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A Legend Passes

 

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| DeFord

To people over a certain age, the death of Wilt Chamberlain comes as a
shock.  More than perhaps any other athlete of our time, Chamberlain,
because of his immense size, which was accompanied by equally astounding gifts,
seemed superhuman. At 7'1 and 1/6, a fraction which seemed something of a
private joke, Wilt's gifts were far beyond being a mere big man. He was also a
track star, competed in gymnastics (rings), and could outrun Jim Brown of the
Cleveland Browns.  After his basketball career, he played volleyball at a
high level for years.

Stories about Chamberlain abound.  One of the best was when he finally
got mad and hit someone, who turned out to be Clyde Lovellete of the Celtics, if
we remember our history.  The entire league was wondering what would happen
when and if he lost it.  No one ever challenged him again.

As a high school star at Overbrook in Philly, Wilt was perhaps the first high
school superstar recognized from coast to coast and pursued by everyone or at
least everyone who would recruit Black players.  One coach offered him the
chance to be "the first Negro" at his school, but Chamberlain said he
preferred to be the second and ended up at Kansas, where he lost one of the
all-time great championship games, in triple overtime, to Frank McGuire's UNC
team in the first of the many UNC-KU connections.

At Kansas, Wilt found a way to overcome his free throw woes, a flaw which
haunted his game for his entire career: he backed up, got a running start, and
dunked from the free throw line. No one had ever considered the possibility
before.  A rule was soon passed, and he set on a lifetime of tinkering with
free throws, shooting underhanded, a la Rick Barry.

Wilt left Kansas after his junior year and spent a year clowning with the
Globetrotters, waiting to become eligible for the NBA, which wasn't what it is
now, of course: eight teams, all in major (now) old-line cities, New York
excepted: New York, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Boston, Philadelphia, and
relatively small salaries.

As soon as he showed up, he and Bill Russell began a rivalry which was only
approximated by Bird-Magic.  These guys went at it every time they
played.  Add in the fact that the other big men of the day included, at
various times, Maurice Stokes, Sweetwater Clifton, Nate Thurmond, and Willis
Reed, and you see it wasn't an easy time to make a living as a big man, because
all of these guys, possibly excepting Clifton, were serious hardasses who had
lived through the depression as children and a serious, hard core form of racism
as young adults, and they had almost nothing in common with the Age of
Alonzo.  These guys played hard and for keeps.  Russell was the great
winner, the greatest winner in the history of team sports, and for our money the
greatest basketball player of all time, but he wasn't nearly the athlete that
Chamberlain was.  No big man has ever been close, either, and the only
player, period, who can arguably surpass him is Jordan.

Everyone points to the 100 point game, but much more remarkable than that
freakish evening in Hershey, Pa (quick trivia question - who was the second
leading scorer on that team that night?) was his averaging 50 points per game
for a season, under Frank McGuire who recognized a weak supporting cast when he
saw one, and a lifetime average of over 20 rebounds.  That's
astonishing. 

It was also astonishing when he chose to - chose to, mind you - lead the
league in assists.  Wilt was that gifted. He never placed as high an
emphasis on winning as Russell did, and in many ways his personality didn't
necessarily jibe with his incredible gifts, but  there is no denying his
greatness.

There was a picture not too long ago of Chamberlain meeting Michael Jordan
for the first time, and shaking hands. Chamberlain was leaning in to Jordan,
staring at him, dwarfing him.  Jordan was looking anywhere but in
Chamberlain's face. There is no way he could have done the things he did in the
lane had he and Chamberlain been contemporaries, because while their heights
were radically different, their talent level was the same.

Chamberlain had wide-ranging interests off the court.  In a maverick
move, he supported Richard Nixon for president, but left the Nixon camp after he
counseled Nixon to add justice to his law and order pitch, and Nixon declined.
He was close friends for a time with the diminutive Willie Shoemaker, the
legendary jockey.  At one point he was willing to box with Muhammad
Ali.  He had opinions on most everything and everyone, including Kareem,
who he liked to snub periodically in the press, though he had mentored young
Kareem earlier. He left basketball to pursue a career in volleyball. He wrote
music and played several instruments and read extensivelyl.

A fascinating and remote man, despite his gregarious side, Chamberlain
undermined his own legend when he claimed to have slept with 20,000 women over
his lifetime. Someone worked it out to a new woman every four hours or
something, we forget exactly how often.  But the idea was fairly ludicrous,
not because it was physically impossible (though it would help to have a harem
or some similar arrangement), because it's not, but because it leaves no time
for practice and training much less the other aspects of a fully-lived life,
which Wilt had certainly experienced.  But be that as it may. He's not the
first, nor the last athlete to boast of what John Hiatt calls the most
unoriginal sin, and Americans love tall-tale tellers, even in this PC age.

Jack Marin said once that he ran intoWilt's legs in the airport.  He
said you had these fantastically long, thin legs and then this massive
torso.  It must have been terrifying to see that coming at you, or after
you, on the court.  Even Russell went to great lengths to placate
Chamberlain, taking him out to eat the nights before they played, playing on
Wilt's kind side, setting him up for years. 

In our day we have Michael to point to, and Michael is magnificent, but there
will be someone to come along who is 6'6" with those gifts, probably
several, before we see a big man gifted like Chamberlain was.  Losing him
this early is hard, and that he was, as Frank DeFord said, a force of nature
when he was at his best, makes it that much harder to realize that he, too, at
last, was mortal.