Philadelphia Daily News copy editor Mark Perner still gets a kick out of the 76ers final regular-season game in 1968. The 61-20 Sixers played a rather meaningless game versus the Baltimore Bullets. On a squad with names like Wali Jones, Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer, Wilt Chamberlain held rank as the team’s most important lifeline and arguably the league’s most recognizable personality.
Philadelphia is a prideful city, one enamored with its own home-cooked talent. Philly loved Wilt. Wilt loved Philly. Years after his career ended and the city ushered in its newest star, Julius Erving, the Doctor understood the throne he was preparing to inherit.
"Coming into Philadelphia," said Dr. J, "the aura of Chamberlain was there."
"Wilt always, always accepted his Philly roots. Philly's big on that. That's why they turned on Kobe [Bryant] because he tried to deny he was a Philly guy, or at least in our eyes," said Perner.
But during the 1967-68 season — one in which Chamberlain led the league in assists to combat the "selfish player" stereotype levied against him — another local kid entered the league, a future Hall of Famer in his own right and a man known historically as Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
Wilt was insanely obsessed with numbers, evident by the fact many of the game’s most gaudy stats continue to sit with “W. Chamberlain” as their proprietor. No two players in basketball history obsessed with numbers quite like Wilt and Michael Jordan. So it’s no surprise March 20, 1968 — a seemingly normal date in NBA history and only two weeks before America experienced one of its darkest days with the Martin Luther King assassination — morphed into yet another Chamberlain tall tale.
Five days before (March 15), the Sixers and Bullets squared off, resulting in a Philly win, 122-115, and Chamberlain dominating Monroe in points 28-7. On March 18, Wilt dropped 53 points on the Lakers, a team he would join months later.
Against Baltimore on the last night of the season, Philly walked away with a 137-119 victory. Monroe, who went on to win Rookie of the Year, finished with 46 points. Chamberlain finished with a pedestrian — by his standards, at least — 26 points and silent bragging rights it would seem. Monroe finished the season with 1,991 points. Chamberlain finished with 1,992.
“I don’t think it was coincidental,” Perner said with a laugh.
Fifteen years have passed since Wilton Norman Chamberlain took his final breath on October 12, 1999, after a silent battle with congestive heart failure. Veteran Daily News writer Dick Jerardi, who wrote Chamberlain’s obituary for the paper, harbors vivid memories.
“I didn’t know he was sick. It was a complete surprise. If he was sick, it had not been in the news. I was doing a TV show in the late afternoon and got a call from my editor,” said Jerardi. “Of all the great athletes to come out of the city of Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain is number one. No doubt about that.”
The word “polarizing” is often thrown around when describing dynamic individuals. Some are deserving of the title. Some aren’t. No such exaggeration existed with Chamberlain.
"He was a seven-foot-one, world-class athlete," said Jerardi. "There was no person who had ever been born who had been like that before Wilt. He was 20, 30 years before his time."
He earned millions of fans while droves of detractors never shied away from chipping away at pieces of Wilt’s character, both on and off the court.
That’s how it was with Chamberlain: one way or the oxther. As articulate an athlete who has ever played any sport, this was the way Wilt seemed to internalize and appreciate the life his stature and talent provided.
“I’m really very content with myself. I don’t need people to lean on. I enjoy people. I love to interact [with them]. But basically I like to reflect, and I have to do that by myself. I’m very happy being alone,” Chamberlain told Roy Firestone in 1987.
"He was a seven-foot-one, world-class athlete. There was no person who had ever been born had been like that before Wilt. He was 20, 30 years before his time."
He understood some people saw him in unfavorable terms, either through their own volition or by the demeanor he portrayed. Such was the case with his relationship with fellow all-time great Bill Russell.
The rivalry is beyond documented at this point. Before Magic and Bird, the two giants helped kick start the process of turning basketball into a national phenomenon with their dynamic personalities. They were mammoths of men who played a game based around endurance with such power, elegance and ballerina-like precision that their impact and legacies on the sport are spoken in nearly religious terms.
Russell was the winner. Chamberlain was the physical freak of nature, a “Monstar” decades before Space Jam entered public lexicon. The late Dr. Jack Ramsay referred to him as “stats-conscious.” Eleven-to-two: those are the numbers people remember. Russell’s rings to Wilt’s rings. The surface only tells half of the story.
