The reason Chamberlain said Tommy was that he was having a late dinner with Kearns at the Stage Deli, on New York's Seventh Avenue. Somewhere along the way they had met again, far from a center circle, and they have been fast friends for years. Kearns handles Chamberlain's stock portfolio. "To tell you the truth, I've never heard of any friendship like ours," Wilt says. "I mean, starting off meeting in that game, like that, you understand, and then ending up friends, which is much more important than any game, ever."
This evening Chamberlain would be staying at Kearns's Manhattan apartment. They had gone to the Millrose Games together, and of course everybody in Madison Square Garden recognized Wilt. Many adults sent their children over for autographs. "I should have worn my sunglasses," Wilt said, "so nobody could recognize me."
And some of Kearns's Noo Yawk pals saw their buddy there with Chamberlain, and they walked by and in stage whispers said such things as, "Hey, isn't that Tommy Kearns, who beat Wilt the Stilt 25 years ago?"
Stuff like that.
Chamberlain wouldn't rise to the bait. In reply, he would say, loudly, things like: "Watch your wallets" or "Imagine there being people still interested in some stupid game that happened 25 years ago."
Stuff like that.
Chamberlain provided the Millrose expertise. He's a notable track aficionado, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He wears a fancy stopwatch around his neck and speaks in the arcane language of splits. Track is his sport now. He even has his own team, Wilt's Athletic Club, and this evening many of his runners and jumpers were competing. Chamberlain obviously takes delight in supporting his club—just this day he had bought a van for its members—in being a patron of the athletic arts, someone who at last can merely enjoy sports without being superhuman, without being Wilt the Stilt, without always being expected to win.
At this time, in February, Chamberlain was still mulling over an incredible offer of almost $1 million for him, at the age of 45, to finish out the NBA season with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was obviously flattered by the proposal, but just as obviously he didn't need the aggravation of returning to basketball. The older Chamberlain got, the better he could see that he would never really be permitted to enjoy victory as other athletes do. If he won, so what?—he should have. If he lost, he was a loser. It was his function to be played against.
But he seems at peace now. "I think I've always understood the phenomenon pretty well," he says, eating his way through the Stage Deli menu. "I was never all that surprised that people responded to me so strongly, that a lot of them had strange thoughts about Wilt. I mean, how would you expect most people to react to a black seven-footer, especially if they'd never seen one before? That didn't upset me. I could understand that. And my publicity always preceded me. I could never be given any credit for what I accomplished. The media decided that I was a villain.
"But that's all behind me now. I'm very lucky. You're formed by the people you know well, and I've always been fortunate, you understand, to have good people close to me. Even Kearns," he said, laughing, and he finished off this stage of his meal, washing it down with cream soda. Then he began again. "But about that game now—"