylor simply lay down flat in the aisle. Hot Rod Hundley remembered hearing the copilot call out the descending altitude: "Sixty ... 50 ... 40...." Then, all of a sudden: "Take the son of a bitch up, take it up!" They were coming in too steep.
The plane soared back up, circled, then began to glide down again. "Well, Rod," Slick Leonard said to Hundley, "at least we had some time to smell the roses." But on this try the descent was smooth, and the plane landed so cleanly in the cornfield that the next day, after it was juiced up, a pilot was able simply to turn the DC-3 around and fly it safely off.
Baylor has been largely forgotten, I suppose, but in his prime he was just fabulous—Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan. Elgin had a nervous twitch that made him even more disconcerting to guard. One time he went for 63 against the Philadelphia Warriors, prompting Hundley (who got more free drinks on my expense account than anybody else) to make the famous remark, "Elg and me went for 65 tonight."
My first assignment in the NBA was with the Lakers. Bill Leggett, a writer on the magazine, was going to do a story about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, and since he would travel with the Celtics, I was designated to go along with the Lakers, embedded as Leggett's reporter. I caught up with the team in Cincinnati, where it was playing the Royals, with Oscar Robertson, the Big O. I was supposed to meet the Lakers the next morning in the hotel lobby, where we would jam into cabs, our long legs all entangled, and go to the airport. I was scared to death. This was my debut as a traveling sportswriter. I was 24 years old. I remember picking out my best shirt and tie. I slicked down my hair with both Vitalis and Brylcreem. I put on my fancy new checked sports jacket and a pair of horn-rim glasses in a vain effort to make myself look older. In the lobby I tried to appear as unobtrusive as possible, but Elgin spied me right away. He was not only the star of the team but also the leader—and a very good straight-faced comedian. Loudly, in his deep voice, staring straight at stylish me, he said, "I didn't know Ralston-Purina was making sports jackets these days."
All the Lakers roared.
Welcome to the big time, Deford.
Hundley did make me feel a little better later when, over a couple of Cutty Sarks on me, he said that Baylor had tagged the beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, who had bad teeth, Low Tide at Santa Monica.
Hot Rod revealed this to me at our destination, Detroit, where the Lakers were going to play the Celtics in the lid lifter of a doubleheader. That's right: Because the Pistons were struggling at the gate, the NBA had awarded them the league's best attraction, Lakers-Celtics, as the undercard. I guess the Globies were otherwise occupied.
The Lakers and the Celtics (along with Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors, who were playing the Pistons) were staying at a hotel that was also holding a hairdressers' convention. Now try to envision this: Thirty young guys, most of them extremely tall and randy, and plenty of beautiful models stuck together in one hotel. And it is something like 10¬∫ outside, so nobody is going out. And I'm buying drinks on my expense account, picking up the hoop skinny and providentially, because of said expense account, being very popular with both genders.
This, I believe, was when I decided that maybe I really did want to be a sportswriter for a while.
As ordinary as some of the NBA hotels were, none was as homely as the Hotel Madison, the dump that many teams used in Boston. Not only was the Madison dirt cheap, but it also saved the teams on cab fare because it was an extension of the North Station railroad depot, like Boston Garden itself. It was taken as gospel that Red Auerbach bugged the visitors' locker room at the Garden, which was kept either boiling or freezing, so the Celtics' opponents preferred to put on their uniforms in their dingy cubbyhole accommodations at the Madison and then dash through the station to the Garden proper. Outside a saloon named the Iron Horse, I would hear patrons scream, "Hey, you f----- c---suckers" and other friendly greetings as the players scurried toward their engagement with the Celtics on the distinctive parquet floor.
Press row at the Garden would be filled, because there were still a great many Knights of the Keyboard at the plethora of dailies in the Hub: the Globe and the Evening Globe and the Herald and the Traveler and the Record-American and the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, not to mention The Christian Science Monitor. Across the NBA, though, few newspapers staffed the home team when it was on the road.
