I was having dinner one night with friends in the late-80s when Wilt Chamberlain strode into the restaurant, strode being the only applicable verb. It was a classy joint in Los Angeles but Wilt was wearing a black tank top, shorts and no shoes. Oh, yeah, the man went shoeless.
The restaurant got kind of quiet, the patrons taking in the sight of this shoeless, sleeveless giant, who still, somewhere north of 50, was one of the world’s most impressive physical specimens. Wilt strode to the back, directly into the kitchen, received his takeout and strode back out. When Wilt wants takeout, Wilt gets takeout, even if you don’t do takeout.
[[Ninth in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]
I never covered Wilt. My journalism life started in 1971 far from where Wilt was playing in L.A., two years before he retired with records that will never be waved at, far less broken. I was only in his company once, and he never returned the one phone call I made to him, which had landed upon the distant shores of an answering machine that bore this emphatically unpromising message:
Speak! You might get luck-ee!
I didn’t get luck-ee.
There have been several fine biographies about Wilt—two I recommend are Robert Cherry’s Wilt: Larger Than Life and Gary M. Pomerantz’s Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era—as well as Wilt’s own autobiography, co-written with David Shaw and published in 1973, called Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door. But the man remains endlessly fascinating. When I talked about GOLDEN DAYS in Zach Lowe’s podcast, we turned to Wilt several times. I told Zach that I could’ve spent 30 pages alone on the housewarming party that Wilt threw toward the end of the 1971-72 season, when he welcomed half of L.A. into the outsized pleasure palace he called Ursa Major (the only nickname he ever took to was the Big Dipper), and where he would die in 1999, which came as a surprise to everyone. “Wilt seemed invincible,” says Jerry West.
Like many basketball-loving kids who came of age in the 50s, I always had Wilt front of mind. One of the first NBA games my father took me to in Philadelphia’s old Convention Hall (where the cigarette smoke hung over the court like a gray curtain) pitted rookie Wilt against his eternal Boston Celtics nemesis, Bill Russell. I remembered that Russell outplayed Wilt and that Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors lost the game. Basketball Reference carries this info from that Dec. 12, 1959 game: Wilt had 22 points and 25 rebounds and Russell had 26 points and 22 rebounds in a 126-117 Boston victory. They are the only two who played 48 minutes.
In subsequent years Wilt usually played very well against Russell, but the Russell-is-superior-and-is-a-better-teammate-and-makes-everyone-better theme spun on a non-stop loop. For the uninitiated—i.e., the young—Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons, all with Boston, while Wilt won only two championships, one with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and the other with the Lakers in 1972, one of the principal subjects of GOLDEN DAYS.
Wilt came to the Lakers in 1968, but whenever one writes about Wilt it’s hard not to mention his 1961-62 season, his third in the NBA, when he averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds and more than 48 minutes per game for the Philadelphia Warriors. The only action he missed was when he was ejected with eight minutes left in a game against the Lakers in L.A., and he played every minute of every other game, seven of which went into at least one overtime. I don’t want to get too wrapped up in metrics but a calculation that someone did caught my eye. As I write in GOLDEN DAYS:
Wilt’s scoring average of 50.4 is 31.59 percent greater than the second-best mark, Elgin Baylor’s 38.3 one season earlier. Applying that margin of superiority to baseball batting averages, Ted Williams would’ve had to hit .518 in 1941, instead of .406, to be that much ahead of the second-highest average, Tony Gwynn’s .394 in 1994.
That 1961-62 season also included Wilt’s immortal 100-point game against the Knicks on March 2, 1962. As you may have heard, there is no video account of the game, nor did the Philly or New York papers send photographers. But I came across the radio broadcast of legendary Philly voice Bill Campbell, which I recount in GOLDEN DAYS and which you can listen to here. There was so much to write about Wilt that I can’t get into this space but is covered in detail in GOLDEN DAYS: the controversial knee injury that kept him out of the final minutes of Game 7 in the 1969 Finals; the political differences with Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that seemed to put him on an island distant from his activist superstar peers; the sniping he did at several of his former teammates, including the (almost) universally beloved West; his planned and then scrapped boxing match with Muhammad Ali; the incident on an airline when he got in trouble for talking about firearms during a delayed flight; and of course, his famed housewarming party (O.J. Simpson, come on in!) when Wilt greeted guests in a gold suit made from antelope. (Man, he would’ve killed had he been wearing gold antelope when he strode into the restaurant that evening.)
But from a basketball perspective, the key thing to remember is that Wilt’s absolute dedication to being a team player—taking limited field goal attempts, rebounding and defending his ass off and blocking shots like a 25-year-old (he was 35 at the time)—was perhaps the most important ingredient in the Lakers’ 33-game winning streak and its eventual championship.
During my conversations with West for GOLDEN DAYS, Wilt quite obviously came up a lot. I could tell that West was peeved—best word I can come up with—at the times when Wilt threw in digs about West in his autobiography. The one that really chafed him was Wilt’s comment that West was usually outplayed by New York’s Walt Frazier, which was definitely not the case. (Though I stand behind no man in my respect for Clyde.)
But on or off the record, West refused to bash Wilt. He treasured the offcourt moments they shared, and he seemed to view Wilt with a degree of empathy, believing that inside his hey-look-at-me personality was a lonely man.
“A lot of people wanted to paint Wilt as a coach-killer, but I don’t think that was the case,” West (on left with coach Bill Sharman and Wilt looming behind) told me. “I got to know him really well only in the last couple of years of our playing careers, when we both understood that we weren’t going to go on much longer. We talked about a lot of things, serious subjects. I took most of the controversial stuff he said with a grain of salt. Wilt liked to say and do things that stirred the pot once in a while. That’s how I looked at it.”
When Wilt died in 1999, the basketball world stopped for a while. “It just didn’t seem possible,” says West.
There’s lots more about Wilt in GOLDEN DAYS, but I end here with an elegy by Tom Meschery, who played with Wilt and adored Wilt even though they got into a tussle during one game and, after Meschery took a swing at him, “Wilt held my head and laughed at me, turned me into a cartoon character or something out of Laurel and Hardy.” On the day after Wilt died, Meschery, a poet of some renown, wrote this:
This morning, I wake up thinking big:/Time to crack a dozen eggs, fry all the bacon./ I think I’ll never shave. Let my beard grow as long as an epic . . ./Spend the afternoon with Aquinas’ five proofs of God’s existence: the Uncaused Cause, or was it the Divine Plan that toppled Wilt?/Let the day end as it began with a red sun, and let there be a blonde soprano with big bosoms belting out her last aria.