Original Old School: Tragic Hero
SLAM 125: A whole new look at Wilt Chamberlain.
In the fall of ’59, Wilt was leading the League in scoring with an eye-popping 37.6 ppg average and on his way to winning both the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. But that night in St. Louis, I had a clear view of the Hawks’ brutal shoving, bumping and elbowing of Wilt. He was playing so well that Hawks stars Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Lovellette looked baffled trying to stop him.
NBA promoters said Wilt was injured by an errant elbow in the game, although most players around the eight-team League figured it was a deliberate shot. We flew to Detroit for a game the next night, and Wilt played despite the injury. Owner Eddie Gottlieb was quoted in a newspaper story saying Wilt had a foot injury that wasn’t serious enough to keep him from playing, when actually the blow to his face had triggered the bloodstream infection that would keep him out of uniform for three games that season.
Despite the fact that the best player in the League was saddled with enormous pain resulting from a malicious on-court assault, Warriors management didn’t complain publicly to the commissioner’s office. The NBA didn’t investigate the incident or fine any player, and newspapers didn’t cover the story. Ernie Beck, Wilt’s teammate, spoke up to a degree in the 2004 book by Robert Cherry, Wilt: Larger Than Life, in which he was quoted as saying it was “a mean and pathetic elbow by Clyde.” During a November, ’07 phone call, I asked Clyde himself if he knew anything about it. “Not really,” he said from his Michigan home. “I heard he was hurt in a scuffle under the basket that night. I think he had a jaw injury.”
Wilt always told me he didn’t know who delivered the blow and he insisted he never saw it coming. His sister wrote to me in a letter: “My brother was a man of love, and of peace, and he knew the downside of making an accusation. That would have been contrary to his principles.”
The irony of his sister’s generosity weighs heavily nowadays. Then, gratuitous public relations and hypocrisy about sports were common. Some sportswriters were part-time press agents, and stories that might offend team owners or alienate fans often went unwritten. Squelching the story behind Wilt’s injury in St. Louis was was typical.
NBA management enforced policies that were poisoned by racism, like America itself was poisoned, and Wilt told me that neither he nor the Warriors could do anything about what amounted to the cover-up of the cheap-shot story. League public relations meant owners did little more than pass out amateurish “news releases” to the press, so it was business as usual for commissioner Maurice Podolof and team owners to sidestep the truth about what happened in St. Louis.
Wilt and I talked about it over the years, and he conceded that institutionalized racism had always festered behind the League’s closed doors. Despite what was surely rage and frustration, Wilt never pointed a finger at who attacked him.
It’s unthinkable now that during my three-year career in the NBA, Wilt’s restraint made sense. It was an era when team owners agreed among themselves to restrict each team’s roster to a quota of no more than four black players. As Ron Thomas confirms in his ’02 book, They Cleared The Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers, “except for the expansion Chicago Bulls in 1961-62, the unwritten maximum of four” black players per team was first reached in ’56-57 and lasted for six seasons. And instead of taking a stand against racism, pro basketball tolerated indignities to players. Racist taunts from the stands were common, and black players were released unfairly every season after training camp ended.
I experienced the situation first-hand during spring contract talks with owner Gottlieb after my third season. I wanted more playing time, so I asked him to trade me to a team where I might get a chance without Wilt Chamberlain in the way. Gottlieb said no. “You’re white,” he told me. “Fans won’t buy tickets if you have too many Negroes.”
I took a look at Gottlieb, the rotund 63-year-old immigrant from czarist Russia who started his sports career promoting beauty contests and Knights of Columbus baseball in Philadelphia. Then Wilt came to mind—I thought about his class, his wit, his capacity to enlarge people around him. I picked myself up, left Gottlieb’s closet-sized Sheraton Hotel office, went home, told my wife I was done with the NBA. The next day I drove to New York to find a job.
After the injury in St. Louis, Wilt was to fight chronic dental problems, bloodstream poisoning, pancreatitis and ventricular arrhythmia for the rest of his life. He had symptoms of a heart attack in the mid-’60s that forced him to spend nearly a month in the hospital for tests.
In a May, 2000 report, ABCnews.com reporter Jonathan Dube quoted American College of Cardiology vice president Dr. Douglas Zipes, who said rapid rhythms in the lower heart chamber—a condition known as ventricular tachycardia, or, in their most serious form, ventricular fibrillation—cause 350,000 deaths annually in the US. Wilt’s irregular heartbeat may have made him susceptible to such rapid rhythms. Dube’s story, titled “Dental Factors Could Have Contributed to Chamberlain’s Sudden Death,” reported that Wilt was under the care of a cardiologist when he died.
According to Dr. David Myerson, a Johns Hopkins Medical School cardiologist, Dube reported, Wilt’s irregular heartbeat might not necessarily have been related to his death. “Other health problems” could have played a part, he said. Reporting on the opinion of dentist Jeffrey Dorfman, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s dental and oral surgery school, Dube said the aftermath of a tooth extraction can spread disease-causing bacteria to reach the heart, ultimately damaging it.
Dube’s report pointed out the potential risk from infected teeth. Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt said, “I strongly suspect that an infection in (Wilt’s) mouth contributed to an irregularity in his heart rhythm that caused his death.” Dube wrote that Dr. Klinghardt “makes it very clear that most all irregular heartbeats are due to infections in the lower wisdom teeth or the jawbone.” Such infection “sets up an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, as there is a direct meridian (energy) connection between the lower wisdom teeth and the heart.”
Wilt Chamberlain, who showed profound courage by stepping away when tempers flared during a game, lost his battle for life in his sleep on October 12, ’99 at the age of 63.
An autopsy might have clarified some of the unresolved issues surrounding Wilt’s infection and its connections to the injury he suffered in the ’59 Hawks game. But of a post-mortem, lawyer Goldberg said, “What would that prove?”
The KU press conference Wilt and I attended marked the beginning of a friendship that lasted until his death. We had similar backgrounds as very tall, accomplished centers in high school, and many of our personal and academic struggles were similar. We shared the feeling that because we spent two or three hours a day at practice in college, we hadn’t experienced a proper and full college education. So we read a lot, trying to recapture what we lost as undergraduates. Our disgust with segregation was mutual, as was our dismay that some players, coaches and fans were racists outside the gym.
During the early years of the civil rights movement, Wilt and I talked about the NBA’s treatment of black players and wondered when owners would end the discrimination. Late in his life we discussed writing a book about transitions and their meanings to black athletes. In ’78, he gave the jersey he wore in his first college game to my son, John.
We got together for the last time in ’98 on the KU campus, four decades after that initial press conference. I was the only opposing player he invited to ceremonies commemorating the University’s retirement of his number. A replica of his N0. 13 jersey was hoisted above the KU basketball court on which he, as well as his bête noire, Clyde Lovellette, had starred.
“I’m always glad to see you, Ruklick,” Wilt said. “I scored 52 against you.”