When Wilt was negotiating to fight Muhammad Ali in 1971, his own father, who was 5'8¾" 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 Tigré. 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.