A CONVERSATION WITH THE NBA LEGEND
The NBA at 50: Wilt Chamberlain
Back in 1996, in conjunction with the year-long celebration of "The NBA at 50," NBA Entertainment conducted a number of interviews with some of the most memorable and influential personalities of the NBA's first half-century. Now, the full, uneditied transcripts of those interviews have been made available exclusively to NBA.com. Check back often, as we'll continue to bring you the best from the "NBA at 50" archives!
Today, we share an interview with NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain was interviewed at NBAE Studios in Secaucus, N.J., on Aug. 6, 1996.
Q: Even before you played in the NBA, you played against pro players. Did those experiences give you an idea of how well you would do in the NBA?
A: I was fortunate. I started playing against those guys back when I was in late junior high and early during my years at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. I played against Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Ernie Beck and other guys... from Penn University, LaSalle University, various schools around the Philadelphia area. Up in Kutshers Country Club, Red Auerbach was the coach and he had me go against some of his Boston Celtics boys, and I used to try to beat them to death so I knew that I could probably do fairly well in the pros even at that early age. (laughs)
Q: You dominated from the onset of your career. Did you feel that you could do whatever you wanted to on the court?
A: I felt like the pro game was more of a game that I wanted to play, that was suited to my style. I left college a year early because they used stall tactics... at that time there was no (shot) clock. They knew that the only way to stop me from scoring points and getting rebounds was just not to shoot the ball. So I was looking forward to getting into the pros, where they had the clock and I knew they had to run. They also had no zone defenses, and I was looking forward to playing one-on-one against the best guys in the world. They gave me a chance to run a lot, and I really liked running. I came into the NBA as a defensive player. I used to like to go up and grab balls in the air. Everyone was afraid of my defensive game more so than my scoring game.
Q: But it was the scoring that attracted the headlines, right?
A: Like it is today, and always will be... whomever can hit the most home runs, has the highest batting average, or can score the most points gets the headlines. Defense was secondary in the minds of the press. Many of the people came out to watch the score. I really enjoyed playing defense more. Scoring was a secondary thing, but it was also very natural to me.
Q: Physically, what made you special?
A: The fact that I was a shot putter in high school and college which most people don't know. I was an undefeated shot putter. I had this thing about going out and becoming strong. I was always a skinny, skinny kid and I could jump to the moon, I could run as fast as the wind, but I had this thing about wanting to be strong. It had nothing to do with pushing people around. I was pushing this iron ball around and that helped make me much stronger and agile as an athlete. When I got into the pros all the bigger boys that I played against used to beat me up a lot 'cause I was 180 pounds at 6-11, and they were five, 10 years older than I was. They took advantage of me but when I got a little older I always said, "I'm going to get them back." When I got into the pros, I was never, ever physically afraid of anybody, but it wasn't as much a physical thing. I learned my game in the school yards and we like to consider ourselves as having heart. And heart doesn't come in body size. It comes inside.
Q: How did that feel to know that you were basically unstoppable?
A: That is something that I really loved. I loved the fact that no one could really block my shot. I jumped so high that there was nothing that they could do. When you have no fear, it's just going to make you much better at what you're doing. My ability to jump so high gave me such an advantage. People say "OK, he's 7-foot tall, he should be able to do whatever he wants," but I'm also getting 50 inches off the ground on a vertical! (laughs) This puts me so far above people. So, while they were reaching for the ball this way, I was going on top of them and just taking it out of their hands. It gave me a sense of superiority. What hurt me was that I wanted to be a consummate basketball player, and I wanted to be able to shoot the ball instead of just taking it to the basket and dunk it like I should have. I was shooting fadeaway shots, hook shots, finger-rolls... whatever came to my mind that I thought would be pleasing. A lot of times that was a negative more than a positive. If I just went out and took it to the basket every time I'd have averaged 70 or 80 points a game.
Q: You had been doing things that people had never seen before.
