Wilt Chamberlain, who passed away in October 1999, loved the All-Star Game. It gave him a chance to show off his incredible game to a national audience, which he did in 13 unforgettable appearances
Editor's Note: This article was first published in February 2000
Wilt built his fortress in 1975, and it was a sensation at the time, really the first superstar-jock castle, and probably still the most distinctive. It was an All-Star's All-Star house, named for the stars. It sits perched on the spine of a mountain, looking down on L.A. and the Pacific Ocean, a glass-and-stone cathedral. All the design elements are triangles. There is a pool in the living room -- a conversation pit -- and a retractable roof over Wilt's bed so the Big Dipper could watch the Big Dipper.
When visiting Wilt, you would pull up to the big ironwork gate, buzz the buzzer, and from the intercom would come the master's voice, like rumbles and grumbles from deep inside a bear cave.
In the driveway would be his Bentley, or whatever other exotic machines he was driving at the time, and an old, beat-up station wagon that looked like it might have been owned by June Cleaver. Wilt said the wagon was for transporting his huge dogs, but I know it had sentimental value because it was the Big Dipper's All-Star car.
Wilt's NBA rookie season was '59-60 and the All-Star Game was on his home court in Philadelphia. He was the MVP, with 23 points and 25 rebounds. Back then, the MVP was given his choice of either a hot sports car or a station wagon.
Wilt took the wagon and kept it the rest of his life. The All-Star Game meant a lot to Chamberlain. He played in 13 of 'em and played 'em hard. He had 16 or more rebounds seven times. In his third season, when he averaged 50.4 points, he scored 42 at the All-Star Game, still a record.
Wilt spent his life trying to prove things to people, and I suspect that the All-Star Game, especially back in the days when there was so little TV coverage and no highlight shows, was the Big Dipper's favorite stage, his chance to show all the players and fans that the wild stories about the feats of Wilt were true, and that even five of the NBA's greatest players could not stop the Big Dipper.
Wilt was the ultimate All-Star. The idea at this game is to put on a show, to celebrate the sport's exuberance and explore its outer limits, to amaze and astound, to entertain, and that was Wilt.
The All-Star Game is about dropping jaws, and Chamberlain was the first stupefying player, the first NBA player who could do the impossible. Chamberlain, more than any single player, is the reason this All-Star Game is being played in a massive, ultra-luxurious arena, and not in a drafty armory with bent rims, pullout bleachers and cold showers.
When Wilt came into the league, not only was there no All-Star slam-dunk competition, there was no slam-dunk. The Big Dipper was the first player to use the dunk (his was called the Dipper Dunk) as a true weapon and a statement, i.e.: "This hoop is mine."
Early in Chamberlain's NBA career he wrote a magazine article titled, "My Life in the Bush League." And the NBA was rough around the edges. Picture the Continental Basketball Association without its glitz, frills and high salaries. NBA teams flew on commercial jets, economy class.
Wilt was the Moses who led the NBA out of that primitive era. Every time an NBA player settles into his custom seat on his team's luxury jet and orders the macadamia-espresso ice cream, he should pause and give silent thanks to St. Dipper.
Along with being a pioneer and a legend, Wilt was also a hell of a guy. In my 20-plus years of covering big-time sports, Chamberlain is the most interesting person I've met. He was a sportswriter's barometer. If you could experience Wilt's bombast and over-the-top joie de vivre, and not walk away smiling, it was time to turn in the press badge and explore the lucrative field of bartending.
You didn't interview Chamberlain; he interviewed you. "L-let me ask you this, my m-man," he would boom in his authoritative stutter, "how often do you think Bill R-Russell guarded Wilt straight up?"
When Shaquille O'Neal broke into the NBA and was being compared with the young Chamberlain, I phoned Wilt to get his take.
"Everyone wants me to compare Shaq with Wilt," Wilt said in a bored voice, "and that would not be fair to either of us, so I am not going to do that."
Chamberlain spent five minutes explaining why it would be unfair for him to make that comparison, then he spent 30 minutes making that comparison. Wilt gave the edge to Wilt.
He was the consummate braggart, but in a charming way. Here are some of his boats: He once held the world speed record on water skis; he was a gourmet cook; he could drive coast to coast faster than anybody; at 50 he was good enough to play in the NBA and on the Olympic volleyball team; before the game where he scored 100 points, he set a record on a pinball machine in the Hershey (Pa.) gymnasium; he could start from inside the top of the key, leap from behind the free-throw line and dunk; and in his prime, he was the fastest player on his NBA team.
I have no reason to doubt any of the claims.
Wilt could not stand to do anything by the book. Tall guys were supposed to shoot a clunky hook shot, so Wilt invented the elegant finger-roll, the delicate fallaway bank and the thunder dunk.
Athletes often squandered their money, so Wilt became a successful nightclub owner, invested wisely in property, negotiated his own record-breaking contracts and became one of the first independently wealthy athletes. He did his own thinking. He wrote two autobiographies without a ghostwriter.