Once the playoffs started, however, the multitude of Boston papers would take to the road with the Celtics. Howie McHugh, the team p.r. man, would even splurge and take a hotel suite in every town so we could all drink there after the game. Sometimes a Celtic or two would drop by, just to grab a free beer and shoot the breeze with his newspaper buddies. It was the closest I ever came to the legendary press box days of yore, when newspapers were legion.
The playoffs were also pretty much the only time Boston fans would also appear in abundance. The Celtics might have been perennial champions, but even though the game was created in Springfield, Mass., New England barely knew what basketball was. No, in wintertime Boston hearts belonged to the Bruins, who invariably sold out the Garden even though they finished dead last most years.
On the road, the Boston writers were led by Clif (Poison Pen) Keane. He had been so christened on a bumpy airplane ride with the old Boston Braves baseball team. As the plane pitched and yawed, one of the Braves, first baseman Earl Torgeson, began to imitate a radio broadcast, announcing loudly that the plane had crashed, all hands lost. The players groaned. Then Torgeson said, "The first person identified at the crash site was Clif Keane of The Boston Globe. Keane was immediately recognized by the poison pen clasped tightly in his hand."
I was amazed at how Clif got away with tormenting the players he covered. "There's more dog in you than an Airedale!" he'd holler. "The SPCA shouldn't let you play here." The players would just laugh and insult him back. (My favorite newspaper inside story about Clif was when he upset the dog-show crowd. While he was covering a big show, a popular dog died, but Clif didn't mention that fact until deep in his story. His editor, responding to the criticism, asked him why. Clif replied, "A dog died. I buried it.")
Clif was a great mimic, too. So was Celtics guard K.C. Jones. One time, waiting for a connecting flight in the middle of the playoffs in the middle of the night somewhere in the middle of the country, Clif and K.C. entertained us for about a half hour doing imitations of other players and referees. It's a common refrain nowadays that players and writers don't get along as well as they used to. I just think of Clif, of the rapport he had with the young men he covered, and I know how true that is.
Another favorite memory of Clif: In 1964, when Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro was a hotshot rookie, I was sent up to do a piece on him. The kid was tired of reporters, and he had all the ink he needed from the papers in the Hub, so he blew me off. Poison Pen was furious. He dragged me back down to the clubhouse and, as I stood sheepishly beside him, confronted the rook. "Hey, what the hell's the mattah with you, Tony?" he snapped. "This man has come alla way from Noo Yock to do a story on you. Now, the least you can do is be polite and tock to 'im."
So, grudgingly, Conigliaro gave me an interview. But can you imagine any writer talking that way to a player today? Can you imagine any player doing what the writer told him to?
I laugh now at all the Red Sox Nation crap, the myth that all New England has always worshiped the Sawx through thick and thin, forever held them to its ever-lovin' bosom. I remember one gorgeous spring afternoon at Fenway Park when the attendance was so small ("A lot of people came dressed as empty seats today," Poison Pen observed—first time I'd heard that saw) that all over the park you could hear one loud fan screaming at a visiting (and married) infielder about the babe the player had picked up the night before in some bar. The fan was so loud and the Fens was so deserted that the infielder heard every word, and you could see his face getting red. Boston was fed up with the Sawx then. They were losahs. The Patriots were bush, in what was always called the Mickey Mouse League (the AFL), and the Celtics had too many black guys and drew only for the playoffs. The Bruins, losahs though they might also have been, were the only team anybody in Boston really cared about.
Now in those days, virtually every NHL player was from Canada. There, hockey prospects would be divvied up among the six NHL franchises as soon as their voices changed, taken from their families and schooled on the ice in jerkwater towns. It was called Junior A hockey, and it was adolescent servitude. But as the Bruins finished in the cellar year after year, as the Celtics made the playoffs and as I drank in Howie McHugh's suite with the Boston writers, I would be told late at night, in hushed voices, tales of the Canadian ice Christ child who would someday be the Bruins' savior. It would be only three more years now ... two....