A: I never thought of it that way. It's strange when you're in the middle of doing something that's very, very natural for you. I do remember the year I scored 50, my third year. I remember in January one day I had about 55 points and I said to myself, "You know what? I'm building a monster year. If I don't watch myself, I'll be averaging 55 points a game... and the next year they're going to want me to average 65 points a game! What am I doing?" So I really, honestly pulled back and stopped trying to score... though I did score 100 points about a month later. I actually said to myself, "Slow down here, just pass the ball off or do something else but no more points," because its like you give them a hand, they want your arm, that type of thing. (laughs) I became really fearful that maybe I was asking for problems for myself by scoring so many points. I wanted to be more balanced... I wanted to be a consummate basketball player.
Q: Do you think your accomplishments shocked people?
A: I think they had no way to compare what I was doing. It was so far out of the realm of believability. People came to a game and they said "He's capable of scoring 100 points," and every night they were looking for 100 points. It had to be very ,very special for them to say "Wow! Wilt did this or did that," so 50 points was shrugged off, like, "well, he can do that anytime he wants."
Q: When you came into the NBA, was there a feeling around the league that the Celtics could not lose?
A: The Celtics were so supreme as a team. They always brought the best out of everybody. But no one really feared them... they weren't overpowering. You must realize, the New York Knicks were the doormat of the league when I first came in, but their percentage was like .440, .450. And the Celtics as great as they were, were only playing .640 ball... they weren't playing .800 or .900 ball. So everybody was kind of right in there, pretty even. And you're playing each other 11, 13 times a year and so we know we can beat them. But they just end up beating us more than we could beat them, and at the right times, deciding games. There wasn't a great fear of the Celtics. There certainly was a great deal of respect. In my third year, Coach (Frank) McGuire was coaching us and we actually played better than the Celtics for the last half of the year. We were about ready to dethrone them as the perennial champions. Unfortunately, the team was sold from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Coach had a son, so he stayed here in the East. He didn't want to go out there and things fell apart.
Q: That must have been so much more frustrating when someone who is not that much better keeps beating you.
A: I look back at my career...and there were five 7th games in playoff series. Five times I lost, four of them by a total of nine points. Now think about that. Nine points going the other way, and I might have had four or five more championship rings. So I sometimes get a little frustrated when I hear people talk about, "Yeah, well you only won two." I could have won seven, but I've been the same player. When (John) Paxson goes out and shoots a 3-point shot that wins the game for Chicago (in 1993), no one takes anything away from Jordan because he just won the championship. But if Paxson missed that shot, they would have lost that championship. Well, that has happened to me five times... and that's frustrating. You know you're playing as well as those guys who won. I remember one series exactly: I scored the last ten points, we were behind, within one, with a few seconds to go. And one of the other guys on my team threw the ball inbounds and its the famous, "Havlicek stole the ball!" It was just one of those things that happened. Ball slips out of his hand, he throws it right to Havlicek, and we lose a game that we could have won. It was the seventh game so you know that you had the ability, but the end result was that we lost. And that's the way it goes.
Q: When Havlicek stole the ball, did you wish the ball was thrown to you?
A: John and I are close. Every time I see John Havlicek I say, "How lucky can you be?" The guy makes an inbounds pass that my grandmother could have made better. If that ball would have come to me, I wonder what the difference would have been...
Q: Because you were the focal point of the team, how did it feel to bear the brunt of the responsibility of winning and losing?
A: Well I tell you, it felt awful. It felt awful for a lot of reasons. It felt awful because you're out there playing 40 minutes a game and you're doing all you can do to help your team win. Remember, when I came into the league my team was a last place team and I took them to second place in the league. But I guess in America, being second just doesn't count. And I understand that to some degree. I'm not really very much into that. I'm into effort. All you can do is all you can do. If the other team is better or the other person is better, it's just that.
The worst was in 1968 when I was playing with the 76ers and we lost to the Celtics in the famous 7th game and they blamed me for not shooting the ball because I only took two shots in the second half. Well, during those years, I was passing off a lot. I won the assist title. The Celtics were smart, they put all four guys on me and let the rest of the guys shoot. Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Wali Jones -- all fantastic shots -- had a bad, bad day. 8-for-24, 8-for-25 and 8-for-22 and I'm giving them the ball. So when the game is over people say, "Why didn't you shoot, Wilt?" Well, I got four guys on me and here are four of the best shooters in NBA history -- we had just won 62 games that year -- but they were missing that night. I was accused of not doing my job, not putting the ball in the basket, even though I had 38 rebounds, 15 blocked shots and had scored twenty-something points in the first half. But because I only took two shots in the second half, I get blamed. I think that sometimes that's a little bit unfair.
