Basketball Legend Chamberlain Dies at 63
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 1999; Page A1
Wilt Chamberlain, 63, a Herculean figure on the basketball court whose massive dimensions, intimidating personality and unprecedented point production helped him become a sports icon and cultural legend, died yesterday at his home in the Los Angeles area.
He was found by rescuers sent to his home in Bel-Air shortly after noon, and a fire department spokesman reported signs of a possible heart attack.
Standing 7-feet-1, strong, dexterous and determined, Chamberlain scored points and hauled in rebounds by the tens of thousands.
For a good dozen years starting in the late 1950s, he was one of the dominant figures of the National Basketball Association, helping the game grow in publicity and attention. A native of Philadelphia, he entered the league with the old Philadelphia Warriors, stayed with the team after it moved to San Francisco and was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers before ending his 14-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1970s.
For years after he hung up his size-16 sneakers, he was known as an opinionated, quotable and sometimes controversial figure in the world beyond. He operated a restaurant, took part in civic and charitable activities and wrote at least three books. One of them created a stir when he boasted in it of having slept with 20,000 women.
Although he played in a sport that produced superstars on the order of Bill Russell (who was his contemporary and nemesis), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who later broke his career scoring record) and the almost mythical Michael Jordan, Chamberlain did not lack for supporters who believed that he was the NBA's all-time greatest star.
He set a league record of 55 rebounds in a single game. In his career, on his way to becoming the league's most valuable player four times, he hauled in a total of 23,924 rebounds.
Strong and durable, he played 47 consecutive complete games in the 1961-62 season. Such was his control over his towering physique that he never fouled out of any of the 1,045 games in which he took the hardwood. In all, he held more than 50 league records.
"We've lost a giant of a man in every sense of the word," NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement released last night. "The shadow of accomplishment he cast over our game is unlikely ever to be matched," Stern said.
"Wilt was so dominant that it was almost a joke to watch other players play against him," said Jerry West, an NBA great who played with the towering center late in Chamberlain's career. They were together on the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers squad that won the NBA championship.
"Wilt was unstoppable, no matter how many players you put on him," West was quoted as saying two years ago in a newspaper story. Despite his height, which some claimed might have actually been 7 feet 4 or even 7 feet 6, "he didn't just dunk the ball," West said.
A man described as capable of holding a bowling ball in his hand, palm down, Chamberlain probably could have dunked a basketball every time, West added. But, West said, "Wilt had a great fadeaway shot, and he could shoot it over anybody."
In college at the University of Kansas, while serving as the mainstay of the basketball team, he was also an outstanding track athlete. He reeled off head-turning times in the half mile and quarter mile, while almost reaching his own height in the high jump and doing well over 24 feet in the broad jump.
West said he didn't know if Chamberlain was indeed the NBA's greatest ever. "But you could certainly make a strong case in his favor," he told a Texas newspaper reporter. No less a figure than Larry Bird, the former Celtics star, has said he believed Chamberlain was the greatest.
Well-read and an avid debater, Chamberlain believed that the disparity in height between him and other players placed limits on his popularity. In what was said to be one of his favorite phrases, voiced with the acerbity that sometimes characterized his utterances, he remarked that "nobody roots for Goliath."
"I was a brash young man of color coming into a white societal sport and taking over – commanding and demanding," he told a newspaper interviewer. "Do you think I was liked for that? I don't think so."
Wilton Norman Chamberlain, who was also known as "Wilt the Stilt" and "The Big Dipper," went to high school in Philadelphia, where his astonishing feats prompted the Warriors owner to alter league rules so that he could get rights to Chamberlain years in advance.
He spent three years at Kansas, participating in a famous NCAA championship game in which his team fell by one point to North Carolina after three overtimes. Leaving school after three years, he spent a season with the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the Warriors, where he more than rewarded the team owner's patience.
During much of Chamberlain's playing career, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics teams for which Russell starred were the league's champions. Critics of Chamberlain's accomplishments faulted him for not leading his team to more league titles. Russell won 11 championships in 13 years; Chamberlain won two.
Although Chamberlain's physical presence alone was formidable and his personality was intimidating to many, Russell was his friend, and knew his secret.
"He only had one flaw," Russell once told a Boston-area reporter. "He was a nice man. We'd beat up on him. He would never hurt anybody."
Speaking of that side of his character, Chamberlain once had this to say: "If that's considered a weakness, then I'm guilty."
Chamberlain was a lifelong bachelor who told the Associated Press in 1991 that "the women who I have been the most attracted to, the most in love with, I've pushed away the strongest.
"There are about five women I can think of I could have married. I cared for them a lot, but not enough to make a commitment."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company