The teenager's name was Bobby Orr, and he was playing Junior A hockey in Ontario. So, even though I didn't know a hockey puck from a quoit, I realized that I had got me another Bill Bradley, the fellow Princetonian on whom I had written the first national story. For a sportswriter, this was the equivalent of stumbling on two Lana Turners, back-to-back, at Schwab's Pharmacy. As a consequence, in the summer of '66, when Orr turned 18 and was finally old enough to play in the NHL, I traveled up to Parry Sound, Ont., with Leo Monahan, a hockey writer from the Boston Record-American. In the coffee shop we asked the waitress if she knew the way to the Orr residence. Well, yes, as a matter of fact she did, inasmuch as she was Bobby's mother.
So I wrote the first national story about Bobby Orr, too, and he went on to become by far the finest defenseman in the history of the game, and my reputation for discovering phenoms increased apace. Orr was sensational right off the bat. "I don't think most people can understand what little pressure I felt out there," he told me years later. "It was like I was skating in a little balloon. Only you can't take that balloon anywhere else with you."
That's about the best definition I've ever heard of what it's like to be blessed with great talent in one glamorous thing. Imagine being a kid and finding out that you're in that balloon. But also imagine how hard it is to understand that you're in the balloon only when you're on the blue line or in the batter's box or on the 18th green. And imagine what it's like when you're still playing, but you're older and all beat up and the balloon is starting to deflate. And then the balloon is busted and you're not even middle-aged in real life.
Twenty-two years after Parry Sound, I was doing a story on Larry Bird (whom I did not discover), and a big dinner was held in Boston to unveil a statue of him. By now Orr was long gone from hockey. He never even broke a tooth all the years he played, but his knees went on him early, so he'd lost his reservation in the balloon. But he continued to live in Boston, and he came to the Bird soirée, and when it was time for dinner, we sat down together.
When Bird got up to speak, he started talking about what it was like to play in Boston Garden and how, before every game, as he stood there during the national anthem, he would look up at the championship banners hanging from the ceiling. And, Bird said, he always focused on one. There was a pause. "Number 4," he said. Bird paused again, perfectly. Everybody was trying to remember what Celtic great was number 4 when Bird finally said, "Bobby Orr."
Orr, of course, had already caught on. His face was frozen in shock. The two athletes had barely met, and Bird had never told anybody this story before. When he pronounced the name and started talking about how he idolized Orr, Bobby reached over on the table almost involuntarily and grabbed my hand. "Oh, my God, Frank," he whispered, his fingers tightening over the back of my hand. "Oh, my God."
Most players, even some of the biggest stars, quickly disappear from our journalistic purview once they're put out to pasture, but there was one exceptional athlete whose relationship with me changed considerably for the better. That was Wilt Chamberlain, a singular man of manifold contradictions who remains the most imposing physical specimen I ever encountered.
I'm sure Wilt's great size—or how everyone he met reacted to his great size: How's the weather up there, yuk, yuk, yuk—affected him from early on. He appeared to block out the sun, but it was not just that he was tall. Bill Russell told me he was convinced that Chamberlain was scared that he might accidentally hurt someone, so he always played a bit timidly.
Wilt's freakishness didn't make him withdrawn, however. In fact, unlike many other U.S. athletes, whose interest in geography is pretty much limited to the length of the Las Vegas strip, Wilt spent much of his free time abroad. Had he been self-conscious about his height, he never would have ventured so far afield. Indeed, even as a civilian, in middle age, Wilt dressed in a way that called attention to his body: tank tops, tight pants and (even on city sidewalks) bare feet.
But here was his professional bugaboo: expectations. He was so overwhelming, so good at almost everything he tried athletically, that he could never please people. I think this was at the heart of the unease he often exhibited. One night, late, he told me that he'd fallen in love only once in his life, and he never contemplated sharing his life for long with anyone. He probably feared that he would let his wife down, the way he had let down everyone else who expected too much of him.
I didn't like Wilt when I started covering him, though. One reason was that I liked Russell, and the basketball world then was divided into Russell People and Wilt People. Russell People said their man was bright and sensitive, a team player invested in winning, while Wilt was a dullard and a loser, interested only in his own point total. Wilt People retaliated that their man was misunderstood and lacked good teammates; he wasn't vain and selfish, only forced to do everything by himself. After all, one-on-one he was bigger and better than Russell.