Q: What was it like to be part of the matchup with Bill Russell?
A: Even though it was a great duel and a great matchup, it was not all together the matchup that you've been hearing about over the years. Basketball is a team game, and when I faced teams, nobody wanted to face me alone. The Celtics used KC Jones, they used Heinsohn and company, they used their whole team against me. They would set picks on me coming from the back so Bill Russell could run down the court and get the ball. They made him the "Defensive Giant" and me the "Offensive Giant," but it could have gone either way. Blocked shots were not kept then. For every one shot that Bill Russell blocked, I probably blocked three. But they didn't want to give me credit for blocking shots, because if they gave me credit for blocking shots it would take away from his defensive aura. And Bill is so tremendous that he brings the best out of you. He had timing, like no one else had ever had. Where I see him as the tremendous player is as a rebounder. He was the only guy who could rebound along with me, and sometimes I thought he was a better rebounder than I was. He used more things to get to the ball than I had to use. I always had the highest respect for his rebounding and his team defensive concept.
A: Bill's so unique. He's proud and intelligent. He and I were very close. We talked on the phone a lot. He's a lot different than people think he is, but he's very, very proud. One of the things that I used to laugh at him about -- cause he was always laughing at me for a number of things -- was that he asked for a dollar more than me. (laughs) He told the Celtics, "Whatever Wilt signs for, I want a dollar more." They had a headline, 'Wilt Signs For $100,000' which was a lot to begin with. Then in the Boston paper the very next day almost, 'Russ signs for $100,001!' I gave Russ a call the next day, I said, "Russ, they got you again my man! I signed for $300,000!" (laughs) He was really angry... but we used to have some fun.
He'd come over my house for Thanksgiving and he'd bring Sam Jones and KC Jones and we'd have dinner. My mother would cook and then Bill would go up to my bed and fall asleep. When he'd come back down my mom would say, "William, you take it easy on my son tonight." Then they'd go out and beat us the next day and my mother would say, "We're not going to invite them to dinner no more, no more!" (laughs)
What I respected about Bill, more than anything else, was that he basically played me in a manner that I think the game of basketball should be played. He knew he couldn't out physical me and he never tried. He would try to steal the ball, he would use his quickness, he would use his agility, he would use the things that he had going for him to play wonderfully strong defense with the help from his team. No other player ever played me that way. That team wasn't so great until he got there. Once he got there, he was the piece that they were looking for. A lot of people have said to me, "Wilt, what if you had that team? Boy, you would never have lost!" Not true. If I was on their team, I would be taking away from some of what the other guys were doing. Everybody had a role on that team. (Tom) Heinsohn wouldn't be getting the same number of shots, nor would (Bill) Sharman, nor would (Bob) Cousy because I'd be shooting the ball a whole lot more. Bill Russell gave them just what they needed. I would've given them a little bit more in certain things, which I think would have made the team not as good. I've always believed that he made that team exactly what it was supposed to be. And you couldn't get any better.
Q: What things changed for the 76ers in 1967?
A: What happened was Alex Hannum became our coach. Very seldom do professional coaches have a great impact on teams. Red Auerbach is numero uno. He's the best professional coach in any league as far as I'm concerned. He did what he had to do, and he did it better than anybody. On the press, on referees, on players, the whole deal.
Alex Hannum was a master at being sort of a psychologist, but he was a big rough tough player himself, an ex-Marine, and a very, very bright man. He got each of us to do our job in the manner that he wanted to see it done.
