It's a question no son can feel comfortable asking his mother. Hey, Mom, when you and Wilt Chamberlain were on campus together at Kansas, did you ever...uh...hang out? � To say that Wilt the Stilt was the BMOC, Kansas division, circa 1957, is an epic understatement. He tooled around Lawrence in a white Oldsmobile convertible with the vanity plate BIG DIPPER. He consumed dinner spreads fit for a platoon at Mom's Meals, an eatery on 11th and Vermont, mesmerizing his classmates. And when he scored 52 points against Northwestern in his varsity basketball debut, well, the students stomped their feet and refused to leave Allen Fieldhouse. "We'd never seen anything like him," says my dad, a Mom's Meals regular himself.
The women loved Wilt, of course. As preposterous as his claim of 20,000 female conquests sounds, his mammoth appetites in those days—for points, food and women—made almost anything seem attainable. And while it was probably better not to ponder such things, part of me inevitably wondered: Wilt? Mom?
The thing is, we Kansans can't avoid having intimate relations, literal and otherwise, with Jayhawks basketball. (Not even those tractor-pulling K-Staters, perpetrators of that classy "F—-KU!" chant, are excused.) Blame Doc Naismith, the game's inventor and the first Kansas coach, the only one to have a losing record. (Imagine the static he got on the call-in shows!) Blame Wilt, Clyde Lovellette and Danny Manning, the Holy Trinity of KU greats. And by all means, blame Phog Allen, Larry Brown and Roy Williams, architects of a lore that includes 12 Final Fours and two national titles.
Me, I blame Max Falkenstien the most. As a kid I'd lie in bed listening to Max, the voice of the Jayhawks, whose Brokaw-flat lullabies had the same effect on a 14-year-old as Barry White's baritone would a few years later. Simply put, Max was a sports aphrodisiac—and still is, mind you, at 79, in his 58th straight season, the longest streak of any current basketball announcer, college or pro.
The only thing better than tuning in Max is finding your way inside Allen Fieldhouse. Like a 19th-century Chautauqua, a night in the packed old barn unites Kansans in a timeless scene redolent of buttered popcorn and mindful of populist tradition, whether you're belting out the eerily cool Rock Chalk chant, theatrically reading newspapers during the opponents' intros or heaving students into the air to punctuate the Hey! song.
Kansans are well aware of their tastes. We don't like fancy-pants East Coast writers who stuff Wizard of Oz jokes into every Jayhawks story, as if we live on some sort of stage set, nor are we fond of that finger-pointin', booty-shakin', taunting nonsense from a player who has scored a basket. (Just run back down the court, son, and play some defense.) Scrap hard, D up and pass the ball, though, and you'll have our everlasting gratitude. There's a reason why so many former Kansas stars still live in and around Lawrence.
See, history matters in these parts. My parents can tell you their exact whereabouts on the night of the 1957 NCAA final. My mom, a grad student, was at the game in Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, while my dad, a freshman, was right next door at the Music Hall, racked with nerves, fidgeting through a performance of Carmen. He couldn't bear to know what was going on, yet he hoped his proximity would somehow bring good karma to the team. (It didn't, of course. In perhaps the greatest college game ever, Wilt's Jayhawks fell to North Carolina in three overtimes.)
Funny how things come full circle. Professional detachment may have thinned my Jayhawks blood—sad to say, I attended college elsewhere—but I finally swallowed my pride and popped the Wilt question to my mom a while back. After a four-decade-long absence, Wilt had returned to a hero's welcome in Lawrence in January 1998. He'd taken the blame for the '57 loss, and it only seemed right that he went to his grave knowing an entire state was still smitten with the Big Dipper. No, he and my sweet mother never hooked up, but that's not the point. The point, as Wilt himself learned that glorious day, is this: Sometimes platonic love can be the best kind.