In 51 regular-season meetings, Russell won 26 to Chamberlain’s 25. In 36 playoff meetings, Russell came away victorious 21 times to Chamberlain’s 15.
Between the years 1960 and 1969, Wilt’s teams (Warriors/Sixers/Lakers) faced off against Russell’s Celtics eight times (’61 and ’63 were the odd years out). Seven of those matches were in the NBA’s Eastern Division Finals — otherwise known as the conference finals today. Five of those seven deciding games were decided by less than four points. The two met twice in the Finals, Wilt losing in both in 1965 and 1969 as a member of the Lakers.
The latter became the inspiration for Chamberlain and Russell’s falling out. Injuring his knee in Game 7 of the ’69 Finals, and Wilt subsequently never checking back in despite demanding to, the Celtics won by four in what became Russell’s final game as a pro. Jerry West earned the dubious distinction of being the only Finals MVP in league history on the losing team. Russell criticized Chamberlain for not checking back in, causing the two to go years without speaking. In the late '80s, Chamberlain infamously questioned Russell's life after basketball, going as far to say, "I'm not so sure he's a happy man."
The two eventually rekindled their friendship, appearing on TV multiple times. At the time of Chamberlain’s death, not many were more shell-shocked and distraught than Russell. "Many have called our competition the greatest rivalry in the history of sports. We didn't have a rivalry; we had a genuinely fierce competition that was based on friendship and respect. We just loved playing against each other. The fierceness of the competition bonded us as friends for eternity,” he said in a statement hours after Wilt’s passing.
Eleven to two and the ’69 Finals, Russell’s teams always seeming to earn the lucky bounce or critical basket at the most opportune time are what’s easy to remember.
Those type of things happen to great teams, Perner said.
"Put Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek on my teams and let Russell have the guys I had to play with," Chamberlain would say semi-jokingly, but painfully serious, too. Charles Barkley referenced a similar thought when appearing on Oprah alongside Michael Jordan in 2005. "Then I would have been the one sipping the champagne at the end of every season."
Oftentimes swept under the rug because of his Goliath-like frame were the heart and compassion Chamberlain possessed. Basketball not only bonded Russell and Wilt. The times did, too. Russell is, of course, an iconic face of the Civil Rights Movement in the world of sports. Chamberlain occasionally came under fire for his Republican ties. But both were two of the most recognizable black men living in a society dominated by Jim Crow and racial bigotry as the country’s permanent cultural barometer.
The two found solace in one another. When Wilt was a member of the Sixers, Russell recounted a tale of love not only involving Wilt, but the entire Chamberlain family.
“It was like every year this ... at noon he would come to the hotel and pick me up and I would have Thanksgiving dinner with his family. You know he had a lot of brothers and sisters — and his mother would let me take a nap in his bed after we had Thanksgiving dinner,” Russell said. “And then we'd go to the game together. And as we left the home, she'd say, 'You be nice to my boy!'"
Two years before his passing, Wilt befriended a 16-year-old girl named Stephanie. She was the granddaughter of NBA Hall of Famer and former teammate of Wilt’s, Paul Arizin. In 1993, Stephanie wrote to Chamberlain in hopes of securing an autograph. The note eventually found its way to Wilt three years later because of address changes and happenstances of the sort.
He immediately called and formed a friendship with her, apologizing for the delay in his response. So elated by his newly minted friendship, he called the teen's father — Paul’s son — to thank him for the letter. The catch was Stephanie never disclosed she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Wilt was floored.
He made a commitment to Stephanie and the Arizin family to maintain contact. And he did. The two eventually met during the 1997 All-Star Break in Cleveland, where Wilt served as her personal escort, pushing her wheelchair throughout venues to land autographs from several superstars. Wilt and Stephanie spoke every Friday for nearly an hour for the last 15 months of her life. She passed July 30, 1997.
What makes the connection between Chamberlain and Stephanie extraordinary was her grandfather was a former teammate of Wilt's during his early NBA years, one not exactly high on his list of favorites. Author Gary M. Pomerantz, who penned the book Wilt, 1962, noted in speech he gave in 2005 in Hershey, Pennsylvania — the location of Wilt’s iconic 100-point game — the two were separated by “age, race and social habits.”