In 1968, at age 31, Wilt was traded from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. A couple of months into the season I was assigned to write a cover story on how he was doing, especially with the two incumbent Lakers stars, Baylor and Jerry West. This would turn out to be the only time in my life that I personally influenced an athletic event.
I had pretty good contacts on the Lakers, and I wrote that Wilt and coach Butch van Breda Kolff were not getting along, and that while West had graciously accepted Wilt as a teammate, Baylor and some of the other Lakers hadn't; in fact they laughed behind his back because he smelled, and they called him Big Musty. Also, displaying my deep hoops expertise, I wrote that Wilt wasn't going to the basket enough: "There is a growing school of thought that he no longer possesses sufficient moves to make him a bona-fide high-scoring threat." After all, six years ago he had averaged 50 points a game for a whole season; now it had been more than a year since he'd scored 50 in a single game.
Oops. As soon as the article came out—the very next game—Wilt answered me by scoring 60.
Later that season, when I was covering the Lakers in the playoffs against Boston, I was in their locker room before a game. West came over to me. He had always been very friendly, as he was with most writers. Anyway, on this occasion Jerry was obviously uncomfortable; he said he had been delegated by Wilt to tell me that Wilt didn't want me in the locker room, and I should depart forthwith.
I didn't have to, of course (every locker room was open to the press), but the last thing I wanted to do was make a scene, and I could tell that Jerry was embarrassed enough already, so I quickly took my leave. Wilt averted his eyes as I walked past him. You see, he really didn't like confrontation, which is why he hadn't approached me directly—something he had every right to do. After all, I'd written that his teammates said he smelled.
I covered the NBA for one more year, that 1969--70 season that ended when Willis Reed of the Knicks, playing center against Chamberlain, famously came back from injury to lead New York to a heroic victory ... and another defeat for Wilt the Stilt.
And the years passed.
By coincidence, one of my closest friends is Tommy Kearns, who was the playmaker on the undefeated 1956--57 North Carolina team that beat Wilt's Kansas team in triple overtime in the NCAA final in Kansas City, Mo. Carolina didn't have a starter over 6'7" and had no chance to win a tip-off against Wilt, so at the start of the title game Frank McGuire, the Tar Heels' coach, sent out his smallest starter—Kearns, who stands maybe 5'11"—to jump against Wilt, mocking his height and embarrassing him. And it was Kearns who had the ball as the clock ticked down at the end, Carolina up a point. As the frustrated Kansas players rushed to him, Tommy simply heaved the ball high. By the time it came down, the game was over and Wilt had been tagged a loser. After the game he would walk the streets of Kansas City alone and disconsolate.
Kearns was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals—he played in one NBA game, took one shot and made it, retiring from the league with a 1.000 shooting percentage—and after he was cut, he became a stockbroker. As an indication of his superior salesmanship, he persuaded Wilt, the man whom he'd helped make a figure of fun, to let him handle his portfolio. They became good friends, and occasionally Tommy would tell me I ought to reconsider my assessment of Wilt, who he said was a good guy.
The Kearnses and Defords liked to travel together, and late one night at, of all places, a bar in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I agreed to Tommy's suggestion that if Wilt were up to it, the three of us go out together back in the States. Wilt accepted Tommy's invitation, and we three went to a track meet at Madison Square Garden (Wilt loved track) and then had dinner. Wilt and I, though shy and tentative at first, got along quite well. To cap the evening he insisted on picking up the dinner tab, which most athletes do not make part of their M.O., having been fussed over all their lives.
A couple of years later I called up Wilt and went out to Los Angeles to do a long story celebrating the 50th birthday of a physical marvel. It struck me almost immediately how content he was. In his playing days he had often said that his happiest year had been the one before he joined the NBA, when he had traveled with the Globetrotters. Now he was even more at peace. In fact, I'm not sure there's ever been a star athlete other than Wilt who was so uncomfortable when playing and so much happier retired.
