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A Gentle Goliath
Frank Deford
October 25, 1999
The Big Dipper was basketball's nonpareil scorer and rebounder, who might have been even better but for one flaw: He didn't possess a mean streak
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October 25, 1999

A Gentle Goliath

The Big Dipper was basketball's nonpareil scorer and rebounder, who might have been even better but for one flaw: He didn't possess a mean streak

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Although he always lived alone, Wilt never seemed to be a lonely man. He had learned to love Goliath. He was accessible. He relished a debate, adored travel and delighted in an eclectic range of the globe's roster of human beings. Indeed, it may be most revealing that, of all his basketball years, the one he enjoyed most was the one between leaving Kansas and joining the NBA, when he was a Harlem Globetrotter, globetrotting with no pressure on him to perform heroically, to quantify anything. I always thought that Chamberlain would have been much more content in an individual sport—such as track and field, in which he excelled, disparately, in the high jump and the shot put. The conflict between team and personal supremacy forever confounded him.

There's no doubt that he could do, by himself, almost anything he ordained. I learned that myself, just as the centers he toyed with under the hoop did. In 1969 I wrote a cover story on Chamberlain for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He was 32 then, his great scoring days were behind him, and I ventured this memorable line: "There is a growing school of thought that he no longer possesses sufficient moves to make him a bona fide high-scoring threat." It had, in fact, been more than a year since he had made 50 in any game. So: The very next game he played after the magazine came out, Wilt went for 60. Yet in the seventh game of the NBA Finals that year, Russell's swan song, the man who never missed a moment of any importance on the court took himself out of the game, sore-kneed, when the Lakers fell behind the Boston Celtics. Only when Los Angeles rallied without him did Chamberlain petition to go back in, but coach Butch van Breda Kolff refused. It cost van Breda Kolff his job. It cost Wilt more, his image.

His defenders—and it almost defined what sort of a person you were, whether you fell into the Chamberlain or the Russell camp—always maintained that Chamberlain would have won as many championships as Russell did if he had been lucky enough to be surrounded by the deep Celtic green. "No," Bob Cousy said not long ago. "To play with Wilt you had to go down, set up and wait for him. We couldn't have played that way."

It was not, really, that Chamberlain wasn't a team player. That's simplistic. In his great cathedral house in Los Angeles he kept not a single trophy attesting to his individual achievements, except for his Hall of Fame certificate. He gave all the others away. "They make other people happier," he told me matter-of-factly. Rather, I think, he was just so dominating a presence that he overwhelmed his own team. He was, ultimately, primarily an opposing force. Whereas players like Russell made their teammates better, it was Chamberlain's fate to bring out the best in the opposition. Finally he awoke one summer's morning on vacation on an island somewhere in the Adriatic and understood that. "There was always so much more pain to my losing than there ever was to gain by my winning," he explained. It was time to quit basketball.

The rest of his life was much happier. He went barefoot and could play at being Wilt more than having to be him all the time. And if there is a heaven, my man, it's a place where nobody has to shoot free throws.

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