When the plane landed here I was depressed, totally in the dumps over Wilt Chamberlain's death, the fact that Mickey Mantle is already dead and Muhammad Ali is looking so much older and more vulnerable. I was obsessed with the prospect of spending too much time these next few years writing eulogies about the men I idolized as a boy, most of whom are in their sixties now. It must have been some self-absorbed, recently-turned-40 male mid-life crisis thing. But whatever it was, something good and uplifting happened on the way near the Forum.
Wilt's funeral. Okay, it wasn't a funeral, it was a memorial, a celebration of the life of a man, the likes of which we will never again see.
Don't get me wrong, there were a couple of two-hanky moments Saturday morning, like when Bill Russell, perhaps the only man to sour Wilt's sweet disposition with regularity, stood and told those gathered inside City of Angels Church, "I'm unspeakably injured" by his death on Tuesday at 63 from a massive heart attack.
But boy, was it overwhelmingly and appropriately fun. Wilt, from Day 1, was a regular riot. At 5 years old, he would wake up at 5 a.m. and go outside to "help" the milkman. He'd tell his mother, "I can't stay in the bed; I've got things I've got to do." But Wilt was a shrinking violet next to his sister, Barbara Lewis. "Babs," as Wilt called her, told the story about her brother growing tired of a needy neighbor frequenting the Chamberlain home, uninvited, looking for Sunday morning breakfast. Young Wilt couldn't understand why his house was such a way-station for relatives migrating from the South, why his parents were so tolerant of neighbors and friends in need of a bed or a meal. Young Wilt would have to be silenced by his siblings before saying something frank, but he would grow up to be much like his parents. "When you're raised like that," Barbara Lewis said, "you wind up being a giver yourself. . . . He ended up being a giving, loving, big-mouthed person . . . but a loving person."
Only an adoring sibling can get away with saying in such a setting, "He played cards and cheated like a dog."
The church roared.
"My father was 5 foot 7, and my mother was closer to six feet, but they were the only giants in that house," she said. "He was never a giant in our house."
Goliath never seemed as cuddly as his sister made him Saturday. That was good, too, because while he was quite a glamorous figure living an outsized life in the glamour capital of the world here, Wilt also probably was one of the most approachable, unpretentious athletic icons ever. So it was, fortunately, if a little surprisingly, that the memorial service Saturday was absent of glitz. There was a modest church in an everyday section of the city, a parking lot, and two 50-inch TVs outside the church entrance (plus chairs) if anybody felt like walking in off the street to enjoy the service. Some folks did.
One by one, friends strolled in, some famous, many still recognizable even though they are nearing 40 years past their athletic primes. Probably, most of the world didn't know until this week that those closest to Chamberlain didn't call him Wilt. They called him, "Dipper," or "Dip," or in the case of Harlem Globetrotters great Meadowlark Lemon, "Dippy," which came of course from "Big Dipper."
Of the basketball immortals, Lemon was with Wilt longer than anybody, probably. "Dippy and I were together a long time," he said during a conversation before heading into the church. "We go back to when there were 2,000 people coming to the games. Outside. In the rain. We were more like brothers than anything else, the way we used to fight. We met in Milano, Italy. He showed up, people had never seen anybody like him. A train of people followed us all over town. And we were liking it.
"Abe [Saperstein, the Globetrotters' owner] sort of put me in charge of Wilt. It was the year he came out of [Kansas]. And that was the start of it. We did some crazy things all over the world. We fell in love with each other."
It was the kind of day where laughs and memories flowed freely. Howard Bingham, Ali's prize-winning photographer, recalled the first time he met Wilt. "He was water skiing up on the Russian River," Bingham said, breaking up at the image in his head.
David Shaw, the Los Angeles-based writer who served as ghost writer for Wilt's autobiography, talked of Chamberlain's "uniqueness, and his sense of irony about his uniqueness." Wilt, because of that sense of irony, loved coming up with the title, "Wilt: Just Like Any Other Seven-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door" for his autobiography. And Shaw talked about Wilt's 2 a.m. argumentative phone calls that Wilt entitled, "Disputations."
Wilt and Russell had become silly with each other in recent years, their friendship rekindled and probably grew stronger than it ever had been. Russell talked about their recent greetings to one another. "I call him and say, 'Wilton Norman Chamberlain, this is William Felton Russell.' And he'll call and say, 'Felton, this is Norman.' You know, in an odd way, we come from the same place. We were both very tall at a very young age. People always approached us from a different perspective. . . . As we've grown older, we've known, basically, that we're joined at the hip. The only person who understood what we were doing [in their great on-court duels] was the other guy. I knew how good he was, and he knew I knew how good he was."
So did everyone else who ever got a look. O.C. Smith, the incomparable soul singer who is a minister at the City of Angels Church, sang Wilt's favorite song, "Danny Boy."
"Danny Boy" aside, Lemon said, "I'm happy that the music here is up-tempo. In Dippy's life, there were no sad songs. I don't know about the 20,000 [women Chamberlain claimed to have slept with]. . . . but he lived his life. I know because I was with him. We want to keep a smile on our faces when we think about Dippy."