Wilt’s act of selflessness moved Paul deeply. “Wilt, I’m in your debt. I owe you,” he said.
His generosity always trickled back to the city that embraced him and the city he forever called home: Philadelphia.
Following his death, Chamberlain left behind lump sums of money. He had no kids — perhaps his most unbreakable record if the 20,000 women legend ever proves true — so his funds were allegedly donated to certain family members as well as a smorgasbord of institutions and organizations: $50,000 each to his alma mater Overbrook High School and the Sonny Hill League in Philly, $100,000 to Operation Smile (nonprofit group of doctors dedicated to performing reconstructive surgery on indignant children), $650,000 to the University of Kansas and $2 million to the Wilt Chamberlain Memorial Fund based in Philadelphia.
Wilt’s kindhearted nature was frequently used against him when it came to developing a “killer instinct,” a trait much aligned (and well-deserved) to Russell. Maybe that worked to everyone’s favor. Here was a guy who was bigger, stronger and faster than nearly any and everyone in the NBA. He was a gifted athlete, one who could have been “the greatest volleyball player of allvtime,” noted Jerardi. But he was self-conscious of his own power.
Former NBA player and coach Jack McMahon perhaps coined it best:
“The best thing that ever happened to the NBA is that God made Wilt a nice man. He could have killed us all with that left hand.”
Part of the reason Jerardi, Perner and countless others have coined Wilt “larger than life” is because he was just that.
“When you think about it, there's very few athletes in sports they had to change the rules for because he was so dominant," said Jerardi.
Wilt Chamberlain was never a great free throw shooter in part because there was a time when it wasn't required of him. He could dunk free throws. All that changed in 1956 when the National Basketball Committee adopted six rules changes, one of which outlawed players from leaping into the lane. The rule was largely believed to be directed toward Bill Russell and Chamberlain (who had just entered college at Kansas) because how many other college players in the '50s could jump from the free throw line, let alone dunk?
Urban legends, some more valid than others, have surrounded Wilt for the better part of seven decades to the degree where he's become the NBA's version of John Henry. His rivalry with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? It was complicated. His diet? He would go three or four days without eating. His storied training regiment that kept him in game shape well into his 50s? According to Larry Brown, in the early '80s, Chamberlain played in an intense summer pickup game with Magic Johnson at UCLA. Johnson called several fouls and goal-tending on Wilt, prompting the retired legend to "block every shot after that. He didn't let one of Johnson's shots get to the rim." The Cleveland Cavaliers and New Jersey Nets both contacted Wilt at different points in the '80s to see if he would be interested in returning in a reserved role. He was 50 years old.
The four scars on his upper left arm? From a mountain lion attack, one in which the lion caught the short end of the stick since he killed it. The legendary movie director Quentin Tarantino even admitted last year his mother was one of the 20,000 women who slept with Wilt.
For everything about Wilt, that five-digit number stands as much as, if not more than, any of his other statistical features. The number originated from his 1991 autobiography, A View From Above, and broke down to an average of 1.2 women per day every day of his life since he was 15.
It's a mythical figure impossible to verify, especially in the pre-TMZ days Wilt frolicked through. Since then, however, the number's become a running joke, medal of honor and method of shaming all within the same bubble. The perceived boast won Chamberlain legions of antagonists, many of whom believed he was promoting reckless sexual activity. One of the biggest was the late Arthur Ashe, who cut no corners when addressing Wilt's perceived sexual arrogance (Magic Johnson's, too) in his 1993 memoir Days of Grace, rendering them guilty of "racial embarrassment."
"I felt more pity than sorrow for Wilt as his macho accounting backfired on him in the form of a wave of public criticism," wrote the tennis icon. "African-Americans have spent decades denying that we are sexual primitives by nature, as racists have argued since the days of slavery. These two college-trained black men of international fame and immense personal wealth do their best to reinforce the stereotype."
The timing couldn't have been much worse for Wilt. Not much doubt surrounds Chamberlain sleeping with copious amount of women before, during and after his playing days. He was one of the most recognizable men in the world, handsome and well-spoken. His bank account didn't hurt either. By 1991, however, AIDS had become a full-blown epidemic spread most prominently through sexual contact. The sexual revolution in the '70s sat on the opposite end of the spectrum as the age of awareness and fear of the incurable disease of the '80s and '90s birthed.