Once we were discussing his early days in the NBA, when it was said owners had an unwritten quota on black players. Surely, I thought, Wilt would express outrage.
"You have to understand," he said, "that the owners then were small businessmen operating on a shoestring. They were afraid if there were too many black players, the fans wouldn't come out and the league would die, which would hurt all of us. It wasn't racism, it was economics."
Chamberlain could afford any car, but didn't like to buy off the rack. A few years before he died he told me he was designing his own limited edition, high-performance car.
"The Wiltmobile!" I said.
He frowned, his great sense of dignity slightly injured.
"It will be called the Chamberlain," he said.
Wilt kept unusual hours, often couldn't get to sleep until sun-up. When Bill Sharman was coaching the Lakers he instituted the morning shootaround, now an accepted part of NBA life. Chamberlain balked. "I'm coming to the arena once on any given day," he said. "Have Bill tell me which one he wants me to attend -- the shootaround or the game."
Wilt hated it when people said he was a dominant player because he was tall, but that was a prevailing opinion when he broke into the NBA. I bought into that thinking briefly. In Wilt's second NBA season, the Syracuse Nationals had a 7-3 rookie named Harvey (Swede) Halbrook.
Another Wilt? Swede lasted two seasons, averaged 5.5 points, and helped many of us realize that Chamberlain's size was one of the least remarkable things about him.
Chamberlain's hobby was performing superhuman feats. He was one of the first great basketball leapers, and told me that as a teenager he would jump up and place dimes on the top of a backboard, 13 feet above the ground, then pluck them off, one-by-one.
I saw a photo of Wilt with his arms extended, wingspan-like, with a 16-pound bowling ball in each hand, and he wasn't using the finger holes. He once asked a well-conditioned sportswriter, "Can you do a flagpole?" Wilt demonstrated. He grabbed a street-sign pole and raised himself to horizontal, extended from the pole like a flag in the wind.
Chamberlain and Bill Russell made peace with one another in Wilt's last few years, but Wilt spent decades simmering in anger because many considered him Russell's basketball inferior, citing Russell's 11 NBA rings, to Wilt's two.
Wilt was a victim of the mighty Celtic propaganda machine, and he did make a strong case for himself, but after a while it sounded like whining. One day I asked him, "You've got a ton of money, you live like a king, you've got all the fame and women any man could handle, you've got all the basketball records, you and a lot of people know how good you were. So why do you spend so much time worrying about this Bill Russell thing?"
"There is no videotape from those days, and very little film," Wilt said, "so people today don't know how good I was. They don't realize that nobody ever guarded me one-on-one, and that I never needed help guarding anyone. They hear a TV announcer say, 'He blocked that one just like the great Bill Russell,' but do they know that Wilt Chamberlain probably blocked twice as many shots as the great Bill Russell? All I want is my due."
It also ate at Wilt that some considered him the poster dude for selfishness. The criticism was along the lines of: Sure, he averaged 50 points for a season, but did his team win the championship that season? Sure, he led the league in assists one season, but his team needed his scoring. When he blocked a shot, he swatted it out of bounds, while Russell would tap the ball to a teammate. The fallaway was a dumb shot for a seven-footer.
And when he wrote in his 1990 autobiography that he had been a very close friend of 20,000 women, Wilt was roundly criticized as the world's most wanton womanizer.
Yet I submit that Wilt Chamberlain was one of the great role models, on the court and off.
When he averaged 50.4 points in '61-62, did one teammate complain that Wilt was hogging the ball? In fact, he was second in the league in field goal percentage that season, and his 76ers lost to the Celtics by two points in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals.
Off the court, Chamberlain had all that money, fame and visibility, and yet there was never a hint of scandal involving drugs, alcohol or any sort of bad behavior. He got high on life. Fifty years in the fast lane and all he got were a few speeding tickets.
Chamberlain liked women, but he did not chase married women, and from his long career of Don Juan-ing, there is not a shred of evidence that Wilt was anything but a consummate and responsible gentleman.
In his late '50s, he mused that he might consider marriage, and asked me what I thought of the concept.
"I like it," I said, "but I don't think it's for you."
Wilt settling down would have been like the Titanic settling down. He was proud of being a babe magnet. At about age 55, he told me he was taking up mountain biking because it was a great way to stay in shape and meet girls.
One thing Wilt didn't brag about, unless you asked him, was his quiet, life-long support of women's athletics. His three sisters had had no opportunity to play high school sports, and he vowed to someday fight that injustice.
For decades Chamberlain organized, sponsored, supported high-level teams for girls and women in basketball, track, volleyball and softball, and he was a major supporter of women's marathoning.
So you might say that Wilt really was God's gift to women.
And to the rest of us.
We miss you, Big Dipper. This All-Star Game's for you.
SCOTT OSTLER is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.