Everything about Wilt Chamberlain was larger than life.
His size. His ability. His reputation.
And of course his failures.
That's the way it is with Goliath. Everybody remembers David won.
Oh, there were great athletes before Wilt. Babe Ruth in baseball; Red Grange in football; Joe Louis in boxing. But there was never anybody as large as Wilt with the kind of power and grace Wilt had. Wilt was the first American athlete of literally mythic proportion. He was a superman.
In basketball, when they talked about big men, the discussion began and ended with George Mikan, who was 6 feet 10 and had a terrific hook shot. In the late 1940s and early '50s Mikan was the dominant player in basketball, averaging as many as 28 points and 14 rebounds a game. But the day 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain entered the NBA, Mikan's name became a relic.
Wilt was the most dominant individual player in basketball history. Don't even mention Michael Jordan. Wilt Chamberlain was on another planet.
He has the most points in a single game, 100--a mark nobody else has come within 26 points of; teams don't score 100 in today's NBA, for heaven's sake.
He has the most rebounds in a single game, 55.
He has the highest scoring average for a single season, 50.4, and that is not a misprint.
He has the highest rebounding average for a single season, 27.2. Nor is that a misprint.
When Wilt retired he was the NBA's career leader in points and rebounds. And in 1968, when he got tired of hearing the criticism that all he did was shoot, Wilt led the NBA in assists!
Oh, that thing about Wilt being a lousy foul shooter?
The night he scored 100 points, he was 28 for 32 from the line.
I know all of Wilt's numbers, including the most damaging one: number 6.
Number 6 belonged to Bill Russell, Wilt's nemesis and conqueror. Wilt's fate was to be the star of stars, but never the king of kings.
The greatest rivalry in the history of American sports is Chamberlain vs. Russell. It was no McGwire-Sosa lovefest. It was no Magic-Isiah kisses on the cheek. Chamberlain vs. Russell was colossal, and it was one-sided. On Sunday afternoons I used to sit in a dorm lounge in Binghamton, N.Y., and watch them play on TV. Those were the days before cable, before all the games were on all the time. The NBA had its "Game of the Week," and it was always Chamberlain vs. Russell. I'm sure Russell didn't win every time--just the times I watched.
For all of Chamberlain's awesome individual might, Russell always found a way to nudge his team past Chamberlain's team. Perhaps Chamberlain's team wasn't as good as Russell's. Perhaps Chamberlain was asked to do too much. But although Russell lost the individual statistical battles, he won the war. In the years they went head-to-head, Russell's team won 11 titles in 13 seasons. Chamberlain's won one. If Wilt was Superman, Russell was Kryptonite.
Chamberlain was larger than life. But he was somehow smaller than Russell.
The script went like this: Chamberlain would get more points and more rebounds. He would scare the bejeebers out of the rest of the players. And ultimately his team would lose.
This, of course, was the ending America wanted. Goliath lost. Russell was no David. He was 6-9 and weighed 220 pounds. But at 7-1 and 275, Chamberlain made Russell seem puny. People rooted for Russell and against Wilt. Nobody ever rooted for Wilt. When Russell's team won, it was seen as validation for all the little men everywhere--and we were all, Russell included, littler than Wilt.
Wilt Chamberlain probably had more pressure put on him to win than any athlete ever. This started when he was a schoolboy sensation at Overbrook High in Philadelphia, and continued to his college days at Kansas and through his 14 seasons in the NBA. It was assumed that because of his incredible athletic ability, he would win championships. And when he so rarely did--in 1967 with Philadelphia and in 1972 with Los Angeles--he was cruelly and unfairly branded a loser. People who can't remember a single player from that North Carolina team that beat Kansas in triple-overtime for the NCAA championship in 1957 can remember this one thing: Wilt lost. (Perhaps Wilt couldn't live with that, because he passed up his last year of eligibility at Kansas and joined the Harlem Globetrotters for one year.) The expectations people had for Wilt were always too high. The joy they took in seeing Wilt fall was always too mean. Russell beat Jerry West every time too, and nobody ever called West a loser.
The shame of it was that Wilt was a lot more outgoing, a lot more intelligent, a lot more fun to be with than most people ever got to know. To Wilt's everlasting credit, he lived his life in plain sight. He never shrank from the limelight. Wilt was a bon vivant. You could see him on the streets of Los Angeles, and on the beaches playing volleyball. He was no tortured shut-in. Part of the shock at hearing of Wilt's death is that he always kept himself in great shape. Wilt recently ran a marathon in Hawaii, and competed in a 50-mile race in Canada. You never thought his body would give out, because there was so much of it, and it was so powerful.
His height, of course, defined him. He hated the nickname "Wilt the Stilt" because he saw it as making him seem freakish; he preferred "The Big Dipper." You don't have to be Freud to see how the combination of Wilt's outsized height and the glee people took in rooting against him might have affected him. Wilt's bragging about his individual achievements--including his preposterous tally of women he'd bedded--might have been to overcompensate for any insecurity he felt at not being able to please all the people all the time.
The irony was that even at 7-1 Wilt could never live up to being Wilt.
They put the bar too high.