That was a team that probably embodied what every professional team would like to have. We didn't use certain names like "power forward," but there would never have been a forward any more powerful than Luke Jackson. He was about 270, 280 with a very soft touch. And Chet Walker was considered the best one on one player at 6-8. So we had these two guys with me, and our front line was just unbelievable. We had this absolutely perfect team. Our backcourt had Larry Costello, who was a two-handed set shot artist and who was a very strong defensive player, and Hal Greer, who everyone knew as a premier middle distance shooter who could shoot with anybody in the NBA. What more could you ask for? Having a coach like Alex and a little guy named Billy Cunningham coming off the bench, who only wanted to come in and throw about five shots a second... He had no hesitation and was absolutely fearless. He could run, he could jump, he could shoot, he could do it better than anybody else with the exception of maybe Rick Barry. Costello got hurt, Wali Jones replaced him. Jones actually ended up being even better for us than Costello, because he had a little light attitude about himself. He was a Philly boy who grew up in the streets the same way I did, and I remember him from the time he was a kid. He just fit in perfectly. He could guard anybody. For one year, that was it. That was the team to be on.
Q: How great was that team?
A: I know that nobody could beat that team. Just nobody. We played as a team, we had all the qualifications of a basketball team in the way of size, ability and thinking. There have been smarter teams. The New York team of the early 70s, I think was one of the smartest teams that I've run across. The Boston Celtics were smart and good, but sometimes you need a little bit more than just being smart and we had all of that.
Q: You were much better than the Celtics that year?
A: Oh yeah, we were better than anybody in any year.
Q: Did you change your game at all that season?
A: That season, I averaged 24.5 rebounds a game and almost 24 points a game. I was shooting a lot better percentage because I was taking much more sensible shots. I wasn't relied upon to score points. Alex Hannum went to the press one time and told them to write a story that I couldn't score anymore. A couple of other guys had gotten hurt on the team and he was trying to motivate me to score more points. But I was in the mode of being happy with scoring 20 or 22, so he let the story leak out that I lost my scoring ability. He had this one crazy guy who always said, "Wilt, you can't score anymore, what's wrong?" There were big headlines, "Wilt can't score anymore!" So I went out the next three games I got 62 one game, 55 one game and 48 one game. Alex had done just what he wanted to do. It was all a set-up. So they got me.
Q: In 1967 when you played Boston in the playoffs. How convincingly did you guys beat them?
A: Very, very convincingly. The two championship teams that I was on, we won those. No one can say that somebody with a lucky shot won it. We were the best teams out there. It's pretty hard to look at consistency and call it luck. But the Celtics were the luckiest team that I ever saw. And not just against us. Against the Lakers in the World Championships, the Lakers missed beating them at the buzzer about for, five times in the seventh game. One guy misses a shot from three or four feet out that would have won the game for them. They had an incredible amount of luck, but you make your own luck. I'm not excusing it here, I'm saying that they always kept themselves in position to take advantage of any luck that came their way. If you keep flipping the coin, it'll come to your side.
Q: When you beat the Celtics did you feel their dynasty was over?
A: We had been so superior all year long that it was anticlimactic for us to beat them. It just didn't mean very much. By the time we got to playoff time, everyone knew we were by far the best team in basketball and so beating anybody was just nothing. We almost slipped up and let San Francisco beat us because we just kind of backed off. We were backing off almost all the time, we were 41-3 or 44-3 at one time and the guys started going out and playing golf and doing all sorts of things because it was just that easy for us. It became too easy for us.
Q: What's your enduring image of the 76ers and Celtics matchups of the late 60s?
A: My enduring image is that we were unlucky. I look back and I always think about how unlucky we were. But then on the other side, I look at how lucky we were to be able to play against the best, because the best always brought the best out of you. As I'm sure Russell must feel, I feel a strong part of helping the rise of this great game of basketball. We were always the second-best team and because we were second-best, we might have well have been in last place. And yet, you know that wasn't true because everyone came out to watch us. They would not come out to watch us unless had a chance or something that they wanted to see. If anything helped the rise of professional basketball, it was those contests between those great Celtic teams and the teams that I was on. and I feel strongly of being a part of helping the great game of basketball.
Q: You were the first guy to pierce the Celtic armor.
