The Big Dipper died at age 63, but his legend will live on forever
I never thought about it, although the box did come with me wherever my life took me.
When Wilt Chamberlain died on October 12, 1999, I thought of the autograph for the first time in probably 40 years. I didn’t think how much it would be worth or anything like that. I just thought that I had something that Wilt touched and it was chilling.
I'm a Michael Jordan man. I covered him his entire career and I think he is the epitome of a basketball player. He was the best I have ever seen once I started understanding what I was looking for. But Chamberlain was special. For much of my career as a sportswriter, Jordan was the game of basketball. Chamberlain was above it.
I have some autographed basketballs and autographed books and things like that, but Chamberlain’s is the only autograph I have that’s on a seemingly harmless piece of notebook paper ripped out of a three ring binder.
As I sat and thought about Chamberlain when I heard of his death, that day back in 1959 when I got his autograph crystallized in my mind as if it was yesterday. I can't remember anything else that happened that long ago so clearly.
Chamberlain was playing for the Harlem Globetrotters at the time and a friend of my father was a friend of Chamberlain’s father. So when the Globetrotters came to Seattle (pre-SuperSonics days), I got invited to the game and had the chance to meet him.
I expected him to be as big as a skyscraper, but when I saw him in person, it was kind of a letdown. It wasn't Wilt's fault, but anything short of a skyscraper would have been a letdown because that's how big Chamberlain was in my 12-year-old mind. But once I saw him play, it didn't matter. Even though it was the Globetrotters and I knew little about what greatness really was, I knew that Chamberlain was a special athlete.
I got to see him after the game to get his autograph and he addressed me as “young man,” not “little fellow” or “son,” but “young man.” It made me proud and I followed his career religiously ever since. I always rooted for him against Bill Russell and I wanted to be Wilt Chamberlain when I grew up.
Chamberlain, considered by many to be not only the greatest basketball player ever but the greatest athlete period, took that marvelous ability and tremendous size, 7-1, 275 pounds, and made the most of it.
“I think that my legacy should be that I gave credence that you could be big, bigger than most and still have athletic ability,” Chamberlain said a few years ago when the NBA was celebrating its 50th anniversary season.
He was the most dominant player in the NBA from the first day he stepped on the court. He had 43 points and 28 rebounds in his first game and went on to lead the league in scoring (37.6 points per game) and rebounding (27.0) and became the first of only two players to win the MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. (Wes Unseld was the other.) His NBA accomplishments are so remarkable, it almost is irreverent to compare him to anyone -- even Jordan. He not only is the sole player in NBA history to score 100 points in a game, but he also has the three highest scoring games in NBA history. He averaged 50.4 points a game one season 44.8 another.
For his 14-year career, Chamberlain, 63 at the time of his death, averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds and retired after the 1972-73 season. He's also the only player ever to have more than 20 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists in the same game.
Chamberlain is third on the NBA's all-time scoring list with 31,419 points, behind leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played six more seasons than he did and Utah’s Karl Malone, currently in his 17th season with the Jazz. He led the NBA in field goal percentage nine times, in rebounding 11 times and in scoring seven times. He even led the league in assists one year, just to prove he was more than a scoring machine.
Chamberlain and Boston Celtics star Bill Russell had one of the most heated and intense rivalries in any sport. Chamberlain was the unstoppable offensive force and Russell, the greatest defender ever. Chamberlain may have been the next best defensive player, too. They didn’t start recording blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, the season following Chamberlain’s retirement. He once said he came into the NBA as a defensive player.
“Everyone was afraid of my defensive game more so than my scoring game,” he said. “Scoring was a secondary thing, but it was also very natural to me.”
Jordan may have been the ultimate product of the evolution of the way the game of basketball is played today, following in the footsteps of Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving, but Chamberlain was so far ahead of his time that they still haven’t caught up.
He was almost mythological and they changed rules to try to give opponents a better chance to offset his dominance. Chamberlain had remarkable quickness and might have been the strongest player ever.
One of the statistics that may tell more about Chamberlain that any other was one that has nothing to do with scoring or rebounding. It had to do with just being there. In his third season in the league, he averaged 48.5 minutes a game in a sport where the regulation game is only 48 minutes. The extra half-minute was because of overtime games. He missed only eight out of a possible 3,890 minutes. Chamberlain wanted to leave the impression on every opponent that he was there from beginning to end, he wasn't going anywhere, no matter the score, and you always had to go through him to get any place you wanted to go. Remarkably, for all the time he spent on the court, he never fouled out of a game.
But to judge Chamberlain only by his incredible NBA statistics is to miss the boat on the effect he had on sports in general and on just how great an athlete he was. He could also run a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, had a 50-inch vertical jump, was a Big Eight high-jump champion at Kansas, was undefeated in the shot put, but his best track event might have been the 440-yard dash. His first athletic dream was competing in the Olympics in the decathlon. He almost fought Muhammad Ali, and former Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram tried to talk him into playing football.
Chamberlain was also saddled with a number of nicknames. He didn’t like “Goliath” and “Wilt the Stilt,” but “The Big Dipper,” he did like, especially when shortened to “Dipper.”
His longtime friend Meadowlark Lemon, who referred to Chamberlain as “Dippy,” spoke at Chamberlain’s memorial service and captured Chamberlain’s life in simple terms: “In Wilt's life, there were no sad songs. He lived his life to the fullest.”
Russell, whose deep friendship with Chamberlain was unknown to most for many years because of their intense battles on the court, looked at Chamberlain as his brother, someone he loved.
“I knew how good he was and he knew that I knew how good he was,” said Russell. “I'll just say that as far as I'm concerned, he and I will be friends through eternity.”
Chamberlain loved to travel and had a wide variety of interests that went beyond sports. He co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Conan the Barbarian and he was taking saxophone lessons and working on a screenplay about his life story when he died.
“He was interested in everything,” his long-time friend and attorney Sy Goldberg said. “He was truly a man for all seasons.”
By the way, I can't find the box that has Chamberlain’s autograph in it. I’ve looked everywhere, but I’ll keep looking. I know it’s someplace. It really doesn't matter that I don't know where it is because I know I did have it once -- just like we all had Wilt -- and the memory is everlasting.
DAVID DuPREE is the NBA columnist for USA Today.