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.