A: Nobody was winning but them, and you know that there are other great teams out there. The real piercing of the armor happened gradually. It just didn't happen in the 7th game or the 4th game. We had to take a whole year to pierce it. By the time we finally got to them, it was about time that they lost just one time. It's kind of a strange feeling. You felt that you did something but you felt like it's way overdue. As great as they were, they weren't running away from the league. they weren't playing your .890 ball or .900 ball. They were playing .630's and .620's and .640's., and the other teams were playing .580's and .590's. It was much closer than people imagined. The Celtics just had that ability to win when it counted.
Q: You were the focal point of the team that brought the Celtics down.
A: I'm glad that I was a part of the team that brought them down. It helped me a great, great deal because I had been tagged a loser just because I couldn't beat the Celtics. It was a terrible thing on my mind that people thought of me as being a loser. When you already knew that the best team was winning, but you were still called a loser because you didn't beat them. Now, all of the sudden you have a chance to beat them so that's kind of a relief. My first thought about after we won the world championship (in 1967) was "Now I can walk in peace." I felt very strongly about being able to have a summer vacation. It was a very peaceful time for me.
Q: Did you hate them?
A: I never got to hating them. I always respected their abilities. I hated them only when I was playing against them. There were guys out there who I really didn't like because they did bad things to me and they still won, and they were lucky enough to win those close ones. But I never hated them as a unit. I respected their ability to come to the call when it was needed.
Q: When you got to L.A. people assumed you were going to win.
A: Yeah, we should have. Boston was not worthy to be in the same league with us. We had Elgin Baylor, who was no longer the Elgin of old. His knees had started to really bother him and yet he was still the man on the team so we played to him a lot where we maybe shouldn't have. I should have maybe become a better scorer at that time. I was placating them with passes and so forth and maybe I should have changed my game back a little to where I used to play. Our coach didn't care for me at all and I didn't care for him, so we had a lot of friction. With all that going on, no way should we have lost to Boston (in 1969). No way. I still don't know how we lost to Boston. Its a mystery to me.
Q: How would you characterize that 1969 Celtic team?
A: It was a team that was formed pulling straws. They got into the playoffs by half a game. There were four games left to go, and they needed to win all four and the Cincinnati Royals had to lose all four games for them to even get to the playoffs. Once they got in, with their great playoff history, I think they scared a lot of people. They beat the Knicks, who were supposed to be the best team in basketball. I think that they just all of a sudden felt impervious to their existence. They just thought that once they were in the playoffs, "We win playoff games and everybody loses."
Q: It seemed like when you looked at the '69 Celtics team, that they looked like a bunch of old men.
A: Oh yeah, they were. Look back at what Russell did in his last game. Two points, or something, and like ten rebounds. I remember a guy named Emmette Bryant that played for them. He couldn't shoot the ball. He shot the ball like one I would shoot from the foul line, yet he was out on the corner throwing up corner shots and balls were just going in the basket. It was unbelievable! I was like, "who is this guy?" It was one of those things. That little guy who the Irish had hiding somewhere came out and just knocked us off but we were primed, we were primed to be knocked off because we just didn't have the right chemistry.
Q: What made the 1972 Lakers so great?
A: We were overachievers. There's never been one team that I can think of that ever did so much with so little. When our American ice hockey team won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics... that's the same kind of thing that the Lakers were all about. We were picked to come in fourth in our own division that year, that's how bad we were. They all knew that Baylor was over the hill, that I was on my way down, that Jerry West was on his way down, and we had nobody. Seattle was picked to come in first, Golden State was picked to come in second and Phoenix was maybe picked to come in third. Now all of a sudden we're 3 and 5, or something like that, and Elgin was asked to step down from the starting position because he was hurting. Being a proud, proud man he felt he would rather give up than come off the bench. The day he stepped down was the day the Lakers stepped up. We went on to win 33 in a row from that day on. When it got to be 11 or 12 wins, it was unbelievable, but that team was spear-headed by a magical coach in (Bill) Sharman. He was the conductor, and like Alex (Hannum), he was very bright, very much an athlete, very much knowing how to get people to do what he wanted to get done. He had been a part of world championship teams with Boston and he just knew every type of situation.. He made us believe in ourselves, that we could do it one more time and I'm looking at him like, "Is he crazy?" Our biggest challenge was playing against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson and Milwaukee. They were a tremendous team and they had beaten us a couple of times in the season so they didn't think they'd have problems when it came down to the end. Lucky for us we were able to stop Kareem and we went on from there.
