Wilt Chamberlain

UPDATED 07/30/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/30/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

A recent visitor to Wilt Chamberlain's home in Bel Air, Calif. was admiring an ornate backgammon set in the sunken living room. How well did the owner play, asked the visitor. "Well," Chamberlain said. Had he ever played against Lucille Ball, who, at 72, is one of Hollywood's backgammon stars? "Play Lucy all the time," said Chamberlain, "Whip her ass. She says I cheat."

Back in the days when he loomed over the world of basketball, Wilt Chamberlain always seemed a stern, driven man. Every point he scored was a statement. Every rebound, snatched with one huge hand and slapped into the palm of the other, was a punctuation mark. He made a fetish of playing every minute of every game for most of his career, often remaining on the court long after the only score to be settled was between Chamberlain and some unseen presence that taunted him, daring him to sit down and rest, to admit human fallibility.

Even off the court, he was a model of the competitive impulse. He often said he could have been a great track star, auto racer, football player, boxer. In nickel-ante poker games with his teammates, he won so often that even his friends suggested he might not be beyond a little fast dealing; he never denied it. He boasted that he was a superb cook, architect, lover. "Nobody roots for Goliath," was his slogan, so Goliath had to root for himself.

Now Chamberlain is 47, 11 years retired from pro basketball and still trying to find a focus for his prodigious energy. Chamberlain approached his latest role, as a movie actor, with typical ferocity. In the unaccountably popular Conan the Destroyer, he plays what is known in basketball terms as a hatchet man. Only in this case he uses a real hatchet, among other fiendish weapons, to make life miserable for Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I've always been interested in movies," he says. "Conan is not the sort of film I'd go to, but I wanted to have a chance to see how the whole thing is done." He also says that he might like to get into producing some day, that he took to horseback riding so avidly while shooting the film that he wants to take up polo and that, as an actor, he impressed a lot of people. "I didn't want to do anything to embarrass myself," he says. "They ended up calling me 'One-Take Wilt.' "

On the other hand, Chamberlain realizes that even Renaissance men have to stop somewhere. Waterskiing in Hawaii not long ago, he quickly concluded he could become the greatest water-skier in the world if he put his mind to it. "Then I said to myself, 'No. Somewhere you have to draw the line and relax.' You can't go after everything, you understand?"

An ex-teammate, Chet Walker, observes, "Wilt had the classic problem of the pro athlete: What do you do after you retire? But he's learned to deal with it." Part of Chamberlain's energy has been turned toward such activities as Wilt's Wonder Women, the amateur track team he sponsors and coaches. Chamberlain also advised on track-and-field arrangements for the Los Angeles Olympic Games, and is involved with the Special Olympics ("the most gratifying part of my life"). He speaks these days in global terms. "I really want to talk about priorities," he says. "When there are starving children in the world, what do sports mean? Does a runner like Evelyn Ashford need help more than a little boy in Watts who doesn't know where his next meal is coming from? I know how that sounds for me to say, but I want to find something I can do about it."

If Chamberlain is still struggling with the legacy of his basketball career—an image as a sort of heavy with an addiction to fame—it's understandable. He has been a sports celebrity since he was 9 years old. One of 11 children (two of whom died as infants), Chamberlain was a Philadelphia handyman's son who never really encountered racism until he went to college in Kansas. That he was black was scarcely noted; that he was over six feet tall and already an extraordinary athlete by the age of 15 brought him constant attention. At Philadelphia's Overbrook High School he led his team to two city championships and was inundated with college scholarship offers.

He eventually chose the University of Kansas, and as a sophomore led the school to the 1957 NCAA finals against North Carolina, where the Tarheels won by a point in the third overtime, after using three players to defend against Chamberlain.

The bitter frustration of that loss, boredom with such gang-guarding tactics and a desire to make a lot of money led Chamberlain to drop out of Kansas after his junior year to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. A year later Chamberlain joined the National Basketball Association and began an astonishing career, first with the Philadelphia 76ers, later with the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain still holds more than 20 individual NBA records, among them most points in a game (100), most points per game in a season (50.4 in 1961-62) and most rebounds in a game (55), a season (2,149) and a career (23,924).

Despite these unprecedented achievements, Chamberlain was haunted by the tag of "loser" and invidious comparisons between him and Bill Russell, the great Boston Celtic center who was once his close friend. When Chamberlain's teams played Boston, he almost invariably outscored and outrebounded Russell. Yet during the 10 seasons they were in the league together, Boston won nine championships while the 76ers won only one. "When my teams played against Boston," Chamberlain has said, "I'd play my heart out against Russell, and someone else on my team would blow the game." Russell once said, "It's perfectly possible for a player not to make victory his first priority against all the others—money, records, personal fame—and I often felt that Wilt had made some deliberate choices in his ambitions."

Not all their contemporaries agreed. During Chamberlain's years of competition with Russell, each won the league's Most Valuable Player award four times. Teammate Walker says, "Wilt was an entertainer. In Philadelphia he was paid to score 50 points a game—and he went out and did it. The business with Russell really bothered him, but in my mind there is no doubt that Wilt was the greatest big man ever to play the game."

