Original Old School: Tragic Hero

Wilt Chamberlain was the subject of the Old-School feature in SLAM 100. Why did we bring him back just 25 issues later? Because it was a whole new look at the Big Dipper, straight from a former college opponent and pro teammate who knows the truth about the old NBA as well as anyone. Now, two years after it appeared in the Magazine (SLAM 125), we’ve finally decided to run Joe Ruklick’s feature online. Enjoy.–Ed.

by Joe Ruklick

Half a century ago, Wilt Chamberlain left college basketball, which he had transformed as a star at Kansas University, to play pro basketball, which he would transform as the most spectacular NBA player ever. A giant of menacing strength, his arrival in the League in 1959 challenged the pro establishment, especially some players who would put him at risk of violent conflict.

Wilt and I had first met on the KU campus in ’56, when we sat down on folding chairs behind a table set up in the student union. Wires streamed from mikes in front of us and snaked over a space formed by a half-circle of 15 or 20 reporters. We were sophomores and the occasion was a press conference the night before his first college game. (Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity ball then.)

He was touted as an all-around athlete, and I was duly intimidated. My right hand disappeared when we shook. His shoulders were so big it looked as if he had football pads on. He wore a beige sweater decorated with images of snowflakes, deer and evergreen trees. I thought, “My God, this guy skis, too.”

At the start of the press conference, reporters were shouting at us, but Wilt took his time. He wanted to chat with me before he allowed questions. He said, “How do you feel, my man?” I was bewildered and didn’t answer directly. Instead, I went into a rehearsed speech.

“I want to apologize, Wilt,” I began. In June, ’55, following our senior year in high school, I had been picked as the nation’s All-American prep center in the North-South all star game in Murray, KY. Although Wilt was famous and the game was the only noticeable high school all-star game in the U.S. back then, Wilt had not been invited to play; promoters had never invited a black player to suit up for the so-called classic.

“I stood in your place after the game and picked up a trophy that’s yours,” I said.

“You had a good game, my man. Don’t give it a thought. You deserved it,” he said.

The next night, to the amazement of the sports world and a rocking Phog Allen Fieldhouse, KU walloped my Northwestern squad behind Wilt’s 52 points. I scored 22, most of them on hook shots, which to his amazement, Wilt couldn’t block.

Before the start of the second half, he walked up to me and tugged on my jersey. “Hey, man,” he said, “teach me that hook shot.”

That encounter personified Wilt’s attitude toward sports. Here was a mighty athlete who competed with the force of a 767’s takeoff who loved jesting and irony. He played the game with pleasure, especially in front of partisan fans, his high spirit and sense of humor making it a kind of mock war, the battle intended as a celebration of skill and swiftness, a friendly test between brotherly antagonists. In all his playing years, grade school through pro ball, he never fouled out of a game.

Wilt, whose recorded phone greeting ended with “Love and peace…” avoided fistfights on the court or anywhere else. “I’m too dangerous,” was his reasoning. But one night during a 1964 Playoff game in Boston, Wilt finally had enough of the rough stuff from long-time NBA bully Clyde Lovellette, and Wilt unloaded a haymaker that put the Celtics’ hulking, 6-9 center on his knees. Dazed, Clyde knelt on the storied parquet floor of Boston Garden, humbled in view of the packed house.

On the night of the fracas, Lovellette was in his 11th and final NBA season. Like Wilt, he was a terrific scoring center and former All-American at KU, but unlike Wilt, he played basketball as if it were a form of rugby.

Usually, it was Clyde who was the aggressor. Recalls retired Philadelphia Bulletin sportswriter Jim Heffernan about Boston’s former tough guy, “(Chamberlain’s coach and former All-Star) Neil Johnston told me Lovellette would sucker punch you or kick you, then help you up off the floor.”

Since I, too, had played against Wilt, I knew better than to rub him the wrong way. After our college matchup, Wilt and I met again at the Philadelphia Warriors training camp in September before the ’59-60 season, our rookie year. I’d graduated from Northwestern in June, while Wilt had spent the previous season playing for the Harlem Globetrotters.

I would spend the year warming the bench as Wilt’s backup center, and it was from that vantage point that I saw him take a catastrophic blow to his jaw during a game against the Hawks in St. Louis. The shot thrust his front teeth upward into his lower facial bones and started a bloodstream infection that was to plague him for the rest of his life.

Over the years, Wilt spent more time in the hospital than was reported. Many people who knew him best said it was related to that bloodstream infection. In ’05, Seymour Goldberg, Wilt’s lawyer, told me Wilt’s health problems resulted from ruined teeth and, ultimately, from the debilitating effects of a heart sac infection.

Only weeks before he died, Wilt had undergone dental surgery “to remove teeth knocked aside during his basketball career,” his sister, Barbara Lewis, said in an ESPN The Magazine story. “He dropped about 50 pounds in the last month,” Lewis said. He told her it was the worst pain he had ever experienced and, she said, it was the first time she had heard him complain about pain.