It wasn't as much Wilt championing unprotected sex with the first person who said "yes." It was Wilt's life. We're talking about the same guy who claimed to have never slept with a married woman out of any of the alleged 20,000, never had any kids and his taste in women would lead "the average Joe [to] have proposed marriage to on the first date."
Wilt's timing was twofold. His book was released October 23, 1991. Two weeks later, Magic Johnson delivered his now-landmark moment in pop culture history by publicly declaring he had contracted HIV and would immediately retire from basketball.
Twenty-thousand was an outrageous claim, during an outrageous time in society from an equally outrageous tower of a man.
That was Chamberlain. He became a virtuoso in creating headlines, doing so in nearly unprecedented fashion. Imagine the publicity a Chamberlain vs. Muhammad Ali prize fight would have generated, an event that was significantly closer to happening than how it sounds saying aloud. Boxing had always intrigued Wilt. Promoter Jack Hurley approached him as early as 1959 to fight Floyd Patterson, an invitation he declined at the time to focus on his career with the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Ali fight becoming the biggest box-office draw in history at the time had it transpired was all but a foregone conclusion. Cus D'Amato, former Patterson trainer and the man who would save Mike Tyson's life years later, vouched for Chamberlain. He believed he could, if nothing else, give Ali a run for his money.
Let that marinate. Ali was the most contentious ticket in sports at the time, largely viewed as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world with the loudest mouth, and D'Amato believed a guy with no previous boxing experience could've at least gave Ali a run.
"Fighting Muhammad would combine the two kinds of challenges I'd always responded to: doing something everyone said couldn't be done and beating another man at his own game," wrote Chamberlain. The potential payday also didn't hurt.
A date and venue were selected: June 29, 1968, at the Houston Astrodome. Contract discrepancies and Ali's then-ban from boxing proved to be insurmountable hurdles, and the fight died. Reviving the contest was met with the same result three years later. By that time, Ali was reinstated into boxing and Chamberlain reportedly agreed to the fight, only to back out once Ali lost to Joe Frazier in March of 1971.
Boxing promoter Bob Arum believed Wilt never intended to step in the ring with Ali but used the possibility of a fight as leverage in contract talks with Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.
In today's terms, it's tough to imagine LeBron James — for as gifted an athlete as he is — stepping in the right with Floyd Mayweather. But Ali/Chamberlain was going to happen. The only roadblocks were a ban, a lost fight and a lost title.
Wilt Chamberlain, at one point, was credited with 72 records, 68 of which he held by himself.
Wilt's fingerprint remains explicitly evident on basketball. Name a stat that doesn't involve three-point or free-throw shooting and chances are Wilt's name ranks near the top: 100 points, 55 rebounds (on Russell), averaging 50 points for a season, most 50-point games of all time, highest career rebounding average (22.9), most points in one half (59), never fouling out of a game (some credit this to purposely avoiding fouls to maintain this notch) and a vital cog on the team with the longest winning streak in league history (33; 1971-72 Lakers).
Fifteen years after Wilt's passing, there's a sense of poetic irony involved. Wilt took pride in the same accomplishment basketball fans still marvel at and ask, "How the f*** did he do that?" For a man who never shied away from fixating on numbers, however, a single digit best describes Wilton Norman Chamberlain for generations never blessed to see his era of basketball: one. As in one of one.
"I think if everyone can remember him for as much as things like the Arizin story as they do the scoring records; it kind of completes the picture," said Perner.
Thirty-one hundred words in and the tip of the iceberg has yet to be chipped in regard to Wilt. He was the greatest player who ever lived, even if he had to go to his grave and afterlife believing he was. And he did.
He was a walking mosaic of complexity spread out among an unparalleled frame, making him one of the most beloved, controversial and documented talents not only in Philadelphia history, but pop culture in its totality. Only living to be 63, Wilt lived a life entire libraries could be dedicated toward.
As long as people love seeing basketball go through hoops, "The Big Dipper" will always matter. The trick to never dying is to leave something behind that lives forever. For Wilt Chamberlain, mission accomplished.
@JustinTinsley is stuck halfway between a dream and reality. The plan? To make that dream a reality.