Chamberlain's relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his successor as pro basketball's dominant big man, was ambivalent as well. When Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) was a high school star in New York, Chamberlain, then in his late 20s, all but adopted him—taking him to nightclubs, inviting him over for card games with cronies and even, on one occasion, giving him two of his suits. Later, however, Abdul-Jabbar clashed with Chamberlain politically (Wilt supported Richard Nixon in 1968) and publicly criticized Wilt for saying in his 1973 autobiography that many black women were inferior sex partners. "This was sexuality and capitulation and racial abandonment, all in one piece," Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book, Giant Steps. "I stopped seeing him as a political crossover and began thinking of him as a traitor."

The two men stopped speaking and only in recent years have they reconciled, first when they appeared together in an airline commercial and then this past season, when Chamberlain showed up to congratulate Abdul-Jabbar on scoring his 31,420th career point, breaking Wilt's record. But Chamberlain has maintained steady friendships with a number of former players. Last year the Golden State Warriors sponsored a roast for his old teammate Al Attles, who was retiring as the team's coach. Chamberlain presented him with the ball from his 100-point game, in which Attles had made all eight shots he took from the floor. It was inscribed, "To Al, who did everything right at the wrong time." "That ball," says Attles, "as well as Wilt's friendship are things I'll treasure for the rest of my life."

Chamberlain was 36 when he retired after the 1972-73 season, during which he had led the NBA in rebounds and set a still-unbroken record in field-goal accuracy, hitting almost 73 percent of his shots. "I could have signed another contract and made a lot more money," he says. (His last contract with the Lakers was for $450,000 a year.) "In some ways I was getting better as a player. But I no longer found it fun to play. And too many hang on too long."

As recently as two years ago there were rumors that one NBA team or another wanted Chamberlain to make a comeback. "I never said I wouldn't negotiate with those teams if the terms were right," he says, "and my ego is such that I liked it when someone said they could use me. But I never sought them out. And I haven't missed playing. Come February where do you think I'd rather be—in Cleveland trying to plow my way through a snowstorm to get to a game or on the beach in Hawaii, board sailing and chasing girls?"

Yet when it comes to business, Wilt is no playboy. Though the International Volleyball Association, of which he was president as well as a team owner and player, folded in 1979, he is confident it is only dormant, not dead. And he invested most of his basketball money shrewdly: in real estate. He takes his movie work equally seriously, though not everyone else does. A Los Angeles Times critic described Chamberlain in Conan as "reduced to dragging around, looking understandably self-conscious." Singer Grace Jones, who is cast as a sort of punk Amazon in the movie, became annoyed when Chamberlain asked her to turn down her tape player on the set and says, "He and I didn't get along well."

Sarah Douglas, the Falcon Crest villainess who is equally wicked in Conan, says, "Wilt was willing to learn and open to the fact that he was doing something he hadn't done before. Once we established a few ground rules, we got along fine and I found him delightful.

"He likes the girls, and I don't like to be touched up or fondled. If I'm doing a scene with someone and he pinches my bum in the middle of it, I'll slap him down. He also got angry because he muddled up his character with his real life macho image and he didn't like the scenes where he had to follow me around.

"I was sorry that they cut the scene where I slapped him. He kept saying, 'Go on, bitch, really hit me. I can take it.' I had to stretch to do it but finally I hit him so bloody hard it brought tears to his eyes."

Chamberlain is famous, if not notorious, for his ego-size charm. "I guess I'm something of a sex symbol to a lot of girls," he concedes. His friend Chet Walker concurs. "Wilt always has two or three address books bulging with the phone numbers of women all over the world," he says. "He walks into an airport, picks out the most attractive woman in sight and starts talking to her. Five minutes later they're going off somewhere together."

Wilt is a fixture in the Hollywood social scene, if hardly a romantic lead for all seasons. "I've never been even close to getting engaged," he says. "I don't have anything against marriage, but I try to be logical in my doings. A lot of people are afraid of being alone, of not being loved. But there isn't any guaranteed security that a family is going to love you. And I've never found anyone I could make a commitment to." As for children, he says, "I'm not sure it makes any sense to bring any more children into the world when there are so many around to adopt. That is something I'm certainly considering."

He may or may not become a father or a movie producer or a volleyball mogul. But Chamberlain will, for better or worse, remain tall, a condition he has powerfully mixed feelings about. "Elvis Presley was a neighbor of mine in Los Angeles," says Chamberlain, "and I always used to tell him, 'If you really want to go out somewhere and not be recognized, you can put on some jeans, a hat and some sunglasses and maybe get away with it.' I can't go out and pretend not to be seven feet tall."

But Wilt has exploited his height and at times even flaunts it. His posture has always been studiously erect, unlike such proud big men as Russell and Abdul-Jabbar. Watching a hawk gliding around his mountaintop home, Chamberlain says, "That's a beautiful bird. But an eagle, now, an eagle is so much more. When people go to a zoo, they don't go to see little things, ants and mice. They go to see gorillas and elephants. They get noticed. Size is impressive."

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