Q: How did it feel to be part of a team with such great chemistry?
A: It was like you were getting some due that was way past you. It was like all of a sudden things are happening my way, our way. We were getting some of the good turns, we were getting some of the bounces of the ball. Every game somebody else would come in and throw in some balls for me. Even Pat Riley could come in and contribute. Who was Pat Riley? I mean he couldn't play basketball on anybody's team but he came in and helped us from time to time as everybody else did. All of a sudden we became this team that was somewhat magical and the more we won, the more magical we became.
Here is Jerry West, he knows that he's on his last legs. I didn't feel like I was on my last legs but my game was so much different then. I was bigger and stronger but I was playing a little different kind of game. We're winning all these games and I played on teams that would make this team look like nothing, and those teams couldn't win half the games this team was winning. So it was almost like a joke to me. But, the league was not as tough then. It was just not as tough as it was back in the early 60s. We didn't have to go out there and play against the Syracuse Nationals every night and the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Hawks and the Detroit Pistons. They were all very tough teams. Maybe we have to worry about going against the Knicks, who were not so bad, and the Milwaukee Bucks. I can't think of anyone else that was strong. Golden State, Phoenix and Seattle were the only other good teams in the league as far as I'm concerned. But they turned out not to be so good in the end. So we didn't have to worry about playing against one powerful team after another.
Q: Was there an aura of invincibility after winning 20 games in a row. How did it feel like to be part of that win streak?
A: There was no aura of invincibility. We just were riding a cloud and we didn't think anything of ourselves. We were just enjoying the moment because we figured the bubble was going to burst because we're not that good. We didn't think we were. When I was with the Sixers, we knew we were the best and we had that feeling of invincibility. Never with the Lakers. We never thought that and then we come out and we lose our first playoff game and so it kind of shocked us into knowing what we already knew. We knew we weren't that good so I don't think we thought we were some great machine.
Q: What knowledge do you take away from being on that team?
A: The knowledge that sports, first of all, is a metaphor for life and that you never should expect things to go smoothly or the way you want to. And conversely, when you think you're really down, here you go and you're on cloud nine and everything is going exactly right for you. This was the twilight of my career. This was not the time that I thought we were going to have a 33-game winning streak, the longest in history of professional sports. No one could have guessed that, especially with this team, so you just sit back and enjoy it.
Q: Do you feel pride in the fact that Magic and Larry brought back the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics?
A: I always felt more kinship to my Philadelphia teams. As I became older I look less at teams and more at individuals. Bird and Magic were to me the two best of their era. If I had to pick a guy who could play in any era, right up there with anybody, it would be Larry Bird. I don't know if Magic could have done the same. When he looks one way and passes another way... well how long does it take to realize that when he's looking that way, he's passing the other way? He was so much bigger than most guards he was playing against. But he was great in his era, I just don't know how great he would have been in other eras. I believe Bird would have been just incredible. I like to watch how they worked against each other and I like to watch individuals and that's what I do right now.
Q: When you travel around the world are you surprised to see kids in NBA apparel?
A: That's amazing. All of a sudden in various places I see the paraphernalia that they now have and the logos being run around. I think the more you have people attentive to the game, the more people will want to play, and I don't think there is any game better than the game of basketball.
Q: Do you think the players and fans today have an appreciation for the history of the game?. A: I believe in history and I'm a part of history. I believe that only by knowing yesterday are you only really able to enjoy your day and be prepared for tomorrow. People have to get the idea where this all came from. Watching players like David Robinson -- I saw he ran down the court following a rebound and the guy passed the ball and he dunked the ball and I heard one of the announcers say "Wow, can you imagine a 7-footer running like that?" and I'm sitting in my bed saying "Yeah! When I was in junior high school I did that!" (laughs) So, people don't know that. They see me as a big strong powerful guy, they never talk about some of the other things I did when I was younger. Who knows about Walt Bellamy? This was a man who's almost 7-foot tall, averaged 22, 23 points almost as a rookie. No one has ever done that except for myself! The guys who are playing, can they tell you about him? The answer is no and I think that's sad.
