Check your Mail!

CNN Time Free Email US Sports Baseball Pro Football College Football 1999 NBA Playoffs College Basketball Hockey Golf Plus Tennis Soccer Motorsports Womens More Inside Game Scoreboards World
EVENTS
MLB Playoffs
Rugby World Cup
Century's Best
Swimsuit '99

CENTERS
 Fantasy Central
 Inside Game
 Multimedia Central
 Statitudes
 Your Turn
 Teams
 Cities

AD PARTNERS

  Power of Caring
  presented by CIGNA


SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
 This Week's Issue
 Previous Issues
 Special Features
 Life of Reilly
 Frank Deford
 Subscriber Services
 SI for Women

FEATURES
 Trivia Blitz
 Free Email

TELEVISION
 CNN/SI - TV
 Turner Sports

SHOPPING
 CNN/SI Travel
 Golf Pro Shop
 MLB Gear Store
 NFL Gear Store

SI FOR KIDS
 Sports Parents
 Games
 Buzz World
 Shorter Reporter

SITE RESOURCES
 About Us
 myCNN
 
Pro Basketball

Basketball Scores & Recaps NBA Standings NBA Stats NBA Matchups NBA Almanac NBA Teams Players WNBA CBA

'Doing just fine, my man'

At 50, Wilt Chamberlain has finally mellowed

Issue Date: August 18, 1986
By Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated Flashback

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 his crouch.

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 most women.

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 too short.

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 friends.

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 married.

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 don't like.

"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 why.'

"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.

Issue Date: August 18, 1986



To the top

Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.