Anyway, in Los Angeles our rapprochement was complete. He even started calling me Frank, instead of my man, which was how he addressed most everyone. (Remember, everybody knew who Wilt the Stilt was, and he could hardly be expected to reciprocate by remembering the names of the whole human race.) We had a few laughs together. Nothing amused Wilt more than the glad-handing phonies who would corner him and tell him they had been in Madison Square Garden cheering him on the night he scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962. Wilt would just nod and grin. That game, you see, had been played in Hershey, Pa.
We also could laugh at people such as flight attendants who always told tall people, "Watch your head," even though tall people naturally watch their heads. Wilt and I also talked about how smaller people are never embarrassed to ask tall people exactly how tall they are, even though no one would ever ask a short person how short he is or a fat person how much he weighs. Not only that, but when a tall person answers the question, he's not believed. Others always say, "You're taller than that." I'm 6'4". Of the thousands of times people have asked me how tall I am and I've told them, no one has ever said, "No, you're not that tall."
And more years passed.
Then Wilt made an ass of himself by writing a book claiming that he had slept with 20,000 women. Oh, my man, how could you? But Wilt had always been measured by numbers. Be the tallest. Score the most points. Grab the most rebounds. Hand off the most assists. Make the largest salary. And, yes, screw the most women. It quite surprised him that his sexual braggadocio put people off, even disgusted them. Here he had become, if not a Grand Old Man, at least the Grandest Old Man of height-sensitive commercials, and he'd frittered it all away on a stupid boast. Wilt Chamberlain was now thought of as, for lack of a better word, a slut.
In 1999, as the century wound down, Bill Russell was himself coming out of the shadows. He'd spent much of the previous years, if not in seclusion, then certainly out of the spotlight. Friends began to point out to him that he was being forgotten. Never mind that he'd won 11 championships and become the first major league African-American coach; in a world where even black baseball players admitted that they didn't know who the hell Jackie Robinson was, Russell was being lost. So he agreed to something of a comeback coming-out party.
I happily did my part by writing a cover story for SI that proclaimed Russell the greatest team player of the century, and then an HBO special about him. Russell began to make appearances, even to sell his autograph, which he'd always resisted giving away (sometimes taking far more time to explain why he was opposed to the practice than it would've taken to scribble his name).
To culminate his reentry into celebrity, Russell returned to Boston that May to have his number 6 jersey officially retired to the heavens of Boston Garden. It was a huge affair, and Wilt graciously agreed to fly across the country to help honor his old rival—even though he knew he'd be the designated villain at the celebration.
Wilt showed up in the most dazzling, outlandish outfit I'd ever seen him wear, reminding me of one of those two-colored Popsicles. At a party after the ceremony he beckoned me over, and after greeting me nicely, he forced himself to confront me, stuttering a complaint: "My man, what's this I hear about you criticizing me for the way I played Willis Reed in that game?"
He was referring, of course, to the famous Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, in which an injured Reed, shot up with God knows what, had limped out on the floor and immediately scored a basket against Wilt that lit up the Knicks and inspired them to victory. And yes, I had indeed mentioned that episode in the article I'd written about Russell, but I was not the one tendering the criticism. Rather, I was quoting Russell, who claimed that had he been Wilt in that situation, he wouldn't have backed off the wounded Reed but would've gone right at him, again and again. Oddly, it was a backhanded tribute to Wilt, pointing out again how reluctant he was to exert his great strength against a gallant foe.
So I replied rather testily, "Hey, Wilt, come on, read the damn article. I didn't say that. I was just quoting what your skinny friend over there told me." And I pointed at Russell, across the room, surrounded in glory, drinking in the accolades.
Wilt looked enviously at Russell. There he was, after all these years, the conquering hero once again. Wilt then turned back to me. "You think you could do me a favor?" he asked, almost sheepishly.
"Sure. What is it?"
"You think you can do one of those HBO things on me that you did on Bill?"
"Sure," I said. I was pretty certain HBO would be delighted.
"I could really use that," Wilt said—and maybe for the first time I realized how beaten down he had been, how much he'd been mocked for the 20,000-women claim. Neither of us knew, of course, that by October of that year, before the HBO special could be shot, Wilt would be dead at only 63.
"I'll give you a call," I said.
"Thanks, Frank. I'd appreciate that."
"O.K.," I said. "Now watch your head."