I believe that someone has to be the carrier of the flame. We don't have the tapes and the ways to be showing you how great some of the guys were. If the average fan today could see some of the moves of Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins, then they would say "Well, Jordan was good... but these guys, wooo!" The fans should know its just not being done today, it had been done yesterday and yesteryear with more trying conditions. We played the same season, and we'd finish in March or in April. Now they go all the way to June. We traveled on days of games. I've traveled from Philadelphia to L.A., got on the plane at seven o'clock in the morning in Philadelphia, which was four o'clock L.A. time, to play a game that evening in L.A. When I got there, the plane was a little late so what time did the game start? 10 o'clock at night, so that means it was one o'clock in the morning in LA and we're still playing. But the game has progressed and they won't let guys play on the same day they have to travel so they have done a lot of good things.
Q: Why did the pros in the 1960's go back to play in the playgrounds?
A: Because most of them learned their games in the playground. That was a chance for them to go back to their neighborhoods to their friends, to the people that meant the most to them and show them how well they had defined their games. But also they knew the ultimate challenge was in the playgrounds. When you play professional basketball, you have coaches like Red Auerbach and you play under a system and the system sometimes might not be to your liking, but it works for the team. When you got to the playground, you became your own system and you did things how you felt. It was a heartfelt game, a game of your own feeling and your own expertise. There was much more individuality in how you were able to do things and you weren't worried about the referee, or home court advantage. Everybody looked at you just like you looked at them, as a threat. It was always a challenge to go out there and it was like the quickest gun in the west, I mean you wanted to prove just how good you were. I had to go out there and make a statement. I had to go out there and let them know that, "Hey, I'm the man. You guys can have fun, do what you want to do but whenever its time to take over, this game is mine." (laughs) And they kind of had respect for me but they weren't ready to give it up. They'd say, "Wilt, if you're going to be the man then show us you're the man." That's the way they approached everybody. The playground is the only time that I've ever heard stories, that no matter how much you embellish the story, the real thing was always better.
Q: Does playground style foster innovation?
A: Talent fosters innovation, being that the more talent you have out there the more you have to find out ways to do something different to get past your equal opponent. People who are watching also are looking for something magical to happen all the time. They want to see something really different than just the jump shot or just the hook shot. They want to see you do something that you could go back and say, "Did you see that? Did you see that move he made?" It was all about moves. That's why Earl "The Pearl" Monroe was so well loved in Philadelphia, because he had all the moves. It was about the poetry of movement. It was very innovative basketball and you had to be that way because there were so many equals playing with each other. You had to do something different that they didn't know about, because otherwise, they were going to be ready for you.
Q: What was the best part of the game when you were playing?
A: For me it was the ability to go out there and express myself in a way that I had no other way of doing. To go out there and to show some of God's gifts, and some of the things I had going in basketball was my vehicle. It allowed me to show that I had a physical way about myself, but also I believed like the Greeks do in a strong body and a strong mind. I always wanted to allow my mind to be a part of anything that I did, and that's why I like a lot of different games whether it be chess or backgammon. I always want to be the best at what I'm doing.
Q: What should your legacy be?
A: I think that my legacy should be that I gave credence that you could be big, bigger than most and still have athletic ability. Even though George Mikan had a great deal before me, I think I embodied what a big man was able to do. I think I helped to bring some good notoriety to being big. I notice that when I walk on the streets now, I'm not stared at as much because people envision basketball players as being big and tall and they've now become a big part of society. People no longer look at them as freaks. They really have now zoned in on the fact when they see a tall young kid. They don't really chastise him. They say, "Oh man, you're going to be a great basketball player." I believe I proved that you could be 7-foot and still be very, very functional in sports, where it wasn't believed to be during my time.
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